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A Church of Digital Natives

At our first conversation on Digital Evangelism last month, a small group gathered to discuss how churches communicate their message of God’s redeeming love in an evolving digital age. I explained that church communication is not an “administrative add-on” confined to the work of a single staff person, secretary or pastor who sends out announcements. It is integral to our Christian identity, as Jesus called his disciples spread the Good News the life-changing message of his ministry, death and resurrection. You and I continue in the work begun long ago. While the first communities had only word-of-mouth and written documents to share, we can leverage new media to reach far and wide.

Our group was honest with each other about both the benefits of the digital age and it’s many challenges. Although information can be shared more rapidly in a digital age, most churches are inclined to be suspicious of the new media because it less personal and might not draw people into face-to-face relationships which are vital to spiritual growth. Our group began to realize that the call to share the Gospel has always been within a challenging context of a changing world; the printing press and the pony express were new adaptations which served great purposes in time.

Something incredible happened at this meeting revealing that new media doesn’t just reach people - it includes and connects people across varying ages. The ages within our group included the youngest under age 5 and the oldest over age 75. The younger ones did not seem interested in the conversation until, much to our amazement, the iPad was brought out! Then, we experienced a real-life example of how media draws and connects people. Within moments of the video starting, the two young girls got up from their chairs and walked around the table to see the iPad more closely. Our group sat in awe. Before our eyes, we witnessed two kids go from silently observing adult discussion to actively sharing in the group, laughing and dancing together.

As much as we disparage the digital age for changing the way kids are learning, communicating and essentially growing up, our kids (especially those born after 2000) are digital natives, never having known a world without touch screens, smart phones and mom posting their baby picture on Facebook. These kids don’t value technology because they haven’t known a world without it. Instead, they expect it. When a device like an iPad is brought into the conversation, they seek out ways to engage it, explore it, and even use it. Most of us see it as an add-on, an extra or even a nuisance.

It occurred to me after that meeting I had been looking at church communications all wrong; believing that the church must jump across a digital divide, when in fact, the divide exists within the church already. A generation of kids are currently “at the table”, (attending church and growing in their faith) and we are divided by technology. They are digital natives and their “native tongue” of technology is a foreign language to us, often unspoken in the church. Until we speak their language, or at least invite them to express their faith using their native tongue, we will be a church divided. Instead, why not bridge the divide and invite them to express their faith with the use of technology? To do so would raise up a generation of young disciples unlike anything that the church has ever witnessed.

The world has always been desperate to hear the Good News, but I suspect this is the first time in human history that our youngest generations have held such potential for sharing it widely or abandoning it altogether. Studies show that young people are more connected to their peer group, and less connected to people of different age groupings, economic and cultural backgrounds. They have incorporated technology into their daily life, with little effort, but have less face-to-face interaction and unstructured play time. The Good News for them is that the church is God’s place for us to find authentic relationships with many different types of people in order that we each grow in their faith. The challenge for us to see relate to them, not just as children, but as potential leaders, digital disciples in an arena that the church has been slow to enter. No, they don’t need us to teach them how to make a vine video, but they do need us to impart the biblical faith that will be shared in that video …and to be their friend on the faith journey.

This month, we will be developing new opportunities for teens and tweens to meet after school for mission projects (both digital and hands-on), we will be hiring new persons to develop Family Ministries and Digital Discipleship. Also this month, I will be attending a global conference in Nashville to learn about how missionaries are using technology in remote villages to educate and evangelize. Watch the blog for more details!

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