Internet Anonymity, Like Fig Leaves and AA, Can Be a Means of Grace

There has been quite a bit of recent discussion asking how “real” Internet community is. However, for me, it’s more helpful to ask, “What kind of community is the Internet distinctly good at creating?” One answer is that the Internet is good at fostering anonymity.

Of course, we all know that anonymity can have a very negative impact on a person and their actions, but it can also be a very powerful tool for certain kinds of ministry. The following video about Tim Kimberley, a pastor in Portland, OR who runs helives.com is a great example:

Tim, who is also a dear friend of mine, says,

There are many people who feel more comfortable behind their keyboard than behind a pew. The Internet seems like such an anonymous place. It seems like such a place where people can pretend whoever they’re going to be. What we found, especially with teenagers is that online a teenagers has no reason to lie.

They’re anonymous in the identity, but they’re not anonymous in their heart. And so we had teenagers say things to us that are so raw . I would think to myself, ‘A teenager would never walk up to me in church and ask me what they just asked me.’

With helives.com, Tim has harnessed Internet anonymity and used it to create a healing environment for teens.

Continue reading Internet Anonymity, Like Fig Leaves and AA, Can Be a Means of Grace

Incarnation and the Technology of Virtual Worlds

Christmas-2008-webcam

This Christmas was special for our family as we celebrated not only the birth of our Lord, but the birth of our first child. Unfortunately my entire family couldn’t be together, because my sister was visiting my brother in Hawaii. So we hooked up webcams and, when the time zones aligned, we watched each other open gifts from 4,000 miles away. There were some technical hiccups, but it was fun and much better than not seeing one another at all.

This combination of new life and new technology brought to mind the wonder of Incarnation and its relation to technology, specifically the technology of virtual worlds (facebook, twitter, tokbox, etc.) that we now regularly inhabit.

As those who bear the imago dei, our acts of creation reflect God’s acts of creation. God created the physical world from nothing, and we create technological and virtual worlds from what he has made. It seems then that there is a relationship between Christ taking on his physical creation in the Incarnation and the Church taking on our technological creations.

Christ entered into the physical world he created, and
we should enter into the virtual worlds we’ve created.

In the past few years, the term “incarnational ministry” has been used to describe ministry which goes into the cultural worlds people inhabit just as Christ came into our world to redeem us. Wearing an Abayah to reach an Arab culture, learning a child’s interests, or holding outdoor church services for the homeless are examples of incarnational ministry. Paul also gives us an example of incarnational ministry with policy of being a Jews to the Jews and a Gentile to the Gentiles.

Just as the Incarnation can be applied to entering into cultural worlds, it can also be applied to entering into virtual worlds. For those who already spend a significant amount of time online, this will often be more like “relational evangelism” where we simply share the love of Christ with those around us (my friend Rick Smith does this particularly well). Others may create entire ministries with the goal of reaching people online (another friend Tim Kimberley does this well at helives.com where he counsels 1000s of teens). In both cases, the idea is to reach people where they are and bring them into relationship with the Father.

Christ affirmed the importance of the physical world, and
we should affirm the importance of the physical world.

Although it seems clear that we should work to reach people who are online, the permanence of the Incarnation teaches us another important lesson about virtual worlds.

At the Incarnation, the Son of God became fully divine and fully human for all eternity. When he returns one day to build a new earth, he will still be a physical human being, albeit with a glorified body. Sometimes, the afterlife is pictured as a place in the sky with disembodied souls playing harps, but that’s not the biblical portrait. The final destiny of humanity is not a purely spiritual heaven, but a physical earth free from the destructive effects of sin with Christ walking among us.

Since the telos (goal, purpose, destination) of Christ’s work is the physical world created through him, I believe the end point of our ministry should also be the physical world. After all, incarnation literally means “embodied in flesh.” This is not to say that very deep levels of community don’t happen in the virtual world or that the virtual worlds cannot enhance or contribute to relationships, but to affirm with John that face-to-face reality is the “fullness of joy,” the final destination.

There is of course no clear cut way of defining exactly how and when to make this happen, but I do believe that some practical steps can be taken. If I spend a significant amount of time communicating with someone online, I like to meet them in person if possible [Rhett Smith has also made this a goal]. I also encourage people I meet online to attend a local church or community of believers whenever possible. There are certainly exceptional circumstances when physical presence it not possible, such as Paul’s inability to come to Rome but we should still “long to see” one another just as Paul longed to see the Romans.

So, if the Lord tarries until then, I hope next Christmas I can see my family face-to-face.

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?