Technology, the church, and the incarnation

How much should church rely on technology to get its message across? A lot of churches are doing everything they can to leverage technology. Sometimes you get the feeling that churches are in a race to see who can push the technological envelope the farthest. Often the use of technology goes unquestioned. "If we can, we should" is the apparent assumption. After all, we live in an electronic age.

Not so fast, says Read Mercer Schuchardt, associate professor of media ecology at Wheaton College. Schuchardt has written an article in the current issue of Leadership Journal that challenges popular assumptions and makes us think twice about how we use technology in church.

First some facts and observations put forward by Schuchardt:

  • The average American spends 8 hours a day interacting with or consuming the products of electronic media. (Actually I think that number might be a bit on the low side.)
  • Our electronic culture has made "disincarnate man" seem normal. Disincarnate man  is a person coming to you over the phone or through a screen. It is a person with no body.
  • Our culture is marked by distraction. "With fast paced, jump-cut, multi-channel, multi-sensory stimulus overload, paying attention has become a full-time job."
  • Our culture is marked by instant gratification. We grow irritated waiting for anything more than a few nanoseconds.
  • Our culture is deeply narcissistic. There is the shallow, look-at-me narcissism of social media like Facebook and Twitter. And then there is the real-deal narcissism, which is creating an alternate persona to compensate for inadequacies or shield oneself from exposure.
  • Our culture encourages passivity. Using media for passive consumption leads us to live vicariously through watching other people's lives.
  • The net result of all this is mental lethargy, the dumbing down of the population.
Our culture has exchanged words (which require effort and patience) for images (which move quickly and require only passive attention). What is the church to do in such a situation?

God has historically relied on words a great deal. "The Word is better able to cultivate deep reflection and precise, critical thought." Schuchardt argues that trading words for images is no small or incidental move. The church is not simply using media. The medium used often changes the message.

Schuchardt raises some important questions. He also makes a point with which I strongly agree. No matter what we do with images and the use of technology, "the only option Christians have for presenting a credible, authoritative, and transformative gospel is to embody Christ." In other words, we can't hide behind technology. The world is not going to change because we have made creative use of PowerPoint and YouTube. Sooner or later the rubber meets the road, and we are called to display the heart of Jesus -- face to face, eye to eye, person to person. Technology is nice, but there is no substitute for Jesus being personally present through his people.

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