Skip to main content

«  View All Posts

Don’t Go Native (Digitally)

November 22nd, 2023 | 4 min. read

By Patrick Miller

In his fantastic book on the arts and faith, Culture Care, Makoto Fujimura develops the idea of “border stalkers”—those who live in the in-between places. In between tribes, parties, geographies, and social strata. Historically, border stalkers have always faced persecution and suspicion. They don’t quite look like one side or the other, so our highly taxonomic brains can’t situate them anywhere.

It’s a fruitful metaphor to contemplate as a Christian because the redeemed body—I mean this both individually and corporately—is quite literally an in-between place. Primarily, the redeemed body exists in between heaven and earth, but if we obey the great commission, we will also be between ethnic and socio-economic groups. 

Paul on the Areopagus epitomizes this in-betweenness (Acts 17). He is a Jew speaking to Greeks in their native tongue, proclaiming the kingdom of Jesus while surrounded by Greco-Roman idols.

The temptation for anyone entering a missional space is to either retreat into monoculture enclaves or go native—leaving behind the distinctives of God’s kingdom and conforming yourself to Babylon. You cease to be a border stalker the minute you become indistinguishable from the milieu around you. 

Digital Border Stalkers

I’ve been thinking a lot about this with digital ministry. Digital space has its own ethics, norms, epistemology, and language. It is a habitat designed to habituate us. The question is: How do we live as digital border stalkers?

Wyatt Graham, the director of TGC Canada, recently summed up the risk of retreat well, pointing out that within a few hours, one heretical TikTok video can be viewed by hundreds of thousands of people. Without digital border stalkers, there can be no digital resistance, much less digital contextualization of the gospel.

But the other temptation—going native—is equally dangerous. On the same day Graham issued his warning, someone wrote that Christians “need to be incredibly online.” On the surface, both posts sound similar, but in reality, they’re worlds apart. To be highly online is to go native. To immerse oneself not in the in-between of digital/analog life, but to spend an inordinate amount of time reacting on social media, consuming content, and worrying about digital kerfluffles. (Now, to be fair, I don’t think that’s what the “incredibly online” post was arguing for!)

Nonetheless, being highly online is a dire choice because you will be fully habituated to the digital world if you give it your mind and time. You will take off peace and put on pugilism. You will take off patience and put on reactivity. You will take off joy and put on cynicism. People who could’ve been peacemakers become hardened tribalists. They expend more energy tearing down institutions than building them. This is the way of the digital native, who knows no in-betweenness—grounded life in local institutions and churches.

Going (Digital) Native

While I’ve been critical of the new Christian nationalist right in the past, my perspective has somewhat changed in recent months. I’m less convinced that the movement reflects well-developed ideas as much as a failure to border stalk. The Christian Nationalists have gone digital native. 

Samuel James summarizes it well:

There's a reason that Christian Nationalists/the New Right see Twitter/TikTok as vital places of engagement. These digital spaces are epistemological habitats that favor superlative, kneejerk discourse, and measure authority in terms of swarm power (Likes and RTs).

It is in the best interest of reactionary worldviews to relocate conversation away from static media to social media. Social media blurs the line between argument and jargon, reason and tribe, truth and in-group.

Something worth pondering is how long social media has been a preferred harbor for those who want to "deconstruct" mainstream sources of authority. The horseshoe is for real.

He’s right. The reason why the highly online right looks so identical to the highly online left isn’t because they share worldviews. It’s because they share habits formed by a shared habitat.

So how do we live as border stalkers online? 

How to Live as Digital Border Stalkers

First, border stalkers must constantly measure our speech by Jesus’ and Paul’s ethical standards. You know—those boring old words you don’t see much of online: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. 

Second, border stalkers must live under analog scrutiny. My non-digital friends who challenge me when my words depart from Christ’s ethical standards are my greatest gift. 

Third, border stalkers must build online, not just react online. Border stalkers spend more time building—making things with words and images—than reacting because the buildings last, and the buildings upbuild others. Reacting is primarily about burning things down for the sake of self-expression. We signal to others who we are by what we’re against. But border stalkers understand the shape and structure of non-digital life (namely, that we need institutions to thrive in our life together) and seek to translate those structures online by constructing positive, beautiful visions through online content.

Fourth, we must measure the consequences. Border stalkers are attuned to digital incentive structures. They understand that surveillance capitalism—Google, Meta, TikTok, YouTube, Twitter—has been designed to addict people to platforms so their attention can be sold to advertisers. Given that reactive, emotional content is best suited to their goal, that’s exactly what their algorithms promote. Border stalkers will always be tempted to play the algorithm’s game by going native and producing the kind of content it boosts. But because they understand the analog costs (namely, the deconstruction of local institutions and churches), they hesitate before they participate.

Learning to live well in digital habitats is, perhaps, one of the most important missional prerogatives of the 21st century. Churches and Christians must learn to empower the border stalkers in their midst—please stop telling us to flee our mission field!—while keeping them grounded in analog reality. Let them live in between.

Conversely, border stalkers must not mistake someone’s “Christian” self-identification online as a sign that they’re a fellow traveler. Too many Christians have gone native, even as they think they’re fighting the good fight. They aren’t. They’re just serving the AI idols training them for a kingdom of hardness and cruelty.

Patrick Miller

Patrick Miller (MDiv, Covenant Theological Seminary) is a pastor at The Crossing. He offers cultural commentary and interviews with leading Christian thinkers on the podcast Truth Over Tribe, and is the coauthor of the forthcoming book Truth Over Tribe: Pledging Allegiance to the Lamb, Not the Donkey or the Elephant. He is married to Emily and they have two kids.

Subvert the Internet Without Abandoning It

Learn how to retool the internet for Christian mission from digital practitioners, theologians, and creators.

The latest on faith and tech from leading Christian thinkers.