Five Things We the Church Need to Know about Technological Change (4 of 5): Technology is Ecological, not Additive

This is part 4 of 5 considering the implications of Neil Postman’s Lecture, “Five Things We Need to Know about Technological Change” for the church. I have re-titled it, “Five Things We the Church Need to Know about Technological Change.”

  1. Technology is Always a Trade-Off
  2. Technology Creates Winners and Losers
  3. Technology Contains a Powerful Idea

4. Technological Change is Not Additive, It is Ecological

Remember that youth group illustration for sin where you put a drop of food coloring in a glass of water, mix it up, and then ask the audience if there is any way to “unmix” it? It’s a powerful visual meant to show that once we sin, we are changed, and we can’t go back to our former, pure state.

This illustration is also apt for what happens when a technology enters the world. New technology is not merely added alongside other things, it changes the world it enters and alters the relationships that existed before.

Societal Examples of Technology as Ecological, Not Additive

  • Mass Transit – When a city adds mass transit (buses, trains, etc.), this form of transportation does not merely sit along side cars. Instead, the ecology of the city changes. People stay in one place for longer, so they shop and eat differently. Roads wear differently, meaning there is less need for construction, or construction jobs. Gas stations, living quarters, and so on all shift around mass transit.
  • Music Downloads – There was a reason music executives feared the Internet. They knew that something like Apple’s iTunes music store would not be an additive change to the music industry, but a major ecological shift to the way music was produced, bought, sold, and consumed. They were right.

Church Examples of Technology as Ecological, Not Additive

The church too has experienced technological change in an ecological, not additive way. Of course, the changes are not always “bad,” but major shifts in the church can be traced to technological changes:

  • Printing Press – The classic example of how technological change affects the church is the story of how the printing press enabled the Protestant Reformation. Certainly many things were at play in the Reformation, but the printing press allowed Luther’s writings and – perhaps more importantly – his German translation of the Scriptures to make it into the hands of commoners. Before the printing press, the Bible was in Latin and the authority was in the Roman Church. Afterwards, the Bible was in many languages and authority was dispersed. Before Gutenberg, no one ever said, “Read your Bible.”
  • Large Church Buildings – The 1950s saw the formation of the megachurch, powered by large buildings, microphones, and speakers. But the megachurch-era didn’t just usher in large Sunday mornings – it oversaw the formation of age, gender, and interest based sub-ministries within churches. Before 2,000 member churches were common, there were few college ministries, young adult ministries, or dedicated youth ministries in the form we see them today. Consider this difference:
    • Twenty 100 member churches require 20 teaching pastors
    • One 2,000 member church requires 1 teaching pastor, 3 associate pastors, 1 adult pastor, 1 youth pastor, 2 secretaries, 1 janitor, 2 worship leaders, 1 sound board guy, etc.

Just as the church was never the same after the printing press and the megachurch, churches will continue to change from recent technologies, perhaps most significantly from the Internet.

Hopefully, by realizing that technology is ecological rather than merely additive, we can guard against trends which would make the body of Christ into the cyborg of Christ :) But as my good friend Josh points out, the Spirit seems to work his way both in spite of and through technology. So let us be like Sons of Issachar, who “understood the times” (1 Chron. 12:32) and be wise, neither fully embracing, nor fully rejecting technology.

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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/.

7 thoughts on “Five Things We the Church Need to Know about Technological Change (4 of 5): Technology is Ecological, not Additive”

  1. It seems like there are three phases currently present:

    1) Offline Churches – no tech involved (builders)
    2) Additive Churches – we have a church web site (boomers)
    3) Ecological Churches – we have small groups on tokbox (busters)

    What do you think? BTW, I’m really enjoying your blog. It’s one of the few that I read completely.

    1. Bronson, thanks for your kind words about the blog!

      Of course, the web is not the only technology that we use or that affects us ecologically. Even the presence of the old “church van” influences what kinds of ministries we’ll do.

      But, in regards to [i]Internet[/i] technologies I’m inclined to say that your proposed taxonomy would be accurate in regards to how deeply a church has integrated the Internet into their activities. The deeper the integration, the more ecological it becomes. Even the additive category though will have some shifts like fewer bulletins (in favor of a web calendar), but the shifts will be more minor.

  2. Still really enjoying this series.

    Have you read The Millennium Matrix by Rex Miller (have I asked that already)? Miller talks about how technology/communication changes our worldview and how it relates to the church. Really, really good stuff.

    1. Sam, thanks for catching that. I transferred my blog from another system to WordPress recently, and it looks like those posts were mangled. They are fixed now. If you see anything else, let me know.

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