Ryan Diaz, Lore Ferguson Wilbert, Jon Rush, digital world, spiritual formation, metaverse, online

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Maybe the Metaverse Isn’t So Bad. But It’s Not Enough 

We need each other.

If Kuyper is right and “every square inch” belongs to Christ, then, in good conscience, Christians cannot ignore the digital domain. 

I have a love-hate relationship with the internet. It is at once one of humanity’s greatest achievements and, at the same time, the source of many of its present woes. The internet has come to affect every area of human existence. It is a small “g” god, dictating our consumption, manipulating our desires, and ordering our days. There is not a day where I am not on the internet or perusing social media. As much as I loathe it, I can’t seem to escape it. Despite, at times, wanting nothing to do with it, we can’t live without it. 

This digital age has come to shape our days, and it has also come to shape our faith. The resources, sermons, songs, and content creators we encounter online are innumerable. Everywhere we go, there seems to be another talking head, or a voice crying out from the ether, calling Christians to their own brand of faithfulness. With access to all of these voices, one must ask if so much of our spiritual formation should be left up to the content creators and TikTok stars. Is there a place for spiritual formation in the digital space? Or, left unchecked, does the onslaught of digital teachers leave the church a shell of its former self, formed but not rooted, informed but not disciplined?

I sat down with two Christian content creators who use their platforms to proliferate Christian content and asked them to respond to three questions:

1. Can the internet be a place for spiritual formation?
What are the inherent benefits and dangers of turning to social media for our spiritual formation?
Where should Christians go from here? How should we engage with the resources that are out there?

Jon Rush is a digital creator and youth pastor at Elevation Church. Unlike most teachers, who turn a skeptical eye toward using the digital spaces for spiritual formation, Rush and his team at Elevation have firmly planted themselves in the digital space, marking their territory with podcasts and platforms such as YTH Nation Gaming. Rush regularly takes to his Instagram to engage students and congregants and uses that platform to sort through cultural hot topics and internet trends from a Christian perspective. 

For Rush and Christian leaders like him the internet is not to be ignored. Rush warns, “those who take issue with digital ministry drastically underestimate the breadth and width of sweeping spiritual growth and robust community that can be formulated within an online context.” 

If Kuyper is right and “every square inch” belongs to Christ, then, in good conscience, Christians cannot ignore the digital domain. 

Yet many remain wary. In recent years we have been given plenty of reasons to distrust technology. Documentaries like The Social Dilemma pulled back the curtain on these seemingly benign social platforms and had many of us (this writer included) considering whether or not we were done with social media for good. But Rush’s perspective is helpful here: He reminds us that this isn’t the first technological advancement the church has had to face. He goes on to say, “While ancient in our minds … delivering a letter to the church in Ephesus from Rome was an extreme feat of technological advancement. Couple this with the fact that Paul and his letters traveled using the Roman road system, and it’s clear that technology is not a threat to the advancement of the Gospel or to the building of the local church.” 

Rush’s point is a salient one. Christianity has had a long tradition of using new technology to advance its message. The invention of the printing press gave way to the printing revolution and to spikes in literacy, which made the Bible infinitely more accessible to people who previously could not read the Bible for themselves. Television gave rise to televangelists like Billy Graham bringing the gospel into people’s homes. And during the pandemic almost all of us at one point benefited from platforms like Zoom to gather with others when we couldn’t gather for worship in person.

But for Rush, to bring people into digital spaces, or to keep them there, is not the end goal. When used well, formation in the digital space should move people into the physical presence of other believers. Despite his optimistic views of the use of digital resources, Rush worries:

The issues that need to be most frequently addressed in our lives for our personal growth and sanctification are the issues we will most readily try and hide. This is the natural bend of all humans and I believe that for many, not being under spiritual authority and leadership in a local context is greatly hindering the health of their soul and by extension their whole life. Many use “social media” type relationships as a substitute for the real thing and as an excuse to stay stuck in certain patterns that they may not even know are an issue because someone on the other side of a screen will always have an idealistic and filtered view, a curated image or your strengths and weaknesses.

This concern is shared with Lore Ferguson Wilbert, author of A Curious Faith and Handle With Care. Wilbert brings several vital corrections to the belief that our formation can be shipped off and digitized: 

There are a lot of benefits to social media, especially for people who live more isolated lives or who struggle with a lot of social anxiety. Sometimes a connection can be made in that space that wouldn’t have happened as quickly in person. There’s another side to that rapid connection, though, and that’s how easy it is to be lured by similarities or celebrity or access. This creates an imbalance in our brains because we feel connected to someone or something, but it’s a very one-dimensional connection. 

Just like when we first fall in love, it’s hard to convince ourselves that we’re not body-and-soul committed to this person because of all the feelings we have. Those feelings might propel the relationship forward toward more concrete commitment, but they will not cultivate a long-term, healthy relationship. The same with social media. It might light up the parts of our brain that make us feel something is real, but at the end of the day, real discipleship is not one-dimensional. I think we just need to keep that awareness in us as we use social media.

It helps me to think about it as a tool in my toolbox, but nothing more.

In our conversation, Wilbert highlighted the real sticking point for those struggling to understand the role of digital spaces in their discipleship: whether or not we can trust the tools themselves. The plethora of content and the way we receive that content is neither benign nor accidental. Algorithms are designed to point us to what we want, not what we need, and while digital spaces certainly are spaces for connection, they are bereft of the real, life-on-life work present when you are forced to share space and rub shoulders with people who aren’t as clean cut as their online personas. 

As Wilbert pointed out, using these tools requires, “a good amount of self-awareness.” And here, I think, lies the issue, without discipleship we are left unequipped when faced with how we will use the tools at our disposal. Wilbert explained: 

We are embodied humans and need other embodied humans. We were made to live on the earth and need to engage our local community, as well as engage our senses in nature. The internet can be a place to find information, but God gave us senses in order to lead to our flourishing, and that means we need tangible experiences as a part of our growth. For instance, the internet can teach us how to make a Rule of Life, but a Rule of Life on paper is useless unless it becomes embedded in our actual life. When it does, that’s when we grow, that’s when we’re spiritually formed.

It is in our embodied lives that we are truly formed. Because of the plethora of information at our disposal, we can easily mistake knowledge for wisdom, but it is in our embodied lives, in relationship with others, and in the covenant of shared community that we learn the lessons we need to navigate the digital world. In seeking formation solely in the digital space we are given a wide array of tools with no one to show us how to use them. Without a guide, excess can be just as dangerous as scarcity. 

Simply put: The digital world cannot replace embodied discipleship, the kind of discipleship that calls us out of ourselves and into the lives of others. This is not to say that the internet is not a place for community, mutual accountability, or learning. But it does mean that these tools are meant to be used with care, with an awareness that a good tool cannot replace the work itself in the life of the church or the communal wisdom learned by living among the people of God.

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