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There must have been a day, many thousands of years ago, when a particularly enterprising individual invented the wheel. It is such a simple thing but one that completely revolutionized the world. It is an invention none of us would wish to be without. But transport yourself back to the moment the wheel was unveiled and you will no doubt see that some Luddite nearby was shaking his head, clucking his tongue, and mumbling, “There goes the neighborhood.”
Some people tend to regard any new technology as inherently good; others, the cautious types, may lean toward viewing any new technology as inherently bad. The fact is, though, that technology itself is amoral, neither good nor bad. The ultrasound machine, used to save unborn babies by diagnosing problems in utero and used during the destruction of unborn babies through abortion, is neither good nor bad; it just is. It is not technology itself that is moral or immoral but our use of that technology, our application of it, our dedication to it. Technology is but an amoral tool in the hands of moral beings.
While a technology may not carry the weight of morality with it, we would not want to downplay its significance. When a significant new technology is introduced to the world, we do not have the old world plus the new technology; we have a whole new world. The world today is not just the old world plus new digital technologies; it is a completely different world. What is true here generally is true of the church — even the local church. Local churches have been permanently changed by digital technologies; there is no going back. The question we face, then, as Christians and as defenders of the local church is how we will respond and adapt to these new realities.
Any technology brings with it both risk and opportunity, though perhaps not in equal measure. There is opportunity to use new technologies to do things we could only dream of before or to do things so much better, so much faster, so much more completely than we were able to in the past. But there is risk that in the rush to adopt what is new we will be too quick to let go of what is old, tried, and true, or that we will inadvertently introduce problems far greater than the ones we seek to solve.
There must be a law that dictates that every article dealing with technology must quote at least one of the gurus of media and technology: Marshall McLuhan, Neil Postman, or Jacques Ellul. Not one to break such rules, let me turn here to McLuhan and his most famous phrase — one you may know well: “The medium is the message.” The years have seen a great deal of debate about the meaning and the extent of this phrase, but at the very least it points us to an important conclusion: there is more to technology than may at first appear. The wise will look carefully to any media to ascertain how it is likely to play out its hand, to seek to understand what risk and what opportunity it will bring. But somehow when we anticipate a new technology, most of us are prone to become breathless with anticipation for the new opportunities while expending little effort in thinking about the risks. Because the new technologies always claim to make our lives better and easier, we tend to see them as friends rather than enemies.
A church may transition from using hymn books to using a PowerPoint projector. It seems quite a small matter, and thousands of churches have already done so. What difference does it make if the words are printed on paper in our hands or if the words are flashed onto a screen high above? But if the medium is the message, if the medium is more than a simple conduit for the message but actually intercepts and even overshadows the message, what do we stand to gain or lose? What risks are there in putting aside our hymn books and what opportunities are there in embracing this new technology? Maybe we will find that we risk unfamiliarity with the songs as families no longer have copies of the book at home to sing during times of family worship. Maybe we find that we are quick to add new songs to the repertoire at the expense of the classic hymns of days gone by. Where there is the opportunity to experience greater convenience, there remains great risk.
Or consider a church that encourages its members to join a social media platform such as Facebook. The opportunity is that fellowship and communication will be enhanced using this new medium. But the risk is that fellowship and communication may actually be hindered. Consider the church member who logs on to Facebook only to be met with photographs of people having fun at an event to which he was not invited. What we hope to use to bind the church together can also pull the church apart.
We are left with difficult realities. The world is changing, and it is senseless for us to wish that the old world could return. It will not; it is gone forever. What remains for us is to carefully examine new technologies, seeking to understand both the risks and opportunities they bring. What remains for us is to be diligent, to be discerning, to be wise, to examine how we will use the new technologies we encounter, and how they may just use us.