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Networked disciples:
How digital culture can support faith formation

Karen-Marie Yust

September 5, 2018

Digital culture is a prominent factor in the lives of children, youth and adults. People today spend a significant amount of time engaged with technology-based activities. Young people, in particular, organize their lives around technology and social media activities. Explore with me how living a “networked” life might reinforce traditional discipleship practices and encourage spiritual growth.

Digital culture underscores the reality of our polyphonic identities. Polyphonic identity is a psychosocial term that means people express themselves in a multiplicity of ways in varied contexts. For example, older adults act differently with grandchildren than in an adult forum at church. Because people change the way they behave in various contexts, their identity is also fluid—able to change—and highly malleable (influenced by various social expectations and habits). We learn new ways of relating based on the needs and circumstances of our relationships and their contexts. Our identities are also constructed by how other people relate to us. For example, there are various ways to be a grandparent, and people enact the grandparent role based both on their own preferences and on various social cues they receive from peers, their children and their grandchildren.

Online, people generally create an identity that is connected with their offline identity, particularly since most people draw their online friends from among their offline cohorts. Thus, our networked identity is made up partly through how we present ourselves online—what we do or do not post about ourselves, the photos we use, the things we “like” or share—and partly through our knowledge of each other in offline spaces.

Rachel Wagner, a digital culture researcher, notes that the ways people participate in digital culture says a lot “about how [they] would like to see [them]selves, about what [their] dreams are, and about how these dreams become multiplied and fragmented” in a complex world (Wagner 2012, 99). People use social networking sites to explore and express negotiated selves that they hope will bring them closer to happiness, personal fulfillment and their ideal self. This fact suggests that participation in digital culture may school people of all ages in basic components of discipleship, including a sense of incompleteness that encourages experimentation with alternative identities; a willingness to be influenced and changed by outside forces; and an adherence to particular structures and habits that shape participation in an ongoing movement of identity-building.


Participation in digital culture may school people of all ages in basic components of discipleship, including a sense of incompleteness that encourages experimentation with alternative identities; a willingness to be influenced and changed by outside forces; and an adherence to particular structures and habits that shape participation in an ongoing movement of identity-building.

Christian tradition says brokenness or incompleteness is an aspect of the human condition derived from a fundamental rift between divine and human will at humanity’s creation. Overcoming this brokenness requires us to pursue a new way of being. Paul argues that a person must put away an old sense of self and become a new creature (Ephesians 4:22-24). He contends that personal transformation is a difficult and complicated task that demands careful attention to the degree that what we will is actualized in our words and actions (Romans 7:15-25). Finally, he explains that how one presents the new self is often context-specific, in that we should consider how the self will be received by others and shape our presentation accordingly (1 Corinthians 8:8-13).

Developing and maintaining a social networking profile online offers all ages an opportunity to experiment with re-creating the self. When constructing a digital self, we must consider how we want to be known. We may alter our self-presentation in response to “likes” and comments that others leave on our digital walls. In choosing profile components—such as online name, relationship status, affiliations and lists of favorites—we must make judgments about what signifiers will best convey the self we wish to present to the world. In response to concerns about online bullying, potential stalkers, catfishing and lurking by social connections—such as employers, college admissions officers and church staff—we must consider limiting elements of our self-presentation to accommodate external social expectations. These activities develop skills of attentiveness, self-construction and social analysis that can be transferred to faith formation. They also cultivate greater awareness of dissonance and consonance between our offline and online identities, as we receive feedback from others about how we are perceived in both arenas.

Since digital and Christian identities are both social in nature and significantly shaped through repetitive activities, experiences in digital culture can also cultivate habits of engagement that translate well into spiritual formation. We participate in social networking by posting information in template-driven systems that invite us to repeat certain actions, such as 140-character “tweets” on a Twitter feed or “thumbs-up” clicks on Google+, several times daily. Such actions are akin to religious participation in schedules of prayer, which also employ spiritual templates and generate familiarity through simple daily repetitions. The conditioned response of people to open new messages on their smart phones whenever an alert sounds is similar to the habitual response of someone practicing the presence of God by offering short prayers whenever a predetermined signal calls her or him to focus on the divine. We might even marry these experiences, using the alarm function on our smart phones to program periodic calls to prayer and then tweeting our prayers in response to the digital signal.

The dialogical nature of social networking also has implications for the construction of meaningful spiritual practices. The habit of responding to others’ posts with support and affirmation can translate into prayerful concern for the well-being of others. Deciding which emoticon to use when responding to something another has shared calls forth sensitivity to the emotional aspects of the post, much like face-to-face prayer requests demand something more than pious platitudes.

I have focused on the constructive relationship between digital culture and spirituality in this article, as we rarely hear about the positive religious aspects of networked life. There are certainly spiritual challenges generated by the digital world. However, with social networking such a widespread phenomenon, helping people understand how it can contribute to their faith formation is imperative if we want people to connect their digital tools with their faith.

Karen-Marie Yust is the Josiah P. and Anne Wilson Rowe professor of Christian Education and director of the Master of Arts in Theological Studies program at Union Presbyterian Seminary.

Yust will present the workshop “Drama, Intimacy & Vulnerability: Spiritual Challenges of Digital Culture” at ABHMS’ “Space for Grace: Thy Will Be Done,” November 14-16, 2018, in Philadelphia. REGISTER TODAY for this national conference that seeks to explore critical issues of mission engagement, discipleship and church transformation facing Christians today.

The views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of American Baptist Home Mission Societies.

Wagner, R. (2012). Godwired: Religion Ritual and Virtual Reality. London: Routledge. ISBN: 978-0415781459.

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