Loving each other through the gift of technology
These biblical and practical guidelines can help you plan and improve online discipling
I am sure you all agree that . . . so next time we will . . . ” My computer flashed a note—“Your internet is unstable”—nothing I didn’t know. But everybody in the meeting nods, and I know I missed something important. I find myself longing for the “good old days” of in-person meetings.
We are all experiencing a sense of loss. Our current experience of fellowship is significantly diminished. Even when physically present, we are still constrained by masks, distance, and sometimes a sense of fear. Technology can sidestep some of these constraints, but it will never be the same as in-person encounters.1
However, it might be that God’s gift to us in this season is the opportunity to learn to use technology well. If we do so, then even after we return to unconstrained in-person meetings, our discipleship may be enriched by the use of technology. After all, the same God allowed Paul to be imprisoned, forcing him to use the technology of his time—letters—when he would much rather have met in person (1 Thess. 2:17–18, Col. 2:1–2, 4:16–18). Yet we are immeasurably enriched by having Paul’s letters today.
I will share about the “why, what, and when” of using technology to facilitate discipleship but, due to space limitation I will not cover the “how”. However, once you have a clear idea of the other factors, finding some “how to” guidance online becomes much easier.2
Technology and discipleship: Biblical principles
Let’s consider biblical foundations for thinking about technology and discipleship.3 We see in Ephesians that Christ gave gifts to his people to equip and build them up. These gifts create a loving environment of truth-speaking that nurtures growth (Eph. 4:11–16).
Gifts: Christ gives gifts to each one for the common good (1 Cor. 12:7–11), and every one is commanded to exercise their gifts (Rom. 12:3–8). The lists in Ephesians, 1 Corinthians, and Romans consist mostly of gifts that can be exercised by speaking. By extension, they might be exercised through technologically mediated encounters. However, it still takes intentionality and planning to ensure people have the opportunity to do so.
Environment: We find a deep sense of love and unity in Ephesians (4:1–6). Paul expects believers to show an awareness of others—their joys, sorrows, sins, needs, and hard work. He also expects appropriate responses such as rejoicing, mourning, singing, encouragement, and above all—prayer (Rom. 12:9–16; 1 Thess. 5:12–22; Eph. 5:15–20). Such awareness and response take place more naturally, and sometimes unnoticed, when we gather in person (without constraints).4 But, online, these require significant planning and effort. This environment is a key part of effective discipleship.
Thus, we can view discipleship as a community of people all gifted to serve one another in a loving environment, so that each person may grow to maturity in Christ. I believe Christ gives each community access to the technology they need, along with people who have the ability to steward it for the benefit of the community. However, my sense is that, while we have mostly managed to provide online access to teaching, creating an environment of love and unity with opportunities for mutual service remains a challenge. In attempting this challenge, there are a few biblical guidelines that might be worth keeping in mind.
Three biblical guidelines
Orderly and fitting behaviour when gathering contributes to building up the church (1 Cor. 14:26–40). To create a loving environment through technology we must pay attention to the orderly and fitting use of the technology. Paul told the Corinthians what constitutes an orderly and fitting physical gathering. Similarly, we need to understand and explain that to participants. This includes doing our best to ensure everyone is clearly audible and visible and facilitating the encounter so that everyone can participate in an orderly fashion.
Teach by modelling. Our online lives ought to be as worthy of imitation as our daily lives (Heb. 13:7–8; 1 Cor. 4:16–17).5 This is instrumental in creating the environment commended by Paul. To do this well we need to deliberately create opportunities for others to witness our awareness of and appropriate response to those we meet online, and encourage them to imitate us.
Sensitive to the risks of exclusion. Recall how Paul criticized the Corinthians for their conduct during the Lord’s Supper when those that had food enjoyed it without consideration for those who did not (1 Cor. 11:17–22). It’s possible in the same way for exclusion to occur when people who have gadgets, know-how, etc. enjoy their fellowship without being sensitive to people who don’t. Likewise, in hybrid (in-person combined with online) gatherings—people who have health, time, or transport might enjoy their physical encounter in a way that subtly excludes those who must be content to only watch through a screen as others “eat and drink”.
How to plan a discipleship encounter
Goal of the encounter. So how do we create discipling encounters that perpetuate an environment of love? It might be tempting to start from our own abilities, but rather, we should start by identifying the goal of the encounter. In what way do we sense the Spirit desiring to comfort, transform, empower, or build up the disciple(s)? And only then can we decide the kind of discipleship encounter needed. If people are tired, fearful, and discouraged they might need shared song and prayer. If they feel lonely and isolated, they might need a phone call and a cake delivery.
Type of communication. Is it one-to-one, one-to-many, many-to-one, or many-to-many?
Would it be best to have a group of people meet at the same time, for a sense of unity? Web conferencing tools like Zoom and Google Hangouts work well for these. Or, would it be better to provide a resource that people can use individually at their own pace and time? A good method for this might be videos, posted on YouTube.
Regardless, it might be better to divide what we would normally do in a single physical encounter over multiple technology encounters. This allows us to tailor each encounter to a few specific goals, while combatting technology fatigue and allowing us to connect to people more frequently. Because there is no commute involved, shorter but more frequent encounters are possible—and usually beneficial.
Participants’ demographics. What is most suitable given their age, access to devices (e.g. smartphone, computer), and familiarity with the technology? What disabilities (vision/hearing impairment) or other challenges (noisy household, small screen, poor headphones, poor language ability, etc.) might prevent people from engaging effectively?
Knowing these things allows us to choose an appropriate technology and figure out how to use it to create an orderly and fitting encounter, while reducing the potential for exclusion. For example, if the activity is the Lord’s Supper and the goal is unity, using Zoom will lead to a far richer experience than a recorded video on YouTube. On the other hand, if the activity is prayer with the goal of encouragement and the participants are generally over 70 in age, a telephone conference call might be the most suitable.
You might feel overwhelmed by the number of technologies and your own limited experience. However, if you are clear on why, what, and when, you will likely find someone who knows, or is willing to learn, the necessary technology. Christ is still giving gifts to his church, and if skill with technology is what we need right now to grow saints into maturity, he can provide. As 2 Timothy 2:9 says, though we might be constrained, God’s word is not chained!
1. Whether passages like Hebrews 10:24–25 apply solely to physical gathering has been hotly debated ever since the start of the first online/virtual churches in the early 2000s. I do not intend to enter into that debate but for those interested, Ronald L. Giese, Jr., “Is ‘Online Church’ Really Church? The Church as God’s Temple,” from thegospelcoalition.org/themelios, (Vol. 45 – Issue 2, August 2020) is a good starting point.
2. For those interested in exploring further I have put up some of my own thoughts and useful links on the JEMA Community pages. Please see: https://www.jemacommunity.org/topics/5781760
3. While discipleship can be considered to start prior to conversion, here we will consider the part concerned with helping believers mature in Christ.
4. I would also argue that as ministries have attempted to limit physical contact and in-person meeting time this environment has also all but disappeared in physical gatherings.
5. Technology can also provide an interesting window into our daily lives in ways that is difficult to duplicate in person. For example, you could record a family devotion with your kids for other parents to see and model. Having a camera in the corner will be much more natural than all the other parents in a circle, watching.