The third thematic session of the Asian Ecumenical Youth Assembly (AEYA) brought various perspectives on challenges to spirituality in a digitalized world and touched a chord among hundreds of young Asians who were in attendance.
Two young Christian leaders — Ismael Fisco Jr. and Manna Prasad —from the Philippines and India, kept the audience engaged in deep deliberations with their speeches and responses during a lively session titled Spirituality in a Digitalized World: Responses of Asian Youths’.
The common thread between the two presentations was how digital media was becoming increasingly influential in the lives of Asian youth, often negating the values of spirituality.
Ismael, a digital media company’s operational director noted advances of digital technology in maximizing the ministry and programmes of the church and how it affects many areas of life. However, he also proposed that technology is not without negative implications especially in the understanding of youth’s spirituality.
“We live in an era of increasingly pervasive digital technology. This is embedded deeply in the way we do things – in our church, ministry, work, organizations and even in our daily lives. These pervasive digital innovations are radically changing not only our approach of doing mission but our very understanding of spirituality and our reason-for-being as a church.”
He said that today’s generation are now called the Generation C (for “connectedness”) having the strong desire to be connected and present online. He said that digital technology has reached an ‘inflection point’ reaching into every corner of young people’s lives.
“We spend unbelievable hours browsing online and playing with our gadgets, leading to shorter attention spans, information overload and anxiety among people. It has also led to increase in cases of cyberbullying, human trafficking and oppression of certain sectors of society.
“Fake news, which was a term which we had not heard a few years ago, is all too common now. Private and political entities use it to propagate hate, prejudice and anger. A direct consequence of this is the rise of digital activism, which further decrease human interaction and sense of community,” he said.
“Churches around the world have started to invest more in reaching out to youngsters via social media and that has proved to be effective. But what it has also done is influencing our understanding of Jesus Christ’s ministry as something limited only to virtual reflections, inspirational, YouTube videos and blogging,” opined Ismael.
“When Jesus commissioned his disciples to ‘go and make disciples of all nations,’ he was not constructively telling them to tweet about it or post something about him in their social media statuses. He literally intended them to go ‘physically’ to live and commune with the people, identify themselves with them and be one with them in their sufferings and struggles.”
“Our present realities call for us young people to get out of the comforts of our churches to be present on the streets, in the margins, in war-torn communities, with the sinful and the most unloved sectors of our society to be their beacon of hope and light,” he said.
“Our church has always emphasized that spirituality shall liberate human beings. It must lead us to live a life of dignity and fullness. To promote spirituality is to embrace practices, trends and systems that we perceive to be of relevance to our existence and everyday lives as human beings. But this should never be abused and used to diminish our sense of spirituality, and never be at the stake of human dignity.”
Manna Prasad, a digital media expert who works for broadcasting and online digital media publications in India’s digital communication epicenter known as the Silicon Valley of India, Bangalore spoke about an alarming aspect of the proliferation of digital media in our lives by highlighting the ‘rise of virtual churches.’
“In countries like the USA, studies have revealed that fewer people are going to churches as they are busy logging on to the internet. Some shun going to church under the pretext that they can access church services and prayers on mobile applications. There is a real false sense of being comfortable with the ‘cyber-church,’” she said.
She strongly emphasized that ‘technology cannot replace human emotions’ by showing a short video clip about a crying child and his frustrated parents, who are in different places and communicating via a mobile video call. While nothing online can stop the child’s cry, his father taking him in his arms immediately does so, a human touch making all the difference.
She extolled AEYA’s participants to be change-makers by satisfying four conditions.
“Be a change maker by being faith-bearers, God-seekers, risk-takers and gospel-sharers at places that we are planted,”.
She felt churches around the world had a duty to pass on its sacred teachings and heritage to youngsters in a language they understood.
“The Church must not hesitate in passing on its sacred heritage to young people of our age. It can meet young people where they are and entice them with the message of Christ as well as the teachings of the Church through a new way of delivery.
“But having said that, technology in itself will not make you any more spiritual. It is a tool that will help and enhance you on your spiritual journey. One should understand that digital technology is not passive. It has somewhat become an extension of our life,” She continued.
She touched upon another incessant danger of social media which many young people tended to ignore.
“Political parties, cult leaders and spiritual gurus tend to spew out propaganda incessantly. Most people lap it up without discernment and as a result, ruin their life and soul. Most information you find online need not have the right essence. The digitalized world probably won’t help you with such discernment,” she said.
Manna was of the opinion that the digital world made young people think less and hence, they needed spiritual guidance.
“In the digital age, information is available at our fingertips. So, there is very less of believing and more of knowing. But what we really need at this point is a spiritual direction, spiritual mentorship, spiritual programming and small faith-sharing groups.
“Despite all challenges of technology, there are still a number of unique opportunities presented by the modern age of digital lifestyles. The spiritual needs of the youths should be met in a digitized way,” she said.
Both speakers encouraged the AEYA participants to be critical and responsible in using and consuming technology and to be on guard on how it affects their sense of spirituality.
Steven Leonard David from Indonesia chaired the session.
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