Amid the constant distractions generated by iPhones and tablets, the contrived urgency of text messaging, the selfie narcissism of Facebook and Instagram, the torrent of Twitter tweets, and the tidal wave of online pornography, it’s easy to dismiss today’s technologies as beneath God’s purposes and out of bounds for His children.
But instead of surrendering the new frontiers of technology to an unbelieving world, we should follow the example set in Scripture and use the technologies at our disposal for Kingdom work — but wisely.
First things first: God’s people have always used technology to share His word, do their work, and change the world. Consider some of the highlights:
- Noah built a great seagoing ship to preserve the human race, which means he lived out one of the main definitions of technology: “a manner of accomplishing a task, especially using technical processes, methods or knowledge.”
- David used a sling — the high-tech, standoff weapon of his time — to slay Goliath.
- Solomon used stonecutters, carpenters, silversmiths, and surveyors — the very best Israel had to offer in technology — to build the temple.
- Luke was a physician, doubtless with training in the best Greek and Roman medicine of the day. The New Testament records times when Paul and Luke — a preacher and a doctor — worked together to heal the sick.
- Paul relied on transportation technologies to travel all around the Mediterranean. He drafted scores of letters and fired them off to the church. If he were in ministry today, he would be hopping on planes, Skype-casting, tweeting, and blogging.
- The church and its enduring mission to carry the Good News to the ends of the earth were transformed by the printing press — and again by the telegraph and telephone, and again by radio and television, and again by satellites and fax machines, and again by computers and the Internet.
In short, those who went before us did not reject technology or refuse to take advantage of it just because someone else misused it.
Sharing Insights or Pulpit Plagiarism
Technology is, in most cases, amoral. From the most primitive tool of the ancients to the most sophisticated computers of today, technology can be used for right or wrong purposes.
Consider websites such as creativepastors.com and sermoncentral.com. The former sells sermons for $10; the latter serves as a library for more than 120,000 sermons — searchable by denomination, date, topic, passage, and subject. Used in the right way, websites such as these are a miracle of the Information Age, allowing pastors to share insights, teachers to plumb the depths of the human soul and explore the heights of faith, and seekers to learn more about Jesus.
However, these websites are also breeding grounds for what’s been called “pulpit plagiarism.” Dr. L. Roy Taylor, stated clerk of the General Assembly of the PCA, reports that “(w)ith the advent of the Internet, the sermons of ministers have become more accessible both to ministers and anyone else who makes the effort to access them. Modern communication technology makes research much easier than before.”
When that research turns into cutting and pasting without attribution, the result is plagiarism, which is stealing, which is something we shouldn’t do. Of course, Taylor notes that “the use of others’ sermons in whole or in part is nothing new.” He points to Reformation-era England, when theologians — ahem — borrowed from collections of old homilies.
What is new is how easily sermons (or anything) can be plagiarized nowadays, thanks to Google and the internet. Given “the accessibility of so much sermon material through the Internet,” as pastor Timothy Keller of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York City, observes, “the temptation to simply re-preach someone else’s sermon is very strong.”
Another thing that’s new, Taylor adds, is that “plagiarism is easier to detect because preachers are not the only persons with access to internet sermons.” Indeed, there are scores of websites that scan for plagiarism.
Sermoncentral.com is using the internet to address this internet-fueled problem: an online “Preacher’s Pledge” challenging pastors to “engage the Bible in their sermon preparation and not simply short circuit the process with someone else’s study.”
A Magnified Voice
Thanks to today’s digital technologies, there’s an endless stream of apps, websites, and podcasts that believers and seekers can easily access, search, and share.
For instance, the Bible Gateway website offers 89 versions of the Bible in 42 languages — English and Bulgarian, Chinese and Tagalog, Arabic and Hebrew, Korean, and Kiswahili among them. It provides audio versions of the Bible for the visually impaired. Some 12 million people visit the site every month. And best of all, this virtual library never shuts its doors.
Websites such as Our Daily Bread, byFaith, and equip.org offer resources for Christian living, witnessing, teaching, and learning. An old friend has been sending out ODB devotionals by email since the mid-1990s — basically since most of us first heard about the Internet — to his entire electronic address book. It would be virtually impossible for one person to send a snail-mail letter to hundreds of people each and every day. But email allows my friend to reach more people in a single day than Paul might have reached his entire life, and God uses this to encourage His people.
As Dr. Dale Sims of Dallas Baptist University observes, among the positives of today’s information technology is how it has “magnified the voice of those preaching the Gospel” and “increased the number of channels of distribution of the Gospel.” It also has “provided helps for the encouragement, the strengthening and edification of the saints.”
Among the positives of today’s information technology is how it has “magnified the voice of those preaching the Gospel” and “increased the number of channels of distribution of the Gospel.”
Amen to that. I recently downloaded some of my pastor’s sermons, which my church provides in podcast form, to help me get through a couple of flights. Hearing my pastor’s voice, while I flew threw a storm somewhere between Indiana and Texas, calmed me and transported me back to my church home, sitting next to my wife, listening to my pastor talk about our Savior.
But this, too, is a double-edged sword. Being able to pick and choose what to hear, being able to tailor and narrowcast the message, being able to have the message delivered to me at a time of my choosing — these factors can pull a believer away from community, away from the church, away from the Body.
Church attendance and religious affiliation are declining. Some researchers have drawn a correlation between these trends and the tsunami of information technology, concluding that “(t)he increase in Internet use in the last two decades has caused a significant drop in religious affiliation.”
George Barna warned more than a decade ago that larger numbers of people will come to rely upon the Internet “for their entire spiritual experience.” Millions of Americans are dropping out of the physical church in favor of what Barna calls the “cyber-church” — which lacks the touch and togetherness of real church.
George Barna warned more than a decade ago that larger numbers of people will come to rely upon the internet “for their entire spiritual experience.” Millions of Americans are dropping out of the physical church in favor of what Barna calls the “cyber-church”
The birth of the church is recorded in the book of Acts. Importantly, one of the most common themes of Acts is togetherness, reminding us that we are the Body of Christ, not me — something to keep in mind in this age of iPhones, Facebook, Instagram, and iPads. The word “together” appears at least 25 times in Acts. There’s a message in that for us: We are designed not to be the creators and consumers of our own tailor-made versions of Christianity, but to be connected to each other and to Christ. That means worshipping together.
You With Me?
Many of us use technology to share burdens and joys, prayers and praise. The Pew Research Center has found that 38 percent of what it labels “Religion Surfers” use email to send prayer requests. After 9/11, “41 percent of Internet users, many of whom had never considered themselves online spiritual seekers, said they sent or received email prayer requests.” There are entire Facebook pages and blogs focused on prayers for the sick, suffering and lost — virtual communities that connect people from around the world. What a blessing and inspiration.
This isn’t limited to spiritual matters; it also applies to the nuts and bolts of everyday life. The Sagamore Institute’s Center on Faith in Communities created the Faith and Service Technical Education Network website (FASTEN) to provide faith-based leaders with how-to guides, videos, and other resources on planning, funding, launching, and sustaining service programs. The site enables clergy and lay leaders to borrow from best practices implemented at other churches and learn from one another.
These are examples, as Sims notes, of how information technology “allows Christians to administer grace to a world that is distracted and burdened, by using tools that people are familiar with and expect to see in everyday contexts.”
However, we, as individuals, must guard against the faux community that can develop in these virtual meeting places. How many times have we been at church or lunch or a family event — enjoying real community — only to be distracted and pulled away by a text or Facebook post or tweet? In those cases, real community — real connection — is supplanted by virtual community. And that undermines real community, because it deprioritizes the people we are really with.
According to a 2008 study, in just a decade the average person’s attention span fell from 12 minutes to five minutes. This is evidence of what scientists call “neuroplasticity” — the brain’s ability to adapt and reorganize neurons based on inputs. In a sense, we are rewiring ourselves to have shorter attention spans, to think about more things but with less depth, to become less patient and more impulsive.
“Twitter, Snapchat, Instagram and the rest have made impulsiveness a new social norm,” as author Lee Siegel laments. This is at odds with what God asks of us and wants for us. We’re not supposed to be governed by impulse or the tyranny of the moment. We’re supposed to reason and abide and live abundantly.
Church communities, too, must guard against misusing technology or becoming slaves to technology. Because technology provides immediate information and feedback,” Sims warns, “churches have begun to operate on a fad or poll basis. … Because our technical-driven culture requires efficiency, convenience and entertainment, then the Church must provide that.” The result can be “a worship experience of isolation and entertainment rather than one of reverence and participation.”
Indeed, today’s on-demand, narrowcast technologies streaming to us at light speed condition us for instant answers, instant gratification, instant solutions. But churches are not made to deliver instant solutions. Faith is not about instant answers. It’s not about finding an app that satisfies and serves me. It’s often about patient waiting — and always about serving God.
Believers should never be afraid to use technology — it can help us reach the lost and expand the Kingdom — but we should never put our faith in it.
Alan Dowd writes at the crossroads of faith and public policy.