Several of my friends and colleagues were recently in Crete for the 2nd International Conference on Digital Media and Orthodox Pastoral Care. Orthodox Christians from around the world gathered to share valuable experiences, offer important insights, and wrestle with deep questions about the Church’s relationship with technological tools.
Fr. Barnabas Powell gathered some of the American participants for a discussion on his podcast, Faith Encouraged Live. It was a great episode; you should check it out.
We at Y2AM have learned a lot about using digital media to share the Gospel (and I think we’ve been pretty good at it). So I teamed up with my friends Fr. Andrew Damick and Ben Cabe from Theoria and we came up with 4 tips for preaching the Gospel online.
(You can find the video we made at the end of this post.)
1. Don’t Simply Inform. Inspire.
When Jesus confronts the devil in the desert in Matthew 4, Satan reveals his impressive knowledge of Scripture. He can quote the Bible, chapter and verse, with incredible ease (with far more ease than I will ever display, certainly).
Yet this parlour trick never turned into authentic faith.
As we’ve discussed before, ministry is not simply about communicating religious ideas. As Christians, we’re called to do more than convey perspectives. Our goal is not simply to inform people, but to help transform them into faithful Christians by God’s grace.
Unfortunately, over the past few decades, ministry work has tended to aim squarely between the eyes, engaging people on a purely intellectual level. Its real goal should be the healing of the heart.
Digital work is especially at risk of being too preoccupied with abstract ideas. We can be tempted to see blogs and videos and podcasts as primarily about communicating Orthodox concepts.
But if this digital work isn’t helping deepen people’s love of Christ, if it isn’t helping them grow in faith and come to better know the Lord Himself, then it’s all in vain.
How many Orthodox Christians can recite Church trivia, yet lack a real relationship with our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ?
If people are merely consuming our digital work, then we are not effectively ministering to them.
If people are merely considering interesting ideas about God, then we are not effectively ministering to them.
If people aren’t developing the courage to repent or the desire to pray, then our digital work is missing the point.
2. Leverage Virtual Community into Eucharistic Community.
I remember the first time I really fell in love with a band.
When I was about ten years old I bought my first CD: Pearl Jam’s debut album, Ten. It’s a classic of American rock and helped cement the band as leaders of 90s alternative grunge.
I couldn’t stop listening to it.
In the years to come, I discovered the incredible community that can develop around artists you love: fan clubs and internet forums dedicated to discussing their work; music festivals where you can spend a day in the sun listening to your favorite bands perform your favorite songs; websites that enable you to download tabs and play songs for yourself. Each of these realities connect you to the band in a unique way, and they all make you feel like a part of something bigger than yourself.
The internet in particular offers a powerful platform that allows communities to develop around shared ideas and interests. Though it’s interesting to note that people tend to leverage these communities into real world interactions: music fans go to concerts, comic fans go to Comic-Cons, YouTube fans go to VidCon, etc.
Similarly, good digital work can help build an online Orthodox community. I listen to a lot of Ancient Faith podcasts and read a lot of blogs, for example, and I enjoy talking about them on Facebook and Twitter. I’m a part of digital communities that form around the work of people like Fr. Tom Hopko.
However, if that community stays virtual, we’re missing something. Just like music fans don’t get stuck on online forums (but rather make their way to concerts), we need to make sure Orthodox communities don’t get stuck online.
Our goal isn’t to simply help people consider Orthodox concepts. Our goal is to help people do the difficult ascetic work of fasting and prayer. It’s to help people come together for Liturgy, to “come and see,” to “taste and see that the Lord is good.”
3. Be an Authority, not a Personality.
We launched Be the Bee, Y2AM’s first video series, the feedback was overwhelmingly positive. Parents told us about how they’d watch with their kids on the way to Sunday Liturgy; young people told us about how it reignited ignited their prayer life.
But then, in the summer of 2014, something odd happened when I went to the Clergy Laity Congress in Philadelphia: someone asked me for an autograph.
In fact, a bunch of kids asked me for autographs that week.
Be the Bee was only a few months old at that point, and it was an early reminder that we needed to be very clear about our goals with the series:
Were we trying to create some kind of persona for people, to get people excited about meeting “Steve” at retreats and conferences? Or were we trying to get people excited about knowing Jesus?
I decided I wouldn’t give the kids any autographs. Instead, when asked for one, I drew the Be the Bee logo and wrote out a simple sentence: “God bless you.”
I wanted to draw a very clear line between trusting me as one seeks God and simply seeking me.
The Church has always had people it could rely on to preach the Gospel. To this day we have a long list of Saints and Fathers to whom we turn as reliable teachers: from Athanasios to Porphyrios, from to Maximos the Confessor to John of San Francisco, and so on.
When I see someone share a podcast by Fr. Tom Hopko, I know it’s going to be good. When Fr. Andrew published his latest book on St Ignatius, I knew it would be good because I’d read his blogs and his previous books (like Orthodoxy & Heterodoxy) and listened to his podcasts.
The Orthodox Church is full of reliable teachers who can be counted on to faithfully preach the Gospel. And while we can come to trust them over time, to see them as reliable (and even authoritative) teachers on certain topics, we have to be careful not to see them as mere media personalities, people to follow or pursue as ends in themselves.
On one level, as Elissa Bjeletich has often joked, “Orthofamous isn’t famous.” We need to get over ourselves and our silly ambitions.
On a deeper level, if one is ever tempted by “Orthofame,” either to bestow it upon or receive it from others, we need to realize that it’s a dangerous form of idolatry that distracts from Christ and misses the mark.
4. Know Your Limits.
As word spread about Be the Bee, I remember how much I enjoyed discussing difficult questions with people in the comments. We’d get all sorts of questions from all sorts of people: whether they were Orthodox Christians struggling with doubts or inquirers who had just encountered the Church for the first time.
I also remember the first time I got a question I knew I shouldn’t answer: a person asked, not a question of theology or Church practice, but something deeply sensitive and personal.
I’ll admit, I was tempted to answer. I was tempted to offer something that sounded wise and sensitive; part of this was a sincere desire to help, but some of it was also pride and the desire to seem like I could help.
Thank God, I didn’t answer the question. Instead, I responded with a different question: “is there a priest in your life that you can talk to?”
In the years since, I’ve talked about this with Fr. Andrew and other clergy who have an online presence, and I think this comes up far more often for clergy than lay people. After all, during coffee hour after Liturgy, no one is going to ask me to hear their confession.
Fr. Andrew is very clear about the boundaries that anyone who is doing digital ministry work (and especially clergy) need to maintain. When he receives questions of a pastoral nature, he’s quick to respond that he can’t answer: his pastoral work is limited to his parishioners and the people whose confessions he hears.
Like we said above, a sort of digital community can form amongst Christians online. But its intimacy is limited. I might feel that I know a priest simply because I listen to his podcasts and read his books, but I don’t really know him. And he certainly doesn’t know me.
And that’s why he’s not in a position to offer me pastoral guidance simply because I’m a podcast subscriber.
Knowing ones limits is incredibly important for everyone who is involved in the creation of digital ministry work. Sometimes that means having the discipline to avoid offering pastoral advice. Sometimes it means having the self-awareness to avoid discussing topics that one doesn’t fully understand.
And, for many of us, it may mean having the discipline to realize that we don’t need to create digital ministry work in the first place.
We don’t all need to write a blog or start a podcast or video series.
But each of us needs to love God with all his mind and soul and strength, and his neighbor as himself.
Each of us needs to pray. To fast. To receive Holy Communion.
Whether or not we’re called to do this particular kind of work, we are all called to be faithful Orthodox Christians in the real, physical world.
Steven Christoforou is the Director of Y2AM.
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