Motivating Beliefs for Ministry in Digital Spaces

For many of us, it’s a new and strange idea to do ministry online, via the Internet, through intentional social media use, or investment in video game relationships. InterVarsity’s Ministry in Digital Spaces team got going about 3 years ago, in early 2014. Since then, we’ve navigated conversations with a continuum people, from those who believe the Internet is ruining our humanity and morality, to those who believe technology will save us. We fall somewhere in the middle, and what follows are the three realizations that both ground us and inspire us:

  • All communication is mediated.
  • All media are real.
  • All people long for unmediated.

Let’s unpack each of these.

1. All communication is mediated.

By this we mean that all communication requires a medium. Even IRL (in real life), communication is mediated. Face-to-face, intimate; still mediated. Communication is mediated by Context: both context where the message is generated and the context where accessed or received. Communication is mediated by Timeframe: Live, synchronous, asynchronous, archived, steaming. Communication is mediated by Medium: Intrapersonal (bodily), interpersonal, analog, digital. Even communication as direct as telepathy (if such a thing existed outside of Sci-Fi) would still be mediated by images, sensations, or simple cooperation between neurons in two separate brains.

Almost always, communication requires a long chain of many media. For example, in a face-to-face conversation, the communicated message actually travels from neurons in one part of the brain to the speech neurons in another part of the brain, to muscles throughout the body (including the voice, but also all sorts of nonverbal body language), to all the senses of the listener (hearing yes, but also seeing, smelling, tasting, and feeling), to the various sections of the listener’s brain to process the message, and immediately back out to all the muscles of the listener’s body. All this for a simple, one-directional message between two people in close physical proximity.

It is easy to begin to imagine what might happen if any of these media were tweaked (amplified, diminished, or otherwise altered) along the pathway of the message, but difficult to grasp the full consequences of these tweaks.

Ministry in Digital Spaces is about digitally-mediated real life.

2. All media are real.

All media are real and valid. BUT, some are more appropriate than others, depending on what you are trying to accomplish. You must be thoughtful and intentional about the media used to communicate a particular message. Each medium in the long chain of communication is important, but not equal for every message.

Some media are more effective and some are less effective, depending on many factors, including the context of the entire communication chain, the location of the message in the chain, the other media included in the chain, the quality of the message generator, and the ability and capacity of the message receiver. Introducing a new medium to the communication chain or taking a medium away will have some effect, often with unintended and unexpected consequences.

Each generation seems to struggle with deciding whether or not the latest media afforded by innovative technologies is real or not. On one hand, new media get dismissed as frivolous and fake, not effective for the purposes of “real” communication. On the other hand, new media are critiqued for the all-too-real, dreaded effects on our brains and capacity to think or function as a society. These two arguments are not seen as contradictory but are synthesized to label new media as “fake communication with real, grave dangers.” This might sound overly dramatic, but many generations have done this before us, decrying the frivolous, antisocial, addictive, and mind-numbing dangers of television, novels, plays, and even writing (blasted by Socrates). 

We want to be thoughtful, reflective, and aware of the effects of new media, but not fearful of the media themselves.

Generations before us have survived new media. Rehashing these old critiques is actually a distraction from a bigger issue: how people see the world, see themselves, and behave toward others. New media allow new possibilities for communication and therefore new connections, hence there will be effects on worldview, self-knowledge, behavior, and lifestyle. Jesus said the real issue is what comes out from a person’s heart, and new media have the capacity to make heart issues amplified and more transparent. It’s about people first and foremost, technology second. We must keep asking reflective questions.

There are real dangers and real benefits already emerging through digital media. There is the broken side of addiction, exploitation, extortion, and trolling. But there is also the hopeful side of cultural empathy, training simulations for all sorts of skills, deeper engagement and ownership of learning, safe and generous communities, and extending intimacy beyond geographic bounds. Ministry demands vulnerability, and personal information is a currency online. Digital spaces amplify brokenness, and persons doing ministry in digital spaces will need training and support to absorb pain and anger encountered. Some students just want to escape into digital spaces; there’s a reason and a story why someone would choose to engage their spiritual life in digital spaces. Some students are wrestling with addictions that are exacerbated by digital spaces.

All media are real, and so often they are a mirror to our souls. Too often we use the Internet to do stuff but fail to pause to reflect on what it’s showing us about ourselves.

3. All people long for unmediated.

With our physical bodies, we can never achieve unmediated.

But a longing to know and be known is a basic foundation for spiritual journey and practice. We hear echoes of this when we talk about the Holy Spirit; there’s something there when God talks about writing the Law directly on human hearts in Jeremiah 31. We know Christ on the cross as the perfect mediation between our broken selves and a perfect God.

Christians believe that there such things as “spiritual media,” which are the result of sitting in God’s presence, speaking to God, listening to God, following promptings of the Holy Spirit, and so on. These spiritual media are not the only ones in play, as media such as audible sounds, visual imagery, bodily sensations, metaphors, etc. are often found in the communication chain between mortal humans and God.

The new covenant in Jeremiah 31:31-34 describes an unmediated presence between God and people: “I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people. No longer shall they teach one another, or say to each other, ‘Know the LORD,’ for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, for I will forgive their iniquity, and remember their sin no more.”

Notice here that sin, teachers, and status (from least to greatest) are all media between people and God. In the vision of this unmediated covenant, the law alone remains, and the ability to know God.

This is an area where we must live in tension. We need many media to communicate, but we long for fewer media and even for becoming fully unmediated in intimacy with God. We must make wise choices along the way about which media we use.

Ministry in Digital Spaces is not the end goal; full intimacy God is the end goal. Deeper connections are mileposts along the way. Digitally-mediated real life is just an onramp to deeper connections.