Exploring the uses and possibilities of digital ministry

In this Faithful Conversation, Outlook’s Social Media Producer Jesy Littlejohn and Washington National Cathedral Pastor for Digital Ministry Jo Nygard Owens explore the uses and possibilities of digital ministry.

With Jesy Littlejohn and Jo Nygard Owens

“For where two or three are gathered in my name,” Jesus says in Matthew 18:20, “I am there among them.” Digital ministry can bring together two people — or 2,000,000. And it can be many things: streaming services to a congregation that’s beyond church walls, video chats on bad-weather days with church committees, pastoral care when a person is thousands of miles away or ill. Newsflash: Even the weekly email is digital ministry. But digital ministry, to some, threatens the fabric of the church — after all, don’t we want people to come to us? And to others, it is the opportunity to go into other spaces, as Jesus did, and gather in his name. In this Faithful Conversation, Jesy Littlejohn, the Outlook’s social media producer, and Jo Nygard Owens, pastor for digital ministry at Washington National Cathedral, explore the uses and possibilities of digital ministry.

Jesy: I appreciate the intentionality that you have in your work to build connections in comfortable ways. I think we assume that for those who attend church “in-person” that we all build relationships so easily. As an introvert with social anxiety, it takes a lot for me to put myself out there and connect or network. Whereas on Zoom I can easily put something in the chat or private message someone about how I appreciated their comments or just engage with them on the side. One of my closest friends and I met in a Zoom meeting during the pandemic and we started a private chat because we were the only two ruling elders in a room full of pastors. This eventually moved to Facebook messenger and then to texting. We looked through our social media and saw pictures of each other’s families, our interests, and asked questions and built upon those things to build connections. It was over a year before we actually met but by the time we did we had built such a great friendship and foundation because of these digital connections. Now, though we do see each other frequently, we are still uplifting those digital pathways and how God brought us together even though we were already in each other’s circles and didn’t even know it.

Jo: I love that! I had the same thing happen to me. I was in a group with someone whose name kept popping up, and I liked what I saw of her there. Eventually, we ended up in a Zoom meeting together, so I messaged her and asked if we could have a virtual coffee. A few months later, our kids were going to camp together and she was spending the night at my house. She’s one of my closest friends now, and we’ve only been in person together that one time!

Jesy: As we look at being in person, how can we be faithful in providing meaningful moments in worship without letting technology crowd the space-literally and metaphorically speaking?

Jo: Here is what is really interesting, and I know this a very particular context that not all churches are like, but those who are watching online at the National Cathedral actually have a better worshiping experience than people who are in person. There are TV screens scattered throughout the cathedral because, if you’re too far back, you can’t see anything. Each week, the worship team meets with the video and audio teams, and we go through a document that is an expanded bulletin. Along with having all the service movements with all of the ministers and those who are participating in the service, it also has separate lines for video and audio. In sermons, it’s not uncommon to show video clips and still images, and our video teams feed that in. During prayers and songs, they have it set to show B-roll of the art and sculpture around the cathedral. For instance, let’s say we are praying for the state of Arkansas. The video team will go to the state seal and flag of Arkansas, both of which are in the building, and feed those images into the feed. On the fourth Sunday of Advent, Mary’s Sunday, they got all of the B-roll footage of wherever Mary shows up in the cathedral and whenever Mary is mentioned in the service, that footage is shown. Doing all of this pulls together the physical place with the online worshiping experience.

Jesy: What are some things you want to incorporate into worship, particularly in your setting at the National Cathedral?

Jo: Whenever, and in as many ways as possible, we can mention our digital community while we are in-person, we will. Sometimes our preacher for the day will directly address whoever is online. When we do the announcements, we welcome those who are online. [In] one congregation that I have known of, the pastor poses a “question of the day” in the chat, and the answers get relayed to the people in front during the announcements.

Another thing I want to see if I can get going is to announce how many different places people are worshiping from. On Christmas Eve, people checked in from six out of seven continents, which is so cool. In January, we started a podcast, which is a major form of outreach for us, to let people know who we are and what we are doing. But my biggest goal is building out a “mighty networks platform.” Essentially it would have many of the same capabilities as Facebook, but not on Facebook itself. It would have a group setting with asynchronous chat, you can go “live”, and it will allow for various small groups to be happening. It also provides us with location servicing, so we can see where our people are and where we might need to touch down more often.

Jesy: I love these ideas. In my church, we have several members who worship on Zoom or on YouTube, and we don’t always know where exactly they are logging in from. It would be great to add some context and see where we are reaching. It goes back to that sense of digital connection, and when I think about how God is working through these ministries and channels I think back to naysayers who think digital ministry is contributing to the death of the church in part because digital ministry allows you to stay home rather than gather together in person. This can lead to its own set of issues, particularly in small churches. What do you think about that? Is digital ministry a contributing factor to the church dying?

Jo: My comment back to those folks is this: We get excited about people from New Zealand or Scotland, or anywhere outside of our particular town, joining us. But we don’t get excited about our own people joining us. Yes, [online ministry] can be an excuse for not coming to in-person worship. I get that, but you might also see more people in worship than if you only had in person services. What if someone is sick, or on the cusp of getting sick? What if they are immunocompromised and COVID is on the rise? Do we tell them, “Well sorry, no church for you today because you’re locals and should be coming in person?” We get mad at families who take their kids to soccer practice instead of coming to church; but what if, because of our digital ministry, they are able to catch church later in the day. Isn’t that a good thing? The reality is, people used to check out our website before stepping into the building, and now they are checking out our worship services.

Digital ministry is a wonderful tool for evangelism and helps people get a sense of what they are walking into and helps them feel more comfortable than if they were coming in with zero prior knowledge. So yes, maybe our attendance has gone down, but I think there are more avenues of looking at church vitality. In this post-[pandemic] era, where we hate to leave our houses and you only have the energy or willingness for one big outing — maybe if you worship at home you can attend a later family church event instead, or an outreach event. We just have to reframe how we are looking at the situation!

Jesy: The Presbyterian in me keeps thinking, “Reformed and always reforming.” In this post-pandemic era, we need to consider how the church is reforming. I think we, as faith leaders across all denominations, not just the PC(USA), are responsible for supporting our smaller congregations to help them lean into this new era of ministry. Speaking of, you mentioned a new way of evangelism. I cannot help but ask your thoughts on the way pastors and faith leaders from across the theological spectrum have used social media – particularly TikTok, YouTube, Instagram – to evangelize in less traditional ways. I am thinking of some who use their platforms to deconstruct bad theology and lift up those who have been sent away from the table. In many ways, they are bringing people back to the church, or at least, back to their faith.

Jo: With worship we are expecting people to come to us. We are opening our doors, physical or metaphorical, and saying, “You come find me and we will be here for you.” In the Episcopal Church, Presiding Bishop Michael Curry had this thing called “Go to Galilee.” Jesus didn’t sit around in his house and say “I’m here, come to me.” Jesus went to where the people are. He went into the towns and met people where they were. Bishop Curry had this initiative where he would challenge people in his congregation to go out into their towns and figure out what the people in their towns needed. The beauty of social media is that it’s a heck of a lot easier to “go to Galilee.”

One of the accounts I follow on Instagram is Merriam-Webster. Yes, the dictionary. I follow them because they take something that we all know, a giant book of words, and make it engaging. It’s not fancy. Sometimes it is just a person sitting in a chair, talking about a word with text scrolling above their head. It’s super simple, but it’s hilarious. You are learning something, and the dictionary is being unpacked. I love that model for our churches. I love the idea of unpacking theology that is harmful. I love the idea of flipping the script and doing it in a way that makes sense. Otis Moss III spoke about this in terms of music. Music is the same, but the way we listen to it is different. We aren’t still trying to force everyone to listen to 8-track tapes or cassette tapes in a digital world. The point being, the message is the same, but how we deliver it has changed.  Are they upgrading to digital because that is where people are? That’s what I think of when I see these TikTok pastors and priests emerging. They are meeting people where they are.

Jesy: In terms of meeting people where they are, we are entering a new, kind of scary, world of AI. In many ways we have to ask, “Where are the people in this?” because artificial intelligence has evolved so much that there is almost an absence of people. When we pair all of this together – a potential dying church, digital ministry, new modes of evangelism, trying new things – what role do you see AI playing, if any, in the future of church ministry?

Jo: We’ve been talking a lot about the role of AI in the church lately, and we’re in the process of connecting with ethicists and others to do a panel discussion at some point on the topic. I know there are plenty of folks who are gung-ho on the topic, and plenty who want nothing to do with it. I’m probably in the middle of the two. I haven’t done much exploration with AI, but I’m aware that I interact with it all the time. I also don’t think others are cognizant of their own constant interaction. I don’t think any preacher wants AI to write a sermon, but it can be a useful conversation partner in the process.

And maybe that’s where I land — using AI as a conversation partner. We turn to colleagues, articles, books, etc., when putting sermons and classes together, and AI is another tool in that toolbox. If AI reads all the books that are on my stack that I keep meaning to read, it can be helpful in giving me ideas pulled from them. On the flip side, as with anyone or anything we’re in conversation with, critical thinking needs to be applied.

Want to learn more? On April 4, 2024, the Outlook hosted the webinar “Digital discipleship: How to create connectional ministry using social media,” which featured Jesy and Jo as panelists alongside “TikTok pastor” Bethany Peerbolt and Outlook Managing Editor Dartinia Hull.

Learn more here.