This past summer, Mark Zuckerberg suggested that Facebook could replace the church. He argued that his technology platform could create a sense of community the face of falling church membership.
Christian leaders, predictably, objected to this idea, but Skye Jethani responded to the hulabaloo with a thread of messages on Twitter that highlight a subtle problem with these objections: much of the church is just as enamored with the “dis-incarnation” of technology as Zuckerberg is.
I was impressed enough by Skye’s tweets that I wanted to put them all in one place so we could see the brief argument he lays out. (Plus I hate Twitter threads… just write a blog post, right?)
Skye Jethani’s technology in church rant
Anyway, here’s what he said:
Folks are flipping out about Mark Zuckerburg saying Facebook can replace the church by connecting & leading people, but is he wrong? Facebook gives us the impression of community without all of the drawbacks of actual human interaction.
We can carefully manage our image and only “friend” those we agree with. It puts us in control. It also give us immediate access to an incredible about of information.
The downside of social media & tech is that it dis-incarnates us & ultimately cannot satisfy our deepest longings for human connection. Of all people we Christians ought to recognize how essential incarnation is; to know that bodies, flesh, & in-person community matters.
Sadly, much of the church is just as enamored w/ dis-incarnation as Zuckerberg. This is due, ironically, to our commitment Christ’s mission. Evangelicals in particular have believed that message alone matters & medium is irrelevant. That’s why they’re eager to employ any & all vehicles for communicating the gospel. Radio, TV, t-shirts, bumper stickers, gum wrappers, political parties, ukuleles, etc.
They say the medium is neutral & only the content of the message matters, but this is so easily shown to be utterly false. For example, we’d all agree that I can destroy my marriage with only the internet, but can I have a healthy marriage with only the internet?
That silly example shows the medium of the web is capably of great harm but only limited good. In other words, medium matters.
So, when I see church leaders enthusiastically embrace all tech as neutral tools for ministry/mission, do they understand the implications?
Tech offers us the illusion of omnipresence. It allows us to escape the physical limitations of our bodies to transport ourselves elsewhere. I no longer have to be present with those near me, or even with my own thoughts, thanks to the phone in my pocket. They have become totems giving us the god-like power to escape our bodies. This temptation is especially strong for ministers.
We have a divinely ordained mission; why shouldn’t we us god-like technology to help us reach more people than we could as embodied pastors? Incarnate ministry is slow. The word is transmitted person-to-person. The care of souls requires us to be physically present. How agrarian.
Digital, dis-incarnate ministry means mission can industrialize. Now we can all scale our influence & reach 1,000s via pixels. Dis-incarnate ministry is so much cleaner, so much more efficient, & infinitely more marketable. But is it the way of Jesus?
When Jesus came to dwell among us he “emptied himself” to take on flesh. He set aside his omnipresence to occupy a physical body. Jesus was not everywhere, doing everything, engaging everyone. He accepted the confinement of a body. Incarnation is necessarily limiting.
This is what a minister enamored w/tech fails to recognize. To be human is to accept our incarnate limitations & embrace them as good. It means emptying ourselves of the prideful desire to be like God, to be omnipresent, and to resist the lies of technology.
Jesus became incarnate to redeem every part of us—mind, soul, and body. Ministry in His name must do the same. Learning the way of Jesus means accepting & embracing our embodied limitations. It also means being physically present w/those we serve.
I’m not saying all tech is evil. Heck, I’m tweeting this rant. But we must be aware of it’s seduction & the way it dis-incarnates the church. Tech temps us to be everywhere, do everything, & engage everyone, but we can miss what God is doing right where we are.
Ok- done for now. I welcome your thoughts. What is the proper place of tech in church/mission?
(By the way, if you’re interested in a fuller treatment of these themes, pick up Skye’s book Immeasurable: Reflections on the Soul of Ministry in the Age of Church, Inc.)
The medium matters
I think Skye brings up a vital question for us to discern as leaders: how do we use technology in church?
Unfortunately, too many of us don’t even think of that has a question as something that needs to be discerned. Many of us have so fully bought into the promises of technology that we haven’t been able to perceive the limitations and crippling side-effects of it when we use it indiscriminately in our churches.
For example, we’ve assumed that preaching via video does the same work as a preaching in-person. We’ve assumed that the message is what’s important, but the medium is neutral. But is it?
Watching a screen shapes and forms me as a consumer of information, while listening to a real person talking to me demands my attention and presence. It shapes me in a different way.
And while I can certainly learn something from watching a video of someone I don’t know talking, is that the same thing as hearing the gospel proclaimed in a particular community, with particular struggles and blessings, by someone that has prayed with me and knows my kids’ names?
All this to say, the medium really does matter! It shapes the message is subtle ways that aren’t easy to perceive right away, but are vital for us to discern as leaders in Christian communities.
How do you (not) use technology in church?
Besides video venues, there are all kinds of other questions about using technology in church that need to be discerned… like:
- Giving offerings automatically online vs during worship services
- Asking people to use their smartphones during worship to text questions or prayers
- Playing videos during church services, for announcements or as part of the sermon
- Live-streaming your church services
- Posting audio or video of your sermons or whole church services online
This post is mainly here to provoke a discussion: What do you think about these uses of technology in church? Also:
- What other uses of technology in church have you seen that seek to avoid the limitations of embodiedness, as Skye talks about?
- What ways have you used technology in church? What were the results?
- What do you say to Skye’s question? What is the proper place of technology in church and mission?
Leave a comment below to start a conversation.