Methods Change, the Message and Mission for Christ Does Not!

Catholic Asian News, May 2022

The world’s largest taxi company owns no cars, and employs no drivers directly.  The world’s largest hotel service owns no properties and employs no housekeeping or room service staff. Communication has been Whatsapped, memories Instagrammed and TikToked, and life itself Facebooked.  Almost everything we knew as normal in both business, social and faith life has changed dramatically in just the last 20 years - Needless to say that more recently, the COVID-19 pandemic has further splintered our society in ways we never imagined.

Welcome to the 21st century where everyone and everything we knew as normal in has dramatically changed. We now live and work in the age of 24/7 connectivity where ordinary people are connected, more empowered than ever before and everything fully transparent.

The very nature in which people work, interact, and transact has already changed beyond recognition. The COVID-19 crisis has made this imperative more glaring than ever before. Needless to say, churches and religious communities have not been spared. The way in which the faithful have lived out their faith routines and do Church have severely changed and very likely for some, this may constitute a ‘new normal’.  Current times are posing unprecedented challenges and opportunities. How does the Church need to re-evaluate, adapt and consider different approaches to communicate, engage and stay connected with its faithful in this new future? 

The evolution of Communication: Old Church vs New Church

To better answer this question we, let’s take a quick look at how the landscape of communication has evolved.    Until 1995, snail mail, telegram, telex, fax, and expensive international phone calls were the ways in which people communicated. However, in just the last 15-20 years we have started taking things like free voice and video calling, email, instant messaging and 24/7 connectivity for granted. The amount of freedom and empowerment these communication channels provide individuals and society is unparalleled. In the context of the church, we could simply look at it in two broad categories. The Old Church and the New Church.
The Old Church interacted with parishioners only episodically. For many years right from Jesus’ time, most ministry occurred face-to-face. Jesus ministered in front a of a live audience. In the early church, sermons, prayers sessions, evangelical meetings, counselling sessions and all other types of ministry happened before a live audience. This is how the Gospel spread across the world – face to face, one-on-one. This type of ministry continues to be relevant and important for church growth and will never go out of style or lose its relevance. Let’s move on now to the New Church.

The New Church is able to minister to the community of believers 24/7. Today, thanks to new technologies-pastors have access to each other 24/7.  That’s an incredible gift of this era. Covid-19 has speeded the adoption of digital technologies by the faithful community by several years. It is in fact no understatement in saying that digital adoption has taken a quantum leap in the church today. Just in the last two years – we have seen unprecedented levels of engagement with the church no matter when and where in the world you are.

Why Does it Matter:

The digital world offers a free and open network that the Church can use to expand the reach of its message to better shepherd its people. Social media offers a space for congregations to actively engage with sermons by tweeting along, posting questions, sharing photos of church activities or continuing discussions throughout the week – interactions with the priests are not just limited to Sundays at the once a week in-person congregational worship. This inadvertently, fosters deeper ties that dramatically improve our faith experience, increase Godly encounters, strengthens our faith roots and creates for a more connected faith family – technically one that is free from geographical constraints and boundaries. Exacerbated by the pandemic, we have witnessed how the church was forced to rethink and do things differently when churches had to be closed.

Social Media - Obstacle or Advantage to Share the Good News?

Faith grounding is a full-time activity and social media is increasingly becoming part of our everyday lives, so it is not surprising that the two can overlap. Two years ago, most clergy would not have believed it if they had been told that they would conduct masses for weeks before empty pews or inviting congregants to join them on YouTube as they were being recorded and streamed live into the homes of the faithful. Many of the faithful were in a limbo not knowing how long restrictions and Church closures would last. The accelerated digitization and extensive use of social media channels for online broadcasted Masses, prayer sessions, Eucharistic adorations, virtual community gatherings and other day-to-day online interactions helped give hope and sustain their faith needs while keeping them connected at a time most needed. Here we are, two years on. Even as things gradually ease and begin to resume, we are at a crossroads of what the right balance should now be between ‘onsite faith engagement’ vs ‘online’. We cannot pretend that the last two years did not happen and we cannot ignore the evolution of connectivity and heightened familiarity and dependence that many now have with virtual faith routines. We have a choice – we can either view the new way of doing things as an obstacle/threat or see it as an added advantage where we recognize potential risk (finding ways to mitigate them) while maximizing the tremendous opportunity the ‘online realm’ offers for staying closely connected to inspire and nurture faith.   

Caution – the Double-Edged Sword

In no uncertain terms, can we dismiss the perils of the digital world and its impact on our faith experience and Godly encounters even while the benefits seem clear. Advanced communication, in all its various forms can be a double-edged sword. It can be used for great good or great harm. As people of God, we have the critical responsibility to promote its positive use. 24/7 connectivity allows for all our actions to be fully visible. Our Christian witnessing can be greatly compromised by our online actions. Our activity (whether online of or offline) should be regulated by the primary purpose of being witnesses to the Good news. We must not allow for it to be reduced in value and measured by the wrong metrics where “shares, likes and numbers of views” dominate or to draw people in simply for an adrenaline rush of producing or being a part of something that goes viral. With every online interaction -whether as clergy, lay minister, or member of ministry - take a pause and ask ‘Whose glory am I seeking- the Lord’s glory or mine? As followers of Jesus, the question about what we as Church and ministry do on these digital platforms and social media channels must always be about the message we are proclaiming, the people with whom we are connecting and never about who we are becoming. The mission of Christ must reign central so all who engage come away informed, inspired and equipped to be God’s redeemed people sent into mission. Therefore, we must at all times be on guard – Be wise. Be gracious. Be kind - Be Christ-like!

While 24/7 connectivity expands reach and accessibility at a compounded rate, we cannot lose sight of members of the faith community who may not have equal access to digital platforms. Inevitably digital and social media strategies exclude majority of the poor segments of the congregation – those who are not able to afford the internet, data packages and sophisticated electronic devices. Church in leveraging the use of technology, must keep in view how it would continue with its mission and ministry reach among the poor and other segments of the faith population who have limited or no access to the online world including the elderly, migrants and different language groups (non-main stream). In the deployment of digital strategies – options for segments who might be excluded must be seriously considered. Pursuing digital strategies in expanding the mission of Jesus while important, must remain ‘present’ and accessible for all so as to not have any one group omitted or left in a lurch nor should it in anyway widen gaps between the rich and poor.

Digital Discipleship Is Possible: Supplement not Substitute

The onset of the pandemic – while a stretching time for the church – led it to quickly implement new technologies and embrace unique ways of ministry. It reminds us that faith could thrive in what seemed like a pro-longed season of darkness. Today, thanks to new technologies, clergy and parishioners have unprecedented access to each other no matter when and where in the world they are. That's an incredible gift of this era. Faith engagement through digital platforms the likes of Zoom, Google Meet and Social Media, including Facebook, Telegram, TikTok, Instagram, Twitter, YouTube and other faith-based apps must be viewed as COMPLEMENTS rather than REPLACEMENTS, SUPPLEMENTS and not SUBSTITUTES for traditional kinds of ‘onsite’ religious participation. While online platforms and social media are engaging and exciting, the value of face-to-face ministry and the power of relationships should never be forgotten. Virtual engagement can never replace fellowship that is much needed and formed around warm exchanges at the church foyer, casual chats outside Sunday classrooms, carpark conversations, small group meetings and personal connections that only physical in-person gatherings can forge and sustain.  Digitisation and social media is fundamentally changing how people communicate and as Church, we cannot ignore its powerful means of evangelization. However, it is critically important to remember the significant value of other forms of communication to share the gospel of Jesus. Underlying all that rapid change and advancement, we must never lose sight of the ONLY one constant that remains – our God. Methods Change, the Message and Mission for Christ Does Not!

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