Technology touches all aspects of our lives. From the ways we work, play, create, and learn all the way to how we spend our final days, technology plays a significant role in what’s possible, and, of course, what isn’t . . . at least for now. Ministry is no exception to this, and the Church has historically been one of the bastions on the cutting edge of technology. We were among the first to adopt the codex, and some of the earliest written words in history are found in the Old Testament. Even Martin Luther benefited from his unique timing in technological history by seeing his writings widely distributed through Gutenberg’s printing press. The Church and technology are old friends.
It’s surprising then, that so many of our struggles in the Church today center around when to use technology. From projectors and screens in the worship space to debates about the purpose of a congregational website, there’s a lot for churches to come to grips with, and the reality is that the pace of change is accelerating. It’s not easy keeping up, and sometimes our desire to connect with God’s people via the latest and greatest methods can lead us to implement technologies without first fully considering the impacts they can have. The law of unintended consequences is probably the strongest law in technology, and often our decisions have impacts that reach far beyond what we first intended to achieve.
It’s helpful, then, to have a framework in mind that can help us evaluate existing technologies as well as new ones when we’re approaching them for ministry use. I won’t claim that this is comprehensive, and I’m sure it will continue to grow as time goes by, but for now, this is a good beginning.
If the technology itself involves sinful behavior, then the conversation’s a non-starter. We don’t accomplish good by means of evil, and the ends never justify the means. The debate in recent years around embryonic stem cell research has highlighted this step. If a technology involves causing harm at its core, we can’t ethically or appropriately make use of it. We must instead seek the same good through other means. And, in fact, many recent studies have shown significant promise in creating stem cells (even pluripotent ones) from non-embryonic sources. Treatments using this technology remain elusive, however.
This is a tough one, especially for me. Because I enjoy technology, I’m often an early adopter of new technologies and systems. This means being on the cutting edge of new products, but it also means having a garage littered with the debris of a hundred “next big things.” (I’m looking at you, Google TV.) Because I’m enthusiastic about new technologies and finding uses for them, it’s very tempting to apply them unthinkingly in any circumstance they might vaguely fit in. Put differently, when you get a new hammer, you might just go around looking for nails that need pounding. It’s human nature, but it’s the wrong move when technology is involved.
It’s never a good idea to use tech simply because it’s new and shiny. If you can’t clearly define what the tool does better for your chosen purpose, then chances are you’re just looking for an excuse. You’re not in need of a new technology.
There are some technologies that very neatly capture the essence of what they’re intended to do, and they do it with a simplicity and effectiveness that’s difficult, if not impossible, to improve upon. One ubiquitous example of this is the seemingly impossible journey to the paperless office. Put simply, we’re never going to get there because paper is simply too easy and effective at its job. It will always be easier to grab a pen and jot down a note on a piece of paper than it will be to fire up a tablet or similar device, even with a stylus. There’s a simplicity and efficiency to pen and paper that alternatives are hard-pressed to beat.
Thus we have to be careful that when we select a new technology for the church, it actually adds some significant benefit over existing solutions. It’s all well and good to say that your website is going to replace your newsletter (hint: it’s probably not), but unless you can articulate why it’s an improvement, and, more importantly, unless those you intend to use the technology can tell you why it’s an improvement, then it’s unlikely to be successful.
Not every church has the ability to do all things well. I’ve led worship as a pastor in some churches that had a guitar-driven worship service but lacked volunteers who were capable of playing at that level and leading the music. It’s not pretty. In fairness, I’ve also been in churches that similarly lacked more traditional skills, and there’s probably some teaching to be done before they try chanting again.
The point is that we don’t have the time, money, or talents to do everything well. And if we can’t execute a technology well, we should rethink whether we want to engage it. At best it leads to a subpar experience for the recipients, and at worst it can actually work against or even destroy the things it was meant to improve and uphold.
The technologies we use shape the way we think and approach life. There’s an emerging pool of evidence suggesting that new technologies may even shape the way our brains develop. There’s no avoiding it: technology changes us as individuals. But it also fundamentally alters our notions of community and how we view one another. Consider how different our always-on, always-connected, always-communicating society is from the halcyon days of the 1980s. (Ok, so the threat of nuclear war wasn’t great, but we didn’t have text messages in the middle of movie theaters either. Let’s call it a draw.)
Introducing technology to elements of worship can fundamentally alter how we approach them. The introduction of screens into the worship space and the accompanying use of PowerPoint in sermons has led us to a more didactic approach to preaching. Without a doubt it is easier for me to teach a specific text or doctrine using visual technologies to reinforce the points with maps, diagrams, and graphic organizers, but I also have to own that teaching and preaching are different things. Teaching is primarily concerned with the imparting of information or skills to the learner. Preaching is the proclamation of Christ’s victory over death and the forgiveness of sins that is ours as a result. It is better served by a faithful division and proclamation of Law and Gospel than by visual aids.
No amount of reflection on a new technology is ever comprehensive. There will always be an angle or concern that escapes us in planning for it. To minimize this, it’s worth taking a moment before implementing a new technology to consider the ways that it could fail, and how we might minimize the damage or distraction when it does.
Similarly, though, I’m fairly certain my six questions aren’t comprehensive either! What questions would you add to the list?
Thinking of adopting a new technology and need help thinking it through?
Answer the questions on this free worksheet to help you think about the benefits and drawbacks of adopting a new technology for a certain purpose.