The value of digital formation: an interview with Kyle M. Oliver

Kyle Oliver

I'm very pleased to introduce you to Kyle M. Oliver who will share some of his expertise on the topic of eformation in a church context. Kyle Matthew Oliver (@kmoliver) is digital missioner and instructor in the Center for the Ministry of Teaching at Virginia Theological Seminary and a priest associate at St. Michael's Church in Manhattan. He lives in the Bronx with his wife Kristin Saylor, who serves a congregation just outside New York City. He enjoys podcasting, running, comics, music, and yoga.


First of all, would you tell us a little bit about the Center for the Ministry of Teaching at Virginia Theological Seminary?

Sure. We’re a resource center that serves both the seminary community and especially faith formation ministers around the Episcopal Church and beyond. We were founded in 1984 (the year I was born, incidentally) “to promote research and development to foster improved teaching practices and curricula in the Episcopal Church.”

That’s basically still the mission, though these days we tend to use the broader language of “formation” rather than education language, and to think more generally about resources rather than curriculum per se.

Or maybe we’re returning to Maria Harris’s understanding of curriculum in the church, which was that everything we do as a faith community forms us as the people of God. Or at least it can if we hold the space for the reflection that is such a big part of growth.

With that understanding, it makes sense that we need to talk about formation using technology, since technology is part of the world we live in. The Center for the Ministry of Teaching is offering a conference called eFormation this June – “An ecumenical conference on ministry in a digital world” What is e-Formation and how did you first get interested in it?

This will be the fifth year of this event. We started back in June of 2012, just a couple of weeks before I formally joined the CMT staff.

That first event was billed as a “learning exchange,” which means about 35 of us who where thinking about churches and digital media got together without a lot of structure and just taught each other about what we were doing and what resources were helpful. We came away convinced that it was important to convene a larger event intended to train and inspire faith formation ministers (and later all kinds of ministers) for more effective use of technology.

The event keeps growing, so we’ve tried to keep growing with it. We’ve connected with new conversation partners, welcomed lots of new participants, and worked hard to create new learning opportunities that extend throughout the year.

But mostly we’ve remained committed because we believe connected, social, and mobile technologies are reshaping our society and especially how people learn. So naturally church ministry and mission has to change as well in a way that’s consonant with people’s everyday lives.

Churches spent years trying to find ways to help people think about their faith outside of Sunday morning and maybe Wednesday evening. Now we’ve got lots of great tools for making that a reality. But using them well is, shall we say, a non-trivial ministry challenge.

And yet a lot of people think of this as trivial. But let’s start with what people like about e-formation. What are some of the benefits?

I’ll spare you the list of what people like about the conference, except to say that people love seeing what others are doing, and they love the community that forms at the event.

Thinking about digitally mediated faith formation more generally, I think what people like the most is that it’s consonant with the social and cultural patterns and systems we live and learn in. If we use technology to interact with work colleagues and classmates and political campaigns and organizations that matter to us, why wouldn't we also expect to do so with fellow members of the Body of Christ?

As a faith formation minister in particular, I think the biggest benefit of what some people call our “new media ecology” is that it allows us to be present to the people we serve when they are at home.

Studies are very clear that faith practices at home are more important than faith practices at church in determining whether young people come to a mature faith. But lots of families feel pretty anxious about being a tiny community of disciples together, and digital media give us a means to support them in those moments when they need help.

What kind of resistance do you get to the idea of e-formation, and how do you address that?

I think there are at least two pretty common objections to digital media ministries writ large. The first is mostly about the age-old problem of how ministers should best spend their time.

Leaders are understandably worried that if they start to take their online presence seriously, that it will take up a lot of their time. They’re not wrong. But with some discipline and a few technical tricks, that time can be really well spent. It’s an investment in relationships and in community.

Increasingly, it’s also just the “cost of doing business” as a faith community. If churches don’t put their best foot forward online, they’re making it much harder for newcomers to find and actually want to visit them.

A second big objection is that digitally mediated faith reflection somehow doesn’t count. Usually there is an appeal here to sacraments or the doctrine of the incarnation: “Real ministry is about bread and wine and human touch,” etc.

I think this one is particularly misguided. Yes, Jesus has a body, and that matters. But he was also born into a particular culture and participated in it to share his message—so much so that the religious authorities often gave him a hard time about his broad participation. I actually think we’re reading the incarnation wrong if we use it as an excuse to avoid this particular mode of cultural engagement.

That said, it’s important to remember that almost no one is saying we should replace in-person gatherings with online gatherings. The way people are using technology is actually way more integrated than that. Keith Anderson’s new book Digital Cathedral does a great job of gently challenging this either/or-type thinking.

If someone is new to the idea of e-formation, what do you suggest doing to get started?

I think it depends on that person’s role and that person’s level of existing online connectedness. If you’re looking to deepen your own faith, I’d choose an online resource that fits your lifestyle and learning preferences and try it out for a while.

For instance, if you like visual arts, Old and New Project is a beautiful way to pray with scripture. If (like me) you’re a fan of the radio, you might enjoy the Pray As You Go daily prayer podcast. If you do yoga or other kinds of meditation, Insight Timer is a great companion to that spiritual practice.

If you’re a leader helping guide others on their faith journey, then your top priority is to get connected to the people you serve. That might mean starting a Facebook group, or establishing a faith formational presence in your parish or diocesan e-newsletter, or sharing home activities with church families via Pinterest. Find out where your people are congregating online and join them there!

What have you learned from the e-Formation Conference? And what do you hope that this year’s will offer?

My biggest learning has been the importance of empowering broad participation in any sort of faith community.

Religious leaders should let go of the idea that we’re the “sage on the stage.” It’s much better to be a “guide on the side.” People want to play a more active role in shaping the direction of our communities and our events, and they will do so if we give them low-barrier-to-entry opportunities.

The conference has begun to reach more people and be more responsive to their needs as we’ve found ways to invite and empower more leaders and to keep listening to and amplifying the stories of the people we meet. There’s so much experience and passion already out there—our job is to tap into that.

Who should come to the conference? What do you want people to know about it?

People who consider themselves leaders in faith communities should come, and also lots of people who don’t consider themselves leaders but who lead every day by word and example.

The questions we ask are ultimately really basic: How do we tell other people about Jesus and about how the Spirit is active in our lives? How do we build and sustain relationships in new ways? How do we make room for prayer and learning in our busy lives? How can we play together joyfully and know each other deeply as the people of God?

And if they can’t come, is there an e-Formation way for people to attend?

Yup, for $89 you can join the June 6-8 conference in real-time from wherever you are. All you need is an internet connection.

There are also lots of other ways to learn. Digital media ministries are the work of practitioners. There’s a craft to it, and the only way to learn is by doing and then reflecting with others. So if you subscribe to our newsletter, you’ll find out about all sorts of ways to learn in community throughout the year, including regional events, online learning cohorts and office hours, and—my favorite—self-guided projects with feedback from mentors that will allow you to earn digital badges.

Last but not least, can you share an example of how e-formation has had a powerful impact on people’s discipleship and ministry in the world?

I’m biased (because we do some work with them), but I think the Society of St. John the Evangelist has had an incredible impact teaching ancient spiritual wisdom via modern learning tools. My own faith was richly fed by a monastic community near my hometown in Wisconsin, and I really miss being able to visit the monastery. Being connected to the SSJE Brothers online is the next best thing.

I love SSJE’s YouTube-based Lenten programs and the social media-based Advent photo challenges. But honestly the best thing is to receive a single word in my inbox each morning. The life of faith is all about forming habits that invite God into our lives, and I think anyone can make the space to receive, reflect on, and offer up a single word. It sets the tone for our disciple’s journey through the day. Subscribe for a month and you’ll be surprised how much you grow.

Thank you so much!

 Thank you. I love Confirm Not Conform and the work you do. Please keep those Sunday retweets coming!

I’m going to do them as soon as I post this