Jesus spent 21 years as an adult. For three of those years he was a wonder-working Rabbi, that is one seventh of his adult life. For the other six sevenths we have very little information, but it seems likely he would follow in Joseph’s trade of wood-working. The word used in the New Testament for this is Tekton, it is from this word we get our English word technology, in other word Jesus was a tech guy for much of his adult life.
There are often very polarized views toward technology in the church. On one hand the “older” generation bemoan the latest inventions as the main source of corruption of the “younger” generation. We have seen this happen throughout the ages, various new innovations and new technology that have “corrupted” the church have been: the church pew (not really introduced until the Reformation), the church organ, the use of electric guitars, drums and bass, the use of lights, the TV and now the internet. If it weren’t for such corrupting influences we would be in a much better place. This is a very determinist view towards technology. On the other hand people rapidly adopt the latest technologies saying that technology is neutral, the thing that really matters is the message that is being communicated through the medium. The church and missionary activity have often been at the cutting edge of new technologies from the Gutenberg Press to TV. The opposing views of the determinist versus instrumental approach towards technology are seen in the views on handguns, the instrumentalists say that guns don’t kill people, people kill people, the determinists say handguns radically transform a society for the bad. In the “church” world the instrumental view towards technology asserts that a microphone has no morally corrupt influence, what has the influence is the message that is spoken through that microphone and therefore we must focus on the content of the message.
The truth however is somewhere between these two extremes. It is true that the microphone is not morally corrupt. It would however be wrong to conclude that it is neutral in effecting behavior and Christian discipleship. Let us take the said microphone as an example and another invention of the 19th Century, the internal combustion engine. These two inventions have radically effected the expression of Christianity in much of the world. Before these inventions church congregations were much more parochial and local. You would be part of a church community with other local residents; the butcher, the baker and the candlestick maker! Most people would walk to their local church building and the congregation itself would be limited in size to the vocal strength of the preacher. For those with exceptional voices (the likes of George Whitefield and Charles Spurgeon) the congregation would be bigger in size, but generally church communities would be smaller and much more local. The advent of the microphone meant that it was possible for one man preaching in one venue to easily speak in a normal voice to thousands. I have observed Evangelist Reinhard Bonnke preach to literally millions of people in one location in Nigeria because of the microphone. Preaching to millions is exceptional, but the widespread use of the microphone meant that congregation sizes did increase for good preachers. The advent of the widespread use of the car meant that if a church was “alive” it was “worth the drive”. The collision and widespread use of both technologies in the 20th Century saw the rise of the mega church in the US. This appealed to many American sensibilities, some good and some not so good; independence, desire for greater choice, spiritual vitality, entertainment, celebrity and fame.
It has radically affected the makeup of the church in the US particularly, most people who attend a congregational church meeting now drive a considerable distance (at least more than a comfortable walk) to a church meeting. It has led to the deacon ministry of car park attendant! But more importantly it has led to an increased consumer approach to Church and a decline in the ability to have effective church discipline. I believe the growth of the seeker sensitive movement can be directly attributed to the widespread adoption of such technologies. The use of such technologies also magnifies certain tendencies we already possessed as humans. I do believe the focus on quantity of people in a location has been massively emphasized over the past 100 years over above the quality of discipleship. I have put a moral gloss on some of these changes, which paint them in a negative way, however in themselves the changes are not necessarily morally bad. Overall however, it would be incorrect to say that the adoption of technologies such as the car or the microphone are neutral.
Media theorist Marshall McLuhan who coined the expression that the “Medium is the Message” was such a technological determinist that he said the content of a message “has as much importance as stenciling on the casing of an atomic bomb”. This example is clearly a radical extreme, but it is massively important for those who want to communicate to this generation to realize that the medium used is not neutral and has varying effects on those we are communicating with. If a young man is expressing his love to a young lady, it says something different on one hand if he sends a text “luv u” or if he hand delivers a single red rose and ring engraved with “I Love You”. The use of media is an extension of who we are and a choice we have in how we need to communicate.
This introduction draws me to my main point of internal rumination. If the microphone and the car had such a critical impact on the expression of our Christian faith, what effect does the internet, the adoption of mobile technologies and the widespread adoption of social media have on us. What effect will the widespread adoption of these technologies have on the global church? What effect is it having on us individually? As with all technologies they can possess a tendency to corrupt, but also present opportunities of great redemptional purposes.
The smartphone is perhaps the most “humanlike” device that the world has recently and rapidly embraced. It is our communication tool, it is our entertainment center, it is our window to the world in news, it is our business and banking partner, it is our work assistant and now with Siri it is our ever-present companion. Ray Kurzweil has famously said that a child in Africa with a smartphone now has access to more information than President Clinton (the most powerful man on the planet) had 20 years ago. Current stats suggest 72% of Africans (yes Africans, not Americans) have cell phones and respected technology blog Techcrunch recently suggested that MOST Africans will have a smartphone within 5 years, this is nothing short of incredible. How could such a powerful device that has such a radical effect on the way that we live our lives not also radically effect the way that we express our faith?
My purpose in presenting this really is to ask the question, make you start to ask the question and start a discussion rather than to provide any definitive answers. It is important when we adopt technology that we don’t do it blindly, we must be aware of what we are doing. In order to begin thinking about possible answers I have given some thought and offer some suggestions, both to the question of the corrupting influence and to the redemptional purposes.
Let us first start with the bad news, the warnings over the adoption of the world of the hyper-connected. There are quite a number of pitfalls involved in embracing recent technologies.
1 – How can I Keep a Focused Eye (Idolatry) – I have noticed a very real upsurge in business articles about overload, too many emails, burnout, the problems of hyper-connectedness, ADD etc. I would attribute many recent technologies for this recent mood. I would say that the biggest challenges in embracing such technologies is to keep our “eyes” good. The internet is the home of many temptations. It is the most recent iteration of idolatry that can consume our hearts in many different ways. In a recent article a Seminary Professor said “We no longer ask our entering students if they are struggling with pornography, we assume every student is struggling. The question we ask: ‘How serious is the struggle?’” Another missions agency said that 80% of their applicants voluntarily indicate a struggle with pornography, resulting in staff shortages on the field. However it is not just the blatantly sinful. Is the amount of information bombarding us through email, facebook, twitter distracting us from what should be our true focus? Is our handheld device becoming as my sister-in-law likes to call it the “iWife”. The good and busy can often be the biggest enemy of faith. Did Daniel foresee this when he said in the last days “Many shall run to and fro and knowledge shall increase”?
2 – Do Recent Technologies Isolate Us? – While social media is supposed to bring us together there is an isolating factor if all your meetings and relationships are conducted in a virtual space. In recent book “The Demise of Guys: Why Boys are struggling and what we can do about it” it states the average 21 year old guy has immersed himself in 10,000 hours of video game play. Porn and Video Gaming are arousal addictions, which desensitize and make real life connections harder. With the only meaningful relationships happening online it becomes very easy to do the thing that humanity has been doing since Adam – hiding.
3 – Does the Internet feed our Individualism? – We all want more choice, but statistics actually prove that more choice provides more anxiety not actually more happiness. Yet we now have more choice and access to Christian teaching and discipleship material than at any time in history. But that can also mean we are simply consumers of different types of information rather than a dynamic part of a community. This leads to the problem of the Judges “Every man doing what was right in his own eyes” and really offers no discipline or oversight.
4 – Is Christian Community more than Information Transfer? Since the Reformation when preaching became the ultimate expression of Christian worship we have become more and more successful and efficient at communicating information. The communication of information quickly and efficiently is perhaps what the internet and mobile technologies do best. However we must ask the question of whether information transfer is our ultimate goal as a believer? The internet offers information, but Biblical knowledge is more than cerebral, it must be experiential. The two are radically different. We must recognize this and struggle with what true discipleship looks like in this new age?
5 – Is Instant Gratification Biblical? We are in the world of getting the answer and getting it now. Email was supposed to be an asynchronous communication tool, too often we get impatient if we don’t receive an answer within the hour. Yet Ishmael and Esau’s bowl of red stew show us that immediate results are often the antithesis of getting Biblical wisdom through faithfulness.
I have pointed out some of the glaring pitfalls of adoption of recent technologies, but what about the redemptive uses?
Relational Depth – Although the counter impulses of isolationism and inability to concentrate on one thing because of the barrage of information. Certain tools do give us the ability to actually connect relationally at a deeper level. My own relationship with my family is certainly richer because of the wonders of skype. I am also able to connect with people quicker and deeper because I follow them on twitter and facebook. The use of video conferencing certainly gives us the ability to connect in a much more focused way, if we will make the time.
The Roman Road – Missions Organizations are quick to point out that the internet is the new Roman Road; the new marketplace and they are correct. The information superhighway is just a bit quicker than its Roman counterpart. The reason Facebook is succeeding and Google+ is not is because Facebook is where the people are at. People are in this virtual marketplace and we must meet them here, evangelize them here, disciple them here. I really appreciate the work of Global Media Outreach http://www.globalmediaoutreach.com as they seek to reach and disciple individuals in this virtual space. I truly appreciate the work of the Jesus Film Project as they take an older media and incorporate it into newer forms. Video is however the area where I feel the most pain, I am painfully aware of the rapid growth in video on the internet. While in 2005 video accounted for under 5% of video traffic on the internet. By 2015 IBM say we will have 1 trillion internet connected devices and Cisco predict that at this point 90% of internet traffic will be video. The question is not whether we have people who know the Gospel, the question is whether we have enough people who both know the gospel and the language of video production to effectively communicate to the billions who haunt the net.
Resources for Discipleship and Encouragement – The Internet is full of information and that is helpful to keep teachers accountable. But it is moving beyond simply delivering information to becoming interactive tools, the web is dead, but the internet is growing exponentially. Youversion, the Bible App recently surpassed 50 million downloads. At IHOPKC we are seeking to invite the nations into a global prayer meeting through our webstream and applications, people are responding. Although our monthly 400TB usage is an interesting statistic, the most encouraging thing for me are the testimonies of those encouraged in prayer by what we are doing in Kansas City and inspired to do a Prayer Room themselves.
We are standing at a point of history like no other. The way we are communicating is changing so rapidly and in the midst of the change we have to pause and think that how we are living and how we are communicating often speaks as much as content we are conveying.
I want to thank John Dyer for his ideas in “From the Garden to the City” and encourage people to read his book if they want to go deeper on these subjects.