Lately I've found myself wanting to write an article about something I've been talking about lately in our church planting experiment - I think it may be useful for any fellow pioneers in this interesting moment in church and culture. That subject is technology and the way the church relates to it. This is a complex subject and one I've found very little analysis on, so these thoughts and observations are largely my own. Take them for whatever that means they're worth then!
Tech is Important Right Now
As I argue in my article called The 4D Chasm, I believe technology is important in this window in history and in the church. This is, in fact, not new - in previous technological revolutions technological innovation has dovetailed with the expansion of gospel efforts. One of the more famous examples of this is the infamous Protestant Reformation. While Luther's ideas were revolutionary, it was actually his use of the newly developed printing press that allowed him to fan those ideas into the flame of a culture-redefining movement. (This is cataloged from a very interesting angle in the book Brand Luther). Without the printing press, it's extremely likely that we would not have had the protestant reformation. Luther was the first person to take advantage of these tools to disseminate the message in a way never before possible.
It is self-evident that technology has acted as an industry disrupting and redefining force for the last few decades. The shape of the world is being repatterned using patterns of behavior facilitated by global connectivity, and so far the trend doesn't seem to be slowing down. We've had a strange few years here: COVID & all that's entailed. Financial disruption. American Politics looking like it's even crazier than ever. These have all been huge events that have produced huge forces on our world. But I want to propose it's likely true that when we zoom out to the scale of the history books that will be written about the last 20th & early 21st century someday, the predominant subject will the technologization of society. The change in how the world works pre/post Computer/Internet/Smartphone/Google/Amazon/etc is a much bigger degree of change than any of the other layers that feel more concrete at present.
If there is any truth in that, it means that the Church must be aware of and connecting to this technological repatterning of society. If we don't, we may be missing the biggest missional opportunity in our culture in a century-wide (or more) window. This repatterning of society will either happen with our without the church's involvement. There was a similar truth in Luther's day - the printing press was going to distribute information on scales never experienced before; the only question was what information that would be. Luther aimed to make it the gospel as he understood it and was largely successful - thank God he was!
I say all of that to say that if you want to be working to innovate in the church right now, a critical area of development is using technology to do things in new ways. In fact, unless we are using technology in new ways, I don't know how we could possibly be doing something different than what the Church has already tried over the last 2,000 years. That's a lot of time for a lot of people to have a lot of ideas!
But how should that work? There are a number of different approaches to the function technology should play within ministry, and I don't believe they're all equal. In fact, I think some of them are straight-up bad ideas, but at least one isn't. Here is what I mean by that:
The Extension Approach
I call the first, and most common approach to technology and ministry the extension approach. The core thought here starts with the observation that technology creates new spaces that didn't exist before. The extension approach takes the same activities as the church was doing before, but it works to push those activities into those new "technological spaces".
If that seems a little abstract, let me give two concrete examples that we all became intimately familiar with as a result of COVID: weekend service streaming and zoom small groups. These are probably the two most common applications of the extension approach. They take the same activities as before (Sunday service or small group in a shared physical space) and works to push it into a new digital space - the space of a Facebook Live/YouTube stream (or whatever else), or a Zoom call. Same activity happening, just pushed into a new digital space.
One of the first observations that happens when a church does this is they realize that their reach has the potential to dramatically grow. Before we could only reach people within a 20 minute drive with our Sunday service, now we can reach people all across the globe! Our small groups can now include people they never could before. As a result it's easy to think this approach has incredible potential. I believe that would be a mistake.
The issue here is that the extension approach trades quantity for quality. It is a good thing we can reach people we couldn't reach before, but we are fooling ourselves if we think that what we're reaching them with is anywhere near as effective as what we had before. Put to the point - I don't know that I've ever had a zoom small group that felt as good as the worst small groups I've attended. I've never closed my laptop after zoom small group and felt deeply satisfied at an existential level. I've never finished a Sunday service stream and been in awe of how I experienced God.
If I'm honest, usually my thoughts are more like, "well, that wasn't awesome, but I did a good thing." It's something I have to choose to think well of. Why? Because honestly, the extension approach creates comparatively dehumanizing experiences. A zoom small group isn't a personal experience and at my core I know it. That's because I can't fit very much of my humanity into a zoom call. Nothing compared with how much of my humanity thats engaged while I'm in the room talking with others in person. Sure, I have an experience, but not that much of me is connected to it. I don't experience it with the full range of my personhood.
Now let me pause here to say, I'm so grateful for the ways God used this approach during the years of COVID. Better this than nothing - which is the option we had at the time. I'm grateful for all God did in that. But that doesn't mean I think this road is the future. It's hard for me to believe an approach that is built on comparative dehumanization is what God is doing. God is expanding our humanity into the fuller, richer pattern that we see brought to the earth the person of Jesus. He's not working to engage less of us, he's working to bring himself to more of us than we even know we could live in.
The Facsimile Approach
This second approach is quite common in that it is the principal that essentially all social media is built upon. It is presently less common in the church, but it is just starting to come into its own in a few unique corners. I call this the facsimile approach because the idea to make a "technological equivalent" (facsimile) of something that exists in real life and then connect those "equivalents" to each other.
This is how every social media platform works: you create a profile, which is essentially the digital version of your person, and social media connects these profiles to each other. Note the subtle distinction: social media isn't working to connect people to each other, it's working to connect profiles to each other. People are acting behind the profiles, but there are a number of layers between the actual people:
Person1 ↔︎ Profile1 ↔︎ Profile2 ↔︎ Person2
The issue with this approach, as most people who have spent any time on the internet can quickly tell you, is that this is also dehumanizing (in a different way). The problem is again that not that much of our personhood fits in these profiles. When these profiles interact with one another then, many layers of our humanity aren't present in those interactions. People who would never say things in person to each other will spout them on social media because your conscience doesn't fit in your profile. You also don't get the clear visual feedback of seeing the pain on the person's face when you say something cruel that discourages you from doing it again. For the reason, most platforms built on this approach (lately social media, before that forums and blogs) tend to devolve into cruelty and trolling.
It's easy to point fingers at this approach when it's only out in the world, but this approach is being picked up by the church as well. It is the model that sits behind "VR Church" - which has millions of dollars behind it. Don't believe me? Check out this, and this.
Now again, God will use this, and I'm not throwing stones at that. God will use anything to reach his kids that he loves and I'm grateful for that! But again, I can't think that something which fundamentally strips layers of our humanity is the trajectory God is working to cultivate. In fact, this idea feels like it's getting interestingly close to God's prohibition of making images - even of himself (Deuteronomy 4:15-20). God seems to specifically say, "Don't make an image of me. Don't reduce me to a representation and then interact with that. Interact with me directly." This is brought full circle with the coming of Jesus, who is the image of God because he is God. He doesn't represent God by reducing him, he is the fullness of God embodied. This isn't making an image of God, but it looks to me that a good case could be made that this is making an image of another person, and that is specifically forbidden as well:
beware lest you act corruptly by making a carved image for yourselves, in the form of any figure, the likeness of male or female... Deuteronomy 4:16
Yikes. No wonder many people immediately feel iffy about this approach for church in general.
The Facilitation Approach
I believe both of these previous approaches aren't great, and I don't see them being the future. What else is there? There is a third pattern that seems to be on the edge of application in the church, and I'm really excited about this one. I call it the facilitation approach. The core idea here is to use technology as a connective fabric to facilitate new patterns of interaction in real life. The facilitation approach uses technology to make real things happen, not virtual things.
There isn't too much that I can point to in the Church in this space yet (though we're working on that with our church plant), but there are lots of examples with things interact with in everyday life: Online Banking is an example of this, because we can use our phone to deposit real money into our real bank account and later use it. Uber & Airbnb connect people to each other and facilitate real rides and real stays. Amazon connects you to sellers and results in you buying real stuff.
I think it's worth asking: does the quality of these experiences feel dehumanizing? For me they do not. I love my banking app and depositing checks through my phone. I feel like a boss for getting it knocked out so quickly! I love taking an Uber - in fact when I do I find it a delightfully humanizing experience. I nearly always wind up chatting with the driver and the ride brightens my day in a way taking a taxi never has. Or what about the thrill of the Amazon package arriving? These aren't dehumanizing experiences, they're empowering experiences. That's the strength the facilitation approach has: it makes new connections and empowers us to do stuff we couldn't the technology helping, but that stuff happens in real life.
Is there any reason the church cannot use this facilitation approach? I don't see why not, other than it requires creativity and exploration to do so. But why can we not build connective fabrics that help the body of Christ function as the body of Christ in real life in ways we couldn't without our tech's help? That seems to be a good idea to me.
We're very early on in our attempt to do this approach, but so far I'm quite encouraged. So far it looks to me like this approach:
Makes church stuff more fun. People are motivated to jump in and contribute their part.
Moves a lot faster. The body self-organizes much more quickly and with a lot less work than it takes a leader to organize it.
Creates more room for growth. People explore new contributions and grow accordingly.
Here is a chart that I find fascinating - it's a chart of the contributions people in our church plant have made to our gatherings that have been facilitated through our app:
To put this in typical church-work terms, these functionally are volunteer slots. This chart is saying that at any point in the last month, our app has handled between 80-120 volunteer slots that we didn't even have to recruit for. 100 volunteer slots a month that the community is self-organizing through this facilitation approach. Imagine how much that changes the world of a church planter!! And each person has more fun doing it too because they self-selected their contribution. And...the tech could handle 1,000 slots, or 1,000,000 for that matter, just as easily as 100. It scales in a way human organization never could.
I believe the facilitation approach is an incredible opportunity that the church has right now. The body is ready to be the body, but to do so it needs to be connected to itself! Church pioneers, God is doing beautiful things here - come and explore this space with me! I'd love to hear what you're learning too!
Putty Putman's Spirit-inspired innovative insights come from his wild journey with Jesus from physicist to pastor to entrepreneur to author and speaker. His three main passions are the Holy Spirit, effective communication, and journeying toward the future God has for the church and the world.
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