In a 2001 journal article (I was 11 years old, for perspective), Mark Prensky, a thought leader in the educational technology world, coined the term “Digital Natives” to describe young people who do not know a world without video games, computers, Internet, and more. You are a Digital Native if you were born after 1980—so that would include all Millennials and every generation that follows.
For instance, I was born in 1990, and I was sitting on my dad’s lap as he worked on his computer from home for IBM by 1993.
I don’t know a world without video games. I had a cell phone by my freshman year of high school, and I even got mine later than many of my friends.
Prensky, primarily concerned with the ways in which the 21st-century educational system was not equipped to educate 21st-century students, wrote, “Our students have changed radically. Today’s students are no longer the people our educational system was designed to teach.”
Tim Challies, in his seminal work on Christian technological engagement, The Next Story, writes regarding Digital Natives:
For you, there may be no great or important distinction between life online and offline. Your identity in the digital realm and your identity in the world of flesh and blood are one in the same. You may have different representations of that identity, but you make little distinction between them. You move seamlessly between face-to-face interaction and digital interaction through messaging or e-mail. In fact, you may prefer digital interaction, finding the face-to-face somehow unnatural or intimidating. Your mobile phone is part of who you are, and without it you feel like the world is moving on without you. You enjoy television and surfing the web, and especially enjoy doing two or three of these things simultaneously. You can switch back and forth between them as easily as you can change your socks.”
The question church leaders should be asking concerning Digital Natives is, “Is our church equipped to intentionally engage Digital Natives?” The gospel is always the local church’s message, but the methods by which we communicate this message change over time.
Are today’s church members the people our churches were designed to shepherd? Among many churches, they are not. But they should be.
Here are just five ways you can be thinking of Digital Natives as you lead your churches:
1. Don’t discourage technology use in worship.
Obviously, there’s a line, right? We don’t need guys watching the beginning of the football game in the sanctuary. But, at the same time, pastors and church leaders need to be courteous to those who read their bibles, take notes, or otherwise use their phones wisely during the worship service.
Digital Natives are filling your churches. Or, perhaps the bigger problem is that they aren’t.
Consider having your congregation text in questions while you preach about difficult, or controversial issues. Whatever is appropriate for your church, do it. All I ask is that you don’t shame the people using their phones, tablets, or other technology devices in church. Most of them aren’t on Facebook.
2. Get your church on social media.
I am a social media professional, which is still sorta scary to say at times, but it’s true. I work with social media every day at my real job, and I’ve written a lot about it on my blog. Your church needs to be on social media in some form. Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and more: use them.
This can be very overwhelming, especially if you’re completely new to the concept. If you’re unsure of where to start and social media seems overwhelming, you are not alone. There’s help here on this site and all over the internet.
3. Start a church blog.
Consider starting a church blog. Or, perhaps if you don’t feel your church needs one, maybe your pastor could set one up for himself. Whenever I get the opportunity to pastor, I will set up a blog as an extension of my ministry to my church and the community. The focus of the blog will be confined to my church in my city.
In the same way, perhaps you can set up a church blog through which you post updates about the ministry of your church, address questions people have, or other similar uses. Feel free to email me or grab me on social media if you want more ideas here. I’m happy to help.
4. Encourage using technology to grow spiritually.
In point one, I mentioned how we need to not shame people for using their phones in the worship service. We could go a step further and encourage the people in our churches to use apps like FigherVerses or the ESV Bible App as tools to support their spiritual life throughout the week.
Thanks to the gifts of many people, many apps are out there that can help you grow spiritually, especially when it comes to spiritual disciplines like daily Bible reading and verse memorization.
5. Teach your church how to use technology wisely.
Finally, and this is no small point, your church needs to have a theology of technology. Truly the best book I’ve ever seen on this subject is Tim Challies’ book I referenced above, The Next Story.
Technology, like social media, is a completely neutral tool. It’s a hammer, and hammers can be used to build houses or bash peoples’ heads in. Technology can lead you down dark roads if you’re not careful, but it can be a huge benefit to the kingdom of God as well.
You are doing your church a disservice if you aren’t teaching them how to think theologically about technology.
Digital Natives are filling your churches. Or, perhaps the bigger problem is that they aren’t. Preach the gospel–don’t change that–but consider how you might adapt to the internet generation.