Should Christian ministers quit digital technology?

Two years ago, I tripped and fell into a PhD in digital theology, researching what digital wisdom might look like for the average Christian pastor, priest or ministry leader. The main question I’m asked when the topic of my study comes up in conversation, and one I ask myself daily, is: Why?!

Like most millennials, I’ve been messing around with digital content creation since my family’s dial-up modem first seared my young soul with that high-pitched shriek. I’ve worked in digital communications and digital ministry for most of my adult life. And since the pandemic, I’ve been the online community pastor at my local church.

Changhee Kim / Pexels

I’m grateful for the creativity, expression and access that digital media has provided over the years. But I also struggle to switch off, manage my attention and rein in my fears about online culture wars, misinformation, deep fakes, anxiety contagion and trolls lurking everywhere.

The dominant narrative in popular literature has been to define and decry the problem with digital media. It’s not surprising that many studies have reiterated the negative impact of social media on self-esteem, attention and mental health, particularly in children. Many writers have also shared their struggles with digital media, which has diminished their ability to do deep work, read books for pleasure and engage in the real world.

I’ve searched for solutions to my Internet conundrum, and the main suggestion by Christian and secular commentators is to unplug. Unfortunately, many of us work, socialise, connect with geographically dispersed family and friends and even minister online. At this point, unplugging is not an option.

What we are facing is not a technology issue; it’s a human issue.

For Christian leaders, extracting ourselves from digital media environments may serve our needs, but it does not serve the needs of others. Not faceless people “out there” on the internet, but the people in our churches who must navigate the ever-changing digital terrain. Not only “young people”, but also the elderly, the sick, neurodiverse people, people with severe anxiety, those with diverse accessibility needs, shift workers and anyone with a desk job.

Person in hospital

Alexander Grey / Unsplash

While churches and ministry leaders remain deeply engaged in local, in-person communities, we can’t ignore digital media when there are 25.21 million Australian internet users (94.9 per cent of the population), and 20.80 million Australian social media users (78.3 per cent of the population). [1]

With Australian users averaging around 5 hours 51 minutes online per day [2] (roughly 35 per cent of the average waking life), in-person-only connections seem like a narrow focus. Our theology should temper our digital technology use, but it should not cause us to turn away from the needs of human beings online. We need Christian leaders to contribute positively to the digital spaces that our communities inhabit.

How does the average ministry leader cut through the noise of the Internet to deeply connect with people? How do we do this without losing ourselves? The answer, in short, is digital literacy.

Angela Franklin / Unsplash

Angela Franklin / Unsplash

What exactly is digital literacy?

Most education systems around the world have prioritised digital literacy as a key competency for children and teens who face a world where information is democratised and at times weaponised. However, according to a 2020 Australian study of Adult Media Literacy, most Australians have low confidence in their media abilities, with less than half feeling confident in 10 out of the 12 media abilities listed. [3]

Digital literacy, which is the specific focus of my research, goes beyond knowing how to navigate the internet. There are many frameworks for digital literacy in academic literature, but the concept broadly includes: how we reflect on digital media and our use of it, how we understand digital media’s influence and impact, how we use digital media, how we manage social relationships and personal objectives online, and the application of ethics in digital media use.

The component often missing from these frameworks is how we manage ourselves online – our well-being, habits of engagement and disconnection, and stewardship of our formation. This is where theology can help to expound and humbly influence the conversation.

These are some of the questions my research study will probe as I survey ministry leaders about their digital literacy. In 2024, I will conduct three surveys:

  • One designed for Australian Christian ministry leaders across denominations,
  • One for Australian Christian congregation members,
  • One for professional supervisors of Australian Christian ministry leaders.

Rasheed Kemy / Unsplash

My self >> online

The algorithm is designed to keep our attention engaged in news, gossip, outrage, envy and noise. But that racket is not what keeps our faces blue-lit late into the night – it’s what is inside us that contributes to the problem.

“Search me, O God, and know my heart; Try me, and know my anxieties; And see if there is any wicked way in me, And lead me in the way everlasting.”
Psalms 139:23-24 (NKJV)

Analysing my sample group of one (yours truly), I can see that at times there are lingering anxieties, or latent rage, or an impoverishment of spirit in me that feeds on that junk. That is what drives me to scroll without ceasing. I suspect I’m not the only one. I can’t simply blame technology for eating up my free time; I need to look at my life, my choices, my habits, my emotional and spiritual health, which need to be redeemed and lovingly brought into submission to God.

Yes, technology, including AI, should be regulated, especially in the lives of children. But ultimately I believe what we are facing is not a technology issue; it’s a human issue. This is why I believe theology has an opportunity to lead conversations around ethics and well-being in digital spaces. What is my responsibility to others? How can we use and build technology to help the poor and the marginalised? How can we share the love of Jesus in digital spaces? How can we engage in and model positive digital and spiritual formation?

“But the Holy Spirit produces this kind of fruit in our lives: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. There is no law against these things!”
Galatians 5:22-23 (NLT)

I don’t believe the future is as disastrous as mainstream media might have us believe … it seldom is. We give too much credence to the power of technology and not enough credit to ourselves.

Many of us have taken breaks from digital media, noticing when our information or curated consumption becomes too much. We have all used digital media positively: sharing encouragement, prayer, Scripture, or testimony through digital media, giving to a charity we connected with online, researching and learning something new. As we all reflect on our digital habits and share our experiences, tribulations and wisdom, we can begin to create sanctuaries for ourselves and others in our digital environment.

To get in touch, follow my research journey, or potentially contribute to one of my surveys in 2024, please visit my SubStack newsletter and reach out. I’d love to hear your thoughts and experiences with digital technology or to swap notes on what you’ve been reading in this space.

[1] Digital Global Overview Report (2024) published in partnership with Meltwater and We Are Social.
[2] Social Media Statistics Report (2023) by Meltwater.
[3] Notley, T., Chambers, S., Park, S., Dezuanni, M. 2021, Adult Media Literacy in Australia: Attitudes, Experiences and Needs. Western Sydney University, Queensland University of Technology and University of Canberra.

Related Reading

Related stories from around the web

Eternity News is not responsible for the content on other websites