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Church Ministry in the Digital Age

Dr. Keith Plummer recently spoke with Jay Kim, lead pastor of teaching at WestGate Church in the Silicon Valley, to discuss his book, Analog Church: Why We Need Real People, Places, and Things in the Digital Age. The following is an abridged version of that discussion. View the full conversation here.

You’re a young pastor in Silicon Valley, yet you wrote a book warning Christian leaders about becoming too immersed in digital technology. What made you want to write this book?

This is something I’ve been ruminating on for a long time. I’ve spent almost my entire life in the Silicon Valley, the epicenter of digital technology. From my front door, I can drive to one of the main campuses of Apple in about 10 minutes. I can drive to the campus of Facebook in about 20 minutes, to the campus of Google in 15 minutes. I have friends and family who work in these companies and they’re responsible for creating the stuff that we use every day.
Over the last 16 years or so, I’ve spent most of my waking hours participating in the life of local churches. In the last seven or eight years, I’ve become acutely aware of a very strong and fascinating intersection between the church and the digital age. As I served and led in local churches, I saw churches nationally and globally lean headlong into all that digital technologies can offer. Most of the time, it was for the sake of relevance, reach, and impact. All of those are good on the surface, but I started to wonder, “Are there some subversive, formational things happening as we use and leverage digital technologies? How might technology be forming us or informing us in ways that we’re unaware of?”

After several years of looking into this, I think there are some ways in which our unaccountable, unabashed use of digital technologies might actually be having detrimental effects to our ecclesiology. That’s where the book came from.

You write in the book that “digital at its best [increases] our appetite for the real analog thing.” Could you unpack that?

I think we are experiencing that reality in very visceral ways right now during the pandemic. Digital technologies at their finest do not come to us as the ultimate end, but as a means to an end. When technologies are leveraged appropriately and responsibly, when they’re put in positions of use rather than power and influence over our lives, they give us a type of “pseudo connection.” That’s their great gift to us: Even at great distances, we can still somewhat connect. But it actually makes us long for the real thing. When I’m traveling, I am grateful I have FaceTime so I can call my family and not only hear voices but see faces. I can see my wife’s face and the faces of my two young children. But what FaceTime ultimately does is it makes me long for a return home, where I can hold my real children in my arms, give them real hugs, and give my wife a real kiss. I think fostering that longing is digital at its finest.

So there would be something wrong if FaceTime was regarded as just as good or even better than the actual presence?

Yes. FaceTime, for example, is often far more convenient than real, actual presence. It’s certainly more efficient. But when it comes to the most meaningful connections we have with one another, we know that it falls short.

It’s important to note your book is not “anti-technology,” but a call for discernment in the ways we use it. You identify three benefits of technology along with ways they can have a negative impact on us. What are they?

Speed, choices, and individualism are three things that can benefit us, but they can also harm us when they go unchecked, which I think has been true for so many of us in the digital age. They make us impatient, shallow, and isolated. There is a lot of research that supports the idea that we are growing increasingly impatient. We no longer know how to sit and wait for anything. Technology has made everything accessible so quickly.

Regarding choices, there are many examples. I can go on Amazon and find four dozen varieties of anything, be it pants or coffee or books. It makes us shallow because we no longer have to think deeply into any one thing. We could just move on to a variety of other options.

And then, individualism: Everything in our digital experiences is becoming increasingly curated to suit our preferences, our personalities, and our likes and dislikes. This makes us incredibly isolated.

As we grow increasingly impatient, shallow, and isolated, those three things actually stand in diametric opposition to the life of discipleship, which is a patient work. It is a deep work and a communal work that has so many ramifications for the life of the church and what it means for us to be a part of the body.

When we think about Christian community, there is a unique challenge in the digital age because of the degree to which our overuse of digital technologies has made us isolated. Almost all of our digital experiences are curated to our preferences, our personalities, even our likes and leanings, political or otherwise. Yet when you actually show up to a church, the gathered people of God, the reality is that in that community of people, the chances are extremely high that there are others who don’t fit your preferences. They don’t suit your personality. They don’t like the things you like. They may have very different views on politics or socioeconomics or whatever, and yet here we are. And that is a part of what it means to be formed into the image of Christ.

How has the digital age affected the way we read Scripture?

With the speed and individualism of the digital age, our brains have been hardwired to move fast. Now everything is trying to grab our attention. Think of the phrase “click bait.” That phrase did not exist before the digital age, yet we all know what it means: It’s some sort of desperate attempt to grab your attention.
That sort of digital experience is forming us. There are neurology experts and neurological studies showing the plasticity and the malleability of the human mind. Very quickly we can rewire certain things within these heads of ours that make us grow an appetite for particular experiences.
This is why in the digital age so many Christians think about the Bible the same way they think about social media. They look at the Bible as a series of fortune cookies: Every day I crack open my fortune cookie and there are one or two verses that give me a little bit of hope, a little bit of inspiration for the day, or a little bit of comfort. Certainly these verses can offer real hope and comfort, but when we begin to see Scripture as a series of fortune cookies, we lack a basis of nourishment for our spiritual bodies.
I would suggest the Scriptures were intended to be engaged as long format texts that we sink deeply into for extended periods of time. They are intended to mature us and to form us more and more every day into the image of the risen Christ, not simply by comforting us—although there is a lot of comfort—but also by confronting us. They confront the brokenness of sin and the fallout of sin in our lives and in the world. We’re not going to get that if we read the Bible as a series of daily fortune cookies. We have to sit in it for the long haul.

What could it look like for the church to be the people of God in a digital age?

When we think about the people of God throughout Scripture and church history, we find that the church has always been the most dynamic, effective, and impactful in the world in those moments when she has stood in stark opposition to the cultural ethos of the day. This is particularly so when that ethos is moving in a direction that makes us something less than human in the way God has called us to be.
The people of God have always been a peculiar people, people who zig when the world zags, so to speak. We have an incredible opportunity to do that in the digital age. There is a way to leverage these incredible technologies that are at our disposal and yet not allow them to take positions of power in our lives that basically neutralize us from being able to have the missional impact that we long to have. In order to do that, we have to think critically and thoughtfully about how we engage in digital technologies as we serve and lead in our churches.


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