What is a Digital Life?

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Digital Communities

David Fernández Caballero, Calida Chu & Peter Phillips

Digital Communities as a Social Unit

Since before the pandemic, engaging in digital media has become a daily activity for people around the globe. Thanks to technological advancement, physical distancing does not stop us from connecting with our friends, families, colleagues, and church groups. We are all involved in some form of digital communities, whether we are aware or not. 

The term ‘digital communities’ in this article is defined as communities in which interactions are predominantly engaged via digital devices or digital media, although these communities may have in-person interactions that are nurtured and facilitated by digital communications. We recognise the flourishing of existing digital communities; for example, Zoom online services, fellowship groups, Facebook bible studies, as well as video gaming communities can build friendship and relationships with Jesus and his followers.1

On the other hand, polarization and gerrymandering prevalent on social media have torn digital communities apart.2 Because of algorithms pre-set on social media, the majority of users tend to stay in their social bubbles with those who may have similar political, cultural, and religious worldviews as theirs. Due to the lack of interaction outside these bubbles, people intensify their dislike and even hatred towards those different from them. This phenomenon raises the question of how Christian communities can nurture friendships and foster relationships, rather than cancelling others because of differences. Although, of course, Christians have had their own ‘social bubbles’ within the religious world since the dawn of time.

Nonetheless, from now to 2050, we predict that digital communities will become the main social unit where human communications take place. For many digital natives who grow up in a digital environment, using an iPad for leisure, sending messages on Snapchat, and procrastinating on TikTok are their daily activities. Although the theological world sometimes challenges that digital engagement is not as authentic as physical engagement,3 such communications are not avoidable in all spheres of society, including churches. As such, when one talks about the love of neighbour (Matthew 22:39), the sense of neighbour does not only imply those with geographical proximity but also those we encounter online regularly. Our neighbours are not as close anymore, but are more far-reaching, thanks to the advancement of technology that widens our social network, in which we are informed of the joy and even pain of our neighbour with instant updates on the internet. 

We are all involved in some form of digital communities, whether we are aware or not.

In the 1990s, Benedict Anderson coined the term ‘imagined communities’ to discuss the sense of belonging developed by media.4 In the 2020s, the formation of these kinds of imagined communities was accelerated by digital media, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic. In some ways, digital communities cannot be classified as ‘imagined’ or ‘virtual’, as being part of them is the reality in everyday life. Despite this, we foresee that physical communities will still exist in the coming years, although human communications within these communities are highly dependent on digital devices/media. It is not uncommon to see how young people gather physically while using social networking services (SNSs) to communicate with their peers standing in front of them. The attachment of certain communities and the belonging of these communities are no longer merely determined by in-person interactions but rather, online. Some may even argue that being partially online and offline will be how churches operate in the future for Sunday services and even for evangelism.5

The Effect on the World, the Church, and the Great Commission

When engaging with digital communities, the medium that conveys the message is as important as the message itself.6 As such, how one communicates within and beyond one’s digital communities will be affected by the technological development of tools such as digital media, AI, and other digital devices. In other words, how human agency is expressed in the digital sphere will be important, so that one’s communication is not limited, or even determined by digital technology.

The most pressing issue in the world is in what ways one can create digital devices and digital media ethically that may indirectly affect the formation of digital communities. In recent years, both scientists and ethicists are cautious of how digital devices/media may affect the production of knowledge, which may unconsciously marginalize certain groups in the digital sphere. Through unconscious bias in social media’s algorithm, voices of ethnic minorities may not be at the top of the list in search engines.7 In what ways digital communities bring people together and not tear them apart will be the major concern in the twenty-first century. Hence, equipping the follower of Christ in product development as well as technology industry should be the priority of Christian leaders who have a vision to build a more just world for God. Not only will this prevent the misuse of AI technology that may be harmful to both humans and nonhumans, but this will also assist companies who rely on technology to build an organization model that leads to the flourishing of society.

The concern about the level of materialism in digital communities will affect the frequency of human beings interacting with each other in these communities. In other words, some may consider communicating in the digital world less authentic, because they do not interact with someone physically present in front of them. This type of social anxiety is validated, because sometimes people give hostile comments online because they cannot see people physically in the digital space. However, this concern seems to deal with the hostility rather than the medium itself. In other words, to effectively tackle aggression online, it is best to educate all regarding the attitude of using this medium—to create respect, generosity, and kindness even though we will not meet the actual person we encounter in digital communities.

The most pressing issue in the world is in what ways one can create digital devices and digital media ethically that may indirectly affect the formation of digital communities.

The rise of digital communities also implies that from now to 2050 the church will need to train its pastoral leaders to address the need of fostering digital communities for both groups within and outside the church. The training is not only about the skills of using technology but also the etiquette and the language to engage with people in digital communities. For example, the use of slang and emojis in the online world is not as familiar to those who mainly communicate in person or in printing materials. Nonetheless, the training itself is not to substitute in-person communications; on the other hand, the future of pastoral ministry should develop both in-person and digital social skills. Rather than simply rejecting physical activities, digital communities should have the potential to nurture in-person interactions, when certain groups we serve may prefer in-person communications because of disability or any other personal issues.

This also raises issues of how we all understand ecclesiology in the digital world. During the pandemic, Heidi Campbell and other scholars all around the world edited the book Digital Ecclesiology, linking to the scenarios when all things moved online.8 In 2023, quarantine was loosened in most countries and church activities all operate both online and offline again. But this does bring the question if the picture of sharing life together in Acts 2 can be realized in the digital world. This requires imagination, both from Christian leaders and technology people, to work together when envisioning a church life immersed in a technological world.

Carrying out the Great Commission will also see challenges in countries with higher levels of surveillance due to restrictions on religious activities. Taking China as an example, since March 2022 media laws have been implemented to avoid terrorism, including religious activities.9 In some ways, church communities have been restricted both physically and digitally. Nonetheless, this does not affect the tenacity of Christians to stay as tightly knit groups. China still has a significant percentage of Christians—at least seven percent of its population, that is 106 million people.10

Another dimension affecting the world, the church, and the Great Commission is to what extent AI is implemented in daily communications and especially in evangelism. It is acknowledgeable that AI does create convenience and accelerate the flow of information. However, in what ways should we implement robot evangelism in a post-COVID-19 world? During the pandemic, people talked about robot priests assisting church activities to run normally to help implement physical distancing.11 But the Christian understanding of the personhood of robots and the information they provide that assists the Christian mission are still in a formative stage. While currently no one considers robots as equivalent to humans because they are less relatable in terms of their personhood and the accuracy of information, it is debatable, in the 2050s, if they will become ‘us’, because of more advanced AI technology. It also begs the question if robots should be included as ‘us’ in digital communities, but we perceive this as a rather controversial question that needs careful consideration. The UK’s Channel 4 television network had a series, still available online, which explored these themes—‘Humans’.12

Opportunities and Challenges for Great Commission Efforts

Despite the opportunities of reaching the unreached without geographical restrictions, we perceive that, because of gerrymandering in certain networks or social groups, there may well be mental health issues or social isolations raised when digital communities become dominant groups for social interactions. Since individuals can choose to engage or withdraw from social groups, without much intervening in other’s lives, this can lead to the rise of hikkomori (a form of severe social withdrawal in Japanese), which may affect one’s interpersonal relationships and develop mental health issues.13 As the Great Commission commands us to make disciples of all nations, one of the pressing needs in the future will be to reach to those who may disengage from communities or society in general. The loss itself is not entirely different from the pre-digital age. However, the technique to reach those can be different because it combines online and offline social skills, as well as counseling skills that can assist those to reconnect with God and other human beings.

[Ministry today] requires imagination, both from Christian leaders and technology people, to work together when envisioning a church life immersed in a technological world.

Another challenge when applying Great Commission efforts to digital communities is the ethical use of digital devices/media in pastoral ministry, including the types of AI and platforms. In the Christian circle, pastoral leaders worry that things like ChatGPT may become a major platform to consume knowledge. However, as Jason Watson rightly argues, ‘spiritual formation involves moving beyond merely consuming content about the gospel toward intentionally allowing the truth of the gospel to change the way we live.’14 While many see the advancement of AI as a threat to humanity, we perceive the trust in God’s providence in every Christian life will be as important as ever, because God’s guidance cannot be simply replaced by the generation of information.

On this note, as disciples of Christ, we have the responsibility in the years building up to 2050 to educate all to use technology ethically and to walk the journey together to sense the Holy Spirit in all parts of our life, including our interactions within digital communities and our choices to (dis)engage with digital media/devices, prompted by our understanding of God in our life. 

The South-East Asian group Indigitious is a good example of how tech-savvy leaders enable digital missions and stimulate dialogue for how Christians bring glory to God in their local context. As its co-founder Simon Seow comments, ‘if God has written digital into your story, he did for a purpose. You’ve gotta discover that purpose and use it to glorify him’.15 The church, including pastoral leaders and laypeople, will be the witness of God who testifies the Word, which becomes fresh through Jesus Christ and is reflected in his followers, who bear the image of God in every part of their life, online and offline, in both physical and digital communities.


  • Campbell, Heidi A. Digital Ecclesiology: A Global Conversation. College Station, TX: Digital Religion Publications, 2020.
  • Kurlberg, Jonas, Nam Vo, and Sara Afshari. ‘Lausanne Occasional Paper: Being Church in a Digital Age’. Lausanne Movement, accessed 1 June 2023. https://lausanne.org/content/lop/lausanne-occasional-paper-being-church-in-a-digital-age.
  • Phillips, Peter M. ‘On Digital Being’. Crucible. February 2023.


  1. Video Games Ministries, accessed May 22, 2023, https://videogameministries.com/.
  2. Carl T. Bergstrom and Joseph B. Bak-Coleman. ‘Information Gerrymandering in Social Networks Skews Collective Decision-Making’, Nature (September 4, 2019), https://www.nature.com/articles/d41586-019-02562-z.
  3. Peter M. Phillips, ‘On Digital Being’, Crucible, February 2023.
  4. Benedict R. Anderson, Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism (London: Verso, 2006).
  5. Peter M. Phillips, Hybrid Church: Blending Online and Offline Community (Cambridge: Grove Books, 2020).
  6. Marshall McLuhan, Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man (Berkeley: Gingko Press, 2013).
  7. Calida Chu, ‘Decolonisation/Recolonisation?: digital Theology in the Post-Covid-19 world’, GoNeDigital Conference, Online, Global Network for Digital Theology, July 14-16 , 2021.
  8. Heidi A. Campbell, Digital Ecclesiology: A Global Conversation (College Station: Digital Religion Publications, 2020).
  9. Sean Cheng, ‘Can China’s New Regulations Really Stop Evangelism on the Internet?’, Christianity Today, 3 March 2022, https://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2022/march-web-only/internet-regulations-china-evangelism.html.
  10. Gina A. Zurlo, Global Christianity: A Guide to the World’s Largest Religion from Afghanistan to Zimbabwe (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Academic, 2022), 86.
  11. Sofia Bettiza, ‘God and Robots: Will Ai Transform Religion?’ BBC News, 21 October 2021, https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/av/technology-58983047.
  12. Channel 4, ‘Human’, accessed 15 August 2023, https://www.channel4.com/programmes/humans.
  13. Roseline Yong and Kyoko Nomura, ‘Hikikomori Is Most Associated with Interpersonal Relationships, Followed by Suicide Risks: A Secondary Analysis of a National Cross-Sectional Study’, Frontiers in Psychiatry 10 (2019): 247.
  14. Jason Watson, ‘Could ChatGPT Make Disciples? Rethinking Evangelical Discipleship in Light of AI’, Lausanne Movement, February 9, 2023, https://lausanne.org/about/blog/could-chatgpt-make-disciples.
  15. Indigitous, ‘If God has written digital into your story’, Instagram, November 5, 2020, https://www.instagram.com/p/CHM1YV8jX6C/?igshid=MzRlODBiNWFlZA==.

Authors' Bios

David Fernández Caballero

David Fernández Caballero has extensive experience and implementation of digital environments with a high degree of innovation. David is the founding partner of platforms such as Virtual Fairs, Mi Aula Empresarial, Connecta Negocios with a presence in more than 40 countries in Latin America.

Calida Chu

Dr Calida Chu, born and raised in Hong Kong, is Teaching Associate of Sociology of Religion at the Department of Theology and Religious Studies, University of Nottingham. She previously worked as Teaching Fellow at the School of Divinity, University of Edinburgh and received her PhD in world Christianity at the same institution in 2020, with a thesis about Hong Kong public theology after 1997. She holds a Master of Art in Sociology from the Chinese University of Hong Kong, and a Master of Divinity from Fuller Theological Seminary.

Peter Phillips

Rev Dr Peter Phillips is currently the Programme Director for the MA in Digital Theology and Tutor in Theology at Spurgeons College in London, Head of Digital Theology at Premier Christian Media, and an Honorary Research Fellow in the Department of Theology and Religion at Durham University. His current research focuses on the impact of digital culture on theology and on contemporary religious practice. He also serves as a Methodist Minister in the Thames Valley Circuit, near London.