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I’ve been thinking and hand- wringing for years now about the intersection of digital technology and church life. I share the concerns of some thinkers who suggest that culture will continue to leverage technology to maximize efficiency regardless of the cost. But we also can’t deny the enormous benefits that have come globally and to the church through all technological advancement, much less the particular advancement in digital technology, the focus of this article. If we can assume that we are using digital technology well to God’s glory, can we move beyond that and determine biblical priorities for when and how to use digital technology for kingdom purposes? Can we make preliminary determinations for what is best and less than best when it comes to comparing in-person gatherings to digitally streamed events? I believe the Bible does allow us to make such prioritizations.

theological principles

First, from a redemptive-historical perspective—the timeline of redemption—God did not choose a technologically robust age in which to orchestrate the pinnacle of human history—the life, death, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus Christ. This was not a divine oversight. God is not second-guessing whether His eternal purposes would have been served better if the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus could have happened as the content for a wildly successful podcast. Paul teaches this when he says, “When the fullness of time had come, God sent forth his Son, born of woman, born under the law, to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as sons” (Gal. 4:4–5). When the fullness of time had come. Every age has technology, whether it is an stone wheel or iPhone. The technology two millennia ago was perfectly suited, perfectly developed, to be the optimal medium by which to communicate the greatest thirty years of human history. This helps us avoid what C.S. Lewis called “chronological snobbery.” We may be enamored of our digital technology—our blips, blogs, and Bitcoin—but God isn’t. He may use it, but He doesn’t need it. We must avoid the tendency to believe that the technological progress we’ve seen in any way changes the fact that the birth and progress of the church has done just fine for millennia without microchips.

Second, consider the geographic and temporal elements of Christianity. I remember clearly my seminary professor Dr. Douglas Kelly pointing out to our systematic theology class that what differentiated Christianity from so many other religions was that it is situated in time and space. Where is Atlantis? We don’t know, and we’re not supposed to know. But Bethlehem, Nazareth, Jerusalem, Rome, Judea, Samaria, and the ends of the earth—we know these places. Time and place are both creations of our God, creations intended for us to live within. The events recorded in the Bible describe the where and when of the events that have occurred and are yet to occur. We are situated in between the past and future-to-come, in a particular time and particular place. Digital technology has a way of erasing time and place, making them irrelevant. This is helpful for voicemail, for a meeting between people on different continents, or for preserving information. But we were not designed to prioritize the atemporal and disembodied. Time and place are important aspects to our creation and ongoing life.

The faint mildew smell of an old church building communicates something about the generations that have filled that church before us.

Third, the incarnation frames how we consider the priority of digital technology. The incarnation may have been the most surprising event in human history, God-among-us in the flesh. John Owen wrote that the incarnation

is the glory of the Christian religion—the basis and foundation that bears the whole superstructure—the root whereon it grows. This is its life and soul, that wherein it differs from, and inconceivably excels, whatever was in true religion before, or whatever any false religion pretended unto.

In the incarnation, Jesus became man to redeem His people. This is congruent to the geographic and temporal aspects of Christianity. God did not choose to enter creation or accomplish redemption through any other way than through the hypostatic union. In that, we see God placing a priority on us as whole individuals engaging with one another as whole individuals, not limited to camera angles, pixels, or the strength of our Wi-Fi.

Our fourth consideration looks at the resurrection of Jesus and the final resurrection for which we all, as Christians, long. The resurrection of Jesus competes with the incarnation of Jesus for historic shock value. Who would have thought that God would’ve planned to redeem His people through the death of His Son? But more than that, who would’ve guessed that God’s plan for His redeemed people would be for them to join Him in a resurrection like His one day at the conclusion of all things? Notice that the Bible did not have to employ the language of utopian digital technology—flying cars, neural-links, 4K HDTV—to describe the beauty and completeness of the new heavens and the new earth. Resurrection life is creation as it was intended to be in the presence of God. Digital technology may serve us now, but it is not ultimate—it doesn’t even get a mention in the perfected creation to come.

cultural curiosities

To our four theological considerations I’d like to add three cultural curiosities pertaining to digital technology and church life.

We need to “feel” brothers and sisters around us, attending to an open Bible and a ready elder.

First, note for a moment how much weight our culture has placed on the move from audio to video. I’m not sure we would see the kind of pervasive adoption of digital technology for church uses if it was only audio and not also video. Yet, we have five senses. When we add phone to video in what we now call Zoom, we’ve only hit 40 percent of the perceptive person. Forty percent may be a fantastic batting average, but for an embodied person it is rather limited. We are still lacking touch, taste, and smell. I’ll be the first to add that these latter three senses are not the ones we think of when we consider attending a church event. The visual and auditory dominate. But it is important to experience God’s world and His church as whole people. The faint mildew smell of an old church building communicates something about the generations that have filled that church before us. The handshake or hug from a brother or sister in Christ communicates our connection in Christ. The taste of the bread and wine is part of our complete participation in the Lord’s Supper. God intended these things to be experienced in these ways.

A second cultural curiosity is the growing unease around digital technology. It isn’t hard to prove that this super-awesome-thing-called-the-internet-in-our-pocket is also creating in us anxiety about our time spent staring at a plastic rectangle, photographing our food, mindlessly scrolling, or vituperating in comment threads. We may be the most anxiety-ridden, addiction-riddled, lonely, and distracted culture to ever have walked the planet. But, we crave more time online. We should listen to our technological anxieties even if we haven’t pinpointed their source.

For my last cultural curiosity, consider the illustration of telemedicine. If you are ill, you can meet with a doctor online who can both diagnose you and prescribe to you a pharmaceutical remedy without ever having physically examined you. Take a minute to consider the oddity here. And take a minute to recognize where you may draw the line for what can be treated by telemedicine and what cannot. Pink eye can be treated by telemedicine; cancer cannot. The flu can be treated by telemedicine; a Chiari malformation cannot. To these contrasts you may say, “Of course, that is obvious.” But that is the point. Do we have the same “of course” reflexes when it comes to what is appropriate for a church to do online and what is not? The content of a sermon can be posted online; a sacrament cannot. Our lack of “of course” scenarios for what is appropriate for a church to do online is disconcerting.

where does this leave us?

Our brief survey of biblical principles and cultural curiosities overwhelmingly leaves us with one thesis: the in-person gathering of God’s people for worship and fellowship takes a significant priority over anything digital technology can or will ever produce. And this is a part of God’s original design. The human created, redeemed, and placed in the community of the church is the masterpiece of technological innovation. Apple will never come close to approximating what God has done with a Christian. The Bible encourages us to pursue fellowship and worship in ways that maximize our humanity rather than highlight the more efficient or convenient aspects of a person. A simple prayer meeting in a dingy and poorly lit basement with four elderly women takes a higher priority than a livestreamed event by a megachurch.

This should encourage us as Christians to prioritize in-person gatherings over any other alternative. It is important to attend the live preaching and teaching of God’s Word. We need to “feel” brothers and sisters around us, attending to an open Bible and a ready elder. We need to hear the faint fuss of infants, enjoying one of their first worship services in the arms of their parents, surrounded by their church family. The fastest fiber-optic cable, the most high-definition screen cannot provide the medium to rightly participate in the Lord’s Supper. It takes whole people, situated in time and place, with the people to whom they have covenanted, before the face of their living God, to enjoy and participate in the sacrament, much less the rest of Christian worship.

Can digital technology serve the church in needed and helpful ways? Absolutely. You likely would not be reading this article without some help from digital technology. But we must prioritize digital technology correctly. It cannot take the place of or get near to the in-person fellowship and worship of God’s people.

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From the March 2021 Issue
Mar 2021 Issue