Those of us over the age of 40 may remember the series well: The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy—a funny, fictional account of Arthur Dent, a hapless Englishman who is the sole survivor after the Earth is destroyed. Author Douglas Adams was an early adopter of understanding the importance of innovation and technology, and in his The Salmon of Doubt, a posthumous collection of his works, he succinctly lays out the challenge of innovation and the ability (and willingness!) of humans to embrace it. He poignantly and amusingly described how people often “accept” innovation and change:
(1) Anything that is in the world when you’re born is normal and ordinary and is just a natural part of the way the world works; (2) Anything that’s invented between when you’re fifteen and thirty-five is new and exciting and revolutionary and you can probably get a career in it; (3) Anything invented after you’re thirty-five is against the natural order of things.
As church leaders think about technology today, many likely have more questions than answers: How do we know if we are relying on it too much? What do we do with it? Are we compromising being together if we continue to stream our services? (Listen to this very insightful conversation between Carey Nieuwhof and Dave Adamson about churches and their digital usage as an example.)
COVID-19 forced churches to pivot quickly to online formats. But in our pivoting, did we actually embrace the changes we were being forced to make? Or did we just go through the motions, awaiting a time when we could go “back to normal?”
It’s a question worth asking as we move toward an increasingly digital world.
Today, there are no lack of buzzwords when it comes to technology. But before we talk technology, we must talk about human nature. Let me back up to the year 1455 and this new technology called the printing press.
It must have been an exciting time when the first Bible rolled off the press. This was a big moment—God’s Word would finally be available to the masses and the mundane task of transcribing would be eliminated, thus freeing up time for other kingdom work. But not all were happy. Some fretted that monks would become lazy; others feared the printing press would be a threat to the power structure of the Church. German Benedictine Johanne Trithemius even declared, “He who ceases from zeal for writing because of printing is no true lover of the Scriptures.”
We’ve come a long way in seeing the power of God’s Word distributed and read over the centuries. Church leaders do not wrestle with the printed Word today. But what we do wrestle with is our newest innovation: technology and how it’s used in our churches.
Leadership expert Peter Drucker once wrote, “If you want something new, you have to stop doing something old.” All of us serving churches—whether we are local church leaders or we are in supporting roles like I have at Gloo—want to see people come to faith and grow in their faith. And the reality is that we cannot do this without embracing technology on some level.
In fact, in many ways, Christianity owes its global spread to the work of people powered by technology. A sense of curiosity among Spirit-led pioneers of the past led us to adopt innovative technology for the work of the church. Consider:
- The printing press enabled not just Scripture distribution, but also increased literacy rates and changing roles in the church. It also changed the understanding of “prophets, priests, and kings,” which eventually led to full-scale reformation.
- Broadcast technology allows God’s Word to transcend borders, even into closed countries. It also enabled the rise of large-scale revival, and personality-driven ministry. This made possible the rise of the megachurch in the late 20th century.
- The impact of the Internet on the Church started with church websites and a few who pioneered streaming. Then, the Covid-19 pandemic thrust nearly every church into using the Internet for content consumption, Zoom calls, etc. In a post-pandemic world, churches are now exploring moving beyond streaming into more holistic ministry. Meanwhile, Web 3, the Metaverse, and other paradigm shifts are on the horizon.
Technology is amoral. Yet for every dreamer who sees an innovative new capability and asks the church, “What if?” there is at least one skeptic in the back pew asking, “Why?”
For the skeptic, there is a sacred air about our traditions. Throwing out the old in favor of the flavor-of-the-month new idea is unnecessary (heretical?) and perhaps insulting to our predecessors. In addition, some say, it also brings no perceived value toward the goal of making disciples and proclaiming the timeless gospel message. After all, the Early Church spread like wildfire without the help of 5G wireless signals or child check-in stations!