Digitally Mediated Spiritual Formation – Karen O’Donnell (DMA Series)

Digitally Mediated Spiritual Formation – Karen O’Donnell (DMA Series)

There’s a pervasive strain of thought, common to Christians and non-Christians alike, that what happens online—digital things—are less real than non-digital things. The word ‘virtual’, so often applied to these digital things, only serves to reinforce the lesser (or even non-) reality of things in digital spaces.

[This post is the second in our series, Discipleship in a Media Age, sponsored by Trove. Intro here.]

For Christians, this can be exacerbated by a sense that the digital space is incompatible with the incarnational nature of our Christian calling; as if engaging in these digital spaces is somehow disembodied. The overwhelming force of Scripture is clear, however, that we are never disembodied. In the writings of the New Testament, Paul does not seem to distinguish between the soul and the body or the mind and the body but rather sees them as a united whole—the life of a person, body and soul together. So, for example, when he writes “May the God of peace himself sanctify you entirely; and may your spirit and soul and body be kept sound and blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ” (1 Thess. 5.23) Paul is not articulating a tripartite division within the person, but rather praying for complete unity and wholeness as an expression of life in Christ. If we are always a united whole, then we are not disembodied when we engage with the digital.

Spiritual formation—the process of being formed into the likeness of Christ—is a lifelong undertaking. It is a slippery concept with many issues but I want to raise just two of them here. First, formational opportunities can feel very hard to come by for some people. Particularly for those who find themselves distanced from a nurturing spiritual community for whatever reason. And second, formation has always happened within an eco-system. That is, as well as being formed in intentionally formational relationships, we are also formed in the workplace, at the hearth, with non-Christians, on the bus, and in varying circles of relationships.

Digital media offers real potential to both amplify and deepen the reach of formation opportunities. There is abundant research that demonstrates that both hybrid and online formational resources, well-designed and intentionally formative, are as positively formative and effective as any face-to-face opportunities. I have seen many examples of this; a prayer triplet that continued to meet together to pray via Skype even as one member moved from the UK to California; the hybrid online and face-to-face mode of the Pilgrim course; the power of bringing the experience of someone directly into a small group setting via live stream video.

Exploring the multitude of formational opportunities that digital media has to offer can give Christians the skills and impetus to equip a lifetime of spiritual formation. Engaging with these modes of digitally mediated formation is a twenty-first century skill. It offers opportunities for real spiritual formation and there are abundant resources to get started with. Trove offers some excellent examples to engage with.

By Karen O’Donnell

Dr Karen O’Donnell is a theologian and Research Fellow in Digital Pedagogy at CODEC Research Centre for Digital Theology.

Would you like to read more of Karen’s thoughts about digital formation? You can download a free introduction to her ideas about the body from Trove using this link:

Karen also writes a TinyLetter, sending thoughts about digital learning and theology online to your email inbox every month. Sign up here!

[image credit: adapted from Topher McCulloch/Flickr ]

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