A few years ago, while conducting my postgraduate research, I delved into how the digital age has reshaped the relationship between young adults and the church. Much of the literature pointed to a stark reality: the church has primarily remained an analogue in an increasingly digital world.
The interviews I conducted with various Millennials from Seventh-day Adventist (SDA) churches in the United Kingdom (UK) confirmed what the literature stated, namely that in a world in which they spend most of their time on digital devices, the church expects them to live, think, and make decisions in a way for which that their brain is no longer wired. A recurring theme was the church’s failure to adopt social media and to package its message in a way that resonates with young people. This was less than ten years ago.
Fast forward to 2023 and bringing up social media feels strange in the larger picture of emerging technologies, such as Artificial Intelligence, Virtual Reality, or Augmented Reality. Covid was meant to be a wake-up call for churches: “Because we failed to adopt new technologies in the past, we were unable to respond to the needs of our members now. How do we future proof?”. For some, it was for some, it wasn’t.
And for those who quickly established an online presence, sometimes updates were neglected once the ‘in person’ church reopened. Most churches’ online presence and public posts on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, or other platforms often look like a brick Motorola mobile phone in a world of sleek modern smartphones. Yes, they have a social media profile; some information is displayed irregularly, but it could be more efficient and engaging. Some even appear to be a few posts away from extinction. In this landscape, how can we then have a conversation about new technologies and their impact on our lives?
We have moved from consuming social media content to a world where Artificial Intelligence is more efficient than doctors at identifying anomalies in your scans or health risks based on your data. We live in a time where Virtual Reality can transport you to far-flung worlds where you can interact with virtual environments through a specialist headset. With Augmented Reality, we can even try clothes without physically wearing them. More features are added daily, and soon, no aspect of our life will not influence one of these emerging technologies.
And the change is coming faster than anyone could have could’ve imagined. Life is changing, impacting how we perceive the world, interact with one another, our likes and dislikes, and how our brains process the information that reaches it.
We are deceiving ourselves if we expect people to do church in the same way we do it now in the future. The time for comprehensive services, with people sitting down and standing up randomly during the programme while some specially selected people give a talk, is ending. Due to our instant digital interactions, our attention span is shorter, we react to different stimuli, and we are more comfortable. Thinking that three hours in a traditional church can compete with the 165 hours spent living a modern lifestyle is madness.
I can see how, in the not-so-distant future, church buildings will move to be where believers minister to the needs of their communities, while worship and the church experience will essentially happen online. Yes, those of us already in the church are used to the way it has always been, but the mission of the church is to reach out to people who are not yet part of the church community and to present the gospel in a way that makes sense to their modern, digital lives.
Today, the self-proclaimed “bishop of the metaverse”, DJ Soto, is reaching out to youngsters who play virtual reality games by planting churches in the games, getting players to use their in-game resources to keep the church going or using materials to improve the building. (1) They have virtual services every Sunday in the game world, and Bible studies on Jesus regularly. Artificial Intelligence chatbots are used to give people Bible studies instantly without them having to wait for someone to get in touch and feeling uncomfortable that they might not know anything about God.
Of course, some applications are silly, we might not be able to take our small local church in the metaverse, and we might not have the resources to keep up with the developments. But we should at least be able to talk about them and how they influence the people we want to bring the gospel to. If we call something “worldly” or “from the devil”, it doesn’t go away. Not all influences will be positive, but playing the ignorance card will put churches where the Motorola, as mentioned above, brick phones are in a museum.
I suppose it depends on how much people who already go to church want people who don’t go to church to meet God and have a personal relationship with Him. God wants that. The Bible explains that we should be relevant. We know that Paul was a Greek to the Greeks and a Jew to the Jews. So we should probably take our duty to be at least technology literate for the technology natives.
However, it’s important to note that while the traditional church experience may seem outdated to some, it remains valuable and irreplaceable to others. The sense of community, the shared rituals, and the physical presence of others are aspects of the church experience that many find comforting and meaningful and cannot be replaced by technology. As we navigate this digital age, we must find a way to incorporate new technologies without losing the essence of what makes the church a place of solace and community.
Pastor Alex Mareniuc is a senior minister currently serving Chatham, Riverway and Maidstone in South England Conference, UK