The Social Church: A Theology of Digital Communication

The Social Church: A Theology of Digital Communication

by Justin Wise

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The Social Church: A Theology of Digital Communication by Justin Wise

Did you know you can read online reviews of your church?

How often have you talked about “reaching people where they are”—and realized that much of the time, they are on the Internet?

We’ve been living in a digital world for quite a while now. Justin Wise speaks about social media as this generation's printing press—a revolutionary technology that can spread the gospel farther and faster than we can imagine.

It’s time to take what we know (and admit what we don’t know) and learn together how to move forward as the church. Are you ready to think theologically about this digital age and reach people in a new way?

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780802409874
Publisher: Moody Publishers
Publication date: 02/01/2014
Edition description: New Edition
Pages: 192
Product dimensions: 6.90(w) x 10.50(h) x 0.90(d)

About the Author

JUSTIN WISE helps people share what matters most. As the Founder & CEO of Think Digital, Wise and his team help clients through online coaching programs and done-for-you digital marketing. He speaks on the topic of digital marketing strategy at national conferences such as the NRB Research Symposium & Expo, CLA Internet & Ministry Technology Summit, and the Nonprofit Leadership Academy. Justin lives in Des Moines, IA (by choice) with his wife and three children. Connect with him at

Read an Excerpt

The Social Church

A Theology of Digital Communication

By Justin Wise, Bailey Utecht

Moody Publishers

Copyright © 2014 Justin Wise
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8024-8746-9



IT WAS GETTING HOT up there on the podium. I could feel it. A prickly heat causing sweat to start trickling down the middle of my back.

I feared people in the crowd would notice I was both ultra-nervous and profusely perspiring. Of course, this worrying only added to my anxiety, which added to the sweating. I was starting to rethink my wardrobe choice that day: the lowly sweater vest. (The sweater vest gets a bad rap, but it's both stylish and amazingly well-ventilated. But not on that day. It was holding in heat like a seat belt buckle in the sun.)

It was 2009, and I was presenting at the first ever Cultivate Conference, held at Park Community Church in Chicago, an event geared toward church communicators and creatives. I had spoken to crowds big and small, but for some reason this room was different. This crowd was different. The people in the room weren't there just to mindlessly absorb information; they were there to contribute. To help build and shape. There was a strong element of the unknown, and as the presenter, I knew I'd be going off-script soon and very soon. I'm comfortable with deviating from scheduled programming, but somehow I knew this experience would be unlike other workshops.

Here is how most of the conferences you and I attend transpire:

• A speaker, usually a white male, stands in front of the room.

• Speaker shares message, usually associated with their most recent book.

• Attendees sit for uncomfortably long periods of time in the same spot.

• Speaker leaves stage and the politely humorous emcee(s) distracts with giveaways, promotions, book releases ... and MORE!

• Conference ends, we forget what was said one to three days later and go about our normal lives.

When Cultivate was in the planning stages, the creators wanted it to be different, and Cultivate was unique. How? For starters, the participants in the room could talk back. No more mindless consumption. Workshop sizes were purposefully kept small, no bigger than an elementary school class. Didn't understand a point the speaker made? Raise your hand and ask. Wanted to camp out on a particular point and explore an idea further? Pitch your tent and stay awhile. Cultivate created the space to freely interact. It was, most definitely, a two-way street.

My role as a workshop leader was more discussion facilitator than subject-matter expert, a pattern I wish more conferences would adopt. (The chances of being the one person in the room who knows more than anyone else are fool's odds.) At Cultivate, the audience was in control and they knew it.

What made this room so different was the size—no more than thirty people—and the nature of the talk. I couldn't just gloss over unclear ideas. Think of it as TED, but with the most brilliant minds on one subject converging in the same room. If you've ever spoken in public, you know there are times where a point you're making just isn't connecting—either with the audience or in your own mind—but you keep trudging forward. Cultivate exposed message confusion.

The message I shared at Cultivate was one I cared about deeply. The talk was called "What Would Luther Do?" It encapsulated everything I believed about where the church was headed and how we as leaders needed to face the changes in our congregations. In short, it focused on Martin Luther's efforts to widen the reach of the church using technology. As a life-long Lutheran, his story has always intrigued me. The more I dug into it, the more I realized Luther's narrative had real-time implications for some of the same changes and challenges the twenty-first century church is facing.


In 1517, with a stein of beer and a fiery desire to see reform, a German monk named Martin Luther sat down to write. He wrote about the bothersome practices he saw in his local church. His focus narrowed on religious activities that betrayed the gospel message he had come to know intimately.

Church leaders during this period of history decided one of the best ways to fund the mission of the local church was to sell indulgences. The basic idea behind indulgences was simple: pay the church money, and one of your hell-bound relatives goes to heaven. A divine "get out of jail, free" card. You'd think I was joking, but sadly this is an all-too-real pit stop in the journey of the church.

In Luther's day there weren't denominations, per se. At least not in the sense you and I know them. There were the Eastern Orthodox folks (think "smells and bells"), the Moravians (liked to pray a lot, holed up on the side of a mountain), and the Roman Catholics. Roman Catholicism gave birth to Protestantism, thanks in part to Martin Luther and the rest of the Reformers, a group of individuals who wanted to see the church become all she was created to be.

Part of the impetus behind the Protestant movement was how the church dealt with indulgences. Luther, in short, wasn't down with it. He, along with many others, didn't see the connection between the gift of God's grace, freely available to all, and paying your way out of hell. The two seemed incompatible, and they were. Luther agreed deeply with St. Paul as he wrote, "For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God—not by works, so that no one can boast" (emphasis mine). Those "works" included paying an amount—any amount—to the church to guarantee an existence with God in eternity. It is enough absurdity to even consider the logic of indulgences, but there were faithful men and women who clung to the false hope they offered. Johann Tetzel, a preacher and infamous spokesperson for indulgences, was fond of speaking to crowds and goading them to imagine a deceased family member trapped in purgatory.

His tagline was, "So wie das Geld im Kasten klingt; die Seele aus dem Fegfeuer springt" or "As soon as the gold in the casket rings; the rescued soul to heaven springs." Translated: you can buy your way into heaven. (Purgatory, by the way, is a supposed realm in the afterlife where some folks go after they die. Indulgences were supposed to help these unfortunate souls store up enough "merit" to finally move on up to their mansion in the sky.)

The lunacy behind indulgences was, of course, believing that God's grace could be bought. No repentance was required on behalf of the Christian. If one was feeling charitable, he or she could purchase an indulgence for dead Uncle Harry and hope it would finally tip the scales and dislodge their loved one from spiritual limbo.

This all prompted Luther to write about a new way of seeing reality in the church. A reality where all people—regardless of socioeconomic status—could live in relationship with God through Jesus Christ. No gatekeepers. No middle men. No negotiators. And most of all, no indulgences. Just Jesus. The church had lost its way, and Luther sought to clarify the popular theological thought of the day.

Luther believed everyone should have unfettered access to God. For forgiveness, yes, but most importantly, for relationship. Certainly this idea didn't originate with Luther, but his life's work seemed to hinge on this message. I imagine the words of the writer of Hebrews rang in his ears, "Let us come boldly to the throne of our gracious God." In other words, we don't need no stinking indulgences (that's a rough translation, by the way). Followers of Jesus need not go through a mediator to receive grace; they had direct access to the place where grace flows from—the throne of God!

Not being one to rest on his stodgy laurels, Luther became a catalyst for the change he wanted to see. As mentioned, Luther began to write. Issues facing the church bubbled through his brain and pushed him to the edge of frustration. Indulgences were just a small part of the equation.

Luther's upbringing played a significant part in forming his theology. His father, Hans, was an exacting personality who pushed Luther to excel in all facets of life. But the pushing never stopped, and it led Luther to believe nothing he did was ever good enough. One need not be a psychiatrist to make the connection between Luther's relationship with his father and how his God paradigm was formed. A harsh, taskmaster father led him to believe, quite naturally, God behaved the same way. For Luther, indulgences were personal, as it pressed an already tender wound. A wound that told him, "You'll never be good enough for God."

The finished product of Luther's reformation writings was known as the "Ninety-Five Theses," a collection Luther publicly used to declare, "Things have got to change!" Not one for subversion and subtlety, he took his theses and literally nailed them to the door of the Castle Church of Wittenberg. It was a highly visible form of protest, the modern day equivalent of taking out a full-page ad in the USA Today that said something like:

Dear Pope,

You're making some pretty serious mistakes.

Cordially, Marty Luther

Think about this for a moment. In the modern Western Christianity era, Bibles are readily available nearly everywhere. Entire bookstores are dedicated to them. Churches overflow with Bibles. Our iPhones, iPads, and mobile devices can access online versions of nearly every translation imaginable. You can't even stay in a hotel anymore where the Gideons haven't been first! (For the record, that's a good thing.)

Now imagine a culture where Bibles weren't ubiquitous. Imagine a society where Bibles were held under lock and key by the privileged few called "clergy." To have a Bible at your local church was considered a luxury. To have a Bible written in anything but Latin was virtually unheard of. The other problem? Most people didn't speak Latin. Like, not a word. Even if your church had access to Scripture, you had no idea what the priest was saying!

The first waves of reform crested when Luther began translating the Bible in 1521. He translated the whole canon of Scripture to common German. Then, in an act of measured defiance, he took the newly translated "Luther" Bible and sent it through the cutting-edge social technology of his day: the printing press.

It sounds strange to call the printing press "cutting-edge," but it was a technological marvel for its day. "History bears witness to the cataclysmic effect on society of inventions of new media for the transmission of information among persons ... the development of printing [is an example]." Writing moved from the scribe's desk to the printing press, and it changed everything. New ideas were able to travel across distances—both literal and figurative—previously perceived as unnavigable.

In Luther's case, what transpired next was nothing short of a miracle. For the first time, regular Germans (read: non-clergy) could read the Bible for themselves. Those who couldn't read (which were the majority of folks) could hear the Bible spoken in a language they could understand. Simply divine.

Luther's dream, aided by technology, became a vivid reality. He had done it. He bridged a widening gap between "us" (clergy) and "them" (laity). Boundaries were shattered and new stories could be written. All of this from a German monk with digestive problems. Who knew? Providence, it seems, is no respecter of persons. Perhaps this is what led Luther to declare the printing press was the "highest act of God's grace."


This story has always fascinated me. Maybe it's because I was raised Lutheran—baptized, first communion, confirmed, the whole bit. Potlucks, church coffee (which, described in a word, is gross), and liturgy. At times, we Lutherans have a tendency to idolize Luther to the point where, in some churches, he has more wall space than Jesus! Ol' Marty Luther certainly holds a special place in every Lutheran's heart.

This story resonates with me because it's a look at what a kingdom-minded person can accomplish with and through technology. By using the printing press to mass-produce the Bible, Luther set off a firestorm of reformation in the local church. Something needed to change, Luther felt the call, and he decided to do something about it. No waiting. No sitting around hoping someone would do it for him. Just a conviction and the confident assurance that God was with him. The printing press became an evangelistic tool in Luther's hands.

That was Luther's time. But what about our time? What stories have yet to be written for the twenty-first century church? What will our testimony be to the church universal? Will we seize the profound and unprecedented opportunity in front of us? Or will we allow the moment of innovation to pass? The church will never fail, but our methods might.

Becoming a social church means we need leaders who are willing to serve as heretics. Not theological heretics, mind you. I mean to say we need men and women who are willing to challenge long-standing and widely beloved methods of communicating the gospel message. People who are willing to bring some sacred cows to the barbecue and butcher them in front of everyone.

When describing a heretic, Seth God in says in his book Tribes, "Heretics are engaged, passionate, and more powerful and happier than everyone else.... Heretics must believe. More than anyone else in an organization, it's the person who's challenging the status quo, the one who is daring to be great."

I believe he's describing people like Jon Acuff, writer of the popular blog Stuff Christians Like. Jon rallied his readers to raise enough money to build not one, but two orphanages in Vietnam in the name of Jesus (that's $60,000 if you're keeping track). This was all done without a church building, without a giving campaign, without a pastor quoting from Proverbs 3 or Deuteronomy 8. Just a man with a Spirit-breathed vision and a desire for change. No one gave him permission. He simply acted on faith and did something. In an age of budgets, committees, protocol, and church politics, this is heretical.

My friend Evelyn is a heretic. She's building a dance studio for young girls in one of the most heavily oppressed, patriarchal cultures on the face of the planet: Kabul, Afghanistan. Through the dance studio, she's inspiring a new generation of girls to think differently about themselves and what it means to be female. Social technology like Skype and email allow her to coordinate a team of overseers from literally around the globe. When it becomes safer to do so, she'll fund-raise for supplies and materials through the studio's website. Evelyn is heretical, in the best sense of the word.

Luther was a heretic. He was willing to stand for the change he wanted to see, regardless of the consequences. Whether it was persecution from church leaders, challenges from friends and colleagues, and, at times, his own crippling self-doubt, Luther stood against the common theological ideology of the day and said no. He leveraged social technology and pushed his message further and faster than it ever could have gone single-handedly or by word of mouth. We know the ending, so Luther's courage and vision easily get diminished. But he risked everything—sometimes unknowingly—to see his vision become reality.

Hearing these stories begs the question, "What would Luther do?" Thanks to the transition of broadcast to digital, and the pervasiveness of social media in nearly every facet of society, I can't help but wonder what Martin Luther's take would be.

Would social media be his new printing press? What might his Twitter feed look like? Would he have turned the Ninety-Five Theses into a flashy infographic? Blogged about the merits of infant baptism? Would his job title on LinkedIn be "Pastor, Reformer, Beer Drinker"? Maybe he would have configured a way to live stream his classes, giving access to all who wanted it. Either way, Luther would have been all over social media.

Church in the digital age necessarily requires heretics. The challenges and opportunities afforded by the advent of social media need to be addressed by men and women who see things differently, who aren't afraid to break rules. People who can embrace the "squishiness" and tension of the moment, and act.

I believe you're reading this book because you're a heretic. You see the power in social. You've experienced it firsthand. You've built new relationships, fortified existing ones, and seen the microcosm of your own world radically shift because of social technology. I believe your desire is to see the bride of Christ rise up and seize the opportunities in front of her. If that's you, you're in good company.

Much of what was discussed in this chapter was a direct extension of the conversation we had in the room at Cultivate. The ideas I brought to the room that resonated were built upon, changed, and improved. The ideas that fell flat remained there. While this certainly isn't a new way of presenting information (Socratic method, anyone?), it's one that's suited for where our world—and the church—is heading.


Excerpted from The Social Church by Justin Wise, Bailey Utecht. Copyright © 2014 Justin Wise. Excerpted by permission of Moody Publishers.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents


1. What's In It For "We"? Or, Why Social Media Matters
2. The Embedded Values of a New Media Culture
3. What Would Luther Do? The Bible, a German Monk, and What it Means for Church Leadership
4. The Medium is the Message (and the Message Doesn't Change)


1. Cave Drawings: A Brief History of Human Communication
2. Offline Trumps Online: A Social Spirituality
3. Navigating the Digital Generational Divide
4. Klout-Worthy Messaging: A Voice Worth Sharing


1. Vietnam, City of Soul, and Calculated Rule-Breaking
2. Social Media is a Movement, Not a Set of Tools
3. Where We're Going We Don't Need Roads (the Geek-Out Chapter) 

What People are Saying About This

From the Publisher

Justin Wise connects the power of social media with the potential for life-changing ministry in a completely fresh, easy-to-understand, and relevant way. His energy and wisdom bleed through the pages. He gets it. He totally gets it and now you can too. The Social Church is a must-read for all Christian leaders called to serve in this time and space.

Tami Heim, president and CEO of Christian Leadership Alliance, coauthor of @stickyJesus: How to Live Out Your Faith Online

The rumors are true: Justin Wise knows his stuff. Not only does he ask the right hard questions in The Social Church but he boldly challenges the status quo, encouraging churches to embrace digital communications with vision, strategy, and purpose.

Carrie Kintz, Digital Communication Strategist, Focus on the Family

Justin is a knowledgeable and accomplished practitioner of social media strategy and tactics as well as a practiced speaker on the subject. He consistently creates and publishes useful content that goes beyond mere thoughts and opinions to include the tools he uses for success and the tactics and techniques for others to become successful.

Chris Giovagnoni, Social Media Marketing Program Manager, Compassion International

Justin Wise is the real deal. He is passionate about local churches and assisting them in connecting with a new generation. He brings creative and innovative thinking to each training, but more than that, you'll find in him a genuine heart of service with a purpose.

Haley Veturis, Social Media Manager, Saddleback Church

Justin has handled social media for both our SCORRE and Platform conferences in the last year and we couldn't be more pleased.

He understands the power of social media and the benefits that come when it's used correctly. Most importantly, he accomplished our goal: people who weren't at the event felt like they were and were encouraged to sign up for the next one.

Michael Hyatt, New York Times bestselling author, former CEO of Thomas Nelson Publishers

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The Social Church: A Theology of Digital Communication 5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 5 reviews.
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TKLee More than 1 year ago
If you’re a leader within your church, read this book.  While social media is constantly changing, Justin Wise has written an evergreen book. He lays down a foundation of theology on which to build your organization’s communication strategy for years to come. Justin skillfully connects the present to the past (e.g., Paul was using the latest technology when writing the epistles), while also contextualizing wisdom from contemporary thought leaders outside of the church (e.g., Chris Brogan). He also presents a compelling case for why church leaders should always be asking how new media can be used for Kingdom work. This isn’t a how to book, which Justin makes very clear in the introduction. He does though raise great questions that each church needs to answer for themselves. In Chapter 10, probably my favorite, Justin explains that you’re going to fail if you first start with social media strategy. Instead, you first need to know your church’s unique purpose for your community, which Justin calls the Big Idea. Only then can you build out the levels of strategy, first with content marketing, second with your website, and then finally with social media. In Chapter 12, Justin helps to bridge the digital generational divide that can often exist within the church. I would recommend buying several copies, reading through it with both your communication and leadership teams.