How the Church Can Help Shape the Digital Age

Not every great Christian book starts at work, but What Comes Next did. Nicholas Skytland and Ali Llewllyn met while working together in the tech sphere and discovered a shared passion for how technology is shaping not just the future, but the future of the church. Their friendship led to several speaking gigs and those gigs led to What Comes Next, which wants to help the Church stop reacting to a changing world and become more proactive in its engagement with the digital space.

To their thinking, the online world is a mission field and Christians need to start getting revolutionary in how they think about what it means to live Christian-ly in the digital age. They talked to us about their new book and how Christians need to change their approach.

What’s the origin story of this book?

ALI: We were working as part of a conference that was in St. Louis in December of ’18 called Urbana. We had worked with them several times in terms of building a hackathon as part of Urbana. And the vision of that was really mobilizing a different type of people to be part of the global missions community. And as part of that we did a seminar on the future of missions.

It was interesting in the seminar, because our vision was really to talk about how we use technology to accomplish the mission of the Church, not how we make better church websites or better digital social media tools, but how we actually use technology and collaboration in a new way to do what God calls us to do in the community. In that seminar was Amy Simpson, who came up to us was really like, “I think this is something really important. I’d love to talk to you guys about writing a book.” And we were like, “Writing a book, really?”

NICHOLAS: When we think of the future of ministry, what does that mean? Because in the technology space, we’ve been doing a lot of work with folks, and like Ali said, people were thinking about technology in terms of, “How do we use social media? How do we build better websites for churches?” And we’re like, “Man, we’re totally missing what the future of ministry might look like.

One of the largest mission fields that exists today is online. It’s a digital mission field. A lot of the work that Ali and I do is to equip and build and raise up a generation of people who want to wade into digital missions, who want to be part of the global Church in this new context, which is very relevant for a younger generation.

But a lot of the leaders that we’ve been working with were kind of missing it, just because that wasn’t their world. They weren’t living in these online communities as much as the younger generation is. And so we’re stuck in the middle, just based on our demographics and the work that we’ve been doing. And so we get to bridge the two communities, of leaders of ministries and the younger generation growing up in this world.

Where’s the disconnect between how the Church perceives the digital era and what’s actually happening? 

ALI: There are so many. The initial one that I deal with is that technology is not just a communication tool. Technology started as the wheel, the lever. Technology is how we get work done. We’re trying to help people shift their mentality of “technology is for people who are looking for entertainment,” which is what I hear a lot of older people think. We have to help them understand that technology is how we do work. That would be my misconception number one.

The second misconception that I face a lot is that technology is scary. Technology is, “You never know what your kids might see.” In our kinds of churches, so often it just boils down to “protect your kids. Don’t let them go.” It’s very web focused. The internet is not the sole owner of technology as a whole. People in the Christian world tend to walk away from it because they’re afraid. They can’t understand it, they can’t control it, they can’t protect themselves from it.

NICHOLAS: Your question is so good, because it’s our basic assumptions about technology. Sometimes it’s a barrier that we have with Christian leaders, like a pastor of a local church. And so there’s an assumption there. The assumption might be technology is scary, technology is evil, we need to protect our kids from technology. But even getting to the point where we can have a conversation on that has been hard.

So we have these conversation starters. For example: Is Alexa human? And as a Christian leader, your first response would be quick: “Of course not. Alexa is not human.” And then we’re like, “OK, well, not so fast.” I have a 10-year-old and for him it’s confusing. Alexa talks to him like a human, Alexa answers questions, he interacts with Alexa, he has conversations. So what is it that makes something human?

There’s a world that’s growing up where these are actual questions that people have. And so we, as Christian leaders, have to kind of understand our assumptions and biases and meet people where they’re at rather than beating them over the head with, “Technology is evil, stay away from it, stay off social media.”

How do you see that playing out beyond just the individual? How is this mentality affecting churches?

NICHOLAS: The local church, they might say, “You can never have authentic community online, so therefore we’re never going to have a digital service, because the only way to have an authentic relationship is in person.” And we’re like, “Well, okay, that’s an interesting perspective.”

ALI: What is authentic? What is relationship? And what is a person?

NICHOLAS: Right. So our first four chapters, — or chapters five, six, seven and eight — are identity, relate, belong and gather, because those four fundamental things we think are important to helping understand technology.

For example: what’s our identity? As Christians, it’s in Christ. OK. But after that, what is relationship? What does it mean to belong to a community and not belong? What does it mean to gather? Those are four separate things. And oftentimes we see them in sermons and conversations, all just like clumped together. So we try to discern those and make those really clear in the book.

It occurs to me that you worked on all this and then, boom, almost every church in the world had to go entirely virtual last year. Most of us still are. 

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ALI: But here’s the distinction that I would make: A lot of people are picking up the book going, “You’re going to tell me why I should love virtual church,” but I’m like, “No.” That’s what a lot of people think. But what we’re going to do is help you think about the questions so that you can approach virtual church differently. Our book is not to give people a recipe for how to do virtual church successfully. What it’s going to do is just help you ask, “How do I ask myself the questions about why I think small group can only be in person in the living room in a circle with 10 people? Why do I have the assumption that this or that?”

So helping people have the grid. It might look different in inner city Nashville and suburban Houston and a village in Northern Iraq. We believe that there are some common roots in that and helping people ask better questions is helping them get more out.

There’s that very famous Marshall McLuhan quote about how the medium is the message. I think some of that fear that you’re talking about with these churches is that if we pivot what we’re doing to a different medium, then the message will inherently have to pivot in some way along with it. Do you disagree with that?

ALI: McLuhan talked in a very different context. He’s a Canadian English professor in the 1950s. I would love to hear him look at Zoom church and the world online and see his thoughts about that. But what I would tell churches in this context is if we want to talk “the medium as the message,” let’s talk the incarnation of Jesus. The medium is the message. The message is the man. And so anytime that we have the incarnational life of God in us, we can communicate that.

Now are you and I having a less authentic conversation because you’re not sitting across the table from me? Are we less able to communicate the reality? It might take more work. It might take a little bit of different work. But can we incarnate Christ in the same way, even though the place where we are is digital and not in person? I would argue that we can.

There is a degree of truth to the medium is the message. But the medium is not what we think it is. I think the medium is incarnational. And so as long as we have people on either end, I think we can still stay faithful in that context.

NICHOLAS: Yeah, and I think technology is challenging our assumptions around, “Does a conversation have to be in person to be more authentic than it would be virtually?” I think about the early church. They were in a specific context, a specific place in time with a certain level of technology. The message is no different than it was back then.

ALI: And they wrote letters.

NICHOLAS: They wrote letters. How inefficient was that? I mean, how did they scale writing letters? It’s amazing. How did we start the church in such an arcane way? Imagine if they had Twitter. It would’ve been so much different. And that’s part of what we try to do, is just help people uncover those biases and then say, “OK, now that we recognize maybe some bias and assumptions around how we’ve done it, what could we be doing to innovate in the Church and innovate in the way we reach people?” Because the world has moved on. And if we want to continue to be a church to the world, we’ve got to continue to find the ways to engage the world.

ALI: I think about Nick’s 10-year-old who calls his friends on speakerphone and they play Minecraft on speakerphone together. And to him, that’s his favorite thing to with his friend. It’s just like in person. So I also try to help pastors think, just because you, 60 year old white guy, don’t want to do that, doesn’t make it less real for this 10-year-old. Let’s at least take a step back and have a little diversity in our approach to recognize that that generation sees the world differently.

What Comes Next? is available now.

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