3 Dangers of Digital Discipleship

As we slowly but surely slog our way out of a period of time defined by separation, isolation, fear, and grief, we ought to reengage the local church with a renewed spirit and excitement to participate in the body of Christ that maybe we haven’t had in some time.

But that likely won’t be the case for many of us.

Why might many Christians be slow to plug back into their local church community groups, Sunday gatherings, or other activities? Probably for a handful of reasons, but one of the most prominent reasons many will hesitate to dive back into the life of the local church is because they have become too comfortable with digital discipleship.

We ought to be grateful for all of the tools we were given by the grace of God to weather the roughest parts of the COVID-19 pandemic. “Virtual church,” for all of its features and flaws, was a tremendous gift for so much of 2020. But the time has come or is shortly coming to leave behind our digital discipleship tools for incarnate, embodied worship with the local gathering of body of Christ. Why? Because with too much digital discipleship come a handful of dangers that we must be careful to avoid.

With too much digital discipleship come a handful of dangers that we must be careful to avoid.

Here are three dangers that come with too much digital discipleship.

1. Entertainment value takes a front seat.

Perhaps the most prevalent temptation that comes with digital discipleship is the temptation to let whether or not something is entertaining determine the worthiness of the endeavor. Over years of online content consumption, we have come to see the internet as a deliverer of entertainment first before a deliverer of education, inspiration, or otherwise.

This, of course, doesn’t mean it is impossible to be inspired or educated by watching a sermon on Facebook or reading a helpful article written by a Christian leader. It does mean, however, that we need to be intentional about how we spend our time on the internet because, if we aren’t, we are likely to slip into a mode that determines the value of our online experience by whether or not something is entertaining.

This is our “default mode” as I like to call it—to see entertainment value as the most important aspect of online content—and to break out of this default mode, we have to take intentional steps away from viewing entertainment as paramount and toward seeing discipleship and spiritual maturity as paramount.

2. Spiritual maturity is seen as a product, not a process.

Another danger that comes with relying too much on digital tools for discipleship is that we come to see spiritual maturity, or discipleship, as a product instead of a process. Most of the ways we use the internet are rooted in either entertainment or efficiency. It should be no wonder to us why this ends poorly for spiritual maturity. We’ve already covered how our default mode is to value entertainment above all, but valuing efficiency and “productivity” above all can hinder our spiritual development as well.

Discipleship, or attempting to faithfully follow Christ, is not an item on a to-do list. It is not something that can be readily systematized or made uniformly efficient for all. As pastor Eugene Peterson wrote, quoting Nietzsche, the process of discipleship is a “long obedience in the same direction.” He also writes, “There is a great market for religious experience in our world; there is little enthusiasm for the patient acquisition of virtue, little inclination to sign up for a long apprenticeship in what earlier generations of Christians called holiness.”

Indeed, as Peterson says, the process of becoming more like Christ, the long, unentertaining walk of discipleship isn’t attractive to many of us. Not only because it is a difficult walk, sometimes uphill in the rain or in the darkness of the valley, but because our obsession with the immediate and the entertaining predisposes us to not be attracted to the slow, meek life to which we are called.

We have to resist the temptation we have to see faithfully following Christ as something to be achieved or acquired and begin to see it as a continuous process of formation and devotion. Too much discipleship based on digital platforms, namely the internet, engages our temptation toward a warped view of what it means to follow Jesus.

3. Intimacy is sacrificed on the altar of efficiency.

The third danger of which we should be aware and cautious to avoid is that digital platforms on which we connect with others, like social media, are not made to promote intimacy.

In his book A Time to Build, author Yuval Levin explores how our collective lack of trust in institutions like the family, communities of faith, and others is the root of many of the problems and conflicts we see today. In his chapter on social media, called “The Informality Machine,” he writes: "As social media consists as a set of platforms, it is not well suited to intimacy of any sort. This may seem a strange observation. After all, in some respects the online world seems overflowing with intimacy: everyone shares very personal information—from pictures of their children to provocative opinions and jokes and complaints to extremely private dating profiles and intimate photos and messages."

Humans long for intimacy, and intimacy is about a lot more than romance. Intimacy is the closeness we feel to other people in any kind of deep relationship. Your most intimate relationships are those you feel and experience most deeply.

The internet and social media was designed for ephemerality, not intimacy.

The internet and social media was designed for ephemerality, not intimacy.

The fundamental building blocks of the social internet encourage the online equivalent of small talk at a pre-wedding-reception cocktail party, not the sort of conversations that carry the emotional freight of a coffee chat with your best friend, a first date with a potential significant other, or a discipleship conversation with a trusted mentor.

Pursue Embodied Relationships

We should all be grateful for the ways we have been able to use technology to do ministry and serve people throughout the COVID-19 pandemic. A lot of ministry was able to be done because of a wide variety of digital tools that connected people to one another and to sound teaching. But let’s leave those tools behind as soon as we can…or at least rely on them a lot less than we have for the last year or more. Embodied relationships and incarnational discipleship is important. The dangers of digital discipleship are real. Pursue embodied relationships; flee digital discipleship.

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