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Flipping The University To Reach A Dying World

An interview with Mike Mathews

His excitement was palpable as he talked about the world’s first AI-enabled MQ Mirror. Mike Mathews believes that this will revolutionise the way we interact with intelligence. Mathews is the current Vice President of Technology and Innovation of Oral Roberts University. In 2019, Mike was named by Industry-Era as one of the top 10 technologists across education and industry and won the 2019 United States Distance Learning Association Global Impact Award. He shared with Impact magazine his thoughts on technology and how it may affect education/training and the way we do church.

Impact: Can you tell us how you became a Christian?

Mathews: I was born in Manitowoc, Wisconsin. ‘Manitowoc’ means ‘devil's den’ in Indian language. People in our community drank hard and worked hard. Then I got arrested for drunk driving. It dawned on me then that I needed an education. Or my future would be like everyone else’s in the town -- no future at all. I decided I would get a degree if it killed me. And that I would rather die than go back to that community.

For 25 years I had not gone back to that community. I eventually got my first computer science degree. A famous supercomputer company called Cray Research hired me to work in a lab in Chippewa Falls, Wisconsin. I was attracted to Chippewa Falls because it had good bars and lots of alcohol. I was so proud of myself. I had everything I wanted: a good job, golfing, fishing, and sports.

My wife and I met at the workplace. She drank too, but not as heavily. We had our first child three years into the marriage. My wife stopped drinking. Then our second child came. I was still drinking. We quarrelled all the time. One day, she called me and said, “I want a divorce.” And I said to her, “Oh... be patient.”

There was a pastor in my hometown. I knew him but I had never gone to his church. I called him and said that I needed help. So my wife and I went to meet him on one of the Saturdays. The pastor asked me how much I drank. I replied, “Maybe a case of beer, 24 cans a day.” He asked if I would promise not to drink for a week and meet with him the next Sunday.

I thought it would be easy but after work on the Wednesday, I felt the craving to drink. So I pulled over to a gas station, bought six cans of beer. Very quickly, I finished two cans of beer. Then the conviction of God came over me. I pulled over at a rest area and just cried. I was so scared; I didn’t know what to do. All my friends drank. And my wife and I didn’t even like each other.

Sunday came, I was ironing my shirt and I started crying. I said to God, “Lord, if you do not do something today, I have no hope.”

In church, the pastor had an altar call after he preached. I nudged my wife to go forward with me. The person behind us saw the nudging and asked if he could help us. I started crying and said, “We need help. Our marriage is at the end of the road. I am an alcoholic.” He prayed for us and that day, both of us received Jesus. We both walked out of church a different person.

That summer, we decided to attend a Christian family camp. At the camp, the man preached on the baptism of the Holy Spirit. I fought with him in the spirit because I felt I already had it all; I had been set free from alcohol for the past six months. At that moment, God said, “Mike, just worship Me. That is all I want from you.” I started praising Him and all of a sudden I started to pray in tongues. Exactly what that guy was talking about.

The preacher went on to say,”There is somebody here who is called to the ministry in a unique way.” Two months after this event, I decided to take Bible courses to become a minister. Through a friend’s connection, The Assemblies of God’s headquarters in Springfield, Missouri called me. They heard that I was good in technology. They wanted to do internet courses and video conferencing. That was in 1996. Six months later, I went to work for them. And this began my journey for the next 20-over years of working in the area of education.

Impact: Now years into developing the concept of “flipping the university” to reach the needs of a “fluid world”, how would you measure your success? Could you give us one or two concrete examples?

Mathews: In five years, our student body has expanded to 108 countries. Our retention rate went from 63% to 95%. So we have grown in numbers, in retention rate and student success. And we win awards. That’s all good. But the real success is that we are reaching people in Pakistan with education which was unavailable to them until about two years ago.

We are now the number 1 technology university among Christian schools. And we are recognised across all industries as one of the top leaders in technology. We are doing what Oral Roberts’ vision was 50 years ago, to go to the outermost parts of the earth. Instead of the very prohibitive cost of doing mission trips, we can simply connect with them using technology.

Impact: What does it mean to be leading from the future? How are the churches equipped for this work?

Mathews: About three to five years ago, churches started to get the vision of how people can be reached. We opened up nine church study centres in Pakistan alone. In the last six months we have opened up 25 more churches around the world that will have the right equipment to receive our broadcasts. It is important to get the church leadership to take ownership. If we keep pushing it and they don’t take ownership, it will die off.

On my way to Singapore, I stopped in Mumbai. They opened a Bible institute and had students right away. So, the churches are embracing the reality that they are becoming shallow and that they need the Bible back. There is a growing number of Bible institutes.

Impact: How might all these developments impact missions in the church, balancing the incarnation approach “living among men”, with technological advances?

Mathews: If I were a surgeon and did not keep up with the technological advances for medical benefits, what would happen to me? I would be fired or sued because I signed a Hippocratic Oath to uphold medicine in its best practices.

So I think one day pastors and educators may be held accountable because they had all the technology to reach the masses but did not take advantage of it.

We believe we can use technologies to help churches train their pastors. We just had a conference training about 250 people in the media. After the session, one of the churches invited me to speak. The participants said I changed their lives. I told them that I did not change their lives but God did. I told them, one day we may be arrested because we had all these technologies but we are not using them to reach people — we use these technologies at home but we will not use them in church. So, I push people extremely hard on this. I am not forcing technologies on people but if God gives us the means to reach out to people then we should use them.

If you are teaching a five-year-old like my granddaughter who is used to using her iPad all the time, there is nothing wrong with the Sunday school teacher communicating using that means. The apostle Paul says,”I have become all things to all people, that by all means I might save some.” (1Cor 9:22b) So, we should never be offended by technology.

Impact: You mentioned that bitcoin will go away but not the blockchain technology. Some people have associated this technology with the mark of the beast. What is your opinion on this?

Mathews: For the first 10 years of the Internet, the church stayed away from it for the same reason. Now they regret staying away from it. Blockchain is one technology that will enhance the Internet. All the bad stuff on the Internet now gets improved because of Blockchain. But Bitcoin has nothing to do with that. When people understand a new technology like blockchain, they will try and do something on it to make money. So people make money out of bitcoin or cryptocurrencies using blockchain technology. The stock market goes up and down because of it. But blockchain by its very nature is so liberating as it forces people to be honest. People realised that they have to be honest because they are going to be watched. Not by God, but now by the technology world. The blockchain may be transformed and be called something else but bitcoin will go away.

Impact: What would be one area or two that you think churches can improve when it comes to the adoption of technology?

"The number one thing the church can do is to help people get into the realm of glory that God has designed it for, and it is by using their minds, their heart and their skills. Work is not a curse; it is the greatest form of worship."

Mathews: Number one is to use it for the furtherance of the kingdom of God. For me, I get invited to the United Nations and everybody wants to hear me. Interestingly, they are not Christians.

We are all behaving very primitively. We label technology as 1.0, 2.0 and so on but why do you put a label on technology? What about humanity 1.0, 2.0 and 3.0. God’s kingdom is so vast and wide that if we do not study it, we will not advance. So, the number one thing the church can do is to help people get into the realm of glory that God has designed it for, and it is by using their minds, their heart and their skills. Work is not a curse; it is the greatest form of worship.

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