"So, what technology should we continue using? You know, after we get back to normal?"
It's a question I regularly hear while talking digital age ministry with church leaders, one that ministry professionals are asking with increasing frequency. Implicit in the question is a desire to jettison some, if not most, of the tools and digital resources that allow us to continue being church during a time of digital distribution. I can empathize with the sentiment. For many pastors, priests, and deacons, it's difficult enough to film, edit, and broadcast a single worship service. It's unfathomable for them to think about managing all of this technology while also proclaiming the Word and administering the Sacraments at an in-person service.
Also buried in the question is an assumption that faith communities inevitably will return to where they were in February 2020, that 18 months of virtual-first faith practice will somehow not change what it means to be a Christian in a post-pandemic reality. Surely we can all empathize with this mindset. Who among us doesn't long for a return to vibrant in-person community, to seeing our friends and neighbors, to communion, to coffee hours, to what we once knew as Christian fellowship?
One possible answer to this question would be to continue using all of the same technology we're using to bring church to those staying safer at home. Keep the Zoom licenses, continue the platform subscriptions, and stay the course. As an alternative, we could stop using technology altogether, recognizing that the future of Christianity is not exclusively digital, and therefore we ought to put our focus on in-person connection.
Yet the best answer to the question of what technology we should continue using is nuanced.
Faith communities should continue using some, but not all, technology. Churches should celebrate a return to in-person connection, when available, but not think of face-to-face as the only authentic expression of church.
In fact, the best way to answer this question is not with a categorical list or blanket rejection of technology, but with two subsequent questions:
What are the technologies that can equip our communities for lives of faithful service?
And what technologies facilitate collaboration in our life together?
These questions should be top of mind because they remind us to focus on digital minimalism, to only deploy those technologies that align with our mission and values.
There is little purpose in a church continuing to use a specific piece of technology if it doesn't equip our faith community for acts of Christian love and service to a hurting world. If a technology isn't actively used for teaching, preaching, praying, proclaiming, encouraging, or empowering, it functions as little more than an online bulletin board. If a digital tool doesn't facilitate discipleship, disconnect.
But when we think about this question, we might realize how our usage of Zoom has brought together diverse cross-sections of our community to engage issues of justice and learning, how our posts to Instagram Stories have introduced moments of sacred pause and prayer into the frenzied world of social media. It's likely that we can identify which technology is equipping our faith communities in the here and now. These represent the first set of technologies we must keep.
Name the technologies that equip, find the technologies that form faith. Keep them, grow them, invest in them.
The second question, of which technologies facilitate collaboration, reminds of us of the inherent risks with unplugging completely, namely, the lost opportunity to be the hands and feet of Christ wherever there are hands and feet to be found.
If a piece of technology allows us to broadcast but not to work together, to sermonize but not to serve as a community, then it's of little value to a missional faith community. When thinking about how technology facilitates collaboration, we might recognize how much of collaboration is tied up with listening. We might see how texting has allowed us to listen more intently, how Tweeting has enabled us to widen the circle of voices that we're listening to, how podcasting has enabled us to hear the most thoughtful voices on the future of Christianity.
As with technologies that equip, know what technologies that help us to collaborate in being the church together. Throw out the technologies that allow us merely to "watch" church so that we might prioritize the tools that convene our community for mutual acts of service.
Which technologies equip? Which help to collaborate?
The way we answer these questions represents our path to hybrid ministry, an expression of church that is simultaneously online and offline, that is equally inclusive of the virtual and the on-site experience. If we engage these questions thoughtfully, we may even find that we need less technology than we anticipated. We may even find that new IT staff and budget commitments are unnecessary.
Tools that equip. Tools that collaborate. In a digital age ministry, these are the tools that we cannot do without.
@ryanpanzer is the author of "Grace and Gigabytes," available now wherever books are sold.