Discipleship in an age of unprecedented digitalisation
Benedict Tay for CRU Singapore // March 26, 2020, 1:21 pm
"Rather than debating about how digital services do or do not replicate the physical discipleship of church, let’s spark conversations with one another on how we can continue to fulfil this mission of discipleship amid an ongoing global crisis," says Benedict Tay. Photo by Christina Wong, Thir.st.
Over the past few weeks, many churches in Singapore have had to make the difficult decision to move physical services online. With the spread of COVID-19 rising each day, the closure of physical services became a reality when the Singapore government announced that all religious services will be halted at least until April 30.
Amid all the frenzy, a rising debate has emerged about the purpose of church and the role the church plays in the community.
A curveball into the digital realm
The sudden swerve into digitalisation has indeed been uncomfortable for many.
Some have called for cell groups to not stop gathering physically (Hebrews 10:25-57) while others have argued that Christians should refrain from meetings so that we are responsible witnesses that love our neighbours (Matthew 22:36-40).
For the older generation, technology was never the solution but rather an aid to the final solution.
This has caused some tensions across the ecclesial community and no doubt has also added to the concern of our leaders in the Church.
The conversation about the digitalisation of church has also raised different perspectives between generations.
For most of my generation, technology was part and parcel of life growing up. In our formal educational years, we had e-learning each year as part of our preparation for a specific moment like this.
Yet, for the older generation, technology was never the solution but rather an aid to the final solution.
The current situation has certainly forced churches to adopt digitalisation which further broadens the gap between the young and old. However, the answer to the current situation cannot simply be digitalisation alone.
All of these have created debates amongst communities which I myself have been guilty of.
Now is the time to walk in humility.
Debate, don’t divide
Over the course of the past few months, I have struggled with the responses of the church, swinging between the need to hold fast to our faith while yet also seeing that the church can indeed be a stumbling block for many in the world.
To be perfectly honest, in my recent dialogue with a fellow brother-in Christ from a different church, we lamented at the slow responses of the Church for the lack of foresight we seemed to have.
This is a time not to divide but to unite.
When looking at our own churches, we struggled with how the church was focusing on how we could maintain physical services instead of how we could make online services much more meaningful.
Yet, as we took a pause to reflect on our own thoughts, we came to recognise the pride we had and how we were so comfortable with critiquing the church.
We were both deeply humbled by God.
It was so easy for both of us to point out the imperfections of our leaders, yet in our conversations we rarely give thanks and praise for the tremendous efforts many of our leaders have put in.
“Our response as people of God should be one of prayer and repentance, not judgement and disagreement.”
It is also definitely easier for us to give our opinions but certainly very difficult for us to find solutions.
This is a time not to divide but to unite.
Our response as people of God should be one of prayer and repentance, not judgement and disagreement. It is at this juncture that we must remind ourselves about why the Church exists.
As I take a pause to reflect and rethink what the church stands for, I am reminded of my favourite quote by St Augustine: “In necessariis unitas, in dubiis libertas, in omnibus caritas” (In essentials unity, in non-essentials liberty, in all things charity).
Living the mandate – online
Though I may not be able to give a complete and theologically accurate answer to the role of church, I know that Jesus puts it clearly in Matthew 28:18-20 that the essential is the call to discipleship.
My hope is for the different generations in the Church to see beyond the current circumstances.
This call to discipleship is what keeps the community of believers together in our shared mission and this call to discipleship cannot be separated from the need to make his name known to the ends of this earth.
Rather than debating about how digital services do or do not replicate the physical discipleship of church, let’s spark conversations with one another on how we can continue to fulfil this mission of discipleship amid an ongoing global crisis.
My hope as a young Christian adult is for the different generations in Church to see beyond the current circumstance and help each other carry out our mission of discipleship in our families, and immediate spheres.
Here’re some ideas on how we can see discipleship happen in the digital sphere:
1. Discipleship in families
Online services may not replicate the idea of the community of believers we have in our minds but we can certainly still create a community of believers wherever we are. Children’s ministry and Youth ministry have often taken away from parents some of the responsibility of nurturing children.
Online services can certainly still create a community of believers wherever we are.
Rather than isolating or watching our services along on our phones or laptops, online services may well be the perfect opportunity for families to come together to worship our Heavenly Father. This allows families to learn more about one another and grow in discipleship together.
“In a phase in which the growth of their children is, necessarily, often delegated to other figures and institutions, the virus closes the schools and forces them to find alternative solutions, to put moms and dads together with their children. It forces us to rebuild family.” (Francesa Morelli)
2. Smaller, closer community
Many worry about how we can ensure the running of physical services, but this might be a great time to think about how we can improve our discipleship efforts in smaller settings instead.
Small groups were spaces where my discipleship truly flourished.
Online services might be a good way for small groups to come together to worship together as smaller communities.
Smaller groups might also be a less daunting space in which we are able to bring our friends and family to experience the peace of Christ.
A big part of my personal experience growing up in the church is the meal times my small group had after services. It was in these spaces that discipleship truly flourished.
In fact, as we approach Good Friday, it is an apt occasion to bring back some “traditions” of the past. The passover meal was a moment in which like-minded believers remembered the exodus deliverance and it has been a key part of the community of believers since the time of Moses.
Good Friday can be a great time to invite others to share in the body of Christ through remembrance and fellowship.
(Friendly note: this being said, do take the necessary precautions and practise good social responsibility if you do meet.)
3. Discipleship in our immediate spheres
In this time, where bigger gatherings are more exposed to the risk of the spread of the COVID-19, discipleship should continue to take place in our immediate spheres.
Digital should not be an excuse to say that discipleship cannot be authentic.
While online services may create a separation in which we see our community less often, this might be a good wake-up call about how we have often taken for granted the relationships we have amongst us.
Discipleship is an intentional step with both God and the people around us.
This digital space reminds us that we need to be even more intentional in meeting and discipling the people around us.
Practical steps may involve setting aside times to Skype one another on a weekly basis or if comfortable, meeting individuals to read the Word of God together.
Going digital should not be an excuse for us to say that discipleship cannot be authentic.
In fact, this might be a great time for us to disciple and share God’s peace with the people around us.
Every morning, I tune it to CNA for an update about the situation that is evolving around the world and find a recurring pattern in the news recently. Markets turning bearish, countries becoming protectionist, lives disrupted from the economic downturn.
The church is not a building, it is the people who bring Christ to the world.
Rather than confining ourselves to the four walls of the church, the time away from our church programmes allows us to have more time to listen, empathise and support the colleagues around us.
When was the last time we checked in with or video-called our colleagues who are quarantined or on a different split-work arrangement?
The church is not about a building, the church is about the people who bring Christ to the world.
Let us continue to be the salt and light wherever we are.
As St Augustine puts it, the ecclesial community must remain united in times like these. Rather than debating or airing our opinions of the matter, it is time to use the collective creativity of the church to think of how we can continue to fulfil the Great Commission that Jesus issued.
Let us look to one another for support and think beyond ourselves in how we may continue to be a blessing while being socially responsible.
This article was written for Cru Singapore and has been republished with permission.