The Toolkit

Casting the Vision

Why do we need to teach digital literacy across the theological curriculum?


Lisa on camera explaining vision

In June of 2012, the Center for the Ministry of Teaching at Virginia Theological Seminary began its digital mission. We didn’t know exactly what that meant. We didn’t know where the vision would take us.

But we knew our teaching and learning resource center needed to bring into the digital space its traditional mission of curating materials and conducting trainings. And we knew we had to join with others to better understand how “all things digital” were changing faith formation/Christian ed and the other ministries we sought to support.

Almost before we knew it, our e-Formation Learning Community was bringing together hundreds of educators, communicators, and other church leaders to share big-picture experience and hands-on training.

At the center of these gatherings were two related core convictions:

  1. Digital and hybrid spaces are emerging contexts for legitimate, responsive, personal, and impactful ministry.
  2. Fluency in new media tools and cultures is an essential (and non-trivial) component of ongoing religious leadership formation in the twenty-first century.

Though we shared a bit about the experience with colleagues in the academy, we were mostly reaching practitioners. That changed in 2015. The Arthur Vining Davis Foundations challenged us to share what we were learning with colleagues in other seminaries and training institutions—and to learn about their vision for the future.

The result was an exploratory qualitative study in which we interviewed 36 leaders representing 14 different organizations. We poured over transcripts to look for consensus about what students should be learning. Then we brought together study participants to get some feedback on our conclusions about these new learning objectives for ministering effectively in our networked society.

Our vision for this site is that it become a trusted, dynamic resource for theological educators of all disciplines seeking to incorporate digital literacy formation across the ministry preparation curriculum.

It’s not enough to teach standalone media classes or incorporate a digital project here and there. We need all hands on deck if we hope to better align the culture of theological learning with the culture of new ministry contexts. So we built a resource to equip both novices and early adopters for this journey.


Want a quick introduction to the media ecology in which our students and the people they serve participate? Lee Rainie of the Pew Research Center introduces networked individualism, the “new social operating system” discussed in his landmark book written with media sociologist Barry Wellman.

Note briefly: All the technology adoption numbers in this video have increased since it was published in 2012. But the qualitative trends and behaviors are still the same. We know of no better introduction to the challenges and opportunities of new media for “people who work with people.”

Background image: “All Systems GO!” by Andrew Hart via Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0).


Before you check out our suggested list of digital literacies for ministry, you might find it useful to read this brief introduction to some of the terminology we use on this site.

In his 2001 book on new media Lev Manovich describes their difference from old media according to five principles:

  1. Numerical Representation – “new media objects … are composed of digital code”
  2. Modularity – “new media elements … are represented as collections of discrete samples assembled into larger-scale objects”
  3. Automation – numerical representation and modularity allow users “to automate many operations involved in media creation, manipulation and access”
  4. Variability – new media objects “can exist in different, potentially infinite, versions”
  5. Transcoding – new media consist of a “cultural layer” (that is, determined and defined by culture) and a “computer layer” (determined by computers’ data structures)

What all this boils down to is that the features (sometimes called “affordances”) of new media have allowed us to move from an era of mass/industrial media to an era of interactive/networked media (see also Julie Lytle’s Faith Formation 4.0). In turn, the ubiquity of interactive media made possible what media scholar Henry Jenkins calls participatory cultures, in which viewers/listeners/readers don’t just consume—they also create.

(Although it’s technically an oversimplification to do so, we will use “new media,” “interactive media,” and “digital media,” relatively interchangeably. )

When mass media ruled, people of faith could read religious books, listen to religious radio, and watch religious television. Now they can contribute to religious websites, record religious podcasts, and produce religious videos—without expensive equipment or access commercial distribution.

As the Lee Rainie video above argued, the ubiquity and interconnectedness of new media technology have also had a profound social impact. Religious educator Mary Hess has gone so far to say that digital technologies now mediate “almost all of our daily practices”—and that was in 2005!

So what does all this have to do with literacy?

In the 1980s and 1990s, a group of scholars who study literacy were part of a broader “social turn” movement across academic disciplines, a shift “away from a focus on individuals and their ‘private’ minds and towards interaction and social practice.” In what came to be called New Literacy Studies, reading and writing are always local, context-rich, socially and culturally situated activities.

Some of these scholars (collectively known as the New London Group) published a sort of manifesto in 1996 calling for teachers of reading and writing to develop a pedagogy of multiliteracies. By this term they meant to emphasize that “significant modes of meaning-making” were diversifying and multiplying in light of both new media and increasing global connectedness.

Digital literacies have been called a “semantic cousin to this conversation, signal[ing] the intimate relationship between … literacy practices … and the digital tools by which and the digital spaces in which they are mediated.”

Thus, digital literacies are skills for navigating social communication and interaction via new media technologies. 

We believe the particular context of ministry in highly mediated cultures requires particular literacies. Naming them and sharing resources for helping students develop them is the purpose of this site.

Could we have called them competencies, fluencies, outcomes, or simply skills? You bet—we can and we do.

But using the primary label of digital or new media literacies (the latter being Henry Jenkins’s term in a highly influential report sponsored by the MacArthur Foundation) emphasizes the commonalities between our work in leadership formation / practical theology and similar work happening in other education circles.

If it helps, you can think of the more traditional understanding of “literacy” in a metaphorical way. We are concerned with helping students “read” (receptive communication) and “write” (expressive communication) in the new “genres” that have become a part of formal and informal discourse communities in online and hybrid spaces. These include the religious spaces we’re all a part of and the associated communities we’re forming our students to help lead.

The good news for us and for our students is that you no longer have to be an expert about the “computer layer” of new media to highly effective communicator in new media spaces. The tools have evolved to a point where almost anyone can learn to use them with support.

The “cultural layer,” though? Well, as any minister knows, people are complicated. The tools can only simplify the cultural challenges so much.

Our vision: Like Jeremiah the dramatic and Solomon the wise, like Jesus the storyteller and Paul the faithful correspondent, we all have to hone our craft as communicators to become effective religious leaders. Let’s go ahead and set some learning goals.

Background image: “IFC stylus” by Intel Free Press via Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0)