Church of the digital age

As a child of the 1980s, I can still remember a time when simple video games would catalyse a sense of wonder in adults and children alike. As a four-year-old, I can still recall staring open-mouthed at the awesome power of the ZX-81, Sir Clive Sinclair’s now-laughably basic home computer. Using a keyboard, I was able to steer a robot around a complex maze that had appeared, seemingly by magic, on my television screen. Granted, the ‘robot’ was actually just a flickering zero, and the ‘complex maze’ was actually just a series of lines, but in 1982, it was cutting edge technology.

Less than 30 years ago, Sir Clive Sinclair was pushing at the boundaries of what was possible. He’d managed to condense the sort of technology two decades earlier would have filled an entire room, into a box the size of a pencil case. Within just a few years, the personal computer was becoming a vital fixture of the Modern Western Home. In the 1990s, computers diversified into two strands: those used exclusively for video gaming, and home PCs, used for office tasks, data storage, and later email and Internet access.

As the consumer’s expectations of what computers could do quickly sky-rocketed, so too did the development of technology to meet those expectations. So the Noughties became the decade of technological acceleration, where you could now carry around 10,000 songs in your pocket; where billion-dollar turnover shops and businesses could exist entirely virtually; where your phone handled your email, and could tell your television hard drive which Hi-Def programme to record.

As we enter a new decade, the standard bearers for technological development are two megabrands – Apple and Google – that in 2000 were barely thought of as major players. Alongside their contemporaries, they continue to relentlessly pursue greater innovation, as the digital world continues to integrate further and further with the physical. Now most people are beginning to have online and offline lives; Facebook profiles to complement their physical address books. The world has changed – technology, and the digital culture it fuels, are advancing at a faster and potentially more world-altering rate than at any time in history including the Industrial Revolution. The question is: should we be trying to keep up, and if so, how? 


Don’t panic!

The sheer speed of evolution in this area can feel a little overwhelming – especially since companies now deliberately design their technology to feel redundant and replaceable within just a few years. Yet it may be crucially important that Christians make an effort not to be left behind, at least in understanding the values of this new digital culture. At the same time, as we’ll see, there could also be some important ways that we can contribute to society by challenging some of those values. The lines have blurred between people and computers – the giant network of computers and devices around the world has a human brain.

This has major implications for the way Christians view mission in this rapidly evolving cultural context. If evangelism is about connecting stories, then in order to reach today’s digital natives with the gospel, we need to understand both how they process and interact with stories, and how they intuitively build relationships with others. Through social networking websites (most prominently Facebook) and other online ‘profiles’ such as blogs (online journal entries), today’s web users are all contributing to billions of user-generated story strands. Through the Internet, everyone’s life story has become connected and interwoven into all the others. If, as Christians, we stay away from the Internet, then we fail to become part of this grand story, and risk becoming irrelevant to it.

Instead then, we should be looking at the online world not just as a new mission field, but as one of the key places to share our faith and live it out. How intentional are we about our behaviour as Christians online? Just like the driver whose fish bumper sticker means they can no longer cut up other cars, if we’re public about our beliefs then people will be watching our online behaviour.

More positively, we now have another entire dimension in which to think about evangelistic opportunity; how could our Facebook profile or Twitter feed be speaking light and truth into the lives of our friends? How can we use video sharing and blogging sites to explore the Christian message in a way that others around the world might connect with? I once wrote a blog post which accidentally attracted thousands of people into an evangelistic conversation. These accidents are the stuff of the Internet – we can embrace them in our efforts to communicate God’s love.


Downtime

However, despite the importance of engaging with new technology, one of the implications for the Church of the digital age is the role we can play off-line, in what geeks might term ‘downtime’. We’re used to having things on demand, and that can be a principle we transfer to our relationships with one another. So the idea of a sacred (and in some cases ancient) space, in which mobile use is frowned upon and the only technology on show is an erratically operated PowerPoint, is actually a very attractive one. The natural Sabbath for the digital native is…a visit to church. Or at least it could be. Perhaps it’s time to think of ourselves as oases of respite from the pace of modern life.

For all of us though, ‘downtime’ is getting harder to find. Where in the past a bus journey might have afforded an opportunity to think and look out of the window, now there are a range of technologies competing to ensure we don’t get ‘bored’. A game, an email, even a full Internet connection; every moment now can be filled with something to ‘do’. Since the famous truism goes that we’re human beings, not human doings, what happens to us if we never allow ourselves room to just ‘be’?

The Bible is very clear on the importance and role of Sabbath rest – one huge risk of this Brave New World is that it makes no place for silence and contemplation (although I’m sure there’s a ‘Sabbath’ iPhone app in development). As well as ensuring we retain a focus on life-balance and rest, we should also be intentional about prioritising face-to-face relationships. It has become culturally acceptable to take a sneaky look at your Blackberry in the middle of a supposedly important conversation. We can’t buy into this. In an increasingly noisy culture, where hundreds of voices are constantly competing for attention, Christians have an opportunity to become known as those rare people who actually take time to listen.

The trouble is that the story will look unrecognisably different in ten years time, meaning the online version of this article is going to date horribly. Futurists predict the next decade will include perfect cross-lingual communication, so that you’ll be able to talk in real time with a non-English speaker and understand one another perfectly; broadband smartphones which also replace cash and payment cards; and the proliferation of lightweight, indestructible e-readers that mean you’ll be reading Christianity on a rolled-up piece of plastic. I now have a four-year-old son. He’ll never understand what a Walkman was, and looked at me quizzically when I stopped to use a payphone last week. Thirty years from now, who can guess what kind of culture he’ll be surrounded by? More importantly from my perspective, will the Church still appear relevant and unique to him? If we’re careful to both keep up with digital culture, and to understand the roles we can play in it, then I’m hopeful the answer might be yes.

This article first appeared as part of the culture column in Christianity magazine. You should all read Christianity you know. Get a free copy here now.

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