Texts

Communicating the Gospel in a Digital Society

Declaration of the 11th Synod of the Evangelical Church in Germany at its 7th session

Observations and conclusions

  1. In the Protestant church we share in the process of digital transformation and we trust that God will also accompany us in a digital society.
  2. Digital transformation is having epoch-making consequences that are also impacting on church communications.
  3. The church has always used the latest media in its proclamation and communication. The Protestant church continues to do so.
  4. The internet expands our opportunities for communicating the gospel. It offers the Protestant church new areas for listening, narrating and learning, for communal celebration and for assistance with life issues.
  5. The Protestant church must change and widen its outlook so that community can also be experienced in virtual spaces.
  6. The Protestant church brings its Christian view of what it means to be human into the discussion about the private and the public sphere.
  7. Human beings are more than the sum of their data and digital footprints. Limits must be set on the collection and evaluation of data.
  8. The Protestant church extends its educational calling inspired by the Reformation to the field of digital education.
  9. The Protestant church supports authentic testimonies to faith in a digital society.
  10. Communicating the gospel in a digital society calls for practical action by the church.

The digital transformation is impacting on everyday activities, our whole lives, and our ways of being Christian. The Protestant church is part of this great upheaval. We are convinced that we can shape this development ourselves, independently and in Christian freedom, and that we will not be just swept along by it. The yardstick for a digital ethic must be human well-being and a free and just society. We wish to use the new possibilities for communicating the gospel.

1. In the Protestant church we share in the process of digital transformation and we trust that God will also accompany us in a digital society.

We do not know exactly what effect digital transformation will have. In the Protestant church we see the need to understand all the ambivalent sides of digitization better, in order to draw relevant conclusions with respect to communicating the gospel.

2. Digital transformation is having epoch-making consequences that are also impacting on church communications. 

Like the development of writing and the invention of printing, digitization is making communication more independent of space and time. The related expansion of the range and availability of communications is leading to an unprecedented wealth of information. The processes of selection, weighting and processing information have changed. The huge growth in quantities of information makes more demands on the skills of the users.

Users are both senders and recipients. As recipients it is up to them to filter out what is important and right from the wealth of information. As senders they have the opportunity to reach many people; yet they must take feedback seriously and gain people's attention in the first place. Our church activities are engaging with these epoch-making changes in communication at all levels.

3. The church has always used the latest media in its proclamation and communication. The Protestant church continues to do so.

Communicating the gospel is always through some kind of media, e.g. by words, images, sounds or gestures. Nowadays this happens through personal contact or with electronic support. And it is always via cultural practices that now include many different digital formats for communication among individuals and organizations.

Communicating the gospel in a digital society calls for both technical know-how and the willingness to reflect on our own culture of communication and adapt it to the needs of life worlds influenced by electronic media. In a digital society with its strong need for visualization, the Protestant church can link up to the rich pictorial language of the Bible and the history of Christianity. Digital media can connect texts to images and sounds. We are witnessing the revival of a culture of communication focusing more on images than the written word. The share of entertainment formats has become increasingly significant. Passing on the gospel through digital media will in future depend on the ability to make more use of images and sounds in our communications.

4. The internet expands our opportunities for communicating the gospel. It offers the Protestant church new areas for listening, narrating and learning, for communal celebration and for assistance in life.

The potential of the internet for shaping human life together and communicating the gospel reflects an understanding of church as koinonia, or participatory fellowship. The Reformation gave special expression to the priesthood of all baptized and the participatory character of the gospel. Networking as a communication model has a lot of potential in this context.

Digitization has created new spaces in which people come together to communicate electronically. For the Protestant church it is essential to be active, present, recognizable and approachable in digital society. To this end, the church is open to digital communication formats and helps to shape them in a spirit of constructive criticism.

Digital networks offer the opportunity to develop worldwide relations more intensively and remain in contact across social and physical barriers. They open up ways of communicating the gospel of Jesus Christ in the spirit of the mission entrusted to the church. We in the Protestant church communicate in a trustful, understandable and inviting way.

5. The Protestant church must change and widen its outlook so that community can also be experienced in virtual spaces.  

The digitization of society is leading to the emergence of new forms of community. Communication is essential for them, not physical closeness. The Protestant church respects and promotes these new forms of congregation. The church's mission to communicate the gospel also applies in digital contexts. The Protestant church must make the gospel audible here too - in competition with countless other messages. It recognizes the necessity to communicate appropriately in a digital world and will provide the resources required for skills training in this field.

6. The Protestant church brings its Christian view of what it means to be human into the discussion about the private and the public sphere.

The content and forms of digital communication appear to be radically centred on individuals. The users produce form and content themselves, directly linked to their respective lives. Consequently, digital communication offers great potential for realizing human freedom and developing personhood and at the same time changes notions about the private and public sphere.

In the Protestant church we must contribute strongly to discourse on media ethics, describing not only technological but also legal and ethical conditions. In so doing we would place the private and public spheres in a freedom-enhancing relationship reflecting the Christian understanding of human dignity and human responsibility in the light of guilt and forgiveness.

The following questions then arise: how can areas for digital communication be created in which encounters are experienced as the expression of mutual appreciation and recognition? How can privacy be respected as an expression of the dignity of every individual person? How can salutary forms of remembering be developed that do not categorize persons in a digital memory but preserve human freedom by enabling forgiveness and a new beginning?

7. Human beings are more than the sum of their data and digital footprints. Limits must be set on the collection and evaluation of data.

Participating in a digital society fundamentally affects questions of data protection and data security. For the Protestant church, human beings are at the centre, with their freedom, autonomy and need of protection.

Through the digitization of all areas of life private and state actors create such 'big data' that people can become objects of surveillance, manipulation, discrimination and exploitation due to new processes of data collection and evaluation. Human beings risk being reduced to the data available on them. In the Protestant church we call to mind the enduring mystery of human persons as God's creatures.

The current discussions about the commodification of all aspects of life, the power of corporations and inadequate democratic controls makes it clear that the internet is not a dominance-free zone; this is confirmed by revelations about the surveillance practices of governments.

We commit ourselves to critically examine our church's programmes for pastoral care, under the present circumstances of mass bugging and evaluation of digital communication. How can we protect the confidentiality of pastoral care and the confessional?

We remind the state of its obligation to protect the basic rights of its citizens. In view of the continuing infringement of basic rights in the field of digital data we call on the Federal Republic of Germany and the European Union to provide a digital infrastructure that functions not only technically but in terms of safeguarding basic rights.

8. The Protestant church extends its educational calling inspired by the Reformation to the field of digital education.

The hopes that digitization will lead to egalitarian communication will not be fulfilled automatically. Education, and particularly media and digital skills, are essential to accessing and using the potential of the internet in a digital society. Media ethical education and knowledge about the effects of images and texts, and how they work, will assist people to perceive and shape the positive and negative consequences of their own communication. A better understanding of digitization, data and networks provides the basis for freedom and participation.
The Protestant church has a responsibility to rethink digital educational processes from a Christian perspective. It is fundamentally in favour of enabling participation for all, regardless of age, origin, residence and income.

9. The Protestant church supports authentic testimonies to faith in a digital society.

For more and more people of all generations, digital spaces and networks are becoming an integral part of their world. Christians are at home in digital media and networks and give their Christian witness there.

Digital communication that is to be interactive, participatory and seeking positive responses will involve considerable changes in approach for church communications. In our view, a key contribution to the necessary transformation of the culture of church communications is to enable people to take responsibility in this respect.

We welcome the free availability of content because and to the extent that it contributes to everyone availing themselves of knowledge and the unhindered public exchange of ideas. At the same time there need to be rules opposing a falsification of content, protecting the authors from material and other forms of exploitation and upholding the economic conditions of intellectual production.

Communicating the gospel in a digital society is affected by this tension: disseminating the text of the Bible is subject to economic conditions. The essential thing remains however, to make - and keep - the Bible freely available to the whole world. That is part of the mission of the church and of all Christians.

10. Communicating the gospel in a digital society calls for vigorous action by the church.

Synod requests

  • the Council and the Church Conference of the EKD to support and further develop the digital competence of professional and voluntary church staff, including teachers of Protestant religious education;
  • the EKD Council to take up the theological questions raised and to enable the EKD to make a greater contribution to discussions on media ethics;
  • the EKD Council to contact experts inside and outside the church, as well as existing digital society-related projects, initiatives and institutions, and to put them in contact with each other;
  • the EKD Council to strive to ensure that confidentiality in pastoral care and the confessional is also protected in the digital world;
  • the EKD's member churches to work to establish digital competence in educational curricula;
  • church and diaconal organizations to see digitization as a means of inclusiveness and to develop ways of enabling people to embrace this opportunity;
  • the association for Protestant Association for Media Communications (GEP) to create links to attractive faith-related content on the online portal evangelisch.de, to invite others to join in communicating the gospel, to approach individuals personally for this purpose and to advertise the project in local congregations;
  • the EKD Council to urge the German government to expand the network and provide fair access for all.


Dresden, 12 November 2014

The President of Synod
of the Evangelical Church in Germany
Dr. Irmgard Schwaetzer



 


 

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