Technology: The Third Space of Faith Formation

by Rachel S. Gerber 

According to the Barna Research group, studies show that people who consider themselves as “regular attenders” of church actually only show up one time every four to six weeks. As a pastor of faith formation, this is significant!

How, in this day and age, where Sunday morning attendance is less consistent, does one care for faith formation and work at building authentic relationships?

We often think of faith formation as happening in the home (parents as the primary influence) or at church. But with a decline in attendance, which also leads to a decrease in parent’s confidence in their own ability to provide and promote faith development, where does this leave us?

We can’t change the commitment levels of people but we can make the most of the various touch points we do have with them, utilizing resources to connect with them on a more regular basis. Technology is one way that this can happen. Technology can aid in making those connections still happen even when we can’t gather together physically. Obviously face-to-face connection is the best (always!), but technology helps to fill the gaps when that just isn’t possible.

Technology gives us 24/7/365 access into people’s lives. Why do we think that faith formation is only limited to a Sunday morning service or activities that take place in your church building? I want to encourage us to consider the “digital space” as a legitimate space in which faith formation can occur, in addition to home and congregation.

The possibilities to connect and form faith with 24/7/365 access is exciting and offers such potential to undergird what is already happening at home and church is limitless.

We already see this happening in our schools through a “flipped classroom” pedagogy approach. In a “flipped classroom” students engage in learning through technology (webinars, videos, etc…) which provides learning content that they watch before class, so when they come to class they work on their homework and are able to engage their teacher on a more one-on-one basis who floats around the room.

Perhaps you are a parent waiting in the car for your child or teen at soccer practice, piano lessons, or ballet. You could be scrolling through Facebook and tweeting your latest thoughts on the presidential debates, but what if in your newsfeed on Facebook or Twitter, your congregation provided you a word of encouragement, or stirring question, or an opportunity to share your perspective on the upcoming sermon text? How might this help you feel connected to your church community throughout the week(s)?

Or consider youth groups—our youth are busy! It is becoming increasingly more difficult to find common time to gather. One pastor I know had to plan out 6 months to find one common Sunday morning in which to do a one-time baptism inquiry class for four high-school students. How might utilizing technology with a busy group like this be beneficial?

I know of one youth group in Virginia that was running in to a similar situation. Due to school schedules, and activities, it was becoming nearly impossible to find a common time for the majority of the students to meet. They decided to offer a weekly late night Google Hangout video call (9pm) instead of trying to do a Wednesday night Bible study. This 9pm start gave everyone time to complete their homework, after-school activities, dinner, and alleviated the need to leave their house and go someplace else. This weekly check-in to offer a word of encouragement and support rooted and grounded their youth group, building relationships and connections in deeper ways. This group decided that on months that have a 5th Sunday that they will gather together in person. The pastors discovered that because of this digital connection, youth are showing up in greater numbers, feeling more connected. Our use of digital faith formation can lead us towards person-to-person engagement in real ways.

We need to stop thinking of our congregation’s digital space as a place to only post information and events. It can be and should be used to connect people to people, both in cyber space which leads to person-to-person spaces. Our digital connection is something that the church needs to embrace—it is here, and it is here to stay. Rather than wasting our time lamenting the busyness of this generation and trying to reclaim commitment levels of those in generations before, let us embrace what is and utilize the resources available and ways people are already engaging in.

Let us, by God, use it to our advantage.

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Rachel S. Gerber is the Mennonite Church USA Denominational Minister of Youth and Young Adults and editor/creator of The Gathering Place, an interactive website for Anabaptist youth leaders for resourcing, networking, and spiritual formation. Rachel is author of Ordinary Miracles: Awakening to the Holy Work of Parenting (Herald Press), a spiritual memoir of wakening to moments of grace in the everyday grit of life. She lives in Bloomington, IN with her husband of sixteen years and three young boys.

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