If I were asked to teach a digital faith formation class two years ago, I would have written out my flipchart notes onto PowerPoint slides and run my class exactly as I would have if we were gathered in person. After almost two years of teaching, praying, and meeting in a digital space, I can tell you with confidence that there is so much more to digital ministry than that. Since March of 2020, I have organized and facilitated online Youth Groups, Bible studies, a Vacation Bible School, a Christmas Pageant, Coffee Hours, and a higher education course. In this new world of online formation, I have changed my practice.
Moving From Default to Intentionality
At this point, almost everyone can log on and run a Zoom meeting. What makes a formation experience stand out from all of the business meetings and online schooling?
Here’s my answer: The intentionality of the experience.
That’s the same feature that makes a youth group meeting different from a girl scout meeting. They both include learning and fellowship, but the intention of each is different. So how do you create the same brave space in an adult forum, for example on a topic like biblical teaching on immigration, in a digital space? You design and facilitate it with clear intention and discipline until you have enough practice that it becomes second nature (like in-person Bible studies have become for many Building Faith readers).
Technology Is A Tool, Let It Serve The Relationships
As a true introvert, It took many years of practice and discipline in congregational ministry for me to be vulnerable and step out and lead. And so, my first instinct in digital ministry was to let the technology shine. I almost tried to hide behind it.
To be a leader in a digital space, I found that I had to learn and practice the same skills of stepping out and being vulnerable all over again. While it is beneficial to lean into the technology, it should only serve as a complement to the human interactions. The best video creation tool available is only as good as the people who will participate and share the experience together.
Intentional Practices for Digital Faith Formation
Below are some habits that I have developed and used in digital formation with all ages. These practices support my overall intention for group meetings and asynchronous interaction in digital faith formation.
- Pray with resources that would not be available to use if you were in person, such as lectio divina with a famous piece of art.
- Sign on early and welcome people as they arrive, just as you would if they had arrived early to help set up chairs.
- Create a covenant that includes respectful communication as well as the understanding that some people may need to turn their camera off or not look into the camera for the entire length of the class. Revisit the covenant at the beginning of each session.
- Utilize the chat function and/or mutual invitation (with passing allowed!) so that introverts and those who take a longer time to process can still participate in the discussion.
- Use appreciative language when speaking about technology and those who use it. Digital platforms are a gift that we are able to utilize at this moment and those brave enough to try something new should be celebrated.
- Communicate with participants in between sessions. Send out reminders of any asynchronous work and when the next session will be.
- Choose technology that fits your ministry context. Keep in mind who your learners are and their capabilities.
For nearly 15 years, Hannah has served Episcopal parish communities in a variety of Christian Formation roles. Hannah is a trainer for the Education for Ministry Program and regularly contributes to Diocesan events, camps, retreats, and committee work. She is recognized for her innovative use of technology to integrate liturgical seasons, parish programs, music, faith-at-home activities, and outreach. As the Associate for Congregational Learning at Learning Forte, Hannah develops hybrid ministry learning opportunities and resources for parish and higher education leaders.