In the German church setting of today, two main positions regarding the challenges of the Digital Age can be found: either a rather defensive rejection or a more enthusiastic welcome. What might be the elements of an adequate and theologically rooted approach upcoming transformations in commuication? This short article will discuss key points leaving others – no less important – for another occasion.
Two months ago. Morning Prayer in the Synod of the Evangelical Church in Germany (EKD). The theme of the meeting was “The faith of young people”. Therefore, young church representatives guided the devotions and a student lady started reflecting on the relationship between older and younger generations in the life of the churches. Most of the synod members switched off their Smartphones, settled back in their chairs and waited for inspiration. Instead, the audience was explicitly called to make immediate and active use of their Smartphones looking for a special link with options to comment on the key issues and what was being said on the floor.
Quite hesitantly at first, I decided to join in this initiative. However, a certain panic ensued, because – far from being either a digital native or a master of digital literacy – I seemed to be the only one to fail to open the link. The first comments appeared on the huge screen of the conference hall, while I was trying to hide my ignorance from my neighbours. Finally I got it, offered my 40 characters worth of thought and some seconds later it appeared as one part of a huge puzzle on the screen.
It turned out to be exciting to read and interpret the growing synopsis of the reflections of others. So I felt at the same time hesitance and enthusiasm, exclusion and inclusion. Later I asked myself: could I possibly make meaningful use of such an instrument in a youth-service in a local parish?
Christmas Eve at home. As a long and time-honoured tradition the united family starts singing Christmas carols. Since hymnbooks don’t include all the popular songs and choices come up spontaneously, there have been no copies prepared but a collection of different books is offered. This causes a time-consuming search for songs and agree upon verses.
This year’s big surprise was the quick and easy consensus we came to, due to the children’s internet based access to an endless reservoir of songs on respective platforms. Even grandmother was included since one iPad offered texts in huge letters, readable even in a Christmas tree candlelight atmosphere. The family choir, supported by different electronic instruments, sounded as moving as in years gone by. The only person working in an analogue way was the old man playing the piano…
Different dimensions of a complex issue
Just two moments in time and I am aware that such experiences do not reach an adequate level of looking at the problems and promises of digitalization in our times. But they helped me to examine some ambivalent dimensions of this complex issue in a personal and a more matter of fact way. My own ambiguities seem to be symptomatic for other groups in the churches. Simplifying the issue a bit, two main positions seem to dominate with regard to the impacts of Digitalization: A more traditional one would insist on the risks and challenges of those processes. It advocates reducing the influence of electronic devices and social media on people’s lives and on the churches to an inevitable minimum.
A more progressive position emphasizes the inevitable dynamic of a radical digitalization and its positive impacts on the lives of persons, communities and churches, trying to establish the churches as part of the digital avant-garde. The pros and cons of both positions need, however, to be related to one fundamental point: since the churches’ core mandate consists in communicating the Good News to all people, it is crucial whether churches and church-related actors merely react to the changes in our lives created through the digital culture or whether they adopt and implement proactive positions and behaviours. What matters in the end is to what extent the churches’ ways of communicating the Word helps people to receive and understand it and let their lives be transformed through the Holy Spirit.
A backward glance
Here it might be helpful to look quickly back into our own history, starting some 500 years ago.
Without the invention of printing with mechanical, movable type, the ideas of the Reformation, born in different regions in Europe and carried all over the world, might have gone under in the blink of an eye. But thanks to clever mechanics and equally gifted business men, those revolutionary thoughts were in the world to stay, despite cruel punishments. Not only was the word a sword, so was printed paper and both were used to fight for and against the reformation and the new forms of freedom that eventually followed.
In retrospect, it is not only theological aspects of the reformation that owe printing a certain amount of success. So, too, does education, pillar of the protestant house and, consequently, everything we connect today with individual responsibility, democracy and human rights. In the beginning of the era of affordable printing, churches were at the forefront of the movement using it to spread the Gospel. In the 19th century, when prices were dropping due to even faster and cheaper methods, the mission societies led the creation of pamphlets and fundraising materials to further their cause, using their own machinery.
One hundred years later and with incomes dwindling, the mission societies embraced digital technology, axing postage and expediting communication between the continents. They were also prepared to purchase the necessary equipment for their partners abroad. This might help us to understand how, at particular moments in the history of the church and for the sake of proclaiming the Gospel in a relevant way, there has been an alliance with technical revolutions in the area of communication.
In the 1990s the call for a “netiquette” – rules on how to behave and speak while online – seemed necessary. Since then, the world has had to come up with new words to describe unwanted behaviour: fake news, hate speech, body shaming and many more. Behaviour, that formerly was not shown openly or only when disguised, is now displayed with names and faces visible. It is good to notice that churches are among those who are clearly speaking up against hate and other forms of communication denying the human dignity of individuals and groups of people. The defence of human dignity will continue to be a major task of churches, whose voices will be heard when they act in a truly ecumenical way.
And so to truth telling
“What is truth?” This old question is nowadays highly relevant again, since battles between different understandings of truth, of facts in history, science and culture are becoming more and more polemical in tone. Churches cannot avoid these battles but they have to learn and to teach reading the signs of the times in new ways. Whenever propaganda, hate, intolerance and aggression, division and destruction of community are promulgated, the churches’ voices have to insist that learning the truth has to do with humble authenticity, precise discussion, constructive dialogue and constructive action based on signs of solidarity. There is enough evidence already that the going will not be easy when trying to unmask falsity and to defend openness and confidence in authentic communication.
In spring 2018, at the World Council of Churches’ Conference on World Mission and Evangelism in Arusha, Tanzania, there was hardly anyone without a smartphone or tablet. Apparently, without fears regarding safety and privacy, Christians from all over the world corresponded, talked to and shared their impressions with “friends” and on different platforms. On the positive side, travelling to be physically present is not that necessary any more. One can take part in conferences at any place or time wherever one is located and electricity is provided: filming and immediate broadcasting, i.e. streaming, takes one right into an event. Like online chatting with friends, for many people video conferences are state of the art.
Looking at larger meetings and conferences within the worldwide ecumenical movement, we may insist that direct encounter between people of different churches and confessions needs to be preserved. At the same time nobody can deny the obvious benefits for participation and inclusion provided by modern social media in such ecumenical settings. Sharing of hope and suffering is possible when new forms of mutuality and dialogue come into being, the bond of love is extended between brothers and sisters near and far, and the fruits of the Spirit’s work can be seen inside and outside the wall of conference centres at the same time. Digitalization has to be a top priority on the agenda of the Ecumenical movement.
Freedom is one of the promises communication is based on. Together with the spread of social media use worldwide, today we also face all over the world shrinking spaces in civil societies. Missions and church-related development agencies together with many of their partners are worried. Especially in non-democratic societies, meta data produced from the internet are utilized to spy on users. It is no longer men and women candidly sniffing out private behaviour, as we remember from former times. Now algorithms read, connect and react. If a person visits the website of a mission agency that is advocating protecting human rights and propagates those rights on international social media platforms against a government, he or she might be declared an enemy of the people or even a terrorist. Soft- and hardware developers seem to be forced by governmental linked forces to leave entry points for spying and industrial interest.
Enjoying freedom of religion and speech in many countries today, churches advocate for human rights together with people and organizations of goodwill. This is another impact of digitalization, where the well-established cooperation in development and mission between ecumenical actors in the Global North and in the Global South has to stand the test of being helpful in difficult situations. We see new power constellations and it is no coincidence that in many places alliances grow between autocratic governments and international media corporations. There seem to be mutual benefits in widening the range of power. Therefore, new forms of confronting those global and regional centres of power will be needed in the digital age. The authority of the discourse of the churches however is not based on loudness and power but on the truth-generating loving force of the Holy Spirit.
In times of trouble, justice and peace for all are costly, involving digital means has its price. Who, but the worldwide church has it in itself to connect Christians – and other people of good will – to tackle the challenges the whole world is facing. It seems to be an important time for churches and church-related organizations to call upon those among their members who want to turn the digital realm and consequently the analogue world into better places. This time, challenges can be addressed and problems solved and, thus, wars avoided! It would prove that humans can learn from their mistakes and work together for life in all its fullness.
The above-mentioned discussions in the EKD-Synod bear signs of hope. The young people lit fireworks of different ideas and programs that churches, parishes and individuals should do to welcome in the transformations of the digital age – without neglecting the many risks. And they found resonance in the auditorium since at the end a voluminous package of short- and long-term measures was adopted. Priority areas for action have been determined and sisters and brothers expressed confidence and hope that in the digital age, as in any age before, there are many ways to discern signs of the Spirit’s actions in the world and to react firmly and joyfully in the life of the churches.
Christoph Anders is an ordained minister of the United Church in Berlin and Brandenburg, currently serving as General Secretary of the Association of Protestant Churches and Missions in Germany (EMW).