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?”

Snap!

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?

Published by

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/.

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

  1. Interesting topic John. I was working on this topic in my graduate program in sociology at UNT. You should read “Televangelism and American Culture: The Business of Popular Religion” by Schultze. In one chapter he speaks of how technology is usually promoted as the key to accomplishing our next ministry or evangelism goal. Now that this new technology is here, we can reach more people, etc.

    I’m not sure your comment, “technology of the 20th and 21st centuries first enabled the large church” is accurate. Churches with thousands of parishioners have existed for thousands of years (i.e. Charles Surgeon’s Church, Evangelist George Whitefield). The only difference today is that “technology” seems to be the aspect helping Christian leaders with large followers. I believe the phenomenon has more to do with marketing, as it did with Whitefield.

    Prominent Christian leaders of today (you term “winners”) are insensate promoters of their ministries, if not themselves. The same could be said for Bible colleges and seminaries. Not that this is necessarily bad, but I believe it is a consequence of the church’s break from the state (wherever you see that happening). There is no overarching protestant authority in this country. Anyone can setup a website, write a book or build a building and declare themselves a legitimate church or ministry. Because they are not legitimized by an ecclesiastical body, they must market themsevles. And the method by which this happens today is “technology”. It is not the “technology” that creates the winners and losers, it is those who know how to market themselves vs. those who do not.

  2. Eric, Thanks for commenting! And for recommended Schultze’s book. That sounds great, and I’ll definitely check it out.

    Also, thanks for pointing out that there were large churches before the 20th century – I need to edit the post to make that clearer. Still those were very rare exceptions, and there are exponentially more large churches today than there were a century ago. Whitefield and Spurgeon had voices that enabled them to speak to large groups, but today’s churches could not operate if you took away the electricity, lights, air conditioning, microphones, and automobiles to drive there.

    A lot could be said about marketing and Protestant ecclesiology, but the point here by Postman is that the effects of a technology are not evenly distributed among people. Some reap the benefits (“winners”) and some don’t (“losers”), and this can be seen both in society at large and in the church.

    For example, today the microphone has leveled the playing field in regards to vocal volume, and that affects different people differently. It would take away Whitefield’s advantage and it gives techie people like me and you a job.

  3. I think about this a lot as I have opportunity to lead the church in worship. we must find ways to honor the “both/and” – young & old, rich & poor, etc. I don’t think I can propose a particular idea or model, other than [i]advocacy[/i].

    as the Lord has allowed me to have more and more influence in more and more circles, I don’t always find it comforting that I have more “power.” that somehow my life will be easier b/c of it. quite the opposite. with “power” comes responsibility, and I’ve realized that the more influence I have, the greater responsibility I have to use it not only wisely, but also generously for those who don’t.

    it’s the kingdom paradox in one of its many forms – the “higher” I go up the ladder, the lower my role becomes…I have that much more at my disposal to serve & build others. this is how I see it with regard to the winners and losers in the advance of technology, too (in a simple and cursory way).

  4. @Bleek, love your thoughts bro, and I love getting to serve with you and Eric!

    I too feel the incredible joy of being able to reach people via technology and the weight of responsibility it brings. Good thing we have the Spirit of God and not just ourselves!

  5. John,

    Taken the exposition growth in population in to account, I’m not sure if there really are more large churches today than say, 500 years ago. If you look at the cathedrals of Europe, many of them hold well of 500 and are designed to project the speaker’s, and the choir’s voices. As you say, technology (buildings) was developed to project sound, even before electronic sound reinforcement.

    I believe it is important when analyzing the effects of technology, to understand that it (technology) is not a 20th cent. phenomenon. Technology is simply the creation of tools, methods or systems. Speaking as a sociologist, this could be analyzed from at least two different theories. Conflict theory would say that new technology is developed by the powerful in order to suppress the powerless and thus create a new order (thesis-antithesis-synthesis). Structural Functional theory says that new technology supports a new “function” in society.

    In both theories there are “winners” and “losers”, but both groups are a necessary by-product of the system. In other words, because society is advancing (from a Sociological standpoint), the new “function” or “synthesis” will weed out the old. This is unavoidable.

    I believe technology in the Church is more tied to the larger society than trends in the Church itself. “Winners” and “losers” in this technology battle are not birth in the Church, but enter the Church that way. For example, a Christian who does not have internet access cannot operate on many levels of society (pay bills online, email, etc.) When they become part of a Church that relies on the internet to communicate, they are “losers” because they were already “losers” in the broader culture.

    Your thoughts requested.

  6. Thanks for the great info on sociological theories! I only focused on the last century or two to keep the blog post short. A discussion of the changes brought by Medieval architecture would be a fun subject too though!

    So, it sounds like you’re saying that sociological changes create winners and losers and that technology is a part of that. I think Postman would agree, but he might argue that some sociological changes are driven by technological change, particularly since the Industrial Revolution. But a discussion of “the chicken or the egg” is probably beyond the scope of this little blog post :)

  7. Sociology is the Science of Society, including technological changes. Technology is part of society because it is created and utilized by society. Because it is created by society, it cannot, in and by itself, affect society. Instead, its affect is linked to the people(s) that create it, and ultimately their motives. All that to say, I don’t believe when we speak of the affect of technology we enter a chicken/egg discussion.

    For all the “technology” that we are aware of to analyze there are many more that will slip our minds. Sure, we can discuss the affects of computers and the internet on ministry, but will this really give us a complete picture? The church exist in a social organism which is in constant flux. Humanity continually pursues advancement of technology for the purpose of power and influence.

    Maybe the question we should be asking is: does our desire to implement a new technology in our ministry stem more from our need to be perceived as winners (or ministering to winners), or from a real ministry need? We know that our larger society will inevitably get us to adopt its new technologies, so why do we have to feel like we are on the cutting edge?

  8. “[technology’s] affect is linked to the people(s) that create it, and ultimately their motives”
    – I think Postman’s point is that sometimes technology has effects/consequences that are different from its creator’s intent/motive.

    “will this really give us a complete picture?”
    – You’re right, technology is not the complete picture, but it’s an important aspect worth thinking about.

    Thanks for your thoughts!

  9. John,

    Great post…lots to comment on here, but I just wanted to say something quickly about one issue I have had trouble with in the church…in my own experience.

    That was, that there were many opportunities for there to be many winners in some church settings, but there was often so much push back from “elders” for example, or those who didn’t want change, etc…so that push back, along with the push forward, definitely created winners and losers.

    I agree with your analysis…I have just been bummed in situation where everyone could have benefited but opposition was created in an attempt to keep things as is…because that’s the way we “have always done it.”

    Enjoy your posts.

    rhett

  10. i am a Christians news letter writer.
    my first edition is titled DISCIPLINE IN CHURCH.
    1 major point i the book is HOW TECHNOLOGY TODAY AFFECTS CHURCH DISCIPLINE.

  11. The new Toyota Aqua Hybrid is expected to be reelased with a very competitive starting price, and the recent pre-orders for the new model has clearly outshined its key competitor, Chevy Volt.

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