Being a Christian in a High-Tech World

by Rev. Derek Roberts

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As a 30-something Lutheran pastor with a background in technology, like everyone else, I’m guilty of checking my e-mail more than the recommended twice a day but am grateful for my cell phone, which allows church members to reach me any time, anywhere. For better and for worse, communicating with new technologies like e-mail, PowerPoint, texting and Facebook has increasingly occupied our time and become a routine part of our lives.

Consider the following:

    • By the end of 2011, smart phone sales will exceed personal computer sales.
    • Teens send and receive around 3,339 texts a month, which translates to more than 100 texts per day or 7 texts per waking hour.
    • Sending e-mail blasts to an entire church body is common to a majority of Protestant churches (56 percent).
    • Two-thirds of Protestant churches (65 percent) now have a large-screen projection system in their church that they use for services and other events.

Since Christians are called to examine their lives before God and the world, and since communication technologies make a significant impact on how we live, it is fitting to examine our new habits and consider what is pleasing to God. To put it another way, if God were to come into our homes and churches as judge, what would He think of all of our time spent staring at screens?

Technology: A blessing

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A clear benefit of technology is the ability to stay better connected to friends, family and church members who may otherwise go neglected. If you haven’t heard from cousin Joe in a while, you can get an update on his life (his “status” update can be found on various social networks, like Facebook’s “What’s on your mind?”) right from your computer or mobile device. You can view recent pictures and videos that he uploaded or send electronic greetings back and forth. When Joe’s status update reports a tragic event in his life, friends and family not only receive the news at lightening speed but can send words of comfort and hope, followed by lifting him up in prayer to our heavenly Father.

Technology has enabled a new portability of information that is especially meaningful to Lutherans. Electronic books and smartphone apps make heavy books convenient and searchable. The Kindle version of The Lutheran Study Bible, CPH’s new iPhone app called PrayNow, and digital Bible studies and eBooks are just a few examples. When you’re stuck at the dentist or waiting for soccer practice to end, a few clicks allow you to spend time growing in God’s Word, day by day.

Communications technology has become a medium by which Christians can bear witness to the faith. For example, in social media networks, pastors and laypeople may quote a Bible verse that puts forward the hope and promise of the resurrection in Christ at an opportune time, such as after a national or personal tragedy. Friends may view these in their live feed of news, which is automatically streamed to their computer or mobile device. Photos and videos of baptisms, confirmations, and weddings show God at work in our churches. Holiday greetings or random thoughts about life and truth can be posted as status updates—all so that Christ, the Word made flesh, is increasingly evidenced as our sure hope and confidence in this dying world.

Technology: A curse

Along with the good and proper use of God’s gifts in creation, all good things can be misused. A recent TV commercial for a smartphone shows one clip after another of a father, spouse, student and various workers ignoring their loved ones or jobs in favor of their mobile devices. Even our consumer culture recognizes that new technologies can ruin relationships and harm the fulfillment of our God-given vocations.

Obsessions with technology can get in the way of real and meaningful relationships. How tempting it is to retreat from the real world and bury oneself into an online social media persona! Here we may make a similar error as the priest and Levite who were found ignoring human interaction, failing to show compassion, and instead choosing to pass by their neighbor who lay on the side of the road half-dead (Luke 10:25–37).

Electronic communications are no substitute for real, face-to-face interaction with family, friends, pets, church groups and pastors. Contrary to popular belief, there’s not an app for everything. Apps can’t eat at the table with your family, go on hikes, visit the sick and dying or walk in the good works that God prepared beforehand for us to do (Eph. 2:10). God gave each of us various callings such as sons, daughters, sisters, brothers, spouses, parents, students, pastors and workers. He has not merely called us to be Facebook friends. Too much time spent with communication devices and social networks can hinder the fulfillment of these callings.

We also must not neglect those who do not have access, desire or the ability to learn and operate new communication technologies. While some older people may be social media dabblers, it is generally the younger ones who have accounts and check them daily. Similar to the poor, there will always be the techno-have-nots among us. Therefore, we need not to discriminate and reserve our keeping in touch only with the techno-haves. Writing Mom or Grandma a real letter—maybe even the old-fashioned way with pen and paper—is more personal and thoughtful than a 10-second text message.

The techno-church

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One of the most important callings we have as Christians is to be “a royal priesthood . . . [who] proclaim the excellencies of Him who called [us] out of darkness into His marvelous light” (1 Peter 2:9). The location where that often begins for Christians is in the church on the first day of the week, the day Christ was raised from the dead. Worship in church has been influenced by new communication technology and deserves our examination as well.

Many churches today struggle with the issue of cell phones in the sanctuary. Are we so wired that we can’t be inaccessible for an hour? Our Lord calls us out of ordinary time and space to rest from our labors and learn from Him alone. In church, we are invited to tune out the common and ordinary sounds of the world (cell phones included) and focus on the peculiar sounds and language of the Gospel and the clear voice of our holy and gracious God, who is present to bless and serve us with forgiveness and life. Words from the Old Testament are equally applied today: “Keep silence and hear, O Israel” (Deut. 27:9) or “For God alone my soul waits in silence; from Him comes my salvation” (Ps. 62:1).

Leaders in some churches have attempted to embrace the communications culture. Large screens, microphones and speaker systems are increasingly popular in Protestant churches. Indeed, when entering some churches where corporate worship takes place, the most dominate furnishing is the big screen upon which videos, backdrops, PowerPoint sermonic aides, Bible verses, and hymn and praise song lyrics are projected. Besides the possibility of power failure, what concerns should Lutherans have with incorporating new technologies in the church?

Marshal McLuhan, an educator and communication theorist, has assessed the cultural impact from the advances in technology and coined a fitting phrase that might well describe what is taking place in the church when he concludes, “The medium is the message.”

When mobile devices and big screens (the medium) get the center of attention and are the main draw for worship, then it might happen that technology, rather than Jesus Christ and His gifts, becomes the message.

Our Lutheran theology of worship takes the opposite stance. The message is the medium: God in Christ is not merely the message being conveyed, but also the really present Messenger and Medium through whom we receive God’s gifts of life and salvation in the present time. God’s Word shapes the message and tells us that He is the messenger, for there is only one Mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus (1 Tim. 2:5).

As Lutherans, our chief concern with technology in church is when electronics predominantly entertain and empower people to feel horizontally connected with other techno-haves, rather than predominantly communicating and delivering Christ according to His means and ways. The church offers a transcendent connection through Word and Sacrament.

Many churches without advanced technology have made a deliberate choice to use traditional worship aids that remind us we are called out and away from ordinary life and into Christ’s life. A mobile device, projector or screen is no substitute for a congregation gathered around Christ in real time and space with the Scriptures and the church of ages past and a pastor under divine orders to preach and feed the sheep according to the pure Word of God.

Far from simply being stereotyped “resistant to change,” Lutheran churches may have concerns of promoting our identity as a “peculiar people” (1 Peter 2:9 KJV). We tend to be borderline archaic rather than cutting edge. Perhaps in time mobile devices may become as ordinary as paper bulletins or hymnals in the pews are now. However, incorporating the latest and greatest communication devices in worship may not reflect the kind of unique otherworldly people we are by the Word and work of our God, who once called us out of the technologically advanced Egypt and into the old wandering wilderness of Israel.

Practically speaking, will the pastor and volunteers spend too much time tweaking the technology rather than studying God’s Word and serving God’s people? If so, then perhaps the church is better off trusting that God will work ultimate good through faithfulness and prayer—even in an otherwise apparently “dying church.” Lutherans should know without a doubt that incorporating new technology has never saved a church or a people. Only Christ has and does.

The faithful of the Lord can find blessings in new communication devices. A microphone, for example, can amplify a soft-spoken pastor’s words. At the same time, we recognize that sinful obsessions with technology can tempt us away from faithful worship in church and fulfilling our godly vocations at home and at work. Above all, God would have us order our lives in willing service and devotion to Him and our neighbor in need. A disciplined use of technology will help us keep our eyes searching His Scriptures daily, bearing witness to Christ in our life, and keeping our minds and bodies engaged in acts of mercy and devoted to good works.

> Did you know? Sixty-two percent of Protestant churches maintain a church website.

> Did you know? Pew Internet and American Life Project reports that “5% of people who visited a church, synagogue, mosque or temple” have accessed the Internet while there.  The same study shows that only 8% of “the American adults who use the Internet are Twitter users.”

> Did you know? According to Barna Group, “One-eighth of Protestant churches (13%) now have blog sites.”


A TECHNOLOGY LITMUS TEST

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When considering incorporating some new technology for worship, Lutherans would do well to ask the following five questions.

    1. Does the new medium help convey the message or does it become the message, meaning, can the employment of the new technology overshadow or compromise the truth and mystery of Christ and the biblical Gospel, or does it further the Gospel message?
    2. Is there a biblical or churchly reason to do something through new and different means?
    3. How will specific populations such as the aged in the church respond to the new medium? Will it exclude or offend anyone, or will it enhance worship?
    4. What is the total cost, and should those funds be distributed to a more worthy mission?
    5. What kind of staff or volunteer help will this technology require?

About the Author: Rev. Derek Roberts is associate pastor of First Lutheran Church, Knoxville, Tenn., and the LCMS campus pastor at the university of Tennessee.

February 2011

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