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Watkins calls church to adapt to the new networked age

Evangelist says ‘a radical shift is needed because the world has so radically changed’

by Emily Enders Odom | Presbyterian News Service

PETE BEACH, FLA.  – Using the same text—Mark 1:16-20—on which he preached the evangelism conference’s opening sermon, the Rev. Dr. Ralph Basui Watkins returned to Jesus’ call to his disciples to “come and follow me,” as the foundation for his plenary presentation on “Evangelism in the 21st Century.”

Watkins, one of the featured speakers at the Go Disciple Live “Be the Light” conference, is the Peachtree Professor of Evangelism and Church Growth at Columbia Theological Seminary in Decatur, Georgia, and an expert in social media as a tool for evangelism.

“The key here for me this morning is if we follow Jesus at this time and allow God to transform us,” said Watkins, “God will make us fishers of people.”

Even, he said, in “a world that’s been radically transformed” by the “triple”—social network, internet, and mobile—revolution.

RalphWatkins11AugustOpening his address with a family story of a failed Macy’s gift certificate, which—since it was bought online by his daughters for his wife—could not be used to make a purchase in the store itself because “Macy’s hadn’t yet figured out how to do that,” Watkins asked his audience, “Have we [the church] figured it out?”

Then, to further illustrate his point, Watkins played—and then replayed for greater emphasis—an excerpt from a TED talk by his friend, Dr. Eddie Obeng, entitled, “Smart failure in a fast-changing world.”

“What’s happened is the real 21st Century around us isn’t so obvious to us,” said Obeng in his TED talk, “so instead we spend our time responding rationally to a world we understand and recognize but which no longer exists. You don’t believe me, do you?”

“How do we live,” Watkins questioned, “in a time when the world has been radically transformed by technology, and the old technologies and the new technologies co-exist? How do we deal with the change? What do we do with the horse and the car? Do we put the horse in the car? How do we live in a world that’s different? We can fight the change, and then we die; or we can adapt, and then we live.”

Maintaining that Blockbuster could have become Netflix, and Borders could have been Amazon, Watkins said that they instead “fought the change and now they’re dead.”

He then projected, to gales of knowing laughter, a procession of photos of obsolete products—from a rotary phone to the yellow pages to the encyclopedia to Mr. Coffee to the typewriter—and their contemporary successors.

“Different, different, different,” said Watkins. “We’re living in a different world, and how is the church to be the church in a different world when…these technologies have reworked who we are as human beings?”

The second foundational piece for Watkins’s talk was the book, Networked: The New Social Operating System, by Lee Rainie and Barry Wellman, in which the authors describe the characteristics of the new social operating system.

“We as human beings have a new way of developing relationships—a new way in which we’re structured that is distinctly different from the former way,” Watkins said. “Do we understand how the world has so radically changed? That’s how radical the shift of the church must be.

It can’t simply be a little social media here, a little social media there. That’s not how radical the change is. We have a new social operating system.”

In the new “networked individualism,” people function more as connected individuals and less as embedded group members, Watkins observed, which has significant ramifications for the church, including its traditional understanding of membership. “We want folk to join the church—they don’t even think that way,” he said. “The whole understanding of membership in this new system is quite different. How do we adjust to that? What does membership look like in this day and age?”

As he then played a video of the former CEO of Microsoft, Steve Ballmer, reacting to Steve Jobs’s introduction of the revolutionary new iPhone in 2007, firm in his belief that Microsoft could still be competitive, Watkins said, “You know how the story ends, but I wonder sometimes in the church whether we’re in the same position. How does the church live in this new networked world where people are developing their own independent lives and creating their own networks? Today many Americans have moved to more flexible and individualized ways of engaging religion. How does the church engage that reality?”

Ultimately, however, Watkins proclaimed, “God still calls us to be the church. Folks still need Jesus Christ!”

Then, addressing his audience’s passion for evangelism personally, he continued, “You are here because you care. We are the pioneers, the forerunners, the crazy ones that need to get it done; and I believe because we believe it, God will honor it. I believe God will honor our commitment to share this gospel in this crazy time if we will let go and simply follow God. I can see Jesus calling us, saying, ‘Come and follow me. If you will take me seriously, take my gospel seriously, take my words and ways seriously, I guarantee I will transform you! In an age of networked individualism, I will make you fishers of people.”

As Watkins built to a near fever pitch, he concluded, “We have permission to take this wonderful gospel to the world and tell somebody that Jesus yet lives, that Jesus yet saves…and that Jesus is alive. So I’ll tweet it, I’ll speak it, I’ll put it on YouTube, and—God Almighty—I sure will preach it, so that in the midst of all that’s going on, I still have faith. I still have faith in a God that can do anything but fail…I have faith in a God that will get us through what we are going through. If we will take following Jesus seriously, Jesus promises to transform us and make us fishers of people. That’s my time; I’m finished.”


The Go Disciple Live “Be the Light” Conference, formerly known as the Evangelism and Church Growth Conference, August 8-11, is a vibrant gathering of Presbyterians committed to disciple-making which leads to authentic evangelism, effective church transformation, justice, and church planting through 1001 new worshiping communities.

For information on the 2017 Disciple-Making Church Conference, to be held January 16-19, 2017, at the TradeWinds Island Grand Resort, St. Petersburg Beach, email Eva Slayton or Ray Jones.

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