Building faith in a digital world to be focus of joint conference

Seminary and denominational events join forces to explore ‘Shaping Faith in a Digital Culture’

By Annette Brill Bergstresser, Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary

ELKHART, Indiana (Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary/Mennonite Church USA) — How can faith leaders and their communities grow in building faith and in recognizing the gospel of Jesus Christ in today’s digitally saturated culture?

This question is central to the theme of an upcoming conference — Shaping Faith in a Digital Culture — which will run from 7 p.m. on Monday, March 2, through 12:30 p.m. on Thursday, March 5, on the campus of Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary (AMBS) in Elkhart, Indiana. The event is a joint conference of two annual leadership gatherings: AMBS’s Pastors and Leaders 2020 and Mennonite Church USA’s Deep Faith.

Planners have designed the joint event for leaders in congregations and communities — pastors, lay leaders, formation leaders, youth leaders, parents and educators — with the goal of thinking together biblically and theologically about living, worshiping and playing in digital spaces.

“Digital spaces are intricately intertwined with our daily lives, which is why it is so important to talk about what that means for our faith, our churches and our theology,” said Jewel Gingerich Longenecker, AMBS dean of Lifelong Learning and a member of the planning committee. “It has become normal to pray with prayer apps, worship over video calls, and research sermons through online preaching resources. As Christian people, we proclaim our faith through our actions every day, both online and offline. We want participants to hone faith-building skills that support good mental and spiritual health.”

Collaborating to support theological thought leaders

Gingerich Longenecker explained that the idea for the joint conference came about when Shana Peachey Boshart, denominational minister for faith formation for Mennonite Church USA, approached her about holding Deep Faith, a gathering for faith formation leaders, at AMBS every other year. Peachey Boshart wants to begin to host the denominational faith formation gathering annually under the name Deep Faith, alternating between AMBS and the city hosting the next biennial Mennonite Church USA convention as locations. (AMBS is a seminary of Mennonite Church USA and Mennonite Church Canada.)

Both AMBS and Mennonite Church USA were among the sponsors of the original Deep Faith conference, which was held at AMBS in October 2016. That event, which drew more than 100 people, was planned by an ad hoc group of faith formation leaders from Mennonite Church USA and Mennonite Church Canada.

Gingerich Longenecker saw potential in combining this year’s Deep Faith conference with the AMBS Church Leadership Center’s annual Pastors and Leaders conference in March — considering that both events are designed to reach leaders who are involved in faith formation — and suggested they try it. The Pastors and Leaders conference (formerly Pastors Week) has gathered faith leaders for worship, workshops, plenary sessions and community at the seminary for more than 20 years.

Peachey Boshart said she is excited about the variety of people the joint event can bring together for conversation about how faith is lived out in their contexts — from congregations to educational institutions to camps and retreat centers to mission agencies and more.

“It’s important to me to provide leaders with an opportunity to get away from their ministry contexts and into a setting where they are supported and nurtured in their roles as theological thought leaders,” Peachey Boshart said. “We’re in a time of great societal and religious upheaval and realignment, and a conference like this can give leaders tools for discernment in their congregations and communities.”

About this year’s event, Peachey Boshart said she sees value in “thinking together as Christian people about how our faith is shaped by the digital tools we use and the digital spaces we find ourselves in, and conversely, how the choices we make because of our faith can shape our use of digital tools and our behavior in digital spaces.”

“We will find ourselves witnesses to Christ’s peace wherever we are, including in digital space,” she added.

Speakers

The joint conference — which will include worship, prayer, teaching sessions and workshops — will feature Karen-Marie Yust, M.Div., Th.D., professor of Christian education at Union Presbyterian Seminary in Richmond, Virginia, and author of Real Kids, Real Faith: Practices for Nurturing Children’s Spiritual Lives (Jossey-Bass, 2004). Over two plenary sessions, Yust will draw from her research to provide practical implications for the effects of digital culture on spirituality — particularly among children, youth and young adults.

Yust will be joined by the following AMBS faculty members:

  • Malinda Elizabeth Berry, Ph.D., associate professor of theology and ethics, will speak about theological, ecclesial, relational, and practical questions for Christ-followers to consider as they both participate in and challenge digital culture. Berry’s interests include Christian social responsibility and renewing congregational life in its structural and spiritual dimensions.
  • Andy Brubacher Kaethler, Ph.D., associate professor of Christian formation and culture and director of AMBS’s Center for Faith Formation, will speak about engaging culture both critically and compassionately, drawing on his 25 years of experience in Christian formation in educational, conference, congregational and camp settings.
  • David C. Cramer, Ph.D., managing editor of AMBS’s Institute of Mennonite Studies and teaching pastor at Keller Park Church in South Bend, Indiana, will explore the discernment practices he employs as he engages in digital culture, seeking to understand the difference faith makes for how Christians live in contemporary society.

Workshops

Participants will be able to choose from 11 workshops; sample titles include The Dark Side of Digital Saturation: Helping People out of Addiction to Online Pornography and Dependency Relationships; Engaging Social Media in an Emotionally Intelligent Way; Finding True Love in a Digital Age; Incarnational Theology and Contemplative Practices for All Ages; #MakePeace: Social Media Shalom; Messy Church: A Playfully Serious Way to Shape Faith in a Complex World; Embodied Preaching in a High-Tech Space; and Supporting Healthy Christian Formation for Children and Youth: A Digital Media Rule of Life.

Registration

Registration fees for the event vary for individuals, married couples, and students. Discounts are available for first-time participants, those who bring a friend who has never attended Pastors and Leaders (formerly Pastors Week), and those needing financial assistance. Also, individuals, congregations, regional conferences and districts can become a member of the Church Leadership Center to receive additional benefits, including substantial discounts on events. The final registration deadline is Feb. 17.

Participants who attend all plenary and workshop sessions may earn 1.2 Continuing Education Units (CEUs).

Learn more about meals, lodging and transportation: ambs.edu/pastorsandleaders

See also information about the daylong Leadership Clinics to be held on Monday, March 2, in conjunction with this conference: ambs.edu/leadershipclinics

With offices in Elkhart, Indiana, and Newton, Kansas, Mennonite Church USA consists of 564 congregations and 62,361 members.

Located in Elkhart, Indiana, Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary is a learning community with an Anabaptist vision, offering theological education for learners both on campus and at a distance, including a wide array of lifelong learning programs — all with the goal of educating followers of Jesus Christ to be leaders for God’s reconciling mission in the world. ambs.edu