November 19, 2022

Video Discipleship In a Digital Age

Tim Keller once posited a question along these lines: Why is it that so many young church-going people lose their faith within a term or so of going to college? They attend church growing up, youth group, parachurch camps etc. They do the whole Christian young person thing. But one semester into university, they come back home and they’re not believers, or they’re living with their newfound romantic partner. What happened?

Keller says that, humanly speaking, part of the answer lies in the fact that the discipleship program of their church experience was on “audio” while the discipleship program of their college life was on “video”.

Not literally of course, but he’s talking about the immersive, plausible and enticing experience of what college offered in terms of what life is about, where meaning and purpose are to be found, and how relationships work, versus the experience they’d had at church. On its own, the church community looked the good. But side by side with the immersive college experience, it didn’t have the cut through. Audio versus video.

Perhaps, since it’s a few years since Keller made that statement, we could ramp it up and say that the church discipleship program has just started to think video at the very time the secular culture has gone digital. And once again I don’t mean “digital” in a literal sense – though, as I will note below, the technological shift to digital has enhanced and compounded the plausibility problem that the Christian faith has among younger adherents.

The drawing power of the secular discipleship program has such an immediately vivid and compelling nature, that it sticks to us quickly and is hard to shake. It is spiritual napalm for the soul.

And it’s discipling us, not on the basis of any intellectual argument, but at a deeply subterranean emotional level. As Perth pastor and author, Rory Shiner, observed at The Gospel Coalition Australia conference, the secular culture is not out-thinking us, it’s out-discipling us.

He means this: In terms of its intellectual framework, it’s pretty light, and doesn’t stand up to scrutiny. But in terms of the vision of “the good life” that it is pitching to us, it’s caning us hands down (though I suspect that’s with a coloured filter on the lens as we’re in the midst of a mental health crisis in the West also). Rory says we need ‘thicker’, deeper gospel communities that counteract the pull and influence of our secular world.

The key difference between “the good life” on offer by Secularism Past’s video discipleship program, and Secularism Present’s digital upgrade, is that you don’t have to search this one out, it comes searching for you. So this creates a more complex challenge. It rewards passivity.

A feature of video discipleship was that you had to make some effort and immerse yourself in its communities in order to be discipled by it. For it to reach you, you had to reach it. Hence the conundrum around college-aged kids and their shift away from home, when they literally packed bags and left one community for another.

The digital upgrade is a more immersive experience and that much is in part thanks to technology. Instead of us having to reach it, it reaches us.

And it utilises the reflexive manner in which we have allowed technology to do so much of the reaching for us that we once did for ourselves. Digital discipleship is algorithmic.

Which all means that your kids don’t have to be college-aged or even running with the bad pack at school in order to be reached by it. They’re carrying it around in their pockets, and it frequently bypasses your gatekeeping efforts. Many online communities are thick and deep in a way that previous generations would have scoffed at. And that’s also true for you. It’s not merely our children or the younger generations who are being shaped this way, it’s all of us.

In her great book Strange Rites: New Religions for a Godless World, Tara Isabella Burton highlights just how differently the digital discipleship program works in its discipleship formation.

As I’ve mentioned before, Burton makes the point that discipleship – or religious belief – has shifted from an institutional framework to an intuitional one – a shift towards a religious creature she calls Remixed. At the same time that this has happened philosophically, we have had placed in our hands the tools to shape these intuitional religions technologically. And this has ramped up the pace. She observes:

The same intuitional strain that has come to define how today’s Remixed approach their sense of meaning and purpose has also influenced how they build community and approach the rituals associated with life stages, including marriage. The Internet-driven individualisation of the contemporary American (Western?) Remixed religious landscape – with its focus on mixing and matching practices, valorising emotional authenticity, and honouring care for the physical body as sacred – is inseparable from a consumer-capitalist model of sexuality , in which we are encouraged to choose the relationship model that best meets our specifications. The moral communities we create around ourselves increasingly share the same value on which we predicate our decision-making: the idea that self-fulfillment is the surest avenue to the ultimate good.

Bold italics mine

Okay, long quote I know, but filled with so much good stuff to chew over. But in a sense it’s the epitome of the digital discipleship program that is such a challenge to us today. We can create moral communities around ourselves without so much as having to lift a finger. Or actually by simply doing just that.

Rory Shiner says we need a “deeper, thicker” gospel community that counteracts the pull and influence of our secular world. Which has always been the case, and which Keller argued for as well in his audio/video analogy. But somehow we’re going to need to reach deeper, and craft thicker than ever before, if we are to do so. Especially if Tara Burton is right in her assessment of where things are actually at.

So where do we start? It’s easy to call for a “deeper, thicker” gospel community ad nauseum, but what would it look like to put some skin on those bones?

Perhaps it has to start in the small, counter-intuitive ways that we’re not aware of. Perhaps it takes us as Christian disciples and disciplers to ask what are the watershed moments in our lives in which we make micro-decisions, and reflexive ones at that? Moments that dial up the plausibility of Christian discipleship and dial down the digital vividness of its secular counterpart.

To be honest I think the answers are unsurprising, and actually very basic. And I think they start with a self-assessment by those who are currently the older generations in our churches. I met up recently with some pastor friends of mine and we were discussing the fact that one is finishing up at his church after 28 years as senior pastor, leaving in good shape and leaving the church in good shape too. He said he has a list of 20 things he wish he’d said from the front on a regular basis in order to better transform that community over 28 years. You’re interested, right? We were too. So we asked, for at least one of them and in no particular order. His answer:

“Parents don’t let your kids play soccer on a Sunday morning.”

Say what? That’s one of the twenty significant things? Yep! At first blush it’s hard to see. There’s been such a movement away from Sabbath keeping. Such a move towards multiple services to fit different groups of people at different times. Such a shift towards “get out there in your communities and do mission among people who would never turn up on a Sunday morning”. With all of the force going in one direction, his response was like throwing the car into reverse at 100km per hour. At the very least a huge gear-clunk that would shred the cogs.

But my instinct is that my friend is right. I’ve heard all the arguments above as to why you can have both – you can have soccer on Sunday morning and have church sometime else on a Sunday too. When that sometime else is, well let’s see what other things are going to crowd out various times in the day, and we’ll pick the best time. And I say all of this in the knowledge that I grew up in an age and stage in which we couldn’t even watch telly on a Sunday, never mind kick a soccer ball. So I’ve heard it all. If anyone should rail against this chafing of my Christian liberty, it should be me.

But looking back, I think it’s become one of those watershed moments in the lives of many Christians. Or at least something of a reveal. Turns out sports on Sunday was one of those video discipleship program that dialled the Christian discipleship program down to audio. That became an accepted fact. That became just one more thing that made the gathered people of God fit around it, rather than the other way around.

In the end it’s just one of those decisions in which, as Burton states, “the idea that self-fulfillment is the surest avenue to the ultimate good” got its roots into our soil. And then into our souls. We accommodated it. We blinked in the face of the world’s discipleship program at the worst possible time. At a time when it was about to shift from video to digital.

A heady cocktail was formed. It consisted of a rejection of perceived legalism; a siren call to get out into the world because the world will never come to church; and a growing misgiving that perhaps we were in danger of crushing the gospel desire out of our younger generations by showing them how “crunchy” it was to be Christian, in a world in which “cool” and “relevant” would do the evangelistic heavy lifting for us.

And perhaps one reason we blinked, is that somehow we were not so sure that Burton’s observation wasn’t true to begin with. We’d reflexively been on the self-fulfillment agenda ourselves, and for whatever reason – tradition probably – we’d stuck with church on Sunday mornings, and refused soccer for our kids, until we found a way to do both. So we ended up choosing the church relationship model that best met our specifications – our other non-negotiable specifications. Sure we were still sexually moral (mostly), but the consumer-capitalist program had its wicked way with us nonetheless.

The irony of course is that such a simple, but deadly turn may have, due to its simplicity, a simple enlivening turn-back. And I think it does. Not simply abandoning soccer on Sunday, or whatever soccer is for you. But by going to the top of that watershed again and asking yourself about all of your decisions “What if instead of this, this?” What if we choose that together and not that apart?” It feels like if we’re going to map our way forward it would be good to trace our steps back and find out how we got to here in the first place. And I think “soccer on a Sunday” is good place to start. It’s the beginning of a discipleship program that is caught and not taught. And to be honest, I think it’s a great example of a Christian discipleship own goal.

I want to write further on this in another blog post, with a bunch of suggestions, but for what it’s worth, this sermon by a pastor new to Perth, and working at one of our largest and most influential churches, nails so much of it. There’s a sense in which the answer to the question I have posed is not complex, but it can be hard. Can be hard until we reassess just where our discipleship program is taking us. Have a watch, it’s a worthy unpacking and application of God’s Word.

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