It’s another new year, one that is sure to be full of predictions about Mayans, American presidents, and technology. Below are the technologies that I think will be the most powerful shapers of Christian spirituality in the next 360 or so days (inspired in part by Wired’s The Best Five Toys of All Time)
1. The Clock
This morning when you woke up, what was the first thing you did? Brush your teeth? Make coffee? Read the Bible? Kiss your spouse?
I can almost guarantee it wasn’t any of those things. No, the first thing we do when we wake up (and the last thing we do before falling back asleep) is read the glowing numbers on a nearby digital clock. Every decision we make, no matter how insignificant or world changing, is shaped by what those numbers tell us. Do I have time to get a coffee on my way to work? Do we have time for communion during this Sunday’s worship service? How many pages of my devotional do I have time to read? How long before I can give my baby another dose of her medicine?
Lewis Mumford and others have pointed out that is was 12th century monks who invented accurate clocks with the hope of standardizing times of prayer. Clocks went on to make accurate ship navigation a reality, and they are what makes the entire internet function. But because they are everywhere, they are invisible, and because they are invisible, we rarely reflect on how they structure the way we see the world and what we can do in it.
Video extension sites and Internet campuses get all the attention these days, but it was the microphone that changed the way we think about Sunday morning and the ministry of the church. Nothing (besides the car) has shaped twentieth century evangelicalism more than the ability to project our voices to ever-larger audiences.
With the ability to reach larger audiences, comes larger congregations, and with larger congregations comes the need to divide them into groups. Those divisions create youth groups, women’s groups, child care, and legacy builders, and so on. And with those groups comes the need for specialized pastors to meet each of their needs.
Large, microphone-powered churches are able to meet needs small ones can’t, but at the same time, by extending the reach of the pulpit, the microphone has also dwarfed the importance of the altar. With no counterbalancing technology to increase the altar’s profile, communion tends to be an after thought behind the technologically-enhanced activities of singing and preaching.
3. Verse Numbers
There’s a Bible for every platform – PCs, Macs, Android, iPhone, iPad, even Windows Phone and BlackBerry have cool Bible software with powerful search abilities.
But long before the Bible went digital, it was chopped up into tweet-sized pieces called “verses.” From the time Moses started writing (let’s say 1500 B.C.) to the time those verse numbers were added and standardized (in the 1600s), not a single Christian on earth knew what a “verse” or a “chapter” was. If one of those ancient believers saw a John 3:16 poster, they’d be as confused as the people Googling Tim Tebow today. They didn’t have favorite verses or life verses – they simply had the non-technologically enhanced Words of God which were usually read to them out loud.
Today verse numbers make all kinds of cool things possible. I’m currently writing some Bible software that relies on chapter:verse numbers heavily, and I’m so glad they exist. But sometimes I prefer to read a Bible that has the chapter/verse layer removed (like what you can buy at http://booksofthebible.info and maybe even the new ESV single column).
4. Personal Electronic Publishing
Media ecologists like to say that there has been a movement in communication from oral to literate to print to digital. The (vastly simplified) story goes that information access increases in each age, and one of the results of this change in access is the disruption of authority structures. In an oral culture, the leader is naturally the oldest person who has accumulated the most information and wisdom. In a literate culture, the leaders are those with money for books and education. In the shift from written texts to printed texts, single leaders like Popes and kings lost their power to protestants and democracies.
In the shift from print to digital, there has been a kind of inversion. In the early days of the Internet, it’s primary significance was increased access to information. But today I think the “big deal” about the Internet is that it gives everyone the ability to publish. We have blogs, twitter, facebook, and more that we can use to share our unfiltered opinions about everything and everyone. There are wonderful things like my friend Rick Smith who, in the short span of a year, has become a major advocate for Down Syndrome and his son Noah. At the same time, people like Rob Bell and Mike Licona were to varying degrees affected by not just what big name writers said in print, but what we collectively as Christians on the Internet said and did through our personal online publishing outlets.
There was a day when publishing something meant it was important, permanent, and had been through a level of editorial scrutiny. But increasingly, we don’t see a great deal of difference between sharing our opinions on facebook and sharing them with friends at a coffeeshop. These are fluid “places” to us. Yet the shift to publicly sharing those thoughts has profound implications for how we value our opinions and those of others.
5. Mobile Devices
I’ve always wanted to try audiobooks, but it wasn’t until I got the Audible app on my iPhone that I really fell in love with them. I also track my runs with RunKeeper, take great photos of my kids, and do all the other cool stuff we love about our smartphones.
And yet, when I take my kids to a park or the church playground, it seems as though 90% of the parents are on their phones most of the time. I, too, sometimes find the pull irresistible. Even when I check the time (another clock!) on the phone, I feel an urge to see if I have any email. Phones have also become more acceptable in church services. A few years ago I noticed one or two people reading the Bible on their PDAs or smartphones, but now it seems like 1 in 6 have them. With that increased acceptance, though, I’ve noticed more and more people doing things other than reading the Bible on their phones.
Of course, people have always had ways to tune out the sermon, doodling on the prayer request card or fiddling with the empty seat in front of us, yet it seems the powerful draw that comes from the phone is something new that we’ll all have to deal with honestly. It will require discipline, accountability, and openness to gain its benefits without being pulled into it’s value system of always on, always engaged.
What other technologies do you see shaping and influencing your and your church’s behaviors in the coming year?