I’ve always been drawn to the seemingly magical opportunities afforded by technology. Some of my earliest and happiest memories were watching my dad play Space Invaders on an Atari console and exploring the capabilities of MS-DOS on the family’s first home computer. I will forever remember the sound of the dial-up modem connecting us to the world. More than twenty years later I still exchange Christmas cards with the first friend I ever made online.
I’ve also always been drawn to folks on the edges of things; I’ve known what it’s like to feel like an outsider. My parents were transplants to an insular Southern community and I never quite fit in. I was the scrawny suburban white kid playing pick-up basketball in an urban neighborhood every Friday afternoon. My fascination with stories of those different than me was at the heart of my InterVarsity experience as an undergraduate; this was just a normal part of following Jesus. Our chapter labored hard for racial and gender reconciliation, both within our community and for the campus at large.
One of the first things I did after my InterVarsity hire date over a decade ago was buy an Xbox and Halo 2, and I invited every student I met to come over to play and talk. A few years later I was on to Halo 3 and playing on Xbox Live. While playing online I got to know John (not his real name), a friend of a friend. I learned that John went to a nearby university, and he was in crisis because his roommates partied incessantly and there was not a single spiritual community on campus, let alone one that loved Jesus. John grew up in church but was falling apart in his isolation. So I went to visit him, prayer-walked around campus with him, and a few weeks later found myself planting a new InterVarsity chapter on a few hours a week. Now, seven years later, that chapter has a dedicated staff worker and the students are thriving, all thanks to a relationship formed in a video game.
Three years ago I enrolled in a fully online Master’s program, and my life has been changed through my classmates and my professors. These are real relationships, real people who have known me and challenged me. While traveling to San Francisco last fall, I had the chance to have lunch with one of my professors, the first and only time (so far) that I’ve met offline with anyone from my program. When my professor walked into the restaurant, I just grinned. This wasn’t a stranger I was meeting for the first time; this was an old friend, a mentor, someone who had long inspired me and encouraged my work.
Ministry in Digital Spaces is a chance to explore the opportunities afforded by technology, specifically for the purpose of helping students and faculty on the edges meet Jesus.
I’m pouring my energy into Ministry in Digital Spaces because I’ve been living on the edge of this since I watched my dad unwrap the first AOL disc all those years ago. The ministry possiblities have been there all along, even though I have not been particularly skilled, or even intentional, for almost the entirety of this time. In many ways I stumbled into this, unaware of the bigger design in play. Not just me, but many of our staff and student would say the same as they too have already been doing ministry in digital spaces: in video games, hashtags, online courses, digital art, and so many more.
We’re calling this Ministry in Digital Spaces because we are focusing on the places where students and faculty already are. Not ministry “to” digital spaces or “with” digital media, but striving for an incarnational, relational ministry of presences in affinity spaces that happen to be online. Not “virtual” because these people and relationships are very real; we just happen to be talking about video games and hashtags instead of Greek houses and sports teams.
We will join students in the digital spaces where they already are to intentionally scatter seeds, like a digital dandelion sending seeds everywhere to fill bare patches in people’s spiritual lives.
I keep finding myself returning to Jeremiah 29:4-14. There are interesting parallels to consider between Israel in exile and our society increasingly spending time in digital spaces rather than physical spaces. Regardless of how you feel about the exile (or the digital spaces), God’s command seems to be investment, not condemnation. Build houses and plant gardens; in the shalom of the city where you are in exile you will find your shalom. What would this look like in digital spaces? That’s what I want to figure out.
I’d like to end with an invitation, a call to action. If any of these stories found resonance with you, I’d love to hear from you. I’m starting to build a team and I’m wondering if you’d like to be involved. I’m looking for InterVarsity staff or volunteers who can give a few hours a week, as well as women and men interested in giving their full job attention to digital spaces. There are many ways our partnership could look; quite simply, I’d love for you to join the conversation in whatever capacity you can give.
Join me. More importantly, join what God is already doing in digital spaces.
Bret loves thinking about human connections in digital spaces. He still exchanges Christmas cards with his first online friend from AOL in the early 1990s, and he’s a PhD student at Michigan State University where he’s researching digitally-mediated affinity spaces. He loves many digital spaces, but he’s found the best connections in Twitter (@bretsw) and Elder Scrolls Online. He is InterVarsity’s Ministry in Digital Spaces Director and a member of the Discipleship Steering Committee.
The blog is an avenue for staff and student leaders to hear from the visionary leaders of Collegiate Ministries about theological formation, discipleship, chapter planting, chapter growth, and other key ministry themes for campus work.