More than 500 years ago, one of the most significant technological innovations of the second millennium was developed. In 1455, Johann Gutenberg printed the Bible using new technology — moveable metal type.
Before the production of the Gutenberg Bible, books were either laboriously copied by hand or printed from engraved wooden blocks. Printing was a time- and labour-intensive process, which took months or even years to complete. As a result, books were prohibitively expensive, which meant only the wealthy could afford them.
The invention of the printing press changed all that. It made books cheaper and more easily available. The greater accessibility of learning and knowledge sparked a transformation in society. The Gutenberg Revolution helped drive the discoveries and advances of the Renaissance period. Historians also credit the printing press with furthering the cause of the Protestant Reformation, as it put Bibles and Christian literature into the hands of more ordinary people.
The Gutenberg printing press demonstrates the power of innovation and technology to impact our lives and faith. Even as I write this article, I’m conscious of just how useful technology is! I use Bible software that allows me to search the Scriptures in a multiplicity of ways. Thanks to the Internet, I have immediate access to an abundance of resources for further reading and research. My laptop makes writing and editing so much easier. What’s more, I’m listening to music via an online streaming service that helps me focus better while working.
But new technologies have fundamentally changed how we communicate. It has opened up new pathways for the gospel to go forth. It has made it easier for Christians to get in touch with one another.
I’m old enough to remember a time when most telephones were landlines and when people did not have email. But new technologies have fundamentally changed how we communicate. It has opened up new pathways for the gospel to go forth. It has made it easier for Christians to get in touch with one another.
David Murray, a professor at Puritan Reformed Theological Seminary, wrote in a blog post: “I believe Christian fellowship has increased rather than decreased with the advent of the Internet. Through blogs and websites, ‘ordinary’ Christians are sharing their faith and their spiritual experiences in ways that bless and encourage hundreds and sometimes thousands of other Christians and non-Christians too. So much that would have been kept private and untold is now public and shared. Isolated Christians, Christian seniors, Christians with special needs, Christian homemakers, etc.have access to other Christians in unprecedented ways.”
In my own church context, WhatsApp has become almost indispensable to ministry. The app provides a platform for discussions, and is also the channel for sharing words of encouragement and prayer requests. As a result, church members have grown more connected with one another. We have become so dependent on such forms of electronic communication that it is hard to imagine church life without it.
But technology can be a double-edged sword. While innovation benefits those who are able to keep up, those who are unable to adapt to the pace of change risk being left behind. In my multi-generational church, we need to be especially sensitive to this. Not everyone is equally comfortable or adept with technology. The pursuit of efficiency should not lead to some becoming more isolated.
Although technology has the power to better connect us, it can also distract us from real life and relationships. For instance, has the proliferation of social media platforms made us genuinely more social? Some have become more concerned about maintaining their social media profile and presence than with cultivating true friendships. Technology also has a tendency to cause us to disengage from the people around us. I have observed mealtimes becoming less social because everyone is too preoccupied with their own mobile phones to interact with one another.
And just because communication has become easier does not necessarily mean it has become more meaningful. In the 19th century, American philosopher Henry David Thoreau said this of the postal system: “For my part, I could easily do without the post office. I think that there are very few important communications made through it. I never received more than one or two letters in my life that were worth the postage.” If Mr Thoreau made such a critique then, what would he think of our communication now? Among the countless number of emails and electronic messages we send and receive, how many are actually worth the bytes? Has the quality of our communication improved? How are we speaking “only such as is good for building up, as fits the occasion, that it may give grace to those who hear” (Eph. 4:29)?
Technology can be a useful tool for life and ministry. But we must think carefully about how to use it well. Does technology help or hinder us from following Christ? Does it enable us to more faithfully fulfill God’s call, or does it distract and tempt us away from obedient discipleship? How are we stewarding technology for God’s glory?
Technology is not an end in itself, but a means for us to serve God and man. Lest we forget, we would do well to return to the clarity and simplicity of Scripture. God’s Word portrays life and ministry as deeply relational. Therefore, we should use technology in ways that draw us closer to, not further away from one another. Technology should never be a substitute for intentionally building deeper relationships with other members of the body of Christ.
Innovation and technology ought not distract us from what really matters. Paul’s words to the Thessalonian Christians are particularly helpful in reminding us of the importance of connecting with one another: “But since we were torn away from you, brothers, for a short time, in person not in heart, we endeavoured the more eagerly and with great desire to see you face to face, because we wanted to come to you — I, Paul, again and again — but Satan hindered us. For what is our hope or joy or crown of boasting before our Lord Jesus at his coming? Is it not you? For you are our glory and joy.” (1 Thess. 2:17-20)
Paul’s desire is obvious: He longs to see these believers in person. His earnest prayer is that he may “see (them) face to face and supply what is lacking in (their) faith” (1 Thess. 3:10). Ministry means people. Loving and serving others entails an investment in real, not virtual, facetime. We are to live out the normal Christian life in community with other believers.
In his classic book on Christian community, Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote: “It is easily forgotten that the fellowship of Christian brethren is a gift of grace, a gift of the Kingdom of God that any day may be taken from us, that the time that still separates us from utter loneliness may be brief indeed. Therefore, let him who until now has had the privilege of living a common Christian life with other Christians praise God’s grace from the bottom of his heart. Let him thank God on his knees and declare: It is grace, nothing but grace, that we are allowed to live in community with Christian brethren.”
Technology facilitates and complements community; it is not a substitute for it. This is the reason why the church, by definition, is an assembly of God’s people. Our identity is expressed through our coming together as a community and cultivating relationships with one another. Simply watching a live-stream of a worship service is not “doing church”.
The Bible’s consistent witness is that God’s people are marked by a desire to see and be with one another:
The Ephesian elders are sorrowful because they realize they will not see Paul again (Acts 20:38).
Paul longs to see the Christians in Rome, that he may impart to them some spiritual gift to strengthen them (Rom. 1:11)
Paul yearns to see Timothy again, that he “may be filled with joy” (2 Tim. 1:4).
The author of Hebrews requests prayer that he may be sooner restored to the Christians he is writing to and see them again (Heb. 13:19).
The apostle John, likewise, prefers to meet with other believers in person: “Though I have much to write to you, I would rather not use paper and ink. Instead I hope to come to you and talk face to face, so that our joy may be complete.” (2 John 12); “I had much to write to you, but I would rather not write with pen and ink. I hope to see you soon, and we will talk face to face.” (3 John 13-14)
All these passages express a simple but profound truth about the Christian life: If we are in Christ, then we belong to one another as fellow members of the same spiritual body. We are siblings in the same spiritual family. Jesus Christ has made us one. Therefore technology must not detract from the unity and connectedness that we enjoy as the redeemed people of God.
Our life together as God’s people is meant to reflect who He is. The relational nature of our lives and ministries is rooted in the Trinitarian relationships between the Father, Son and Spirit. The Triune God calls us into a relationship with Him and with one another. Thus Jesus prays for His people, “The glory that you have given me I have given to them, that they may be one even as we are one, I in them and you in me, that they may become perfectly one, so that the world may know that you sent me and loved them even as you loved me.” (Jn 17:22-23)
One day, our relational longings will be magnificently fulfilled beyond what we can think or imagine. Then, when our faith turns to sight, we shall no longer have to see in a mirror dimly. We shall know fully, even as we have been fully known. We will see God’s face. In the meantime, as we await that glorious day, may we use technology in ways that strengthen, not weaken, our relationships with one another and our common anticipation of this hope!
Eugene Low pastors at Grace Baptist Church. He is married to Claire and they have two boys, Zachary and Iain. Eugene enjoys listening to a variety of music, and so is very grateful for the innovation of online music streaming.