The Church and Technology (Jan-Feb 2002)

By Matt Dabbs

by Tim Woodroof
January – February, 2002

Surely, one of the great mysteries of the faith is contained in the question, How did the Apostle Paul accomplish so much without a laptop?

Of course, there were other technological advantages Paul did without. No long-distance calling. No credit cards and ATM machines. No regularly scheduled flights between Jerusalem and Rome. No printing presses. No sound systems.

This list of lacks is used by some to suggest that technology and evangelistic effectiveness are unrelated—you can turn a world upside down without electricity and fossil fuel. Technophobes (who see the devil lurking behind every innovation) are quick to use such logic to argue that the gospel should be spread the old-fashioned way—meaning film strips and mimeograph machines, I suppose.

But the fact that Paul won the first century world without the benefit of modern technology proves he did it and no more. It doesn’t prove that modern technologies have no place in the spread of the kingdom. It doesn’t prove Paul would avoid such technologies had they been available. And it certainly doesn’t prove that the modern world can be won without the use of those technologies.

Paul accomplished a great deal without a laptop. I’m not sure we could do the same. I’m quite sure I wouldn’t want to try.

A Typical(?) Week

I am an “early adopter” — one of those techno-nerds who sees every new technology as an opportunity to be embraced. I bought my first computer in 1983. (It cost more than the trailer house Julie and I were living in at the time.) I was doing desktop publishing before DP was cool. Today, I have a cell phone, a Pocket PC, a web site … and, with due apologies to Paul, a laptop.

But gadgets and applications are not just toys to me. (OK, some of them are.) They are means to a greater end. Technology is a tool that helps me do ministry. It is a bridge over which I carry kingdom work. It lets me reach people I might not otherwise meet. It helps me stay organized, well-read, and in touch. It lets me write and publish and communicate.

Let me describe how technology impacts a not-so-typical week for me. [Forgive me for describing a week that makes me look much busier and more productive than I really am. What I want you to see is what the technology makes possible.]

On Monday, I’m at the computer screen, working on a book—a piece of historical fiction on Corinth, a story about Paul I hope both believers and unbelievers will read. I run to the internet to call up a map of the ancient city or search for a quote or run down a statistic. I e-mail sample chapters and questions to my publisher. There’s an obscure tome I really need to read for background—no problem, it’s easy to order on www.amazon.com.

Tuesday finds me hard at work on a CD-Rom project I’m trying to finish. It’s a study of Philippians (with sermon outlines, handouts, small group studies, PowerPoint presentations, etc.) that churches can use to think about the power of fellowship, the meaning of the gospel, and the dangers that face God’s people. A friend helps me video tape and edit an introduction to the series. We burn the whole thing to a CD and send it off to a distributor. The alarm program on my Pocket PC beeps at me, reminding me about a lunch appointment. I check its contact list and dial a cell phone number, just to confirm where we’re meeting and let someone know I’m running a little late. (Technology can help you do more, but not necessarily in a timely fashion!) That night, I sit at my son’s ball game and — between innings — call a list of people who need encouragement.

Wednesday, I’m focused on Sunday. I start working on a lesson about hope and healing after tragedy (the wounds of September 11 are still raw). I design a handout for my listeners to use in the coming week, complete with study questions and a small group discussion guide, and print out 500 copies. I download art work from some of my favorite web sites to use in the PowerPoint that will accompany the sermon . . . pictures of the World Trade Center, paintings by Rembrandt and Michelangelo and Caravaggio. Meanwhile (at home), Julie answers the phone and takes an order from South Dakota for “Holy to the Bone” — a series of lessons available from our publishing web site (www.lookpress.com). Sermons I’ve preached and materials I’ve written at Otter Creek are being used by people across the world and from over a dozen different denominations. It’s amazing what a web site and a little extra work can do to get a message out.

Thursday and Friday are just regular days: no major projects, no pressing deadlines. Still, my connection with technology is frequent and helpful. I’m checking schedules and looking at “to do” lists on the Pocket PC. I check and respond to e-mail several times each day. I make flight reservations on the internet for a seminar I’m conducting next month in Michigan. The cell phone lets me use time in the car and away from the office to good advantage. Lee Ann (my right arm at the office) adds new members (complete with family photos) to our member database. She prints out the bulletin and posts a digital version to our church’s web site (www.ottercreek.org). She sends out an e-mail to all church members listing the sick, updating news from mission points, and sharing an encouraging word from one of our elders. She records a voice message for a ministry meeting on Sunday — the computer automatically dials twenty-five numbers that evening and delivers the message.

On Sunday, an announcement loop runs before and after services on projection screens. Parents are beeped on an internal paging system if their infants need them. We put paper in our members’ hands and images before their eyes to reinforce the spoken word. They see clips from movies to illustrate sermon points. We project scriptures and images to aid meditation during the Lord’s Supper. Missionaries report via video. The church can travel to camp (again, by video) to participate briefly in a devotional or a game.

It goes on and on. From the moment I wake up (and turn off my alarm radio) to the moment I go to bed (and pop out my contact lenses), my life is intertwined with technology. And so is my ministry. Technology is a prosthetic I lean on with growing confidence. It is the megaphone I use to reach a widening audience.

The technology is not my message. But it is often my medium. It cannot supply my content. But it can certainly provide a platform from which that content can be heard.

Baptizing Technologies

We’ve grown comfortable using transportation technologies for kingdom purposes—if a jet liner can get us to South America quickly and comfortably, that’s great. And we’ve made our peace with environmental technologies—air conditioners and internal plumbing may indeed further kingdom goals.

But information technologies are viewed with greater suspicion. Aren’t computers used to access porn? Doesn’t TV pipe in pluralism and moral decadence? Can’t video give anyone — Osama bin Laden! — a platform to spout screed?

Like the printing press, newer information technologies cut both ways. They can do great good or great evil. They are only as godly as the people who make use of them.

But consider: God’s people are in the communication business. We work with words and ideas. Technologies that help us communicate — that broaden our audience or extend our reach — must be mastered and adopted. Great technology can never substitute for faithful disciples, but it can serve them.

And Satan is also in the communication business. He is countering God through words and images and ideas. He certainly has no qualms about using the latest and greatest to propagate his message. Can Christians afford to abandon the internet and the computer and the airwaves simply because others use these tools for perverse purposes?

Technology constitutes a “language” in our modern world. It speaks to our culture in powerful ways. And unless God’s people speak technology well, the world will not listen to anything we have to say. What do I mean?

These are information saturated times. Once upon a past, people were seeking—were hungry for—more information. Today, we have too much information to handle. We’re drowning in it. It assaults our eyes and ears and taste buds. It blares at us from TV and billboards, newspapers and books, radio and computers and people.

As a result, we all walk around with filters firmly in place, weeding out extraneous, irrelevant information, and focusing only on what we think matters. Information has to pass certain tests before we will even attend to it: Does it come from a source we trust? Does it promise to talk about something we care about? Does it contain something we can use today?

Do we care enough about the message to dress it appropriately in a container worthy of its content? The days of distributing great material in a sloppy, thoughtless, uncreative manner are over. You can mimeograph to your heart’s content, but no one will read it. You can print out reams of closely spaced, gray-with-type pages, and no one will take the time to see what you’re trying to say. You can stick with the technologies you’ve already mastered—yesterday’s technologies, last decade’s innovations—and repeat like a mantra, “If they want the truth, they’ll overlook the packaging,” and you will miss your audience because you’ve missed the point.

Our culture judges a book by its cover. They decide how much we care about a message by the care we use in communicating it. If we can’t be bothered with what it looks like or how it is distributed or how creatively it is communicated or how innovatively it is packaged, why should they bother listening to it? We will not get the world’s attention until we value what we say enough to clothe it in a cutting-edge, passionately creative, arresting package.

That package is not always technological. Sometimes it is a family of believers who love each other beyond all reason. Sometimes the package is a person so dedicated to holiness, she is willing to live (noticeably) against the grain. Sometimes it is a woman who sells possessions and gives the money to the poor. Those kinds of actions grab the attention of a sated and information soaked world—at least the part of the world that knows and watches us.

But what about the part of the world that does not know us well enough to see our example or hear our testimony? What will reach them? That’s where technology shines. Perhaps it will be the gospel wrapped up in compelling video, creative software, a carefully crafted web site, a beautifully illustrated PowerPoint presentation. Perhaps it will be a multi-media series on the life of Christ made available over the Internet or sent on a CD through the mail. Perhaps it will be a sermon series on timely events (like the tragedies of September 11), rewritten as a book, printed quickly on a digital press, and mailed out to your neighborhood while people are still trying to cope with what has happened.

Paul managed without a laptop. But I can’t. It is just that sort of technological advance that lets me function effectively in the context of the church—enhancing communication, organization, and presentation. And it helps me function effectively at the boundary between the church and the world—at that nexus where people of faith and searching people meet.

Good technology costs. It is frustrating in its ever-changing, always-demanding character. It makes us more dependent on guys sporting pocket protectors. It requires of us a shocking level of effort and creativity.

I think it’s worth it. Technology will not save the world. But used well, it provides the big stick that allows Christian people to speak softly.

Tim Woodrooff is a teaching minister for the Otter Creek family of faith in Nashville, Tennessee. He and his wife, Julie, run Look Press — a publishing concern for religious/educational material, www.lookpress.com, Tim’s latest book, A Distant Presence: The Story Behind Paul’s Letter to the Philippians, is the first volume in a series from NavPress titled The Narrative Commentary Series.

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This author published 1598 posts in this site.
Matt is the preaching minister at the Auburn Church of Christ in Auburn, Alabama. He and Missy have been married 12 years and are raising two wonderful boys, Jonah and Elijah. Matt is passionate about reaching and discipling young adults, small groups, and teaching. Matt is currently the editor and co-owner of Wineskins.org.

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