Digital Discipleship: Transforming Ministry Through Technology

Dr. Mary Hess

For the Lutheran Theological Seminary at Gettysburg Blog Tour on Religion & Media, Dr. Mary Hess responds to questions posed by Cyberpilgrim. Please add your voice to the conversation! Click on the “LEAVE A COMMENT” link to post. And see the specific question Dr. Hess would like to hear from you about at the end of this post.

Wow, what excellent questions — and what difficult challenges. Let me start, more generally, by pointing to some wonderful new books that are available right now that I think might be useful for your readers. The first is a short book entitled “A new culture of learning” by Douglas Thomas and John Seely Brown. This book will perhaps quiet some fears about what it might mean to “flip classrooms” and help kids follow their passions into new learning. The authors of that book perceive enormous potential in these new cultural spaces, but also point to the necessary structure we need to create to support that learning. Your reader is right that learning in isolation is never as rich as learning in community. These new tools can provide new ways to support learning community IF we use them wisely.

The second book I’d point to is Howard Rheingold “Net Smart“. This book is written by a really smart, digitally-connected and fluent educator with a deep sense of how to move forward with wisdom.

The third is Elizabeth Drescher’s “Tweet if you [heart] Jesus“. Elizabeth is keen on helping us to “practice church in the digital reformation.”

Ok, so that’s the “prelude,” now let me get directly to your questions.

 n (Q-1) How do I keep up with this world? “It is just the speed and lack of thinking that I hear when I learn what CAN be done.”

Well, I think a great thing to do is read this blog! And that’s not just me trying to be nice. One of the advantages of living in a web 2.0 world is that you can make information find you, instead of having to go out all the time and find it. Keeping up with this world means finding a few ‘informants’ who do the investigation for you, and whose judgments you trust, so that you can get from them what you don’t have the time or skill to do for yourself. Learn how to use RSS feeds and you will save a lot of time and effort. But then, once you’ve done that, make sure that you subscribe to some blogs that will stretch you, that might not be in your comfort zone, even some blogs that you might disagree with! Doing so will make sure that you never lack for for things to think about.

One great set of informants, by the way, are your students themselves. They might not be the best judge of what is most authoritative, but they are often the best scouts of what is new and interesting, and what can be used in powerful new ways to express their faith.

 n (Q-2) How do we teach the faith in a world that is more participatory and democratic? – “not the controlled methods” we are used to.

I like the ways in which John Roberto talks about “curating” materials for faith formation. This is another element of what I mean about finding “informants.” John is a great informant, and his online resource is full of useful materials that he has carefully curated.

I think, in addition to finding excellent materials and processes that are multi-sensory, we also need to recognize that God might well be “doing a new thing” and that we should be open to listening carefully for where we can hear/feel/see the Holy Spirit blowing. We need to trust our faith, and recognize that following Jesus may in fact be about letting go of “controlled” or at least “controlling” methods, and learn how, instead, to trust our tradition — and to recognize when there is new life being drawn from it.

Teaching faith” in these new contexts means focusing on LEARNING. I tried to talk about this in a lecture I gave a couple of years ago, which is available online . What I was trying to do in that lecture was point out that “teaching the Bible” has to begin with helping people understand WHY they should learn the Bible. I think the same thing is true about our faith, particularly those of us who are Catholic. We can’t assume that people have any understanding of why they should learn about the tradition — indeed, in some cases we have to help people move beyond their caricature of the tradition and into the deep bones of it, the ways in which it sustains and shapes our faith (rather than seeing it only as something which constrains or silences us).

Another way to do this – instead of “carefully controlled methods” – is to work on helping people learn how to create in these new media. Producing a digital story, for instance, requires a lot of attention – careful attention – to what you’re trying to convey, to whom you think you’re speaking, and to how you craft your story. These are all great ways to do faith formation in religious education, and they’re fun to do! (check out for ideas).

n (Q-3) How do we hire and/or train ministers today in a world that is now a Digital World?

That’s too big a question to answer in a short blog response, but I will say that I think hiring and training ministers is a deeply contextual process – and since the world we live in is mediated, through and through, how can we be contextual without attending to digital media? So we should be asking about their experiences in digital media – what do they like? how do they access information? what do they think is wisdom in these spaces? And so on. And I would be equally wary of anyone who refuses to engage digital environments and anyone who refuses to be critical of such environments. We need to look for people who are able to balance competing commitments, and who are adept at seeking and supporting wisdom.

Finally, a question for readers of this blog:

What makes you most nervous about digital media, and what makes you most excited about its potential?

Comments on: "Dr. Mary Hess and the Religion & Media Blog Tour" (25)

  1. I find the explosion of digital media very exciting and hopeful in many ways for youth. Three things make me a little nervous about it, however:

    – Do some young people let media take over their life, so that they neglect interpersonal human relationships, work, study, and outreach to others in the community? If so, how can we help them attain balance?

    – Do young people rely so much on visual and audio aids that they neglect learning personal prayer, personal Scriptural reading, one on one sharing with mentors?

    – How much is being done to bring the developing nations’ youth up to par in 21st century digital technology? Does our access to it increase the gap between the “haves” and the “have nots”?

    • Mary Hess said:

      You’re right, these are important things to worry about! I do think that some young people — frankly, some adults as well! — have a hard time finding a good balance amidst all of the people and things competing for their attention. We need to help each other learn practices that help us to stay grounded and connected. There are some small technical things — like learning to turn off the “email dinger” on your computer, and the “text pinger” on your phone at specific times; or learning how to use RSS feeds — but then there are larger, more adaptive things like actually learning how to sit in contemplation, and how to inhabit silence so that it is restful rather than anxiety-producing.

    • Mary Hess said:

      Your second question — having to do with young people relying on audio and visual aids — strikes me as indicative of the ways our practices have already changed so much. Most people (adults included) do not have strong practices of personal Scripture reading, or working one-on-one in spiritual direction. These are alien practices to them, so we need to work on finding ways to make such practices more accessible. But we also need to start by knowing something of why these practices can be generative, and how to make them attractive, rather than shaming people or making them feel stupid for not doing such things. I think using visual and musical pathways into such practices is a way to go!

  2. Thank you for your sharing your wonderful insights Mary. I am really excited about the potential to connect and collaborate with others on a global scale. Ailís, Ireland.

    • Mary Hess said:

      Tell us something about the social media scene in Ireland! I imagine there are elements that are quite unique, and others that would resonate across other contexts.

      • A lot of money was invested in technology in Ireland in recent years. We are very lucky with broadband access and speeds and a high percentage of recent college graduates would have qualifications in technology. However funding for education has been cut recently which is a shame. Social media in Ireland seems to be going through similar trends to the US. It is increasing in popularity and use all the time! This trend is the same within the context of the faith community as more and more dioceses, parishes, religious groups and organizations embrace it. This is really evident in the widespread use of social media to promote the International Eucharistic Congress, which is being held in Dublin next month. (

    • Mary Hess said:

      Wow, you’re right! That site is really beautiful — and full of useful information. I can’t help wondering if, as more and more of us in the pews get used to this kind of access and information, if we’ll start demanding even more access, participation and accountability?

  3. foxprs said:

    The thing that makes me most nervous about it is that my own lack of understanding of the attitude of the learner at point of entry causes me to pause and relook at how I would present an idea and allow that idea to be explored in the learner/teacher engagement.

    The most hopeful aspect for me is that with more and more visual learners I see a rich field ready to be tilled which will need all of us to step back and decide how best we can be part of the process of readying the field, planting fertilizing, allowing to grow,harvesting and then with the learners preparing that field for its next crop.

    We are at the doorway of another stage in the development of the catechetical model and that model’s development needs all of us, those born into digital age, digital natives and more to vision the working models that can foster the growth of faith in the 21st century.

    • Mary Hess said:

      Check out Douglas Thomas and John Seely Brown’s book “A new culture of learning” (link above) for some great insights into learners today.

  4. Mary Hess said:

    Your third comment — about helping youth in developing nations get up to par — is a fascinating question. Actually, the US is increasingly dropping behind other nations when you consider data about highspeed broadband access, mobile tech, and so on. And we have our own difficult challenges here between the rich and the poor. Bottom line? We need to be very active in pursuing justice issues in this context. I recommend “Global Voices Online” ( as a good place to start getting up to speed on some of these issues globally, and then the new media literacies project ( for work on civic literacy and other issues in the US.

  5. Thanks Mary for starting a great conversation and for sharing your insights. One of the things that excites me about digital media its the potential for reaching young people who are not showing up at church but nevertheless are searching for spiritual nourishment. I appreciate Mary’s link to John Roberto’s website. Roberto helps us imagine possibilities for using digital media as a tool to disciple young people who are looking on the web for answers to their spiritual questions.

    • Mary Hess said:

      One of the best things, for me, from John’s work is the four-fold set of scenarios he traces that help us to think about where we should be encountering people. Then his book (and website) are fully of pragmatic ways to do so. Much of the material is available free on his site!

  6. Representatives of our parish have visited Puerto Escondido in Oaxaca Mexico several times over the course of the last three years. The diocese of Puerto Escondido is new as of January 2004. Oaxaca is a very poort state with many of its people living in poverty. The diocese has few financial resources.

    On our last visit in March, we met with a “link group” of 8-10 people of ages ranging from a retire English teacher to a second year college student. We had a wonderful visit while there and made promises to stay in touch as we continue to learn from one another. To facilitate that process Diego, the second year college student, set up a facebook page for us to stay in communication. We are gradually using it to share pictures and information about what is going on in Mexico and in the Archdiocese of Cincinnati.

    I am grateful for the technology that allows us to stay in touch across cultures and the Mexico/US border.

    • Mary Hess said:

      What a great use of facebook! I have also found that more and more churches have young people who have gone on such trips and are crafting digital stories from them to share widely ( for some examples).

    • How wonderful!

  7. I also am hopeful about digital media and the use of new technologies in the Church! I am especially interested in the impact that digital sharing can have with those who would NEVER come to a parish talk or NEVER join a small faith group, but still have a bent for discussing spiritual topics. These folks are the majority in my parish, but we as a church continue to put most of our effort into reaching those who are active and already in the pews.

    I know many church ministers who fear that our young people’s use of texting, facebook, & twitter is making them poor communicators., but I am not really seeing this. The young people I know are quite capable of carrying on meaningful conversations even while their text alerts go off (but my phone is constantly beeping too…in fact I got 4 text alerts while I typed this!)

    • Mary Hess said:

      One of the things I always explore, around the fears that adults have for young people and their constant phone/text use, is that actually youth have always tended to have only part of their attention focused on adults — it’s just now, when there is tangible visual evidence, that we notice it. I do think, however, that we need to invite people (youth and adults alike) into learning how to inhabit silence, and enjoy contemplation. These are practices that are not often shared!

      • Amen to that! Our lives are so fast, and so busy. Silence is so foreign to me, and sometimes even scary. One digital tool that helps me slow down and explore silence is the 3 Minute Retreat from Loyola Press. A few images, a few words, and I come away refreshed. Any other digital resources out there that explore silence?

  8. It’s been an exciting and fast-paced journey to birth an online module of our scripture program along with a blog during my first year in a new lay position at a monastery. What initially seemed overwhelming was eclipsed by the responses I received and the dialogues that were shared. I was encouraged when I found that I could learn as I went along and didn’t need to know everything about online course or blogs before I went public. This initial excitement has continued to be fueled by the genesis of new online relationships to other bloggers that have brought the fruits of collaboration rather than competition. It has been so awesome to see 8 or more countries connecting with me over the past few months, as I sit in Colorado writing my blog centered on bringing the Word of God to life through the lens of the benedictine spirituality. As a person with over 20 yrs experience with traditional learning in parish classrooms, I began the year staunchly grounded in my opinion that online learning was an inferior method. Boy has God used this process to challenge me and I’m now a bit of a convert. When I see the stories that can be shared so quickly and the expanding range of ages that participate I see growth in life-long formation and the building of community – 2 of my goals for any process I implement.

  9. […] I blogged at the Odyssey Networks “On Faith,” Tuesday at Day1, Wednesday at the Cyberpilgrim, today at Uncle Sam’s Attic, and we’ll close my portion of the tour tomorrow at the […]

  10. Thank you Mary for joining us on Wednesday and to all who visited! A kudos to those who entered into the conversation. What a wonderful sharing from everyone. It was great to hear from Ailis, Sr. Sheila, Tammy, Carla, Jane, foxprs, and walkingwithbenedict. Let’s do this again sometime – this was a wonderful opportunity to share our thoughts and ideas with one another. What a wonderful way to engage friends in meeting and learning about new blogs and new ideas!

  11. Great conversations and adice — especiallly to follow those seeking out updates.
    To answer your question — what scares me the most about technology — everyone at such a different level for equipment/skill/mindset. What excites me the most — the potential has no limits. Thanks again for sharing your great ideas.

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