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What does digital discipleship look like?

Tim Suffield looks at how you might help a Gen Z grow in Christ, in a world where print takes a back seat  and where cultural shaping happens so fast. 

In a previous blog I suggested that we need Gen Z’s help to figure out what discipleship looks like in the digital wasteland; to describe what shape wisdom takes. I thought I’d give that a go and ask a group of student friends of mine to talk over what wise social media use looks like.

They had three pieces to advice to share:

1. Diversify your feed

Echo chambers are bad, that following people you disagree with is good for you, and following people who aren’t like you broadens your perspective on life. Sounds wise to me, I’ve been thinking a bit about how to do the same.

2. Find light in the darkness

Including some Christian ‘content’ in amongst all of the other things you might view and follow is important. We should see some truth and light amongst everything else. I want to push back a little as to why we’re viewing “darkness” in the first place, and the idea of “Christian content” makes me a little uneasy, but I take the point.

3. Fight comparison

Everyone presents a curated, perfected version of themselves online. It becomes very easy to compare your thorny, awkward reality with the filtered, posed images of our friends that clutter our screens. As Theodore Roosevelt said long before Facebook was a dream in Zuckerberg’s eye: “Comparison is the thief of joy”.

I was delighted with the beginnings of wisdom among these late-teens and early-twenties, they were really aware of some of the pitfalls of digital life. They weren’t sorted (who is?), but they want to be discipled into further growth in these areas.

At the same time, I was pretty surprised by some of the things they didn’t say. Having reflected a little before our conversation I had three thoughts on some of the ways I need discipling to use these tools well, and they didn’t touch on any of them.

Following the work of the philosopher James K. A. Smith I’m convinced that most things we regularly encounter in our lives form us to be more like them. Smith calls them “cultural liturgies”; Tony Reinke suggests that we “become like what we like”. This could be a good or a bad thing, but it needs to be reckoned with.

I’ve noticed that social media usage forms my heart in these three ways:

1. Ignore flesh & blood

The people I interact with online feel as important to me as the people who I encounter bodily in my neighbourhood and in my local church. That isn’t right, I can’t be everywhere and God has placed me in a specific place and specific local church. These are my people, they’re the ones I’m supposed to especially care for and about, and they’re the awkward ones who think differently to me.

2. Everything happens now

Technology forms us to expect everything to happen now, we’re wired for instantaneous feedback by our wired feedback devices. This isn’t a new phenomenon, back in the 1980s Neil Postman reflected on how the telegraph had started this process of being concerned with whatever is “new” and was happening elsewhere. The problem is that the Christian life isn’t instant, as Eugene Peterson said it’s a “long obedience in the same direction” with us being slowly, painfully, formed into the image of Christ ready to enter the eons before us.

3. My concerns are shifted

I start to believe that what’s important is whatever my feeds tell me is important. For me that means the latest kerfuffle on theology twitter, and I don’t like what it does to me. For the students I was talking with it will be other things, but the same effect. We’re supposed to seek first the kingdom and his righteousness.

I’m glad that younger Christians are beginning to think through their usage of social media but I think we need to pay more attention to our hearts and the effect that these useful tools have on us. Social Media can encourage us to engage at a surface level and move on quickly, let’s not be like that.

These are the things I’m going to be trying to focus on in my conversations with my Gen Z friends. These are the things I’m going to be examining in my own heart. Our mission is to make disciples, whatever places we find ourselves in.

YCW DIGITAL


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