YOU know that it is time to talk about being a Christian in a digital age when Pope Francis has to tell the faithful to stop taking smartphone pictures during mass. Yet, while the news is full of stories about the dangers and possibilities of digital technology, Churches seldom address the questions that they raise for faith.
It was reported this month that the mother of a 14-year-old boy had challenged the police to erase a sexting incident from his permanent record. Behind the pastoral ramifications lies the theological question what Christian forgiveness looks like in a digital world where nothing is ever truly erased.
Last Saturday, the virtual-reality pioneer Jaron Lanier explained on Radio 4’s Today programme that he shunned social media because it used people’s personal data and preferences to manipulate their behaviour. Lanier’s comments should encourage Christians everywhere to ask whether their dependence on smartphones and social media is becoming a means of controlling their life choices and those of others.
YET we do not talk about these things in church. We might tut at the christening families’ glancing at their phones in a service — but I happily use the Daily Prayer app every weekday. I send out minutes and updates by email, text my churchwardens, and encourage people to go to diocesan training sessions on “Using Social Media”. But we never discuss the moral issues that these technologies raise.
For every parish website and Facebook page — even the Church of England Digital Lab — currently inviting ideas for apps, websites, and social-media campaigns to spread the gospel nationwide, there is, in my experience, indifference in the pews. When I raise the subject with parishioners of different ages and stages, their response tends to be that the digital world is fine for email and shopping, and for those who are into that sort of thing, but church is about “real relationships” and community, and we should not rush to dilute it with the latest worldly fashions. Church is different.
This is to ignore the fact that the way we live “in the world” is becoming more digital, like it or not: work, social interaction, banking, shopping, and even medical appointments have increasingly moved online. Furthermore, “real relationships” have been mediated successfully through technology for many years, as anyone with a pen pal or a family member overseas will already be aware.
The literature around the subject tends to simplify the Christian response to one of “tech as threat” or “tech as opportunity”. The book iGods, by Dr Craig Detweiler, for example, suggests that digital media have usurped the part that faith and church used to play in building relationships and community. In contrast, Dr Bex Lewis’s guide for families, Raising Children in a Digital Age (Interview, 9 May 2014), is clear that people bring their pre-existing values to the digital world, and its technologies can be used for good and evil — and talk of “conditioned” behaviour is usually an excuse.
Whichever view one might favour, what surely matters most for Christians who are navigating digital technology in their daily lives is to learn how to make good choices. This means learning to apply the tenets of faith, scriptural wisdom, and ethical teaching to the way in which they use the internet, social media, and any other kind of technology. The alternative is to reject all technology, as the Amish do. But living in the digital world, leaving a digital footprint, is something that we do whether we are aware of it or not. It raises the question how the Church is preparing Christians to love and serve the Lord in this new environment.
WHAT is needed is considered, reflective teaching, and study material to explore this at the parish level — for those who are technologically able, and for those who are not — that builds on the practical training currently offered by many dioceses and the Church House digital team. Also, more ways are needed to offer people basic technical education to tackle the potentially huge problem of digital poverty, as access to public services and information moves permanently online.
We need to talk about the challenges of reaching the unchurched in an age of data protection, safeguarding, and enclosed online communities, as well as how to live with the permanent repercussions of digital sin. But opportunities to provide digital personal discipleship through prayer and liturgical apps should also be explored, also building networks to allow regular online pastoral contact, and encourage participation in cell groups, mentoring, fellowship, and even worship at a distance. The possibilities are endless.
This is about engaging with the world as it is today — recognising that digital life is real life for all of us, but also affirming that God is God of the digital world, and we are called to spread the message of his good news there, too. So let’s start talking.
The Revd Simon Cook is Vicar of the benefice of Kirklees Valley, and is researching a project on digital life in the parish.