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Growing Churches in the Digital Age

Dr Bex Lewis (Twitter: @drbexl): Research Fellow in Social Media and Online Learning, CODEC, Durham University

Dr Bex Lewis is a member of the CODEC team, employed 4-days-a-week by St John’s College, University of Durham, as ”Research Fellow in Social Media and Online Learning", where she has particular responsibility for The Big Bible Project, which she first developed in 2010. She is passionate about helping Christians be a positive presence in the digital world. Bex has over 15 years of experience in the digital environment, having built her first website in 1997, and undertaken accessibility and usability projects. She, however, is more interested in people, communication & popular culture than programming, and therefore was delighted when social media took off, and she is the Director of ‘Digital Fingerprint’, a social media consultancy, whose clients include the Church of England. (Photo Credit: Keith Blundy)

“God never told the world to go to church; but God did tell the church to go to the world.” – Sharon Watkins quoted in Elizabeth Drescher, Tweet If You Heart Jesus: Practicing Church in the Digital Reformation (2011, 108)

For many churchgoing is no longer the ‘cultural norm’. People don’t actively ignore the church: they don’t even think about it. Matthew 5:13-16 calls us to be salt and light in the world, and for thousands in the ‘digital age’, that world includes social networks such Twitter, Facebook, YouTube and Pinterest. With literally billions in the digital spaces, the online social spaces presented by churches need to be appealing, welcoming, and not look like they are just an afterthought: they are now effectively the ‘front door’ to your church for digital users, and you ignore those spaces at your peril.

As Sara Batts research has shown us, many churches are finally starting to get that the online landscape is important, but still need convincing that something more radical is needed than a new website¹. Technologies have changed what is possible, and for many churches over the last few hundred years we have adopted a model of passive, presentation-piece services, heightened even more by a broadcast mode of media that we all got used to with the TV and the radio. Social media, however, offers much more space for questioning, and for congregations to actively engage with sermons through tweeting along, checking something on their online Bibles or Google, sharing photos of church activities, or being encouraged to continue discussions throughout the week through a Facebook group.

At St John’s College, we run an intensive training course entitled “MediaLit”,²  exploring Christian ministry and the media, and one of the first things ever said on the course by Prof Rev David Wilkinson was: “God is extravagant in communication – he is not a silent God who has to be tempted into communicating with people: “In the beginning was the word, and the word was God…”.God wants to share his word with us. Social media, if we concentrate on the word ‘social’, rather than ‘media’, is at its heart about relationships and communication. If we focus upon building relationships within and without the church, then we can think about how we can empower our congregations to be messengers for God’s word in the world.

Building relationships takes time, but church has never been about “bums on seats”, so much as about encouraging those who attend to live full lives of discipleship. Many of those who enjoy the digital spaces are skeptical about being ‘preached to’. We live in a world of “pull” rather than “push” media (show me why I will be interested, rather than tell me I should be interested), but as Elizabeth Drescher says:

We are not selling something to the world that will make more people like us, believe in our story, join our churches. We are trying to be something in the world that invites connection and compassion, encourages comfort and healing for those in need, and challenges those in power to use that power in the service of justice and love (Drescher, 127).

For many in contemporary culture, church is not a space they are familiar with, they don’t hear particularly good things about it in the press, and when we disappear inside church and turn our phones off they see little more than a black hole from many people who actively share so many other aspects of their lives on social media. Over the past couple of years, people have grown used to the sight of me with a mobile in my hand during most sermons, though not all, checking in on Foursquare, sharing an image on Instagram, reading the Bible with the free Bible app @YouVersion, tweeting elements of the sermon, checking aspects of the sermon on Google, and sharing a few thoughts on Facebook, as a result of which, friends have come to ask me about church and whether they can come with me sometime. For churches where there’s no experience of having an active digital user in the church, this can be confusing and distracting, so its worth taking the time as a church to encourage people to use their digital devices, whilst ensuring that others understand the positive benefits.

The churches natural style fits the pattern of the social media world  - that of participation and creativity rather than a broadcast hierarchical structure, so look to see what digital technologies allow us to do differently, and capitalise upon that. We are no longer limited to our geographical or ‘Sunday’ lives, which allow churches to practice whole-life community, actively engaging with what is going on in the world, to listen and to respond with what is going on in our local, national and international communities in ways that are meaningful to those who are listening to us. Start to think about what your church wants to do in its communit(ies), and then start to think which tools will work for that.


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