A biblical perspective on faith and technology.
Dr. Mark D. Roberts
As I was preparing to write this article, the latest issue of Time magazine arrived. An oversized iPhone graced the cover. Its screen featured a “tweet”(a Twitter entry) from stevenbjohnson: “I’ve written this week’s Time cover story about how Twitter is changing the way we live—and showing us the future of innovation. Buy a copy!”
What are Christian leaders to do with potentially life-changing technologies? Can iPhones and Twitter help us advance the gospel? Should we resist these infernal technologies in the hope that they will flee from us? Or is there a more nuanced response, one that embraces technology carefully and critically?
Here are seven theses to guide you through a careful, critical effort to bring faith and technology together in service to the Lord.
Thesis 1: We need to think theologically about technology.
Most Christian organizations feature a widespread absence of theological reflection on technology. Generally speaking, we evaluate specific technologies from a strategic perspective—”How will this help my organization function more effectively?”—and an economic perspective—”Is it worth the investment?” This is all well and good. But I have not found many Christian leaders who have thought deeply about the theological implications of the technological tools they use.
Thus, I applaud Outcomes for this issue’s theme, and for even asking someone to write this article. I hope to be a catalyst for your own theological reflection on technology. I hope you ask questions like, “How does my use of technology impact my relationship with God?” “How does it reflect biblical values and priorities?” “How does technology advance our organization’s mission?” “How does it hinder our mission?”
Thesis 2: Biblically based reflection on technology is not easy because our world is much more technologically saturated and sophisticated than the biblical world.
In Jesus’ time, a net was something used to catch fish, not a vast computerized communication matrix that has transformed the world. Thus, if it’s essential for us to think theologically about technology, then those of us who base our theology on Scripture have our work cut out for us. Yet this is work we must do if we want to honor God and enhance his mission through our use of technology.
Thesis 3: We should expect specific technologies to feature a mix of good and bad, because technology is part of a world created good yet tarnished by sin.
Our world was created good by a good God. Unfortunately, that was not the end of the story. Human sin both ruptured the relationship between God and people and corrupted this world (Romans. 8:18-24).The fundamental goodness of creation remains but is nonetheless tarnished.
Thus, specific technologies will have both good and bad implications. Consider cell phones. They allow for communication between colleagues and among family members. They help pastors stay in touch with their flocks. These are marks in the plus column. But cell phones get negative marks as well. They can invade family life. They can desecrate the Sabbath. They often interrupt corporate worship services, distracting people as they try to offer themselves to God.
Thesis 4: Biblical examples encourage us to use technology to advance the cause of the gospel.
When Jesus wanted to speak to a large crowd, though he didn’t use electronic amplification, he did employ the technology of a boat to help his voice be heard (Mark 4:1). And when Paul wanted to communicate with distant churches, though didn’t text them, he did use the technology of papyrus and ink to write letters that were delivered efficiently, thanks to the Romans’ road-building technology. Even though these examples feature simple technologies, they encourage us to consider how contemporary technologies might enhance our own evangelistic efforts.
Thesis 5: Scripture warns us to not idolize what technology can do.
In Isaiah 44:12-20, the Lord condemned ironsmiths and carpenters for using technology to make idols to which they bowed. Though we do not literally worship our technological achievements, we can become so dependent on technology that we can’t envision ministry without technology. Once, when I was in charge of worship service, we had a power outage. Though the worship leader could certainly have led music acoustically, he was so frazzled by the situation that his leadership became ineffective. It was as if he couldn’t imagine genuine worship without electrical power. The power of the Holy Spirit alone wasn’t enough.
Thesis 6: One of the trickiest and most important elements of theological reflection on technology is evaluating unintended consequences of a particular technology.
When we decide to use some kind of technology, our primary aims are usually laudable. But there are always unintended consequences that may not be so positive. Sometimes, these are difficult to predict or evaluate in advance.
For example, as senior director of Laity Lodge in southern Texas, I am ultimately responsible for a staff of about 20 people, the majority of whom work at a retreat center far away from our main office. Some time ago, we were struggling to get a few of our employees to fill out their timesheets correctly, since they were not being supervised on site. Our management team decided to use online technology to solve the problem.
When we pitched this plan to our senior financial officer, I expected him to be thrilled. To my surprise, he was anything but happy. He believed that by using the Internet to solve our problem, we were spending too much relational capital, sacrificing personal interaction for online efficiency. He challenged us to find a more personal way of helping our workers begin on time. In the end, I saw that he was quite right about the negative unintended consequences of what we had proposed.
Thesis 7: If we take time to think and pray about technology and its implications, we will often come up with surprising results.
I have found that my theological judgments about technology sometimes change when I set aside time for prayerful reflection. For example, when I saw the Time magazine article about Twittering in church, my knee-jerk response was negative. Then I tried it and found my bias confirmed. I was ready to conclude that Twittering in church is wrong because, among other things, it distracts us from paying attention to the content of the sermon.
I’m still not inclined to Twitter in church, but as I’ve continued to think about it in light of Scripture, I find my views changing. Yes, Twittering during a sermon did keep me from hearing some of what the preacher said. But it also forced me to think more carefully about what the sermon was about to be able to summarize it in a 140-character tweet. I may actually remember more of that sermon because I Twittered during it.
Moreover, when I think of the description of ministry in early Christian gatherings in 1 Corinthians 12-14, I have to admit that there’s more obvious support for a congregation sharing together, perhaps even through Twitter, than for one sitting quietly as one person preaches for a long time. Now, I am a preacher, and I’m not ready to recommend Twittering in church as a means of mutual ministry. But I realize that I need to think more deeply and attentively about this technology in light of what the Bible really says. I must be open to surprises that God might have for me as I seek his perspective on technology.
Dr. Mark D. Roberts is the senior director of Laity Lodge, a multifaceted renewal ministry in the Hill Country of Texas. For 16 years he was the senior pastor of Irvine Presbyterian Church in Southern California. Mark has written several books, but most of his writing today appears on his blog, MarkDRoberts.com.
Source: CHRISTIAN LEADERSHIP ALLIANCE