W hat is “digital ministry?” It’s a question I have been asking myself this week, after being one of 12 honorees on a site naming “digital ministry experts.” (Click here to see the full list of 12 honorees and how the list was chosen.) Here are five thoughts.
1. Many people have a poor understanding of technology.
If there’s one thing I have learned, it is that for most people, technology is just a word for something that doesn’t work.
Pencil? That’s not a technology. Book? Organ? Transistor radio, even? We cease calling it technology once we’ve mastered it.
Popular culture, and most casual conversation, thinks of “technology” as a fixed object, a static suite of products, or even worse, a nefarious conspiracy of forced compliance. As one friend forwarded me in an email, typed in Comics Sans no less,
At a recent computer expo, Bill Gates reportedly compared the computer industry with the auto industry and stated, “If Ford had kept up with technology like the computer industry has, we would all be driving $25 cars that got 1,000 miles to the gallon.”
In response to Bill’s comments, Ford issued a press release stating: If Ford had developed technology like Microsoft, we would all be driving cars with the following characteristics:
1. For no reason whatsoever, your car would crash………twice a day.
2. Every time they repainted the lines in the road, you would have to buy a new car.
3.Occasionally your car would die on the freeway for no reason. You would have to pull to the side of the road, close all of the windows, shut off the car, restart it, and reopen the windows before you could continue.
I’ll spare you the rest. Kudos to the email chain joke originator, but the fallacy with this rant is that the writer is comparing the maturity of one industry with the infancy of another. Not that I am a fan of Windows machines, but when an automobile was new, it was every bit as strange, complex and unreliable as a computer is now.
Culture has a storied history of change resistance. Here are 11 famous examples of fear and suspicion of new technology.
The church has the same view of technology, but worse.
In The Wired Church 2.0, I called it the “AV Mentality,” but that was kind. I perhaps should have called it the church’s view the “AV Evil,” because in the church, we not only minimize the new technology, we make old technology holy. We sacralize the old. There’s a long history of the church’s relationship with technology (which is a black comedy). We, in order, dismiss, ridicule, fight, assimilate, and eventually make holy every new technology that comes along. And the make holy part only happens when a newer technology comes along to threaten the legitimacy of the existing one.
Technology isn’t fixed; it’s the set of markers placed by the inexorable forward march of an innovating culture.
2. “Digital Ministry” is about more than any one technology.
“Digital” is both a particular term for specific technology, namely the use of bytes not atoms as switches, and a broad term for an emerging culture that is fundamentally different than what came before.
My work to bring together digital and ministry is based on a belief that both understandings of the word are already having a profound impact on the life of faith, and will continue to do so, more with each passing year.
We focus in the church a lot these days on rapid changes in our Western culture’s religious beliefs and practices, and with good reason. We talk less about the impact of emerging technology on these beliefs and practices. And, yes, there is an impact, just as the emergence of Gutenberg’s press in the 1450s had over the decades that followed an ever increasing disruptive force on church and society, until a century later people were killing one another.
What happened then was a gradual, profound change not just in the ways people communicated but in the ways people thought and the ways in which they formed meaning. I believe the same changes are unavoidable now and in fact are already happening. (Here’s a brief look into how.) I hope we can skip the violence this time around, but so far things are spotty at best.
3. The problem is that the promise of technology lay in the future.
If you’re old enough, perhaps you remember the promise of the paperless office. Marketers have been cajoling us with the seductive allure of new technology for a long time. I wonder if the Israelites had marketers persuading them to keep marching through the wilderness. Maybe the marketers were the ones causing them to keep walking in circles.
The problem is new technology requires convincing, because its benefits are not always obvious, particularly to those whose livelihoods are invested in existing technology. (New technology is profoundly disruptive, and over time changes work life.) We don’t easily see the benefits because they’re gradual and our frustrations exist in a moment in time. Advocates of new technology tend to be aspirational. As Roy Amara said, “We tend to overestimate the effect of a technology in the short run and underestimate the effect in the long run.”
4. It’s critically important for the church to become digital.
Sadly, for the most part, we’re busy creating ramparts against perceived attacks when we should be out in the streets, understanding and using new technology as a force for positive change.
We will be assimilated, on the front end or through the back door kicking and screaming. I believe a healthy understanding of the rise of “being digital,” to use Nicholas Negroponte’s phrase, as critically important to the future of the church.
We must move forward.
5. Digital ministry is simply a willingness to innovate in service to Christ’s church.
It means a willingness to act, like Joshua and Caleb, as scouts on the hill, fingers pointed into the future, shouting back to God’s people that the way forward is clear.
I want to be both a thinker and a practitioner because it’s vital for us in the church to figure out how doing digital life is actually going to work in the day to day rhythms of the local congregation.
To say a person is a “digital ministry expert” implies, at first blush, competency with an emerging technology, adapted for church work. That has certainly been the case for me. My specialty has been digital storytelling. Other people on the list have advocated emerging technologies such as social media, podcasting, and more. And yet it would be a mistake to reduce technology to a set of tactics.
I haven’t polled the other 11 “digital ministry experts”, but my hunch is that they like me would prefer to be known not for competency with a particular technical skill set but for an interest in making the gospel known in the time and space in which they live.
Technology is the result of innovative products and services, and innovation is simply creativity that delivers. Therefore, technology is the result of creativity, and as little Christs, as miniature images of a Creating God, digital ministry is our creative birthright and calling.
Further, it is the very nature of the Incarnation to make holy the time and space in which we live. God doesn’t live in a curtained off room; God is with us in the Now, working through us to redeem the world, and draw the world back to God, and we need to do likewise, and be willing to introduce new technology in our church practices.
So, really, digital ministry is the kind of thing all church people should be doing. I don’t mean everyone should create an Instagram account, necessarily, but I do mean understanding the communication of the current age and making new things and iterating improvements and seeking ways in which we can incarnate the gospel of Jesus in the world in which we live.
Trust me, it may not feel like it a lot of days, but God is all about new technology.
Let us all be digital ministry experts.