Incarnation and the Technology of Virtual Worlds


This Christmas was special for our family as we celebrated not only the birth of our Lord, but the birth of our first child. Unfortunately my entire family couldn’t be together, because my sister was visiting my brother in Hawaii. So we hooked up webcams and, when the time zones aligned, we watched each other open gifts from 4,000 miles away. There were some technical hiccups, but it was fun and much better than not seeing one another at all.

This combination of new life and new technology brought to mind the wonder of Incarnation and its relation to technology, specifically the technology of virtual worlds (facebook, twitter, tokbox, etc.) that we now regularly inhabit.

As those who bear the imago dei, our acts of creation reflect God’s acts of creation. God created the physical world from nothing, and we create technological and virtual worlds from what he has made. It seems then that there is a relationship between Christ taking on his physical creation in the Incarnation and the Church taking on our technological creations.

Christ entered into the physical world he created, and
we should enter into the virtual worlds we’ve created.

In the past few years, the term “incarnational ministry” has been used to describe ministry which goes into the cultural worlds people inhabit just as Christ came into our world to redeem us. Wearing an Abayah to reach an Arab culture, learning a child’s interests, or holding outdoor church services for the homeless are examples of incarnational ministry. Paul also gives us an example of incarnational ministry with policy of being a Jews to the Jews and a Gentile to the Gentiles.

Just as the Incarnation can be applied to entering into cultural worlds, it can also be applied to entering into virtual worlds. For those who already spend a significant amount of time online, this will often be more like “relational evangelism” where we simply share the love of Christ with those around us (my friend Rick Smith does this particularly well). Others may create entire ministries with the goal of reaching people online (another friend Tim Kimberley does this well at where he counsels 1000s of teens). In both cases, the idea is to reach people where they are and bring them into relationship with the Father.

Christ affirmed the importance of the physical world, and
we should affirm the importance of the physical world.

Although it seems clear that we should work to reach people who are online, the permanence of the Incarnation teaches us another important lesson about virtual worlds.

At the Incarnation, the Son of God became fully divine and fully human for all eternity. When he returns one day to build a new earth, he will still be a physical human being, albeit with a glorified body. Sometimes, the afterlife is pictured as a place in the sky with disembodied souls playing harps, but that’s not the biblical portrait. The final destiny of humanity is not a purely spiritual heaven, but a physical earth free from the destructive effects of sin with Christ walking among us.

Since the telos (goal, purpose, destination) of Christ’s work is the physical world created through him, I believe the end point of our ministry should also be the physical world. After all, incarnation literally means “embodied in flesh.” This is not to say that very deep levels of community don’t happen in the virtual world or that the virtual worlds cannot enhance or contribute to relationships, but to affirm with John that face-to-face reality is the “fullness of joy,” the final destination.

There is of course no clear cut way of defining exactly how and when to make this happen, but I do believe that some practical steps can be taken. If I spend a significant amount of time communicating with someone online, I like to meet them in person if possible [Rhett Smith has also made this a goal]. I also encourage people I meet online to attend a local church or community of believers whenever possible. There are certainly exceptional circumstances when physical presence it not possible, such as Paul’s inability to come to Rome but we should still “long to see” one another just as Paul longed to see the Romans.

So, if the Lord tarries until then, I hope next Christmas I can see my family face-to-face.

Five Things We the Church Need Know About Technological Change (3 of 5): There is a Powerful Idea Embedded in Every Technology

This is part 3 of a five part series based on Neil Postman’s lecture “Five Things We Need to Know about Technological Change” applied to the church.

  1. Technology is Always a Trade-Off
  2. Technology Creates Winners and Losers

3. There is a Powerful Idea Embedded in Every Technology

image My friend Trey is an artist and a story teller.

Whether he has his camera in hand or not, he sees the world as pictures that tell stories. His recent photography and video editing work on shows his skill, sensitivity, and passion (its gotten great reviews). Trey’s vision illustrates the old adage attributed to Mark Twain:

To the man with a hammer, everything looks like a nail.

The ever-witty Twain is telling us that the tools we use shape the way we see the world. Postman put it this way: Embedded in every technology is a powerful idea, sometimes two or three ideas. To the man with camera, everything looks like a picture. To the man with a computer, everything looks like information. To the man with twitter, every life event is a clever 140 character statement. Of course, we don’t need to take these aphorisms literally, but they do tell us that every technology has a prejudice, a subtle influence, or an embedded message.

King David & Technology in the Church

The catch is that those embedded messages are sometimes at odds with the Gospel and the Kingdom of Jesus Christ.

king david bridgman For example, consider the story of King David and the census (2 Samuel 24; 1 Chronicles 21). David, a lowly shepherd, became a king solely because the Lord was with him. But as king, he was presented with a powerful technology – the ability to count his soldiers and people. Whatever that technology was, it communicated that numbers – big numbers – were important. David sinned when he began to trust more in the number of his soldiers than in sovereignty of God. There was nothing morally wrong with counting, but the powerful idea behind counting had an influence on David’s spirituality. If he had thought through the implications of the technology of the census, perhaps he could have still used it without putting God second.

If Postman is right that technology always has a trade-off of some kind, then there is a chance that incorporating a new medium or technology in the church (or our personal lives) will have some influences which are compatible with Christianity and some which are not. Our task is to spend some time thinking about these influences before we implement them. Of course, most technology has the embedded message of “speed” which says, “don’t think about technology – just try to keep up!”

However, there are a few recent examples of technological products whose creator seem to have though through their possible negative messages and attempted to counteract it:

  • Nintendo Wii – By definition you play the Wii inside, but every 20 minutes or so, it tells you that you should go outside and play. This may not seem like a big deal, but when a $250 product is telling you “Stop using me,” that’s pretty amazing.
  • ROOV – For all the personal connections that Social Networks allow, they also encourage us to relate through a technology and not face to face. ROOV on the other hand is specifically designed to facilitate “offline” face to face relationships.

Perhaps if we spend some time thinking like Nintendo and Roov, we could enable the beautiful story-tellers, like Trey, while avoiding some of the pitfalls into which even great leaders like King David fell.

D. A. Carson on Technology Culture

Themelios - Volume 33, Issue 3In the latest issue of the online journal Themelios, D. A. Carson’s editorial is largely concerned with technology. Here’s a choice quote:

Scarcely less important than speed of access is the Internet’s sheer intoxicating addictiveness–or, more broadly, we might be better to think of the intoxicating addictiveness of the entire digital world. Many are those who are never quiet, alone, and reflective, who never read material that demands reflection and imagination. The iPods provide the music, the phones constant access to friends, phones and computers tie us to news, video, YouTube, Facebook, and on and on. This is not to demonize tools that are so very useful. Rather, it is to point out the obvious: information does not necessarily spell knowledge, and knowledge does not necessarily spell wisdom, and the incessant demand for unending sensory input from the digital world (says he, as he writes this on a computer for an electronic theological journal) does not guarantee we make good choices. We have the potential to become world citizens, informed about every corner of the globe, but in many western countries the standards of geographical and cross-cultural awareness have seriously declined. We have access to spectacularly useful information, but most of us diddle around on ephemeral blogs and listen to music as enduring as a snowball in a blast furnace. Sometimes we just become burned out by the endless waves of bad news, and decide the best course is to turn the iPod volume up a bit. (emphasis mine)

The entire article is largely a reflection on his book Christ and Culture Revisited more than a piece on pure technology, but it is very good. Here is the conclusion:

I shall not here review the Christian resources God has kindly lavished on us to enable us not to conform to the pattern of this world. If we are to be transformed by the renewing of our mind, then we must be reading the Scriptures perennially, seeking to think God’s thoughts after him, focusing on the gospel of God and pondering its implications in every domain of life. We need to hear competing voices of information from the world around us, use our time in the digital world wisely, and learn to shut that world down when it becomes more important to get up in the morning and answer emails than it does to get up and read the Bible and pray. We may also learn much from church history, where we observe fellow believers in other times and cultures learning the shape of faithfulness. We begin to detect how easily the “world” may squeeze us into its mold. We soon learn that adequate response is more than mere mental resolve, mere disciplined observance of the principle “garbage in, garbage out” (after all, we are what we think), though it is not less than that. The gospel is the power of God issuing in salvation. Empowered by the Holy Spirit and living in the shadow of the cross and resurrection, we find ourselves wanting to be conformed to the Lord Jesus, wanting to be as holy and as wise as pardoned sinners can be this side of the consummation. (emphasis mine)

HT: Justin Taylor at Between Two Worlds.

Five Things We the Church Should Know about Technological Change (2 of 5): Technology Creates Winners and Losers

This post is part 2 of 5 in a series exploring the implications of Neil Postman’s Five Things We Need to Know About Technological Change for the Christian community.

  1. Technology is Always a Trade-Off

2. Technology Creates Winners and Losers

Britannica KidIf you are a child of the 80s or early 90s, you might remember commercials with a geeky kid promoting Encyclopedia Britannica. It turns out that not only was the kid a “geek,” but he was also part of a group of “losers” in the game of technological progress.

In part 1, we saw that technology is always a trade-off of advantages and disadvantages. The second thing we need to know about technological change is that those trade-offs are never evenly distributed among the population. For every new technology, some people benefit greatly, but often that benefit is at the expense of others.

Today, Google is now a multi-billion dollar company while Britannica is almost completely forgotten. Looking back, when the automobile was invented, car makers profited, while blacksmiths were left behind. Further back, the printing press made printers rich and copiers obsolete.

Winners and Losers in the Church

While the prior topic of “trade-offs” was more abstract, the concept of “winners and losers” deals with real people’s lives. Here are just a few places where technology creates winners and losers within ministries and churches.

Ministry Staffing

  • Speakers: The communication technology of the 20th and 21st centuries first enabled the large church and now has blossomed into today’s video and internet campuses. These technologies have tended to enable popular speakers with large budgets to be “winners,” while those speakers whose skill may need more time to develop tend to be on the losing end.
  • Technical Staff: People like me, those with specialized technical knowledge (web design, video production, programming, etc.) now have very prominent roles in churches and ministries. Compare the ratio of technical to non-technical staff of a church today with the same one 40 years ago, and you’ll see some clear “winners.”

The point here is not to be critical of video campuses or technical workers in ministries. Personally, I think it’s amazing that churches are hiring members of the body of Christ with technical and artistic skill, and I love that art and beauty are again being valued. Just yesterday, I received an encouraging email from a deaf woman who found that DTS was the only seminary she could find with online education technology supporting the hearing impaired. I wrote the software for this, and I’m glad that she and I are “winners.”

However, for all those positives, we must remember that there are real people who come out on the losing end of technology at times. For example, in the recent economic downturn, my employer Dallas Seminary, had to reduce some of its staff. My job and department were not affected, but many non-technical personnel were let go. Sadly, in this case, there were clear winners and losers. I found myself wondering,

“If my job stability were on the basis of the requirements of a elders and deacons in 1 Timothy and Titus rather than my specialized technical knowledge, would I still be employed?”


The Believing Community

Beyond the staffing of ministries, the people in our churches are affected by the technology we employ which has the possibility of segmenting them into groups:

  • Young and old: When a church adopts technology, it is also appealing to a certain audience. In most cases, a high-tech church will appeal more to the young and less to the old. Of course, we are commanded to reach the young, and their language and culture is technological, so we must speak that language. However, in our attempts to minister to the young, we must not neglect the older, much wiser saints who Paul said should be guiding us young folk (Titus 2). If our high-tech ways reach only the young, while alienating the old, we will lose out on their wisdom. Then everyone is a “loser.”
  • Rich and poor: Technology does not just separate the old from the young, it can also separate the rich from the poor. For all of our talk of being culturally relevant with the latest and greatest video and internet equipment, we rarely hear of anyone wanting to be culturally relevant to the poor and lo-tech. For me, that would be following Jesus a little too closely!
  • Outside the Church: Finally, we need to be sensitive to the technological shifts happening outside the walls of our churches. Right now, autoworkers in Detroit are suffering, as are financers in New York and assembly line workers in China. As we look around and see technological change, often enjoying cool new gadgets, we need to remember that there is someone out there on the losing end who may be in need the love of Christ.

It would be a mistake to conclude that we should reject or run from technology because it can create “winners” and “losers.” Instead, we ought to recognize that technology is not perfect and that for all its good, there is a cost to using it – sometimes that cost is in persons. Hopefully, by understanding these technological times we can guard against pride in our devices and skills and be more aware of those in need of the love of Christ.

Do you have thoughts on how you’ve seen some benefit from technology more than others within ministries? How do you attempt to balance this in your own ministry?

Facebook and Video Chat predicted 100 years ago! [Recommended Reading]

image If you like reading short stories, I’ve got a great one for you. In 1909, E. M. Forster published the short story The Machine Stops which told of a future in which humans live in temperature-controlled underground rooms with no outside human contact, communicating to others exclusively using“cinematophoes” (his prediction of video conferencing).

The story was written

  • before TVs and computers, just after the first radios
  • before dishwashers, washing machines, air conditioning, universal electrical lighting, and fast food
  • before cars were mainstream, just after the Wright brothers’ flight

He predicts

  • people having 1000s of “friends” that they never see in person (including family), only on a screen
  • people eating processed foods and loosing physical strength
  • people feeling totally overloaded by the sheer amount of communication they receive every day
  • the total, unquestioning acceptance of technology by society and the rejection of original thought

The story is a fascinating look at what would happen if society got to a point where people could only relate to one another through some kind of technology (bonus for alluding to Plato’s Allegory of the Cave and foreshadowing everything from Brave New World to The Matrix to Wall-E). The story focuses on a mother and son’s relationship, and it’s was a little eerie to me because my mom also lives lives far away, and we mostly communicate through phone calls, email, facebook, etc. Thankfully my mom loves to visit and would never prefer the virtual world over the real world.

Though the author is not writing as a Christian, he seems to understand that the fullness of human relationship and being happens in the physical world, the world into which the Son of God incarnated himself. Technological mediums are great for enabling relationships when one can’t be physically present, but we need to careful that it doesn’t replace real-life contact. Not only does it erode our relationships, it ultimately can erode what we are as humans. Yikes!

If you get a chance to read the story let me know what you think.

Five Things We the Church Need to Know About Technological Change: (1 of 5) Technology is Always a Trade-Off

This is part one of a five part series exploring Neil Postman’s lecture “Five Things You Need to Know about Technological Change” as it relates to church life and spirituality.

1. Technology is Always a Trade-Off

image When I was a youth pastor (that’s me in the orange at GBC), I desperately wanted to get a video projector. I wanted to be able to illustrate with video clips, play Halo with the kids, and display an outline of what I was teaching. After a long wait, a church member donated an old projector to the youth group and I was totally exited.

About six months later, however, I noticed something strange – fewer and fewer kids were bringing their Bible to church, and those that brought them rarely opened them during church. Was I the world’s worst youth pastor, I wondered? Maybe, but it might also have been that since the Scripture was always on screen, the kids didn’t feel any reason to open their own Bibles.

This is a classic example of how introducing a new technology tends to be a trade-off of some kind. These kinds of changes have been well-documented in society at large, but it is also true in the church. Here are a few examples:

  • In the 12th and 13th centuries, Benedictine monks created the mechanical clock to precisely regulate their seven periods of daily devotion, but the clock has also contributed to our fast-paced, often impersonal worship services today.
  • In the 15th and 16th centuries, the printing press brought personal copies of the Bibles which increased personal Bible study, but also decreased in the authority of the church and the reading of Scripture in community.
  • In the 20th century, transportation technologies like the automobile enabled us to drive to the church of our choice, but also tended to take us away from our immediate communities.
  • The 20th century also brought a host of media technologies like photography, radio, TV, and the internet. The microphone enabled the formation of today’s large (and mega) churches which allows pooling of resources and gifted teaching, but also lends toward congregants knowing very few of the people they sit next to.

Postman’s conception of

Great Quote: Sigmund Freud

Freud had some great observations about how the technology of his day (wired telephones and railroads) were affecting his world. This quote summarizes his feelings:

“If there had been no railway to conquer distance, my child would never have left town and I should need no telephone to hear his voice.”

I love how Freud encapsulates one of today’s most fascinating phenomena: we create technology to help solve problems created by technology. This seems to beautifully capture the human condition.

(Freud, Sigmund. Civilization and Its Discontents. New York: W. W. Norton, 1961, p. 38.)

Losers Talk about Winners and Losers in Technology

At the beginning of this clip is a humorously botched illustration about trade-offs with technology. (Disclaimer: Jake and Amir is like a funnier, much more crass version of Jim and Dwight on the The Office. Watch at your own discretion).

It goes something like this:

Imagine aliens came and offered to give us a technology that could teleport you from point A to point B. The catch was that the aliens would kill 50,000 people at random each year. Would you take the technology?

The punchline is that this describes the statistics on automobiles pretty accurately (Amir confuses cars with gangs). Cars let us “teleport” around with ease and yet many people die because of them. When someone uses the illustration, usually someone else counters with something like the number the people saved by ambulances, but the point that cars bring a positive and a negative is pretty clear.

What about the Church?

When we talk about implementing technologies like social networking, mobile phones, video projectors, and so on in our churches, what if the questions were posed this way?

Imagine someone came and offered to give your church a technology that would allow you to reach out to millions of people. The only catch was that 50,000 people a year became less able to concentrate and another 50,000 became extremely lonely. Would you accept it?

Or this way:

Ways of Thinking About Technology

image Two recent blog posts, one from Paul and Timothy Bible Conference the other from Justin Buzzard’s Buzzard Blog
offer some helpful thoughts about social networking. The conclusions
and recommendations are excellent, and I think there is room for developing a model for getting to these kinds of conclusions.

(Similarly, there has been a recent discussion of the pros and cons of Twitter at Christ and Pop Culture and a response by Owen Strachan.)

“This Can Be Used for…” Thinking

main idea in both articles is that “Facebook can be bad but, if used
properly, Facebook can also be a force for good.” Both authors offer
helpful lists of possible good and bad uses of Facebook. Buzzard’s is
very practical while P&T seems to be more high level. I think these
are the kinds of excellent conclusions and recommendations that we need to be
talking about in the church.

However, somtimes this kind of discussion can be a bit misleading. It has the possibility of making someone assume that because something “can be used for good” it automatically should. That can leave a reader or listener to think that we should primarly evaluate
technology on the basis of morality and usefulness. Buzzard writes,

(most, not all) is neutral and can be used for good or ill… Internet …
Dispense truth or porn… Approach technology with this lens: neutral,
good or ill.

Here, he means that technology is morally neutral. Buzzard's full presentation goes beyond this idea though to say that facebook itself is not really neutral and that it can have some effects on us just by using it.

Facebook and online life can make you more distracted, changes how you think/attention span (Buzzard)

Buzzard recognizes that Facebook itself – not just how it is used, but that it is used – tends toward distraction. This means that while Facebook may be morally neutral, it is not inherently neutral. This is an excellent way of thinking about a technology like facebook, and I think Buzzard has made some major strides in that direction.

“How Will this Technology Change Me?” Thinking

of limiting our thinking about technology to the possible moral ends,
we need to think of technology in terms of what it
demands of us and how it will influence us whether it is used for good
or bad ends.

In other words, when we evaluate a technology we need to begin, not on moral grounds or with possible good or bad ends, but with its inherent effects on us. Then we need to compare those influences to our theology of Christian Spirituality and Mission.

A Model for Theological Reflection on Technology

  1. Nature of the Technology
    – Start by asking questions like, What does this technology inherently
    demand of me? What influence will it have on me? How does it affect my
    thinking, my relating, my day-to-day actions?
  2. Theological Grounding
    Ensure that you your theology is robust and well thought out in the
    following areas: What is a human? What is a human relationship? What is
    way of being and doing for which God has made us?
  3. Theological/Technological

The Newest “Digital Native”

Here is my awesome new son (Benjamin) on his second day in the hospital.


This picture is significant, first because my son is awesome, and second because he will grow up in a world where things like iPhones are commonplace. For me, the internet came into full swing in high school. For him, the formation of the internet will be something about which he'll learn as history. He will never know the world without it.

My parents grew up in a largely static technological environment
with no major technological shifts from the 40s through 60s. I am
maturing in an ever changing technological environment, accreting new
technologies each year. My little son will grow up with all of these technologies already in place – a world very
different mine or his grandparents.

Digital Natives vs. Digital Immigrants

To describe this phenomenon, Marc Prensky coined the term “digital native” in a magazine called Educational Leadership. He used to term to describe the current generation of children whose lives started after the internet age began. They are natives in the digital world, whereas we who entered the digital world later in life are “digital immigrants.” Prensky summarized what this means,

Our students are no longer “little versions of us,” as they may have been in the past. In fact, they are so different from us that we can no longer use either our 20th century knowledge or our training as a guide to what is best for them educationally.

Certainly, this is an interesting subject for general educators, but for today’s theological educators it is more than interesting – it must be an essential part of our concepts of humanity, the body of Christ, and the transmission of the Gospel.

Two Theological Issues

As I see, it there are (at least) two major issues related to the digital native vs. digital immigrant divide.

  1. Theology of the Word – The term the “word of God” is used throughout Scripture, but it tends refers mainly to the person of Christ and God’s communication to us (ironically, the biblical authors do not use the term “word of God” to refer to Scripture). Since the digital age modifies how we understand communication, the idea of “word” will need to be reexamined by both natives and immigrants.
  2. Theology of Relationality – The “image of God” means, at least in part, that humans are relational beings. In the digital age, many relationships are mediated by some form of technology, meaning that digital natives will understand “it is not good for humankind to be alone” differently than digital immigrants. For our churches to function as the “Body of Christ” we will need to be aware of how technology may separate the right hand from the left.