Earlier this month, Judah Smith announced the launch of Churchome Global. The newest location of his multisite megachurch is the phone in your pocket. Unlike traditional church apps offering messages and information, Churchome Global features tabs for forming online community groups, giving to global causes, and meeting others pre-service in a virtual lobby. With the prayer tab you can place two fingers on the screen to signal you’re praying for a specific request in real time. Smith’s original tweet received more than 250 comments, many critical of this “new way to church.”
These debates over how and why to appropriate new technology aren’t new. The printing press, electricity, and the web have helped the gospel to spread internationally. Yet many fear the internet in particular poses a threat to incarnational ministry. One critic asked which button dispenses holy communion.
Technology can either excite the soul or frighten the conscience with its seemingly endless possibilities. We need to find the middle ground between embracing and disregarding. First, we must understand what technology is and isn’t. Second, we must ask how the Word compels us to respond.
Technology Is Amoral
Technology is not the root of all evil. Just as we can use money for both selfless and selfish ends, new ways to communicate and interact have no moral value in and of themselves. Technology contains the potential energy for both hope and horror, but we provide the kinetic.
Technological advances often seek to provide three types of convenience:
1. Technology makes commerce convenient.
Whether it’s robots assembling vehicles, money changing hands via Venmo or Vanguard, or blockchain currencies taking the market by storm, technology makes markets more efficient. This can reduce barriers to entry, increase competition, and help consumers enjoy a better quality of life. It also can displace workers and result in fraud.
2. Technology makes commuting convenient.
Automotive and air travel shrink the world. People are able to visit long-distance relatives, oversee projects across oceans, and explore creation in unprecedented ways. Likewise, advances in travel enable sex trafficking, horrific auto and airline accidents, and increased pollution.
3. Technology makes communication convenient.
Facebook recently introduced Portal, a new video-messaging system with Amazon’s Alexa built in. The tagline—“If you can’t be there, feel there”—epitomizes the hope that human intimacy will increase as technology increases. This is the underlying hope of Churchome, too. But if “feeling there” is so easy, will people be less motivated to show up when they can?
Technology’s potential energy can’t stay potential forever. As moral agents use it, we grant it moral freight.
We Use Technology Morally
Romans 6:13 admonishes all believers to present their “members”—every single part of themselves—no longer to sin, but to God. As tech usage becomes an extension of the self, we need a theology of technology. Again, technology is amoral, like money. But as soon as we use it, we are either honoring the kingdom or hindering it. We are either worshiping God or worshiping self.
Are we passing by the stripped and wounded traveler because we’re obsessed over our latest tweet’s engagement? Are we tithing digitally to avoid personal accountability on Sundays? Are we consuming “brand-new content every single day,” or are we submitting to the Word working in the context of community?
How Then Shall We Log On?
Churchome Global is just the tip of the technological iceberg. We need an ecclesiological response to virtual reality, and we need it now.
That said, we must be proactive in forming our theology of technology, not merely reactive. Live-streaming worship services, for example, may be a blessing for lonely missionaries. But it may be a curse for the parents who fail to awaken their kids and then introduce a headset as a substitute for community.
So whose interests do we have in mind when we and our churches make tech-related decisions? Here are three helpful guidelines in forming a theology of technology.
1. Prioritize compassion over convenience.
Does your church’s use of technology amplify empathy and action for the widow, orphan, and sojourner? Pastor, do you release a sermon podcast because you want to leave a legacy, or because your heart aches for the sick and the shut-in?
We would do well to focus on being the hands and feet of Christ to the hurting rather than merely the video and audio to the healthy.
While technology is an incredible means to deliver the Word both locally and globally, we would do well to focus on being the hands and feet of Christ to the hurting rather than merely the video and audio to the healthy.
2. Prioritize presence over proximity.
If Christ himself reckons it a priority to be among his people, then we must also prioritize presence (Matt. 18:20; 28:20). Pastor, are your people reading your posts and listening to your sermons because they’re part of your church, or because they want to feel included without covenant commitment? Is your church’s use of social media encouraging people to participate in Bible studies, worship gatherings, and times of fellowship, or are you promoting posts in order to increase attendance and revenue streams?
It’s far easier to hide our brokenness and shame behind a messaging app than across a dinner table.
Intimacy best forms face to face. It’s far easier to hide our brokenness and shame behind a messaging app than across a dinner table. We want to look people in the eye now because we want them to look at Jesus—and look like him—on the last day (1 John 3:1–3).
3. Prioritize community over content.
I once heard of a pastor who relegated communion to once a quarter at the less-attended evening service because he “felt called to prioritize his television ministry.” He was more concerned with his Sunday sermons being on the local station than he was with a unified people receiving the sign and seal of Christ’s death and promise of his return. Christ promises to build his church and deliver her to himself in splendor (Matt. 6:18; Rev. 21:2), not to deliver the perfect sermon or series. Let’s take him at his word and invest in one another.
Convenience, proximity, and content are good things that can help lead souls to justification and sanctification. But there’s no artificial substitute for compassion, presence, and community. The priorities of Jesus must be the priorities of his church.