Updated: Jun 18, 2022
The last year has taught us many lessons about ministry and how we engage people in the discipleship process. We’ve all expanded our toolbox of skills beyond what we were already engaged in as Christian educators in cradle to grave ministry. We’ve been personally impacted by the pandemic and watched the ways of ministry change quite dramatically. One of the most valuable takeaways for me is that technology truly is a tool for discipleship across generations.
When Jesus commissioned his followers to “Go and make disciples of all nations…” he didn’t say how to do it. For Jesus, “Go” looked like walking from town to town, to preach, teach and visit with everyone who wanted to meet Him. For the early church, there was similar movement except a big difference: followers of Christ went about discipleship with the witness of a Risen Savior. As the number of believers increased, the apostles provided opportunities to equip smaller groups to serve within their own communities. (Acts 6) And in this modern age, technology is one of the many gifts we use to gather, connect and teach.
Most ministry professionals take technology for granted. We grew up in the information age, took continuing education classes to keep up our skills or have had many on-the-job learning experiences. We have known or adapted our lives and ministry around technology and taken advantage of the tools in order to better serve others.
But for the majority of older adults, technology has tended to be a tool of frustration and discontentment. It has caused more headaches than value in daily living. We’ve walked the line between how we used to do things and how we progress forward, so as not to exclude anyone from communication or participation in the local congregation.
As a global pandemic shut everything down last spring, technology became an asset for continuing to gather in worship and around God’s Word for all ages and technical abilities. It became a tool that opened doors for discipleship in ways that had not previously been considered. In order to stay connected, many had to try and use the technology they had previously rejected. There have certainly been bumps in the road, and that really is to be expected when applying a new tool to almost every aspect of how we minister.
In the early days, as we focused on how to make things work, I spent an hour with a retired lady who led a weekly Bible study. We were on video chat together while also talking on the phone, so that I could teach her how to use a video conferencing app. I am sure as you picture this scene, you chuckle, but I considered every minute of that “appointment” to be training in discipleship. We also held a post-worship fellowship online, which I hosted several weeks in a row. After a few months, only one person attended on a consistent basis, but that one person lived alone and loved the opportunity to chat. Each time, I knew it was worth the effort because “For where two or three gather in my name, there am I with them.” (Matthew 18:20). We were participating in fellowship, just in a virtual setting, which didn’t make it any less authentic.
For the last 8 months, I’ve had the privilege to volunteer with Visual Faith™ Ministry, a community that began almost over a decade ago out of the results of a research project. In 2008, Connie Denninger, a Family Life Educator and Spiritual Formation researcher, was in a Master's program with research in the Spiritual Formation of Women and the Connection of Social Media. The research included setting up places of engagement for online interaction with women in a faith-based format to evaluate the benefits and challenges of this type of connection. The research showed it was highly impactful, if we could also do the training of “how to use” to help people learn basic technology principles.
“We found out that online presence with social media could provide a real presence in the lives of women with a positive spiritual formation impact. What we have been doing with Visual Faith™ Ministry in the last 13 years is a direct result of that research. Although we will always want to be together in-person, the virtual impact has been so positive and will continue to be an additional place for people to gather, learn and grow together and be disciplined as followers of Jesus.” said Connie Denninger, cofounder of this ministry.
On March 6, 2021, after a whole lot of prayer and just two months of planning and production, a virtual prayer retreat was held called Abide: Prayer Practices for Anxious Times. Over 900 participants, the majority with a free ticket, attended this global event, from young children participating with adult family members to individuals in their 70’s/80’s.
The retreat planning team consisted of women of all ages, backgrounds and skill levels from across the country. But one common goal to “tell the story of His faithfulness,” and the presence of the Holy Spirit in the prayers, production and event itself, showed how God empowers us to spread the Good News.
“Everyone has grown in their technology skills. Visual Faith coaches who produced videos, the leadership team and the retreat participants learned something new. We learned it together, there was a "safe" place to ask for help, and there was an experienced "tech crew" to help people engage, find materials, and grow in their own understanding of ‘being online’ in a virtual event,” said Denninger.
Pat Maier, an educator and co-founder of Visual Faith™ Ministry, saw the value of the technical support that was provided to participants, not just as a temporary help, but a training of sorts to incorporate into daily living. “Through our willingness to answer questions ahead of time, work with confused participants on a personal basis, we were able to educate non-techy persons to enable them to participate in our retreat. The skills they learned with us, will help them as they go forward with technology as it intersects with their new normal.”
The team behind the scenes of this virtual event learned much about the participants, their technology skill levels and their desire to be part of a community of believers. This event opened the doors to shut-ins, immunocompromised and stay at home parents too. This event allowed for people to gather virtually and have authentic conversations around God’s Word and do so across time zones and generations.
“Technology gives us so many opportunities to disciple others in ways that we didn't use before...It would be a hope that those who are discipled through our ministry and don’t have a group to meet with, can learn and grow in their faith and share it with others in their personal circles. There is the opportunity, even when living alone, to create groups within an individual’s geographical space thus continuing to grow the ministry.” says Linda Ekong, Art Director/Administrative Assistant - Development for the MI District, LCMS and Visual Faith™ Ministry vision team member.
The Genesis account of creation of humans and the early Church in the book of the Acts are just two of many Biblical examples, which remind us that we aren’t meant to be alone. God gave us the opportunity to gather with others to be built up as the body of Christ.
Pat provides an important caveat as we use these new tools: “We can continue to use technology for communication and publicity as we did before and augment any in-person events by offering an online choice when it makes sense. We can also use it for personal mentoring across the miles. However, I believe that in situations like ours is it our responsibility to recognize and encourage face to face reaching out and gathering together with others because that is what God intended…..as soon as it is safe to return to that.”
The use of technology requires us to strike an important balance.
Connie says, “ If we train people to live as Digital Missioners, this creates the whole reason they have an online presence in the first place. Understanding that connecting online is basically a visual documentation, and we live as believers, then it is simply to share what your "life in Christ" looks like in digital forums. That is what we are called to do. Then, we trust that this opens doorways into conversation, guided by the Holy Spirit, in our own families, congregations and neighborhoods.”
What keeps people from trying something new, especially technology? I would say it is the same as when we ask what keeps people from a relationship with Jesus? The answer is fear.
“I received an invitation to attend worship, but I don’t want to sit by myself.”
“I don’t read my Bible too much, I don’t want to feel stupid at Bible class.”
“I want to connect with others online, but I don’t have anyone to help me learn how to use this computer/smartphone.”
Jesus’s message to “Go and make disciples” in Matthew 28 hasn’t changed even if “how we share the love of Jesus” looks different thousands of years later.
We are called...
to provide space for Christ-like relationships to develop and be nurtured;
to provide a safe place for conversation around God’s Word and its application to our life today.
to teach and equip, whether it’s how to lead a Bible study, how to watch a video or how to write a prayer request in the chat box of the worship livestream.
Note: This article was originally published in the NADCE Quarterly Issue #43 in Spring 2021.
Emily Phoenix, an original Midwesterner, resides in Baltimore with her husband, Jack. She received her DCE certificate from Concordia University Nebraska in 2008. Emily currently serves as a social media manager for Visual Faith™ Ministry.
You can connect with her through the Visual Faith™ Ministry community at: www.facebook.com/groups/visualfaithministry/
or via Instagram @emilyphoenix.