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

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John Dyer

In my day job, I work at Dallas Theological Seminary, and at night I write Bible software for countries whose leaders could be called "overlords." This one time, I wrote a book about technology and Christian faith. You can find out more about what I'm up to at http://j.hn/.

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

  1. Hey man I like the blog! (I didn’t even know you had this blog…)

    Anyway, very good insights. There are trade offs indeed. One I often think of is how “connected” I am. Or so it seems. Yes I thanks to Facebook, twitter, etc, I now know what my friends had for lunch, or what movie they just got out of.

    But am I really connected? I don’t think so. I mean why is it that everyone on facebook has a perfect marriage? (I never see a status update “just fought with my wife, man I’m a jerk” or ” I haven’t spent time with God in over a week, and God feels distance” – people are only going tell you things they want you to know, and you’ll never REALLY known them this way. Even though people think they have a ton of friends because there facebook friend count is up, do they really have friends? Are they really connected? Are people really doing life? I think not.

    These social networking tools, all-though very nice to have, seem to trick people into thinking they have relationships (friendships) with people, and in fact they don’t even know that person. It’s sort of a catch-22…..

  2. intriguing. just last night, I hopped onto facebook after checking email, and found a friend who said, “anyone want free tickets to Death Cab, call me.” so I called him. long story short, we met in the middle of Dallas, carpooled to Nokia, and had the most extensive and personal conversation we’ve ever had. and the show was sweet, too. culture, all culture (including tech), is subject to the whims of the Spirit.

  3. Good post here John. We do need to all think more thoughtfully about technology and how we use it, especially in ministry and church.

    I’ve had my fair share of jumping on tech stuff to early in my ministry experience, thinking it would help things, change things…and I was wrong.

    I do like that technology is helping lead the way in some areas of the church…or rather bringing us back to places we need to be…I know, sounds vague what I’m saying. But I think there are some things that technology, social media is doing right, that we as a Church body can learn a lot from….

    We should hang out sometime…would love to meet and hang out here in Dallas.

    Rhett

  4. Rhett,
    I totally agree with your statement that technology can sometimes “bring us back to place we need to be.”

    I sometimes think that’s what happened in the projector story. Instead of individual Bible reading where each kid had his own Bible, we sort of returned to a communal reading of the Scriptures (albeit on screen) like the church before the printing press.

    So I definitely don’t mean to be anti-technology, just thoughtfully so… especially since I get to connect to cool people like you and then meet in person!

  5. Mmmmm. Can’t wait to see the rest. I am trying to get my church to understand this idea that technology is not neutral and has trade-offs. I think it is really important to grasp this because for me personally it has helped me make some wise choices regarding how I use technology everyday.

    There are some numbers I refuse to enter into my cell phone because I have noticed that the more I adopt certain technologies the more my memory stinks. It’s a small practice, I know.

  6. On reflection, I disagree with Postman.

    Would we say God’s character is always a Trade-Off?

    I believe technology can be of God, created to be good, reflecting His character.

    Thus, ideally, technology need not involve trade-off of good vs bad.

    The problem is not that technology involves trade-offs, but that we do not submit its creation and use to God.

    Did you ask God for insight in how to best use your new projector? Did you ask Him how to avoid its mis-use? Perhaps you would have seen in advance that “easy” is not always a good purpose for technology… that a projector can enrich, but simply shoving verses on the screen mostly makes the audience more passive.

    Is our fast pace due to clocks or a desire for “efficiency”?

    Do personal bibles actually decrease community? In other cultures, people find it unthinkable to read anything important in isolation. They read in community. [There’s still the important question of multimedia (or “oral”) culture vs literary culture.]

    Is the problem with the travel-enabling, or with our desire to be in control of life? [I agree: many technologies empower the temptation to check-out from hard situations, whether near or far.]

    I have a hard time believing that microphones (available for more than a hundred years, and cheap for more than 40) were significant in the onset of impersonal big-church. After all, we’ve had cathedrals with amazing acoustics for many centuries. [At the same time, literally deafening sound levels can cause great harm to young and old alike. How many churches are careful with sound levels?]

    My point: we must be careful when assigning blame :)

    1. Pete, again great thoughts brother! I really appreciate your comments.

      I think you’re right to note that some of the “negative” effects of technology are really the result of human human depravity misusing technology, rather than any fault of the technology itself.

      Postman might not be right in every case, but he does a good job of showing how technology influences society in ways we aren’t always aware of or which were unintended.

      1. You wrote: “Postman might not be right in every case, but he does a good job of showing how technology influences society in ways we aren’t always aware of or which were unintended.”

        1000 percent agreement! Postman’s Technopoly in particular raises disturbing questions not easily answered. It set me on the path of inquiry about a decade ago.

        It’s funny actually: I found myself reacting to your Postman series in particular because of time we’ve spent interacting with some other evangelicals who had uncritically adopted Postman’s views. I apologize if I allowed you to get caught in the virtual crossfire :)

        I’m glad for the writing you’re doing. It’s very encouraging to me — I have so much that needs to be written (vs the workshops and presentations we’ve done over the last several years), and am just getting started!

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