Five Steps for Assessing and Applying Technology

Since the dawn of man, life has continued to increase in complexity at a more rapid pace. Each societal, cultural, and technological change requires wisdom for how to navigate the new, more complex world. Complexity requires wisdom.

We used to have decades, or even centuries, to develop a base of wisdom through living and thinking deeply. But that world no longer exists.

Remarking on this in the preface to his book The Tech-Wise Family, Andy Crouch writes, “the pace of technological change has surpassed anyone’s capacity to develop enough wisdom to handle it.” His point is that technological change is coming much faster than we’re able to develop wisdom about how to assess and apply it to our lives.

Fortunately, believers like Crouch, John Dyer, Tony Reinke, and Albert Borgmann, among others, have laid the groundwork for us to begin developing wisdom about the technology we’re surrounded by.

Based on my survey of Christian and secular literature on the topic of technology and how it’s affecting us, I suggest five steps for assessing and applying it to our lives, which can be summarized with the acrostic LEDER:

  1. Learn broadly
  2. Evaluate biblically
  3. Discuss communally
  4. Engage skeptically
  5. Revisit regularly

I’ll walk through each of these in more detail below.

Step 1: Learn broadly

When beginning to think through any form or application of technology, the first step is to learn broadly. To learn broadly about a subject is to study it generally and widely. This means Christians should be well-informed about new and old forms of technology.

Learning broadly can help keep us from jumping to incorrect conclusions or beginning with false assumptions. For instance, many Christians make assumptions about technology because of their personal views. When they do this, they make uninformed decisions that are either isolationist (no tech at all) or overly accepting (no tech is bad)—neither of which is healthy.

What, then, should Christians be aware of when learning broadly about a form of technology?

We cannot think well about technology without understanding its purpose, use, values, and tradeoffs. If understood, these four areas will give one a broad enough knowledge of the subject, leaving them well-informed to make decisions. (For more on these four areas, read this.)

In his seminal book Technology and the Contemporary Life, Albert Borgmann, a Catholic philosopher doing great thinking on the subject, suggests that instead of living our lives according to the values of new technology, people should determine their values first and attempt to use their tools in service of those values.

This should be what Christians are after—to use technology in the service of their values. But to do so, we will have to learn broadly about the tools and devices of our day.

After you’ve learned broadly about technology, step two is to then biblically evaluate a specific form or application.

Step 2: Evaluate biblically

As believers in the God of the Bible, Christians must submit all of their thinking and behavior to that described in the Bible. This means returning again and again to the Scriptures to see what Christian doctrine teaches us about our identity and values.

The Bible has much to say about who Christians are supposed to be and what is supposed to mark them, from compassion for the poor to those who hold marriage to be sacred, and much, much more.

God is not silent on his values, either. Most notably, he handed down Ten Commandments written in stone to reflect their never-changing nature (Exodus 20). So while the Bible is seemingly silent on virtual reality or artificial intelligence, it is not silent on values, morality, and identity.

Technology brings with it its own morals and values that have the power to shape our identity. The Christian’s job is to see where there are areas of overlap or incongruence with their biblical worldview, then act accordingly.

John Dyer sums this up well:

“Our task as believers is to work against the tendencies built into our devices, and to in effect become a predator of the media in the ecosystem of our lives. . . . Christians who live God-honoring lives in the digital world are those who can discern the tendencies built into all technology and then decide when those tendencies are in line with godly values, and then those tendencies are damaging to the soul.”

Step 3: Discuss communally

God’s people were never meant to exist alone. They were always meant to live in a loving, sacrificial, and social community. When it comes to evaluating technology, that community can be a source of wisdom, insight, and discernment that proves valuable to a Christ-follower seeking to live faithfully in the digital age.

This can take the form of simple conversations with one’s small group or fellow believers, more formal conversations with pastors or denominational leaders, or trial and error within the context of one’s own family.

Technology is too complicated and its implications too broad to try and come to conclusions on our own. God’s people must consult the best of familial, ecclesial, denominational, and historical wisdom to help them navigate technological considerations. (John Dyer has rounded up a helpful list of resources on technology. His site Don’t Eat the Fruit is also worth following.)

Step 4: Engage skeptically

Once you’ve learned broadly about a technology, evaluated it biblically, and discussed it within your community, you should have the information needed to determine how, when, and how often you will engage with it. But regardless what conclusion you arrive at, it would be wise to engage the technology skeptically.

The reason for skepticism is because technology’s values are usually opposed to Christian values. While this does not always have to be the case, the reality is that humanity is sinful. Dyer explains,

“What the Scriptures call our ‘flesh’ is that part of us that is always bent towards self, at the expense of others and the exclusion of God. Our flesh, then, will always gravitate towards technology that favors the individual over the group.”

Just as Jesus did not entrust himself to men because he knew what was in their hearts (John 2:24), Christians should not entrust themselves to technology because they know its natural bent. We should engage it skeptically, asking questions along the way about how it affects us, including how it affects our family, community, and society.

This doesn’t mean we can’t find true joy in using technology but that we should be wise and realistic about its uses and effects.

Step 5: Revisit regularly

If steps one through four above were followed, you would have entered into (or continued) a relationship with a specific technology skeptically, questioning its use along the way. Such questioning should be revisited regularly.

Once you’ve adopted a technology, you have ample experience to reflect on its positive and negative effects. For example, you can reflect on how it has affected you emotionally, mentally, relationally, physically, and spiritually.

One way to help sort out a technology’s effect is by limiting or abstaining from the use of it for a time. Removal of the device or tool will highlight the value assigned to it. A healthy way to start is by building a practice of Sabbath into your life, resting from work and technology.

If you follow the five steps of LEDER (learn broadly, evaluate biblically, discuss communally, engage skeptically, and revisit regularly), you will no longer be driven and tossed in the wind by the powers-that-be in Silicon Valley.

As people of the Word, Christians should be LEDERs when it comes to discussing, innovating, and engaging with technology. But unless we do so with wisdom, we’re bound to create idols which work against our values.

Four Critical Things We Need to Understand About Technology

In Technology and the Contemporary Life, philosopher Albert Borgmann suggests that instead of living our lives according to the values of new technology, people should determine their values first and attempt to use their tools in service of those values. This should be what Christians are after.

Technology has changed and will continue to change the world at an increasingly rapid pace. As people living in this world—particularly as Christians living in this world—we have to understand how technology functions because it alters the ways in which we relate to the world and to one another.

Here are four critical things we need to understand about technology.

1. Understanding technology’s purpose

Understanding technology’s purpose means understanding what problem it seeks to solve. Technology is created to make complex things simple, so asking what complex task a form or application of technology tries to solve can help identify its purpose.

Google Maps, for example, exists to make simpler the complex problem of getting and following directions. Asking yourself the problem the technology in question seeks to make simpler allows you to better understand the intended use of the technology.

It can also be helpful to look up what the manufacturer explicitly states its purpose is. Sometimes this is not helpful, but other times it can be illuminating.

For instance, most people think Facebook is simply a way to stay connected with friends and family. However, Facebook’s website states that their mission is to, “Give people the power to build community and bring the world closer together.” Inherent within that statement is the value of democratization of power and organization. That means Facebook will design and build features around those inherent values (more on values in point three below).

2. Understanding technology’s use

Once you understand a technology’s purpose, you have a better sense of its intended use or uses. Knowing the intended use of a technological form or application is crucial to help you determine whether or not it is something you feel they can adopt, because a technology’s use may or may not be contrary to Christian values.

For instance, the Ashely Madison website, a form of social connection technology, openly sought to connect those looking to have an adulterous affair, which clearly does not align with Christian values and understandings of marriage.

Of course, technology often has unintended uses as well, and sometimes these are even more important to be aware of. The Internet simultaneously makes it possible to share pictures of one’s children with relatives around the world, while also making it possible for another person to produce or view pornography. The scientific community which created the Internet intended for it to be used as an information sharing platform, not a pornographic one.

Smartphone makers want to make devices that allow people to stay connected more easily and more often, which their products do. But they also allow terrorists to detonate bombs remotely, leading to the killing of innocent people.

Christians should understand better than anyone that technology makes more than good possible, and we can always count on sinful humans behaving sinfully. What technology makes possible we should see as probable.

3. Understanding technology’s values

Because most people today think technology is neutral and its moral value is found in its uses, they miss something crucial to understand about technology —it comes with its own values.

Technology is not built in a moral vacuum. A technology’s design imbues it with a set of morals which are then inherent to its use.

In his excellent book From the Garden to the City, John Dyer uses the example of iTunes and the music industry to illustrate how technology has inherent values. In previous decades, music was recorded on and sold by physical means—vinyl, cassettes, or CDs.

In the years since iTunes was released, the music industry has shifted almost entirely to a digital (non-physical) medium of distribution, giving birth to a world where small bands could be known around the world, where consumers buy less music, artists get paid less per song, and many brick-and-mortar stores and businesses have gone bankrupt.

These changes happened because iTunes values quick, easy, and cheap access to music. While these values may be neutral in and of themselves, the technology of iTunes is certainly responsible for positive and negative changes in the world of music.

The church is no exception to the changes in music. Before audio recording and amplification, people had to gather in a church on Sunday morning to experience worship music. Now people can access praise music and sermons anywhere they want for little or no cost. Large churches are partly a result of the technological innovations of the last few decades. Amplification and projection technologies have made it possible to reach and present information to a large number of people at once, something that was previously impossible.

Another helpful example Dyer gives is that of cell phones. We began buying cell phones for safety reasons; we wanted to be able to call someone in the event of an emergency. “We bought our phones,” says Dyer, “because we valued solving one problem (safety) without realizing that the phone also brings with it the value of constant connection.”

Because we did not recognize this value of constant connection we now live in a world where our phones beckon our attention away from whatever is in front of us around the clock. Yes, anything we could want to know is available all at once, but to have that possibility required us giving up the ability to be fully present, which leads to the next consideration.

4. Understanding technology’s tradeoffs

Technology always solves a problem, but it never does so without tradeoffs.

Furnaces and thermostats, for example, make it possible to regulate the temperature of a home with little to no variation. Furnaces were designed to take the place of the hearth—large fireplaces that served as centerpieces to homes historically.

Heating a home by fire is time-consuming and tedious—gathering and splitting wood, building the fire, starting the fire and keeping it going. But it turns out these processes also provided time for building strength, discipline, and relationships. Whereas a family used to split up the jobs required to keep a fire burning, now one of them simply presses a button. All the work is gone, but all the character-forming opportunities are gone too.

The same goes for air conditioning. Air conditioning units today keep us cool even in humid, North Carolina summers, which is an incredible feat of technology. But while the ability to stay cool year-round is certainly a positive, the tradeoff has been a lack of community and neighborly relationships.

Prior to air conditioning, we would have to go outside to cool off, hoping to sit on the porch and catch a breeze in the evening. Since everyone was involved in the same activity at the same time, it afforded opportunities for us to have a conversation. Now the porch is a ghost town at the same time of day, replaced instead with the blue glow of televisions and the low hum of A/C units.

It seems impossible that our heating and cooling systems could possibly have negative consequences, but such is the result of not considering the tradeoffs of technology. The further along we are in the adoption of a technology, the harder it is to see these tradeoffs. For that reason, understanding these trade-offs requires attention prior to adoption, or as soon as possible thereafter.

If we aren’t careful, technological tools and devices will shape our values. Instead, Christians should be using these tools in service of their values to love God and neighbor and make Jesus known among the nations. To do this well, we have to understand technology and its effects on humans made in the image of God.

Facebook Can’t Replace Church

Mark Zuckerberg recently said he believes Facebook can become a force for community organization, much like churches or little league sports. His comments have prompted reflection on both the Church’s place amid a changing cultural, and the role of technology in organizing people. Some scoffed at Zuckerberg’s ambitions, while others asked if Facebook could indeed replace the Church.

Since the future is not for us to know, perhaps the best thing to do with comments like these is to see what they bring into focus and what they fail to see altogether. Lest we think church can easily be replaced, I’d like to turn the attention to what many inside and outside Christianity often fail to see in regards to the Church. God’s design for humans, where Christians find their meaning and the reality of the church’s mission provide us three reasons why Facebook (or any other institution) can’t replace church.

Read the rest of my article over at Relevant.

Skye Jethani on Church and Technology

Skye Jethani has an interesting Twitter thread on church and technology. Here’s the original thread on Twitter where you can see replies and Skye’s further thoughts. And here’s the thread in text format for easy reading:

Folks are flipping out about Mark Zuckerburg saying Facebook can replace the church by connecting & leading people, but is he wrong?

Facebook gives us the impression of community without all of the drawbacks of actual human interaction. We can carefully manage our image…

…and only “friend” those we agree with. It puts us in control. It also give us immediate access to an incredible about of information.

The downside of social media & tech is that it dis-incarnates us & ultimately cannot satisfy our deepest longings for human connection.

Of all people we Christians ought to recognize how essential incarnation is; to know that bodies, flesh, & in-person community

Sadly, much of the church is just as enamored w/ dis-incarnation as Zuckerberg. This is due, ironically, to our commitment Christ’s mission.

Evangelicals in particular have believed that message alone matters & medium is irrelevant. That’s why they’re eager to employ any & all…

…vehicles for communicating the gospel. Radio, TV, t-shirts, bumper stickers, gum wrappers, political parties, ukuleles, etc.

They say the medium is neutral & only the content of the message matters, but this is so easily shown to be utterly false. For example…

We’d all agree that I can destroy my marriage with only the internet, but can I have a healthy marriage with only the internet?

That silly example shows the medium of the web is capably of great harm but only limited good. In other words, medium matters.

So, when I see church leaders enthusiastically embrace all tech as neutral tools for ministry/mission, do they understand the implications?

Tech offers us the illusion of omnipresence. It allows us to escape the physical limitations of our bodies to transport ourselves elsewhere.

I no longer have to be present with those near me, or even with my own thoughts, thanks to the phone in my pocket.

They have become totems giving us the god-like power to escape our bodies. This temptation is especially strong for ministers.

We have a divinely ordained mission; why shouldn’t we us god-like technology to help us reach more people than we could as embodied pastors?

Incarnate ministry is slow. The word is transmitted person-to-person. The care of souls requires us to be physically present. How agrarian.

Digital, dis-incarnate ministry means mission can industrialize. Now we can all scale our influence & reach 1,000s via pixels.

Dis-incarnate ministry is so much cleaner, so much more efficient, & infinitely more marketable. But is it the way of Jesus?

When Jesus came to dwell among us he “emptied himself” to take on flesh. He set aside his omnipresence to occupy a physical body.

Jesus was not everywhere, doing everything, engaging everyone. He accepted the confinement of a body. Incarnation is necessarily limiting.

This is what a minister enamored w/tech fails to recognize. To be human is to accept our incarnate limitations & embrace them as good.

It means emptying ourselves of the prideful desire to be like God, to be omnipresent, and to resist the lies of technology.

Jesus became incarnate to redeem every part of us—mind, soul, and body. Ministry in His name must do the same.

Learning the way of Jesus means accepting & embracing our embodied limitations. It also means being physically present w/those we serve.

I’m not saying all tech is evil. Heck, I’m tweeting this rant. But we must be aware of it’s seduction & the way it dis-incarnates the church

Tech temps us to be everywhere, do everything, & engage everyone, but we can miss what God is doing right where we are.

Ok- done for now. I welcome your thoughts. What is the proper place of tech in church/mission?