What if digital discipleship isn’t just a trendy option—it’s your responsibility?
I’ll be up front with you: I’m not out to convince you that the church should embrace emerging tech trends. We already agree on that. I think the church has a bigger responsibility when it comes to technology: we’re responsible for making disciples with the media and tools we use in the digital landscape. This responsibility flows from the Great Commission.
It’s a pretty big deal. Of course, I work on software that’s practically named after the Great Commission, so I’m predisposed to think so. =)
“Go” vs. “Make Disciples”
At the very end of the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus tells the apostles to “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations” (Mt 28:19). A common interpretation of this is that as Christians, we’re called to “Go.”
However, that’s not really what Jesus is saying. When Matthew wrote these words, his readers understood that the main command was to “make disciples.” There’s a lot to unpack when it comes to defining what that means, but for brevity’s sake, let’s boil it down to welcoming new followers of Christ and teaching them to obey him.
So if making disciples is the main thrust of this Great Commission, what’s the “Go” doing there?
When Jesus says “Go,” he uses it in a way that assumes the apostles are already going to be on the move. It’s kind of like saying, “As you go, make disciples.”
Matthew actually uses this kind of wording a few times throughout his gospel:
- Herod tells the wise men to “Go and search” (Mt 2:8).
- Jesus tells the Pharisees to “Go and learn” (Mt 9:13).
- Jesus tells some of John the Baptist’s disciples to “Go and tell John” what they see (Mt 11:4).
In each of these cases, the real thrust isn’t on going—it’s about what they should be doing as they go.
We “Go” Digital Now
Here’s where the digital aspect comes in. If you, your congregation, and your community are living in the digital world (and you are), then biblical discipleship looks a lot more digital than you think. Because today, people “go” in digital ways.
This isn’t news. We’ve lived in a digital world for a while now. The question is: How are we making disciples as we go our digital ways?
For the local church, this goes beyond having a website, an app, and social media accounts. This isn’t a question of how to get your offline discipleship efforts online. This is about using the tools our congregations use “as they go” to make disciples: to welcome people to Christ and teach them to obey him.
What Is and Isn’t “Digital Discipleship”?
I was a college student studying marketing in 2010, and the textbook chapters looked a lot like this:
- First 95%—“This is how marketing works.”
- Last 5%—“But the Internet makes it all super connected and disruptive and stuff.”
You can see how this is a problem. Marketing has drastically changed since the advent of the Web—you can’t just tack on a few pages of digital speak to the end of every chapter. It’s part of the whole marketing process now. As you can imagine, I had to learn a lot more about how marketing works outside of the textbooks.
I think the church runs the risk of making the same mistake. When local churches look at making disciples digitally, they’re tempted to:
- Push all the “analog” discipleship online, or
- Spin up separate digital-only discipleship initiatives.
But digital discipleship shouldn’t be either of these. It should simply be treated as a growing piece of the disciple-making mix. And it’s certainly not a substitute for one-on-one meetings, community gatherings, and the like. Remember, we’re supposed to make disciples as we go—and we still “go” in offline ways, too.
What Does That Look Like?
It’s fun to talk about all this in theory—but what could this look like for churches moving forward? I’ve put together a few examples.
Automating the general information
There are some things that you can say the same way to anyone. They don’t need to be custom-tailored to the person you’re communication to. This is usually high-level material—not the kind of stuff you’d bring to a one-on-one conversation.
So why not automate it? With tools like MailChimp, you can create set-it-and-forget-it series of emails that go to your audience at predetermined intervals. This way, once someone signs up, they’re receiving regular, helpful communication from you. Plus, it frees up your time for meaningful one-of conversations with people instead of saying/typing the same thing over and over.
I don’t know of many churches and ministries doing this yet. That’s possibly because automation tools are usually pretty pricey. But last year MailChimp added some sweet automated messaging features that pretty much any church can afford.
- Tullian Tchividjian offers a year-long email devotional.
- The Overview Bible Project sends a 66-week email Bible survey.
Using digital tools for the congregation, not the campus
Browse most churches’ Facebook pages and you’ll meet a never-ending list of videos, graphics, and the like about:
- Where to catch last week’s sermon online
- When to show up at the next event
- Teaser for the next sermon
- Needs the church has (giving, staffing, promoting, etc.)
There’s nothing wrong with telling your online audience what’s happening on campus. But you’re leaving a lot on the table if your digital channels are only about bringing people to church.
But what if your church’s social media accounts, email newsletters, and blog offered material that was useful beyond campus? What if your congregation could count on you for timely blog posts in response to current events? What if they could count on you for encouragement to trust and obey God throughout the week? What if they looked forward to a roundup of great reading material from around the Web? What if churches’ online content was less about church and more about living for Christ?
It’s possible. In fact, a few churches have already modeled this process rather well:
- Saddleback Church is a social media legend in the church world (go, @HaleyVeturis!).
- D. Greear’s blog gives sermon recaps, book reviews, and best-of link roundups.
Creating the tools you (and other churches) need
Sometimes there’s no tool out there that does exactly what you want. As the Church grows and spreads, we will come across problems that the rest of the world isn’t having—and then it’s going to fall to churches to create the digital solutions.
Some churches are already knocking this out of the park:
- LifeChurch.tv made the Bible app.
- The Rock Church is making an app that helps evangelists connect seekers with Christians who have similar stories.
Using tech to focus on offline relationships
You can’t go digital with every aspect of ministry. In fact, some of the most valuable digital tools to a church are the ones that free up your time for more offline ministry.
- Disciplr for KidMin pastors and classroom leaders (in development now!)
- Evernote and Logos Bible Software for preachers
Discipleship > Digital Discipleship
We have a mandate to make disciples as we go about our daily lives. That means we need to diligently consider ways to make disciples using the digital channels seekers and congregants use all the time. But it doesn’t mean we abandon the other aspects of discipleship to focus on high-tech methods.
In fact, if we’re doing it right, nobody will notice the tech-savviness of our discipleship techniques. And if enough of us do it right, “digital discipleship” won’t be a thing in a few years. It’ll just be understood that when we make disciples, we make the most of the opportunities available to us—including digital opportunities.