by Rev. Jonathan Fisk
“The Church needs get with the times or die.” “If we don’t meet people where they are, then mission won’t happen.” “Technology is the heart language of the next generation.”
Have you ever heard statements like these? They can be powerful when spoken by well-meaning people, especially when there really is a hurricane of change sweeping the world. Technology is everywhere. Doesn’t the Church need to use it in order to survive?
Well, not exactly.
I remember the first time I logged into America Online in 1992ish. It was on my parents’ IBM, via a modem that disconnected every time the phone rang. Little did I know I was growing up in the middle of the greatest social transition since Gutenberg’s printing press. Around this epic change, a maelstrom of worldview wars has trapped the “traditional” Church between the old “modern” guard of the Enlightenment and the new “post-modern” vanguard of Romanticism. Where Grandpa stood and sang hymns from a printing-press book, the pews tend to be more empty than people remember. Kids are sparse, and 20-somethings are MIA. “Maybe it’s because we don’t have technology in Church . . . ”
Well, not exactly.
The Church sojourns toward the Last Day of eternal Easter, but until then she is marked with Christ’s Good Friday cross. The only thing under the sun that changes is the style in which we carve our idols, usually in our image but without the crosses. Once they were stone and gold. Today they are textiles, fuel-injectors and gigabytes. But wherever you place your hope, that is your idol. For this reason, we must be wary. To teach that the Church should introduce new technologies or die is to teach we need yet another golden calf.
Is the answer to plunk our heads in the sand? Pretend that electricity will go away? Demonize the digitalism? Retreat into a icono(techno)clasm?
Well, not exactly.
More than techno-change or philosopho-shift, our current generational crises can be blamed on amnesia. We have forgotten our first love: the doctrines–the teachings–of our Lord. God has taught us His theology of technology already in His theology of creation, commonly called the First Article.
It goes like this: God created the universe (house, home, wife, children, goods and animals) all good. But the original head of creation, Adam, injected a negative charge to every atom. Creation is maintained by God in goodness, but it is also full of thorns and thistles, pain and tyranny, deception and death.
Originally good, it is no longer automatically good, and everything was never always good for everything. Good things can be used in bad ways. Paint thinner is not good for drinking. Milk is bad for your gas tank. The universe is not neutral. To the contrary, it has order, purpose and design.
Technologies are not bad by nature, nor good, nor neutral. They are tools. They can be used and abused, but they will always be misused when we are too impatient to discern the difference, foolish enough to assume they are always neutral or faithless enough to believe they can save either people or the Church.
One gift of the Spirit is patience. The Spirit’s Church will never be hasty to conform “to the patterns of the world” but will be transformed in the mind of Christ: the teachings of Christ. The Church of Jesus will not die but live, and she will live by preserving His doctrine through confessing it.
To do that, there is still no better tool than the Scriptures and our Lutheran Confessions, both of which developed in their own eras of new technologies and social change, yet both carrying one, clear, unchanging message: the totally sufficient and free justification of all, in Christ, through faith alone.
Can the new communication tools be used to confess this? Absolutely. Does the future of the Church (or of a single saved soul) stand or fall on how quickly we adopt these new tools? Absolutely not.
Our Lord’s purpose in election will stand, with or without us. Far more pressing is whether we truly desire to wake up from our amnesia, to remember and embrace the lonely way of pure doctrine. Will we be steadfast, even though it means bearing the cross? Will we submit our created tools to our Lord’s answer to His own question, “Who do you say that I am?” For if we forget that His answer is our mission; if our own words, philosophies and idols lead us instead to place our hope in either technology or its rejection, all the technology in the world will not stop the rebuke: “Get behind me Satan . . . you have in mind only the things of men.”
The First Article is awesome but will never save the Church. It teaches us to repent and trust the pure Gospel instead. Today. Tomorrow. Forever. This Second Article is, and always has been, our one and only hope.
About the Author: Rev. Jonathan Fisk is pastor of St. John Lutheran Church, Springfield, Pa., and the creator of Worldview Everlasting (worldvieweverlasting.com), a blog featuring lay-friendly, biweekly YouTube videos that teach the faith.