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The Unavoidable Tension of Technology


The digital revolution, and the cultural concerns that go with it, undoubtedly presents the church with a profound tension. On the one hand, digital technology promises the gospel and the church greater reach than at any other time in human history.

On the other hand, there are understandable reasons, and in some cases serious concerns, to hesitate to use it.

Is there a medium that is so much a message that using it distorts the gospel beyond recognition? Does a medium like television reduce any and all content to a mere image absent of any true content? Should the church engage or resist the media torrent? Does the dark side of being online warrant a Luddite mindset in the church?

These questions should keep us from thoughtlessly embracing technology. As Felicia Wu Song writes in Restless Devices, “We have clearly moved into a new cultural moment where many of us feel a twinge of regret about the impoverishing effects of our digital engagement on our lives.”

She’s not alone in feeling this way. According to the Washington Post: “Only 10% say Facebook has a positive impact on society, while 56% say it has a negative impact and 33% say its impact is neither positive nor negative. Even among those who use Facebook daily, more than three times as many say the social network has a negative rather than a positive impact.” Yet in the same Washington Post article, full-time mom Mary Veselka says, “We go into it knowing that we can’t really trust them, but I don’t think we can get around not using it.”

The church must not only live with this tension but also embrace it. The digital revolution has already taken place and has changed the way the world communicates and relates. To refuse to thoughtfully and prayerfully engage our digital world despite its dark side would be theologically misguided and missiologically ruinous.

In The Shallows, Nicholas Carr wondered whether “Google may yet turn out to be a flash in the pan.” No one has that kind of naivete today.

But what of those who would contend that the church must not embrace digital forms of communication because, as Marshall McLuhan argued, the medium is the message, and the mediums we use might run counter to what we hope to achieve? As Song writes, by using some mediums, the church “runs the risk of either naively promoting or remaining dangerously silent about digital habits that are slowly but surely distorting the very understanding and experience of soul formation and genuine Christian discipleship.”

Such sentiments are frequently voiced, but they often come across as just sentiments—attitudes or opinions based on personal preference. As I’ve often told my graduate students, we must be very careful not to build theological fences around personal tastes. And I sense there are many who simply do not like it when a church embraces the digital world. They don’t want to read a book on Kindle, they don’t want to attend a class online, they don’t want to gather in virtual community, they don’t like the feel of an online campus, and from such sentiments, they go into preacher or prosecutor mode.

But even if there is validity to some Christians’ concerns, the reality of our moment is that digital mediums are a primary way our world communicates and relates.

And we must use the digital tools at our disposal even if for no other reason than to call people away from the digital and into the physical so they can experience the full measure of spiritual formation and communal life.