Ministry in the Digital Age: Strategies and Best Practices for a Post-Website World by David T. Bourgeois. Downers Grove, IL: IVP Books, 2013. Paperback, 144 pages, list price $15.00.

As a “Millennial” who builds church websites and studies Reformed theology, I’ve often felt a tension between my theology and my occupation. Let me try to explain.

Reformed theology teaches me to base my life on the Bible, God’s Word. And the more I read the Bible, the more I find it pushes me to pursue relationships — personal, face-to-face relationships. Unlike every other book I’ve ever read, as the Bible draws me into its God-breathed story, it pushes me back out into God’s world, where I am called to the glorious duties and delights of loving my wife, shepherding our children, and worshiping the Triune God — whom to know is eternal life (John 17:3).

In other words, the more I study Reformed theology, the more I sense the need to limit the time I spend reading theology books so that I can enjoy the adventure of loving my neighbor unto God’s glory in the here and now. The deeper I get into God’s Word, the more I love being in God’s world with God’s people. The more I get to know my Creator, the more I love the sheer physicality and concreteness and contingency of being a creature in God’s creation.

To summarize: Reformed theology assumes the importance of personal, face-to-face presence in ministry and life (thank you, Greg Reynolds) and cautions us against the quest for the Next Big Thing (thank you, Carl Trueman).

Personal presence, the quest for the Next Big Thing, and the gnostic bias of the World Wide Web

Meanwhile, the economic realities of the website development business tug me in almost a completely opposite direction. Web developers make money by doing the things Trueman and Reynolds warn us about.

First, web developers seek the Next Big Thing. To compete in the web development marketplace, finding the Next Big Thing isn’t always just a pleasurable diversion: It is an economic necessity. Competitive advantage as a web developer is driven by whether or not I can adapt to new technology and changing consumer habits. This proves Carl Trueman’s point about the allure of the quest for the Next Big Thing.

Photo of bedewed spiderweb
Spiderweb photo by Josef F. Stuefer

Second, web developers help people and organizations transcend the need for personal presence. The impulse which led Tim Berners-Lee to invent the World Wide Web was a desire to minimize the need for personal, face-to-face presence among academic researchers. I don’t think it is an overstatement to propose that the Web taps into a gnostic impulse to shun the material world and embrace the immaterial. Thus the Web pulls us toward fragmentation and dislocation even as it promises to draw us together.

Insofar as the Web has a gnostic tendency, our relationship to the Web is like the relationship of insects to a spiderweb: The primary purpose of a spiderweb is to catch and ensnare the insect, so that the spider can consume it. And the Web can consume us, too, if it becomes an idol of our hearts. (By the way, did I mention that Tim Berners-Lee is a Unitarian Universalist and has publicly commented on the similarities between UUism and the Web?)

All this means that Greg Reynolds has a good point as well about the inherent liabilities of Web-based communication: These liabilities are baked into the system. “Disembodied life online [Reynolds wrote in Ordained Servant] can promote the tendency to avoid the messy business of life in a fallen world—of sinners, saved by grace, but with many remaining imperfections, learning to live together in truth, forgiveness, and love. This is why we have been careful as a denomination [the OPC] to not unwittingly draw people away from local face to face existence by centralizing church interaction, especially through the use of social media.”

To summarize, orthodox Christianity prioritizes the “personal” and the “old”; the spirit of the Web values the “new” and the “impersonal.”

Sorting out the difficulties and on to the book review

All of the above is background to the main topic: a new book called Ministry in the Digital Age by David T. Bourgeois. Bourgeois is Associate Professor of Information Systems at Biola University. I first learned about Ministry in the Digital Age from an ad in byFaith Magazine about forthcoming books from IVP Praxis. Instantly, I knew I had to learn more: “Can this book help me sort out the philosophical tensions and practical difficulties of using the Web in ministry?”

Ministry in the Digital Age, Part 1: Theory

The contents of Ministry in the Digital Age can be grouped into two parts:

  • Theory (Chapters 1 – 3)
  • Practice (Chapter 4 – 7)

In Chapter 1 (“What Hath God Wrought?”), Bourgeois provides a brief history of communication technologies from Roman roads of the 1st century AD to Gutenberg’s movable-type printing press of 1440 to the “digital era” which began in the 1960s with the invention of ARPAnet and email. He shows that the tension between the importance of face-to-face communication and the power of media is an old one. This chapter raised a question: “How do we balance the power of media to transcend time and space with the Biblical doctrine of the sacred concreteness of face-to-face, personal presence?” The church has faced this issue throughout her history. Bourgeois doesn’t provide a definitive answer to this question, but he at least helps us to see that we the church of the 21st century are not alone. Church history provides abundant resources for reflection on the use and abuse of technology in ministry.

Next, in Chapter 2 (“Getting in the Stream”), Bourgeois focuses on the continuing development of digital media. The rise of sites such as Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube show that the emphasis of the web has shifted from information to relationships. Bourgeois exhorts his readers “to go where the people are” (pg. 25). He introduces the concept of “information streams.” Information streams are “the flow of digital content that our potential audience puts in front of themselves every day” (pg. 26). Effective communication in the digital age means going where the people are by identifying and entering the information streams they use. This is common sense, but it was a lightbulb moment for me. You cannot communicate with your audience online unless you know their online habits. By doing research to understand how people in your church like to get information, you can improve communication. Still, going back to Greg Reynolds’ insights about the priority of face-to-face personal presence, we must be careful to recognize the limitations of online relationships.

The disruptive innovations of the moment are mobile devices and social media. But if the history of communication technology teaches us anything, it teaches us that communication technology continues to change. In Chapter 3 (“Creating Change”), Bourgeois  summarizes and extends the “theology of change” set forth by father-son team Aubrey and Michael Malphurs in Church Next: Using the Internet to Maximize Your Ministry. Malphurs’ theology of change consists of three components: function, form, and freedom.

  • Functions are “timeless, unchanging, nonnegotiable precepts based in scripture” (pg. 41).
  • Forms are “temporal, changing, negotiable practices, based on an organization’s culture and methods, that we are free to choose in order to accomplish our functions” (pg. 43).
  • Freedom is the freedom (and responsibility) to choose the forms which are best suited to perform the functions of Scripture.
Photo of Westminster Abbey
Westminster Abbey 2011 by Marcin Bialek

This distinction between form and function was another eye-opener to me. It is a useful distinction. It also reminds me of the way the Westminster Confession of Faith explains the relationship between Scriptural precepts and Christian prudence:

The whole counsel of God concerning all things necessary for His own glory, man’s salvation, faith and life, is either expressly set down in Scripture, or by good and necessary consequence may be deduced from Scripture… Nevertheless,… there are some circumstances concerning the worship of God, and government of the Church, common to human actions and societies, which are to be ordered by the light of nature, and Christian prudence, according to the general rules of the Word, which are always to be observed (WCF 1.6, emphasis mine).

Nevertheless, Malphurs’ theology of change is undoubtedly something to which most Reformed churchmen would want to provide additional qualifications and boundaries. For example, the worship of God is the primary function of the local church. But this does not mean we are free to use whatever forms we like to perform this function. The Westminster Confession of Faith describes a regulative principle of worship which provides additional boundaries around the freedom we have to choose forms to accomplish the function of worship:

The acceptable way of worshipping the true God is instituted by Himself, and so limited by His own revealed will, that He may not be worshipped according to the imaginations and devices of men, or the suggestions of Satan, under any visible representation, or any other way not prescribed in the holy Scripture (WCF 21.1, emphasis mine).

But Bourgeois’ avoidance or ignorance of Reformed confessional standards is just a quibble. I don’t at all get the impression that Bourgeois wants to dilute the authority of Scripture in liturgy or church polity. He is not a radical revisionist emerging church partisan. He limits his comments to the use of technology in communication, and his comments demonstrate an admirable attitude of caution and self-restraint:

  • “Just because we can do something does not mean we should do something” (pg. 46).
  • “The forms we choose must help us accomplish our biblical functions” (pg. 46).
  • We should avoid adopting a technology if it is poor stewardship of time, money, and people (pg. 47).
  • To the extent that “the medium is the message,” we should consider the effect the technology we select will have on the perception of our organization (pgs. 47-50).

Ministry in the Digital Age, Part 2: Practice

Chapters 4-7 of Ministry in the Digital Age provide practical application. In these chapters, Bourgeois guides church leaders through the process of developing a communications strategy. His advice is based on primary research he has been conducting since 2008, and buttressed throughout by statistics.

In Chapter 4, Bourgeois introduces the “Digital Ministry Framework.” The digital ministry framework is a conceptual model consisting of three parts:

  1. People
  2. Processes
  3. Technology

“Technology is not the hard part” of developing a digital communications strategy, Bourgeois writes (pg. 51). “For most ministries, spending less time on technology and more on people and process will bring a better chance of success” (pg. 53). Making decisions about what technologies to use is important, but not nearly as important as considering the people and processes involved.

Chapters 5 and 6 provide a 13-step process for planning, implementing, and running your digital ministry:

  1. Define the purpose and objectives for the use of the digital tools by your ministry.
  2. Describe the target group(s) for your digital presence.
  3. Research your target group(s)’ use of digital technologies.
  4. Determine the resources available.
  5. Analyze possible digital technologies for use.
  6. Select the tools you will use.
  7. Plan for the implementation and operation of your digital ministry.
  8. Forecast results.
  9. Assign roles and responsibilities.
  10. Write it up!
  11. Carry out the plan.
  12. Evaluate results.
  13. Do it again!

This section of the book alone is worth the price of the book. It takes the mystery out of developing a digital communication strategy, providing a practical roadmap.

Finally, in Chapter 7, Bourgeois provides “some basic guidelines for developing a digital ministry that respects the privacy of its constituents and protects its information” (pg. 114). Due to the subject matter, this is a rather dull chapter, but it is an important one. I have dealt firsthand with two of the common privacy concerns he mentions: Photographs and news about missionaries.

  • On photographs:Provide a method for those who do not want their images posted online to let you know. You should also provide a way for people to easily notify you if you posted something that they want taken down” (pg. 106).
  • On news about missionaries: “I would suggest getting specific permission from each missionary before posting their information digitally. Missionaries frequently have specific policies about what information can be made public and what information cannot” (pg. 106).

Conclusions and Next Steps

Photo of Roman road in Israel, by Ori
Photo of Roman road in Israel, by Ori

Look at church history. Look at the God-breathed Scriptures themselves. There has always been a need for the people of God to strike a balance between the sacredness of physical presence and the transcending power of communications media — be they Roman roads, printing presses, or social media. Communications media can never fully capture or fulfill the mission of Christ’s church. But neither can Christ’s church fulfill her mission without availing herself of the media technologies of the day. A substantial part of the apostle Paul’s ministry was carried out through the written word. Likewise, the printing press was helpful in spreading the ideas of the Protestant Reformation.

Ministry in the Digital Age fills an important gap by providing church leaders with level-headed counsel and a practical road-map for developing a communication strategy for their church. As noted above, I have reservations about some aspects of the “theology of change” — more what it doesn’t say than what it does say. Nor did this book resolve the philosophical angst I mentioned at the beginning of this review. But overall, I highly recommend this book to church leaders. Every church which is serious about using the Web as part of its outreach should get this book and read it. Go listen to the interview with David Bourgeois at ReformedCast if you haven’t done so already.

What are the next steps? I have already begun to revise our church website design process here at Five More Talents based on the Digital Ministry Framework set forth in Ministry in the Digital Age. This framework (people, processes, technology) provides a helpful model for understanding your church website, email newsletter, or Facebook page in the context of your local church as an organization. It is helping me to serve local churches as they think through the purpose and function of their church websites.

My goal is to see more and more churches using communication technology efficiently, effectively — and with notable self-restraint — rather than simply “freaking out” at the breakneck pace of technological and societal change and grabbing for the nearest shiny object. In Ministry in the Digital Age, David Bourgeois provides the context and “big picture” churches need to be good stewards of emerging communications media.

Featured image by Mikolaj on Unsplash.

Update: You can also visit David Bourgeois’ Ministry in the Digital Age website to learn more about the book, including three free preview chapters. And if you are really an over-achiever, you can check out the conference website for extra credit.

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