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 www.iamsecond.com 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.

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?

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