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In Search of a Digital Missiology

The digital pivot happened fast!

Although many churches struggled with engaging digitally over the last decade, the circumstances of COVID-19 forced a change.  What church leaders had been apathetic about, opposed to, or fearful of became a necessity.  As a result, the church enthusiastically transitioned to digital.

The church pivoted. Although churches pivoted out of necessity, some did so without critical reflection.  Even though we have become very aware of our missiological failures and the colonialism that dominated previous missionary movements, I fear we are in danger of repeating our past mistakes.

The missionary movements of the past often resulted from technological advancements that opened new mission frontiers.  In the rush and excitement of these new opportunities, the church often neglected the hard work of learning the language, understanding the culture, and contextualizing the gospel. 

We are in danger of making these mistakes with digital ministry!

In the rush to digital engagement, we didn’t consider the fact that digital culture is different from in-person ministry steeped in print culture.  Online ministry is cross-cultural.  With the same pragmatic excitement that sparked the missionary movements of old, we entered digital culture with an in-person ministry methodology.  We moved Bible studies to ZOOM and we live-streamed worship gatherings.  As we did, we soon discovered that the transition wasn’t as effective as we expected.  We discovered that in-person is different than digital. Instead of seeking to understand and translate ministry to digital culture, adapting our methodologies accordingly, we forced them onto a digital culture.  Consequently, they were ineffective and demoralizing.  They demonstrated our propensity to repeat our colonial past.

In the transition to digital, some of our churches had to lay off staff.  In a sad parallel to the colonial missionary movements of the past that ignored local expertise, most churches laid off their digital locals (younger staff fluent in digital culture) and kept the digital tourists (older staff unaware of digital culture).  Consequently, I implore all the senior leaders who will rebuild their staff and leadership teams after the pandemic to rebuild them with digital locals and not just with digital tourists.  Do not repeat our colonial past.

As the church digitally went beyond traditional borders (geographic and linguistic), it was blind to context and culture. In the same ethnocentric enthusiasm of our ancestors, many ignored the hard and difficult work of contextualization. The following are two of many examples. First, digital ministry’s strength and potential lie not only in its ability to spread wide but in its ability to go deep. Community is built and experienced differently online. Second, in digital culture, people want to be part of the content they consume. Ignoring this cultural distinctive will lead to poor engagement and a lack of effectiveness.

We need a better digital missiology!

The digital shift is not going away.  People will not work, learn, shop, play and worship in the same ways again.  Digital has shown its limitations, but it has also shown its capabilities.  The digital mission field has opened, and it is ripe for harvest. 

We are in danger of repeating our past mistakes.  I want to call us, in humility, to slow down and discover a better missiology.  I want to call us to learn about digital culture as we enter it on mission.  To do otherwise is not simply ineffective, it is counterproductive.  Digital is different and your digital ministry must be shaped accordingly.

To learn more about digital culture, Effective Online Ministry and Digital Mission:

Check out my upcoming online workshops with Ambrose University (back by popular demand) – Effective Online Ministry (October 21, November 4, November 18).  Register here.

Read my recent book: Digital Mission: A Practical Guide for Ministry OnlineAvailable now in eBook format at Amazon, Kobo, Google Play, and the Canadian Bible Society (print book available soon).

The Awkward Covid-19 Dance

We are currently in an awkward dance with the COVID-19 virus and it’s about to step on our feet.  Hard!

In the early stages of the virus, we were introduced to the concept of the Covid-19 hammer and dance.  This is the concept used by public health officials to describe the process of controlling a virus with public health measures.  In March we experienced the hammer (the lock-down) as a means to control the infection numbers, “flatten the curve,” and bring the spread of the virus under control.  By doing this, we were able to enter the dance (the season of gradual reopening that we are now in).  The dance is the increasing and decreasing measures of gathering sizes, precautions, restrictions, etc. to keep the numbers at a controllable level by balancing public health with society’s need for the economy, physical community, and education.

As the church, we made the adjustments to the hammer in March by moving exclusively online (with varied success – more on that and why in a future post).  We are now adapting to the dance as most churches are cautiously moving to some sort of public in-person gatherings.

As we enter the Fall, we will be faced with the second wave of the virus (historically, the second wave is the most dangerous and deadly).  As a result, there is a very strong possibility (even probability) that the hammer will be coming back and, as a result, the church will be moving back exclusively online.  I know this is not the news you want to hear, and you will be tempted to ignore it as alarmist.  Yet, I would encourage you to not yield to that temptation. Rather, I implore you to make a plan and prepare for the possibility.

In the coming days, I would urge pastors and church leaders to be prepared in two ways.  First, have a plan for all your ministries to go back fully online.  Whatever you think of online ministry, this is something you can be prepared for.  Just as you have a plan to progressively open up, have a plan to move back fully online.  Second, begin preparing your staff, leaders, elders, and church members for this possibility.  A tenant of change management is to telegraph your moves and if people know you have a plan, they will respond much better when you have to execute it (give a sense of calm and purpose as they do).  Preparing people for this is good leadership and will help your church/ministry lean into the challenge ahead rather than scramble in desperation or surrender in defeat.

As you continue to do the Covid-19 dance, are you ready for the possibility of the hammer?  Be prepared, have a plan, and when/if it comes, you will be able to pivot with intentionality, confidence, and effectiveness.

A Coronavirus (COVID-19) Prayer

Gracious Father,

We come to you as people in the midst of a crisis.  If we are honest, our hearts are filled with fear and uncertainty for our future.  We are scared for ourselves, our families, our friends, our church, our community and our world.  We honestly don’t know what to do and how to respond; the illusion that we are in control of our world is shattering under the weight of this reality.

Although fear, in itself, is not a bad thing, we reject any spirit of fear that begins to take root in our lives and causes us to act with ambivalence to our neighbours, hoarding of resources for ourselves or reactive decisions.  Instead, we profess Jesus as Lord and, as such, love our enemies, give generously to those in need and respond to circumstances and situations with faith and peace.  In the midst of this unique and challenging season, we recognize Jesus as our Saviour, Sanctifier, Healer and Coming King.

Because Jesus is our Saviour, we know that, in Christ, we have an eternal hope and therefore the fear of sickness and death is overshadowed by our hope in Jesus.  As a result, we enter into our future with an eternal hope that is secure and that no virus can threaten or pandemic extinguish.

Because Jesus is our Sanctifier, we ask the Holy Spirit to empower us to love our neighbours and live in right relationship with them.  As a result, empower us to care for the sick and the vulnerable, to give to the needy (even at personal cost to us) and to grieve with those who grieve.  This is the time for a love that is sacrificial and practical.  Empower us to be a church that, like a city on a hill, beams the light, love and hope of Jesus to a world covered under a shadow of sickness and death.

Because Jesus is our Healer, we pray and care for the sick among us.  For those of us who are sick or will become sick, we pray for healing and trust in Your loving embrace as the Great Physician and the Good Shepherd. We pray for Your healing in people’s lives.  For those who are grieving, we grieve with them and proclaim the truth that Jesus is the resurrection and the life. 

Because Jesus is our Coming King, this pandemic will not win.  We know the end of the story and Jesus has full and complete victory over sin and death and we wait with expectation and hope for King Jesus’ return.  As we are reminded of the fragility of life, we embrace the truth that our future is certain and in the hands of the Living Hope, Jesus Christ Himself.

We pray also for our world and those who lead it.  We pray for our government and health professionals who are making important decisions on our behalf.  This is a time to pray earnestly for them and we do so with hope.  Give them the wisdom to steward resources and strength to persevere.  We also pray for the safety of the many health professionals who enter into a micro-organism warzone to care for the sick and dying.  Give them wisdom, strength, compassion and safety as they care for the sick among us.

In all of this, we confess that we are overwhelmed, fearful and deeply worried.  We profess Jesus is Lord.  Give us Your peace as we trust in You as our Saviour, Sanctifier, Healer and Coming King.  Give us Your wisdom and strength as You empower us to love you fully and love others freely.

May Your Kingdom come on earth as it is in heaven.

In Jesus name, Amen.

Written by: Rev. Dr. Bryce Ashlin-Mayo, Lead Pastor of Westlife Church in Calgary, Alberta, Canada.

Crossing the Social Media Bridge

The following is also published in The Vermilion Standard

I have never personally seen Confederation Bridge but I hear it is something to behold. Spanning thirteen-kilometers, the bridge drapes the Abegweit Passage of the Northumberland Strait, connecting Prince Edward Island with the mainland (New Brunswick). It is an amazing feat of engineering and currently holds the Guinness World Record for the longest bridge over ice (winter).

In many ways, it is a perfect metaphor for social media and its ability to connect people like never before. For the first time in history, people have the ability to connect instantly with multiple people, in multiple places, across multiple devices and in multiple languages (using translation technology). In this way, social media is a gift to humanity and a bridge that has the potential to bring people together in unprecedented ways.

Although our hyper-connected world has given us the ability to connect with more people faster and further than ever before, paradoxically, people have never felt more alone. It is a phenomenon Sherry Turkle terms as, “Alone Together.”

In the midst of this unprecedented hyper-connected world, people are increasingly feeling isolated and alone. In many ways, social media has given us the gift of a bridge but we haven’t learned to cross it into the deep and meaningful relationships it has the potential to help facilitate. Just as a bridge is not the end but the means to the end, social media is a means to relationship rather than the relationship you need to have.

To put it another way, too many people have a relationship with social media rather than utilizing social media as a means to have increasingly meaningful relationships with others. Building on the bridge metaphor, we have gotten on the bridge and enjoyed the view but few of us have learned to cross it and experience the wonders on the other side.

We are challenged to then use social media as a bridge to friendship not the destination.

Consider this wisdom given in the Bible about friendship: “A man of many companions may come to ruin, but there is a friend who sticks closer than a brother.” Proverbs 18:24, ESV

So many of us are “friends” with more people than we were before social media but we are still very alone. We have not experienced the gift of true friendship with others that social media has promised to provide. Therefore, my challenge for us is to use social media as the bridge it is destined to be rather than a destination of desertion. Let us use it to cross barriers and experience the deep community and friendships we were created for.

We were created to live on the other side of the bridge – in rich community – but too many of us are lost on it, unaware of what is available on the other side.

Using a Thermometer in Your Marriage

*This following will also be published in The Vermilion Standard

Wedding season is upon us and, like many pastors, my weekends begin to fill up with weddings as couples celebrate and commit to each other before their loved ones and their God. During this wedding season, I thought it would be appropriate to share some marriage advice for couples preparing to get married and for married couples who desire to grow in their marital relationship.

As I journey with couples preparing to get married, I always encourage them to spend as much time and energy preparing for the marriage as they spend on their wedding ceremony. Thus, in preparation for their marriage, I spend several sessions with couples working through some material that helps build communication, creates good conversations and offers good advice in an effort to create the best foundation for long term marital happiness and success.

One of the many lessons I try to instill in couples is how to take the temperature during an argument/disagreement/fight. In an effort to help couples fight well, it is important to allow a temperature check (for yourself and, at times and with permission, for your partner). To often, in arguments we react rather than respond to issues or situations, unnecessarily escalating conflict and shutting down communication.

For example, if your partner forgets to turn the lights off in the house, what is the appropriate response? A reactionary response often escalates the problem by reacting to it in a way that doesn’t match the issue or situation. Yelling and screaming or storming off in silence would not be a healthy response that reflects the issue and situation.

Practically, when arguing, I suggest couples take the time to do a temperature check on their reactions and responses. For example, when something happens and you react ask: “On a scale of one to ten, how serious was the offense? Then ask: “Is my response equal to the offense. If not, why not? Is there something else going on? How should I respond to my partner appropriately about this?”

As Proverbs 15:1 reminds us: “A gentle answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger.”

Too many times, arguments unnecessarily escalate because harsh words are used and tempers rage in a way that is unmatched to the situation/issue at hand. Therefore, next time you are in a fight with your significant other, do a temperature check on our reaction/response and ask: “Does it match? If not, why not? What else might be going on?”

In your marriage (as with all relationships), take the time to use the reaction thermometer and fight well. Endeavour to always respond rather than react – your marriage will be healthier for it.