Time To Update
The digital world is here to stay; it's the world that today's parents have grown up in. This excerpt from Brittany Nelson's book, Time to Update: 7 Areas to Integrate Digital Discipleship Into Your Children's Ministry, explains the concept of 'digital discipleship' - what it is, why it is important, and how we can be intentional about it.
We update everything in our lives and ministries. We regularly update our phones and computers to keep them running correctly. We update the worship songs we use and the curriculum we teach. Even when transitioning from one teaching series to another, we often update the physical environment of the children’s ministry with new backdrops, décor, and imagery to stay relevant to the series theme. So, why wouldn’t we also update our methods and strategy for discipleship to include the digital world in which everyone now spends a large portion of their time?
We live in an age of acceleration, meaning technology is accelerating at such an exponential rate that the human mind cannot possibly keep up or adapt in time.
While this shift to a digital world may seem staggering, consider the change from oral to written language. Writing itself is a form of technology. When the Greeks invented an alphabetic system of just 24 characters around 700 BC, it was a significant advancement from pictographs and cave drawings, and it drastically changed how the world communicated.
Not everyone was in favor of it. Socrates, one of the most famous philosophers in history, argued against the written language and thought it would weaken one’s memory and communication skills. We know this, ironically, because Socrates’ pupil, Plato, recorded Socrates’ negative opinion of writing in the written word. But this new technology of the written word expanded the world in numerous ways, rushing communication and life into new eras of growth.
The COVID-19 pandemic sped up the digital world’s impact on ministry and brought the necessity of digital discipleship to the forefront of ministry strategy. The pandemic didn’t just allow children’s ministry leaders to dip their toes into the waters of digital ministry. It pushed all of us off the cliff and straight into the deep end!
Now that the world is moving into post-pandemic life, leaders can resume pre-pandemic ministry practices, but wise leaders will keep exploring the approaches and tools they learned when digital ministry was the only option. In this new age, leaders must intentionally incorporate digital discipleship into children’s ministry strategy.
What is Digital Discipleship?
In the broader sense, discipleship is the process of guiding someone into a deeper, more vibrant relationship with Jesus through teaching, encouragement, and personal connection. In her book From Social Media to Social Ministry, Nona Jones emphasizes the importance of relationships in the discipleship process. She defines discipleship as 'the product of dialogue about how to apply [biblical] content to people’s lives in a way that leads to continual transformation.'
Discipleship in children’s ministry means partnering with parents in that continual process of growing kids deeper in their relationship with Jesus. There may be more hand motions in the worship songs and glitter in the supply closets, but the goal of discipleship remains the same.
2 Peter 3:18 says, 'Grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. To Him be glory both now and forever!' (NIV)
Discipling kids means helping them grow deeper in their relationship with and understanding of Christ and cheering them on as they go serve others in His name, for His glory. Ministry leaders want kids to know Jesus, understand their place in His story, and want to follow His example of a life of servitude.
In children’s ministry, your strategy, plans, and efforts radiate from this desire to make disciples of the next generation. But to stay relevant to this next generation of kids and families, delivering the gospel message must include technology and a digital approach.
Digital discipleship is the process of making disciples through digital methods. Notice that the end goal, making disciples, stays the same. But the methods and procedures for doing so adopt a digital influence. The digital world offers children’s ministry leaders another tool to share the gospel, and I’d argue it’s the most powerful one. How leaders communicate and teach the gospel message must be updated to reach the digital natives they now serve.
When I say digital discipleship, I don’t just mean live streaming your children’s ministry service or using a downloadable curriculum. And I’m not advocating that you hit play on a Bible story video and call it a Sunday. A digital children’s ministry, like a YouTube channel or weekly Zoom meetings, might be part of your overall digital discipleship strategy, but they aren’t discipleship strategies in and of themselves.
These resources merely act as another tool or program you use to reach the kids and families you serve, both inside and outside your church building. A digital approach to children’s ministry involves intentionally using technology to enhance and improve various areas within the ministry, from administrative tasks no one ever sees to communication with families to teaching Bible lessons on Sunday mornings.
When Jesus invited His disciples to follow Him, He told them: 'Come, follow me, and I will send you out to fish for people' (Matthew 4:19, NIV). Digital discipleship doesn’t replace the church or replace the necessity of in-person relationships. It’s not reeling in the fishing lines you have already cast out (the building, in-person programs, etc.). Digital discipleship is throwing out another fishing line, giving you another tool, and increasing opportunities to connect with kids and families.
When I talk with ministry leaders about the idea of digital discipleship, people tend to fall into two camps: 1) They’re afraid of or annoyed with technology and want to ignore it, or 2) They’re obsessed with technology, and it has muddied their mission.
To the first group, take a deep breath. You’re not in this alone; we can figure it out together. To the second group, it’s time to measure and evaluate the effectiveness of your tools so they stay within your purpose in ministry.
A balance between these mindsets requires two things: 1) Exponential adaptability and 2) Acute discernment.
You need exponential adaptability to help continually adjust to new conditions for the sake of the gospel and the next generation. You can’t just cover your ears and plow forward as you always have, hoping the digital world will disappear. But you also need acute discernment to determine which elements of these new conditions are practical rather than allow yourself to get caught up in the latest release. Adopting open adaptability and focused discernment will allow you to minister to the digital world more effectively.
Three Reasons Ministry Leaders Can't Ignore Digital Discipleship
There are many positive and negative opinions about the next generation’s obsession with the digital world and how the digital world is influencing development, relationships, and society. But, no matter your thoughts about the influence of technology, there are three reasons ministry leaders can’t ignore digital discipleship:
First, digital is all the next generation knows. As a millennial, I’m a digital native, meaning I’m one of the generations who doesn't know life without the internet. We’ve spent our entire lives surrounded by computers, video games, cell phones, streaming services, and all the other tools and apps found in the digital world. The next generation of kids and families doesn’t just use the internet; we live on it. Digital native generations (those born after the 1980s, though some argue that the first actual generation of digital natives was born after 1995) receive judgment for our misuse of social media and the digital world. I acknowledge the adverse effects this digital age can have on our relationships, attention spans, and self-esteem, but the digital world is the world into which we were born. Children’s ministry leaders can fault a generation of kids and parents for living in the only reality they’ve ever known, or leaders can step into their realities to reach them with the gospel and teach them about Jesus. Using technology and the digital world helps leaders stay relevant to the kids and families they serve.
Second, digital provides opportunities for the church like never before. Digital media and social networking allow for faster information sharing in a way accessible to anyone with an internet connection, which is nearly 65% of the world’s population as of January 2023.
People can communicate more quickly and easily; the digital world offers flexibility and quick adaptability. Ultimately, the internet and social media provide a mission field for the church that moves beyond the confines of physical space or location. Digital discipleship offers an extension of your physical ministry into the online world.
Finally, like it or not, the digital world is here to stay. Churches must embrace the tool of technology or risk becoming completely irrelevant to the next generation. According to a recent Barna study, Six Questions About the Future of the Hybrid Church Experience, only 42% of Millennials (the parents of the kids in your ministry) prefer in-person worship, meaning that the majority don’t.
This same study also showed that parents are looking for hybrid (in-person and online) options for church services for their families. Kids will continue growing up as digital natives, knowing how to operate a tablet and scroll through a smartphone at a young age. Technologies will continue to advance, change, adapt, and improve faster and faster. For better or worse, our world’s addiction to and reliance on technology means the digital world is a permanent fixture in our lives.
Let's Be Intentional
You’ve already implemented some aspects of digital discipleship and may not even realize it. Do you interact as your ministry on social media? Have a digital check-in station? Do you use videos at any point in your children’s ministry programming? If you answered yes to any of these questions, give yourself a high five! You’re already using digital technology to reach the next generation.
If you’re ready to be more intentional with your digital discipleship strategy, check out Time to Update, a new book that explores 7 areas of your children’s ministry strategy where you can incorporate digital means and methods to increase your effectiveness in discipling the next generation. Learn more here.
Brittany Nelson is a former children’s pastor and the creator of DeeperKidMin.com, an online hub of downloadable resources for FOR children’s ministry leaders BY children’s ministry leaders. She holds a Master of Arts in Ministry degree from Wesley Seminary with a concentration in Children, Youth, and Family Ministry.
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