The Second Eclectic

Technology changes how we relate to God and each other

Is technology shaping the future of church?

Is technology shaping the church of the future? Christianity Today recently published a review of the book Slow Church. I scrambled for a highlighter when I reached the end of this paragraph:
Slow Church joins a host of movements inspired by the Slow Food revolt begun in the 1980s, a global coalition that resists the industrialization of all aspects of food. Not all churches have been seduced by what Smith and Pattison call “Franchise faith” or “McDonaldization.” Still, the authors say, at least some fast-food, consumer-culture values—an obsession with efficiency, calculability, predictability, and control—have unwittingly crept into many houses of worship. (italics mine)
When I read this, I thought, Those aren’t consumer-culture values; they’re technological ones. The authors overlooked the real culprit—technology. Cars, buses, and airplanes help us travel farther faster—efficiency. The Apple Watch numbers our heartbeats and counts our calories—calculability—and promises to help us to synchronize our lives to others'—predictability. Food becomes filled with preservatives and chemicals we can’t even pronounce, all in the name of control. The Slow Food movement, which the authors allude to, understood this.

The Slow Food movement perceptively recognized technology’s role. They reacted to the “industrialization” of food. Industrialization is simply another term for “technologization.” And if we’re going to talk Slow Church, then pastors need to be equally perceptive.

Like the proponents of Slow Food, pastors and ministry leaders should pay attention to how their own methods and strategies are tech driven. How are they looking for efficiencies, calculability, predictability, and control? Often it starts with “stewardship.”

Church leaders often embrace new technology in an effort to be “good stewards” of scarce church resources. Scarcity is real, and stewardship is admirable. It has the appearance of faithfulness too. But real faithfulness may also involve trusting in God’s abundance. The loaves and fish remind us of this. When our churches are lacking resources, increasing our efficiency should not be our knee-jerk reaction. If it is, have we stopped depending on God’s abundant provision? Do we only need God when we’ve reached the limits of our technology?

Technology’s values seek more and more to put control in the hands of humans. We want to lock things down. But when have efficiency, calculability, predictability, and control ever been signs of God’s Spirit? Rather, I’ve found that living by his Spirit often involves being available, interruptible, patient, and dependent on God. The more technology we have, the less faith we need.

As we surround ourselves with more and more technology—this tablet, that smartphone—we come to expect efficiency and control. We grow accustomed to them. We become experts in them. We base our lives around them. They become daily, hourly habits. And these habits shape us—heart, mind, and body. These technologies disciple us.

I’m far afield from that brief paragraph I first highlighted. My point is this: The “consumer-culture” label is a bogeyman. Worse: It’s a nebulous generalization that leaves us feeling helpless. Blaming consumer culture doesn’t help anyone. Technology gives us something concrete to consider, even if it hurts.

When we recognize that these consumer values are actually technology-driven, we can begin to see the options we have. Churches can begin to take a hard look at the technology it’s using: communication management tools, tithing kiosks, attendance tracking, child-safety system, multisite solutions. Are they efforts at good stewardship or ways to circumvent the Spirit?

Some may read this and wonder, Well, what exactly is he suggesting? Abandoning these systems? We couldn’t do church without them. And I think that’s partly my point.

Our beliefs about what church is—our ecclesiology—is powerfully influences by the technologies we use to “do church.” And those same technology systems not only influence how we think about church now, but also shape—and limit—how we imagine the church of the future.

We do not need to go back to some idyllic church of days gone by. Although that’s not even an option at this point; we depend so much on our devices. Technology has foreclosed as many possibilities as it has opened. The fact that we can’t imagine church without technology should give us pause.

Until we really grasp how technology is shaping our churches today, we will lack an imagination wide enough to follow the Spirit into the future.

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