Jesus calls us to be faithful, but sometimes we might mistake that for the calling to be efficient. There’s certainly nothing wrong with efficiency, but in ministry, what are the instruments of love? Let me tell you a not-necessarily fictional story about the dangers of church tech.
A parable: a pastor hears a tone and looks down at his iWatch to see a text message, “Urgent! Dave Johnson has had a heart attack—his family is at the Emergency Room in a nearby suburb—can you meet them there?” The pastor taps a thumbs-up and instantly his afternoon has been turned over like a fruit cart. He pulls his car to the side of the road, grabs his mobile phone, and opens the church app.
Within moments he sees a picture of Dave Johnson (in a congregation of 400 people how can a pastor be expected to remember the details of everyone on the church?). The app begins to fill in the blanks: wife is named Nancy; they have two teenagers still in high school. The first hurdle has been cleared—when the walks into the Emergency room he will call each one by name, able to hold a hand or look someone in the eye without worries of seeming distant in a crisis. Still at the roadside the pastor identifies which community group the Johnsons have recently attended, along with the names of other people in that group. He messages the office, asking them to reach out to the Johnson’s friends and arrange a meal; he remotely checks the church budget and confirms there’s enough available in the benevolence budget to offer to put the family up in hotel across the street for the first night of their ordeal.
Back at the office the church staff (just one other full time person and two part-timers) discretely contact other members of the church family to arrange practical help. By the time the pastor pulls into the hospital parking lot he has a follow-up message waiting for him—the church is pulling together its human resources to show love in a dozen practical ways. The pastor opens the car door, utters a prayer for family. Now his real work begins.
Pastors and church staff, indeed, members of any congregation have always been committed to providing care for the flock, but in recent years the ability to respond quickly, deeply, and fully has been improved by such strange-sounding things as databases, spreadsheets, text notifications, phone calls, and even .jpeg files, all of them now available via Wi-Fi or cellular data. Whether in response to a local family tragedy or disaster relief in another country, now—more than ever—the church can imitate the actions demonstrated in church in Philippi, when Paul observed, “you have revived your concern . . . indeed, you were concerned before, but you lacked opportunity.”
Whether in the 1st or 21st century, the church has always cared. In our day church tech has made the opportunities for practical care more abundant than ever. But what are the dangers of church tech?
Church life in the Western world is a dynamic affair: big buildings, compelling worship, and ministry teams that are the most technically assisted in human history. But ours in an ancient faith as well. The love of God, the grace of Christ, and the presence of the Spirit have always been the true essence of God’s “equipping of the saints to do the work of the ministry.” And from the first time Paul and Barnabas set out upon their missionary journeys, Christians have adopted whatever technology is available in service of the gospel.
The dangers of church tech in this present age may sound familiar: having begun in the Spirit we might be tempted to finish in the flesh. From handwritten epistles to digital newsletters the church has always endeavored to communicate—and live out—the good news. Our peculiar temptation in our day is to confuse the method with message; to mistake our ingenuity for the God’s love and care.
That’s why the most important detail in the parable above is the moment the pastor opens the car door and prays, turning to God for strength, wisdom, and grace. The danger of church tech is to confuse activity with ministry; to mistake organization for love; or to replace efficiency for presence.
Is this an argument against activity, organization, or efficiency? Of course not. Christian ministry requires those who will go, do, and build up. Christian ministry has invented orphanages and hospitals. It has lobbied governments and resisted tyranny. But the church is continually at risk for mistaking the machine for the ministry. The true “ghost in the machine” is the Holy Ghost. In the midst of every 5G-flash of data, let’s never forget that every pastor, each staff member, and every one of us in the congregation actually transform tech into ministry in that simple—but crucial—moment when we stop and pray before leaping into action.