Rick Bartlett, Tabor College director of theological education and assistant professor of ministry; Dave Buller, associate pastor at North Oak Community Church in Hays, Kan.; and Kyle Goings, youth pastor at First MB Church in Wichita, Kan.; presented a thought-provoking workshop on technology at the 2018 USMB National Convention and National Pastors’ Conference. The CL editors talked with the trio about this topic.
CL: What prompted the three of you to put together a workshop on technology?
Rick Bartlett: Dave and I have had a semi-regular Facebook conversation highlighting technological and innovative articles we find on the Web. We’ve had great conversations about transhumanism—the belief that technology can and will be used to enhance and transform humans—and artificial intelligence (AI). We agree that issues of transhumanism, AI and the widespread adoption of technology need to be discussed by the wider church and by church leaders in particular. This led us to consider offering a seminar at the USMB convention this past summer. Kyle had already been asked to speak on technology, so Dave and I connected with Kyle and we agreed to work together.
Dave Buller: One impetus was the conviction that technology is and will increasingly be afactor in spiritual development, for good or for evil. We all love the church and believe that Christians should (1) be aware of the impact of technology, (2) establish discipleship and protocols to avoid temptation and evil and (3) strategically implement technology for the advancement of the kingdom of God.
Kyle Goings: Since I work with teenagers, I’m constantly seeing the effect technology has on people. The younger generation has never lived in a world without cell phones, social media and the Internet. This can be overwhelming to ministry leaders, so I want to help equip and give some context on the use of technology in ministry.
CL: In the context of this discussion, what is meant by technology?
Rick Bartlett: Technology is anything created after a person was born. For example, not many of us think about the technology of a pen. But for those who wrote with a quill, to be able to have ink come out of a pen without dipping in an inkwell—that’s technology. For the purpose of this conversation, technology refers to the wide-ranging items we use to connect with people on a daily basis including computers, smartphones, AI and social media.
Dave Buller: In his book From the Garden to the City, John Dyer defines technology as “the human activity of using tools to transform God’s creation for practical purposes.” Tools used to be garden shovels and cooking pots. But in our day, Snapchat, smartphones and sermons streamed over the Internet are transforming the people God creates, which means we should now call these apps and circuits tools.
CL: How is technology impacting our daily lives?
Dave Buller: You probably carry technology most places with you. These words are typed on it, and there is a high possibility that you are reading this article via tech. Many people come home after work each day and turn it on in their living room. From Alexa to Siri to Google, we speak to it, and we anxiously listen for its response. A recent study indicates that in the United Kingdom people spend an average of 24 hours a week on a smartphone. That leaves only six days in a week—and this phenomenon has become our new reality in just 10 short years.
Kyle Goings: One unique aspect of Generation Z, anyone born after 1995, is they have never lived in a world without the Internet, cable and—for most of them—cell phones and social media. They are forming their identity at a much faster and broader pace than generations before. They not only hear who they are from their parents, friends and church, they hear it from the whole world. When they post something, all social media platforms are designed to get a response. So, this next generation has to filter what everyone says about them, not just their close circle of influence. And the church is falling behind in identity shaping methods, messages and training.
The church has become one voice in the millions of voices that this generation hears. With things like the YouVersion Bible app, we have access to God’s Word more than we ever have in human history and yet biblical literacy, particularly in modern countries, has spiraled to an all-time low. We can no longer assume people will trust the Bible simply because we say so. A new, more in-depth, Spirit-filled, practical equipping teaching method is needed.
CL: What are some examples of ways in which technology is helpful and useful?
Rick Bartlett: When it comes to technology, I’m a glass-half-full guy. I love the advances and benefits technology is bringing. If I had the money, I’d be an early adopter of new tech gadgets. When my wife, Karen, and I moved to the United Kingdom as missionaries in 1993, we communicated with our families through airmail letters, occasional (and expensive) phone calls and a fax if it was urgent. I remember our amazement of near instant communication when email came out.
Compare the isolation we experienced with the level of connection technology provides today. I can see my friend’s photos from Poland uploaded onto Facebook as he posts them. I can have an instant message conversation in real time with a friend in Australia or Africa through Messenger or WhatsApp. Or I can FaceTime my son who is away at college. One very useful part of technology is the communication it provides.
For personal and spiritual growth, I have been trying to take more time to pray at different points in the day. I have found the “breathe” app on the Apple Watch to be very helpful at reminding me to stop, breathe and pray. Technology has helped me grow in an area in which I had been stuck.
At home we use Alexa to turn on lights, play music, get the weather and news and add items to my calendar. It’s a convenience all in our house appreciate.
I work at Tabor College in Wichita where all our programs have moved online. If it wasn’t for technology, we wouldn’t be able to offer our courses to students all over the country.
Kyle Goings: We first have to think of technology not just as the latest app but anything that was built or invented by humankind. In modern countries, life expectancy has increased over the past 50 years. We can communicate with more people and travel faster than we ever have before.
And the gospel of Jesus Christ can be presented, shared and shown more easily to more people groups than ever before. We have God’s Word translated into more languages than the number of languages we even knew existed 100 years ago. We have apps that provide help for our spiritual growth. These apps range from prayer journals to evangelism maps to accountability software and even help for ministry budgeting. It’s a very exciting time for ministry if you know what to look for.
CL: What are the concerns we should be aware of when it comes to technology?
Rick Bartlett: I have a friend who has worked in Web design since the mid-1990s. We were talking about the way programs like Facebook and items like Alexa or Google Home are spying on us. Specifically, he’s concerned Amazon is collecting vast quantities of data from the random things we say in our home, even when we don’t use the “Alexa” command. I keep reminding myself that for these large companies, profit is the goal and not just the profit from selling me their device but from what they are collecting about me when using the device. I think churches should be talking about privacy and the issues that arise with our use of our connected apps and devices.
Dave Buller: A recent study showed more than one-third of respondents felt stressed and “cut off” without their phones and 29 percent felt “lost without it,” while one in 10 said that giving up their phone was “liberating” or made them more productive. But people treasure their smartphone more than any other device. My guess is that some treasure their smartphone more than anything. Period.
There is a future scenario of technology that also warrants our attention. What once was considered unfathomable is coming closer to reality. Scientists are fervently seeking ways to bypass the phone. Imagine if you didn’t have to carry a phone, charge the battery and be careful with it so that the screen didn’t break. What if you could have access to everything your smartphone can do without the hassle of the phone itself? Mega-companies, neuroscientists and tech engineers are investing heavily in ways to connect directly to the brain. Talk about pros and cons! The church needs to be prepared to speak into this.
Kyle Goings: The extreme dangers come from our inability to develop boundaries based on what other people think of us. Thirty years ago, a teenager could get bullied at school, go home and have a break from it. Now, there is never a moment without anxiety and fear because thanks to the Internet, one can be bullied 24/7. Children are no longer trained to “shut out the negative voices,” and so they are missing the crucial aspect of deciding who is their friend and who is not.
This is connected to the fact that the word “friend” is now synonymous with “follower,” as in how many followers you have in your social media world. The number of likes and followers has even become a source of currency and influence. Our phones are our biggest source of anxiety, fear and depression, and yet we cannot shut them off for the fear of missing out and being left behind. Being “in the know” is more important than “what you know” in today’s society.
CL: If everyone is glued to a screen, what are the implications for how we worship? What are ways we can helpfully engage technology in our churches?
Rick Bartlett: I’m a big fan of seeking ways to use technology in our worship services. When I preached with my wife, Karen, we put a cell number on the screen and encouraged people to text their questions as we went through the message. It was easier because there were two of us; when we switched off throughout the sermon the other person would check the phone and either interrupt the person speaking at that moment to address the question or would bring out the answer when it was that person’s turn in the message. We had a lot of good feedback afterwards. I know others do something similar using Twitter.
Dave Buller: The stories of the Bible were originally handed down orally—people sitting around sharing these stories. Then during the time of Moses these stories were written down. I wonder if people began to be concerned by this new reality. Maybe they said something like: “You know, we just don’t have those good old campfire story times anymore. Now people just look down at their books.”
We too live in a new age. I believe God can redeem technology and use it for his purposes. We need to think prayerfully and creatively about how we can use technology to make disciples with Jesus at the center. We are tasked with doing theology and mission in a new cultural context.
CL: What precautionary practices should we have in place when dealing with technology in our homes? In our churches?
Dave Buller: Here is a “techie” answer. If you have WiFi at your home or church, I would recommend OpenDNS Family Shield as a good starting place for filtering (https://www.opendns.com/home-internet-security/). Another consideration would be a router in which you can set time limits when the Internet is on in your home. We really like the TP-Link Archer C2300. If you have older kids in your home, have a conversation with your family about what limits should be set.
Kyle Goings: “How do I deal with phones/technology with my teenager?” is the number one question I get asked as a youth pastor. My first response: Your teenager does not deserve privacy when it comes to social media. You, as the parent, need to not just follow or friend your child’s social media accounts but have the password to their account. Social media is not a private journal. It is a public platform, so as a parent you have the right and the responsibility to have complete access until they leave your home.
As a parent, when you give your car keys to your teenager don’t you ask them where they are going? Our digital lives should be watched just as much. Younger teenagers particularly don’t have the boundaries or ability to handle the full effects of social media, so they need you to guide them. And if you eliminate social media altogether, once they leave your household your children will not have the skills to handle the ocean of information that will be coming their way.
For churches, cybersecurity needs to be brought to the forefront. How you collect, store and use your congregation’s personal information is vital. We have video cameras to protect our equipment, why not cybersecurity to protect our information. There are many good data management software programs that the church should invest in to properly store people’s information. The days of storing giving records and personal information in a filing cabinet are gone. Someone could break in and steal that information easier than hacking a data management software. Then people’s identities could be easily stolen.
CL: Any closing comments?
Rick Barlett: I hope pastors and churches will take on these questions and take the time to reflect on the benefits and costs of our dependence on technology. With AI growing into numerous sectors of society, I think our family of churches should hold a study conference to consider questions on what it means to be human.
Dave Buller: God gave Noah instructions for a new kind of tech—a boat that would save the human race. “This is how you are to build it…” (Genesis 6:14-15). God is not opposed to technology, but he seems to prefer watching humans create things. At times God participates with humans in doing technology (Moses and the tabernacle). In fact, God even uses tech that was created for wicked and cruel intentions to bring his salvation (the Roman cross). How is he going to use technology to bring his kingdom 20 years from now? Could it be that he will use someone from one of our churches to create it?