‘It is time,” the founder of this magazine once said, “for the church to use technology to make a statement that in the midst of chaos, emptiness, and despair, there is hope in the person of Jesus Christ.” It was classic Billy Graham, who was born two years after the invention of the condenser microphone. There was no technology he didn’t find of use in his evangelistic efforts. The Hour of Decision radio show immediately became one of the country’s most popular. He created a television version and a film production company in 1951, when most conservative Christians were still skeptical of both media. His 1954 London crusade experimented with relay transmissions to hundreds of venues across Britain. Four decades later, he was similarly testing the limits of satellite broadcasts.
This magazine, too, is a result of Graham’s passion to bend every possible communications medium toward that “statement of hope.” In the mid-1950s, magazines like Life and The Saturday Evening Post literally cast a vision for what it meant to be an upwardly mobile American. Newspapers had long relayed the important events of the day (Graham has been there too; his “My Answer” column still appears today). Television was just starting to come onto the scene. Magazines were where the country went to talk about itself, and the 1950s saw a boom of launches of idea-driven magazines, from the hedonism of Hugh Hefner’s Playboy to the conservatism of William F. Buckley’s National Review. Like Life, liberal Protestant magazine The Christian Century was much older, but its influence was broad. “While its circulation is small, its influence is tremendous,” Graham lamented in his 1955 speech soliciting support to start CT. “It influences religious thought more than any single factor in Protestantism today, in my opinion. At the moment there is no evangelical paper that has the respect that can challenge it.”
Over the next 60 years, the places we went to talk about ourselves evolved. So did our screens. A three-channel black-and-white medium that stopped broadcasting at midnight became a 15 billion–channel, full-spectrum universe that you now carry around in your pocket all day, sleep with in your bed, and engage with first thing in the morning. Digital media announces, with every minor incident, “Updated three minutes ago.” The phrase information overload was coined in 1964. Apocalypse fatigue was the neologism of 2010.
A few months before Graham’s speech promoting Christianity Today, Jacques Ellul opened The Technological Society with a hyperbolic claim that now seems totally obvious: “No social, human, or spiritual fact is so important as the fact of [technology] in the modern world. And yet no subject is so little understood.”
Graham would eventually come to agree. “Man’s technology has leaped far ahead of his ability to control his technology,” he said. “As I searched the Scriptures, my responsibilities dawned on me.” It was a comment he made as he faced the terrible prospect of nuclear war. But his conclusion stands as technology absorbs, for most of us, 12 of our 16 waking hours each day.
“We live on a diet of up-to-the-minute news and 15-minute celebrities, while we ache for a transcendent, timeless touch,” Graham lamented at a 1998 Ottawa crusade. “The information age may go down in history as the period when our culture forgot the most important thing: That our souls need to breathe and grow. We’re separated from God. We’re dead people walking.” And our technology, he noted, won’t let us see it. “Technology projects the myth of control over our mortality,” he said in a 1998 TED Talk. “We see people on our screens. Marilyn Monroe is just as beautiful on the screen as she was in person. … [We] don’t know that she’s dead.”
A beautiful orthodoxy is one that not only warns that our celebrity culture truly is dead, but that shows what life—true, embodied, analog life—really is. One place it might start is by demonstrating a deep and wise set of principles for engagement with today’s technology. And it would do so best in the church itself, where so many of the latest trends, fads, and inventions have been unconsciously baptized and embraced simply by virtue of being new and efficient. The microphone, the satellite, the screen—they worked for Graham. But all idols seem to work at first.
Wondrous, but not Spectacular
The church is not a spectacle; it is an invitation. When my pastor performs a baptism, he doesn’t explicitly tell the congregation that they cannot use cameras. Instead, he explains that their cameras are useless in such a context. “What is about to happen here,” he says, “cannot be captured on film.” He does not critique the technology as evil; he says it is inadequate to the task of capturing the holy moment. Such a preamble reminds us that technical mastery is no match for spiritual awakening.
Modern communications technology, taken together, can make the church environment itself almost indistinguishable from a rock concert. (Yes, it’s a critique that has long been levied. Nevertheless, the critique is more apt every week.) True religion can make a grown man fall on his face and weep. Awe and vastness can prompt profound worship. But is the awe created by modern technology more likely to make us bow in adoration of God? Or does it just make us want more spectacle? Scripture makes it clear that God does not reside in the wind, the earthquake, or the fire, but in the still small voice (1 Kings 19:11–13). Just because we can now, with technology, reproduce these spectacular meteorological phenomena indoors doesn’t mean we should, nor does it mean that we’ll hear from our Father God after we’ve manufactured a fake version of Mother Nature.
The invitation to church is the invitation to answer for yourself to God Almighty. It is an invitation to the opposite of the work week: busy, stressful, noisy, and greedy. It is an invitation to calm, rest, quiet, and generosity. God has always placed Sabbath rest—holiness, reflection, and worship—together as a package.
The church is the counter-environment to the world. It is an invitation back to the garden, and an invitation to the Book of Acts, where the disciples held their beliefs and possessions in common. The most important and biblical pieces of technology in a church today may not be the projector and the amplifier, but the crockpot and warming plate. Potluck suppers are a taste of the redistribution of the community wealth that heaven on earth will offer. At their best, churches invite people not just to the Lord’s Table, but to the lunch table right after the service. At a neo-Amish church I attended in Maine, the congregation brought so much food I thought it was wasteful. I only later realized that what was in those huge crockpots was designed not primarily to be eaten at the potluck, but to be given away to needy families to feed them for the rest of the week. It was a form of tithing I had never seen before.
But fewer of us are seeing tithing in any form these days. Electronic direct deposit is the new norm. It saves time and money for both churches and congregants, and efficiency rules the day. Fewer expenses, easy bookkeeping, more consistent giving as people don’t have to remember their checkbooks—what’s not to love? But we can easily forget that when newcomers or young children see the offering plate still empty at the end of the row, they can easily mistake it for indifference to the church. As catechesis, direct deposit makes no sense. Try explaining digital fiat currency to a five-year-old who’s just now getting his allowance and just now learning to give a portion of what he’s received.
Of course, the church is more than a mutual aid society; it is the community of believers in the incarnate God. And our communications technology can interrupt our communion both with each other and with the one we worship. When we start to get uncomfortable or debate new technologies in the church, someone inevitably argues that it’s not the technology that’s the problem. As Graham put it in his autobiography, “Like most technologies, television in itself is morally neutral; it is what we do with it, or fail to do with it, that makes the difference.”
Graham is right that usage matters a lot. But with due respect, God cares about the medium as well as the message, the form as well as the content. Good content can never make up for bad form. Note the second commandment. It doesn’t say graven images are only to be used to worship the true God. As Neil Postman wrote in Amusing Ourselves to Death, “I wondered … why the God of these people would have included instructions on how they were to symbolize, or not symbolize, their experience. It is a strange injunction to include as part of an ethical system unless its author assumed a connection between forms of human communication and the quality of a culture.”
So if God cares about the context as much as the content, then the church should care what messages it might be sending by simply adopting the newest, latest, fastest, and most efficient technologies. As Ellul put it, when the church uses such technology, “it always tries to justify itself … [by saying] it puts these efficient media in the service of Jesus Christ. But if one reflects for a moment, one realizes that this means nothing. What is in the service of Jesus Christ receives its character and effectiveness from Jesus Christ.” Digital media technologies already possess, in and of themselves, their own presuppositions, their own effectiveness, and their own epistemology.
The microphone made the Billy Graham Crusades possible, with stadiums packed with crowds between 6,000 and 1.1 million people. Without amplification, there’s no way that can happen. (Jesus fed 5,000, but Scripture never tells us if they could all hear his sermon.) More people hear the Word preached with microphones. Hooray! But what changes have they wrought? For one, consider the effects of the wearable microphone, the kind that Madonna (not the mother of Christ, the other one) made famous back during her 1990s heyday. Does it not incline us to see church leaders, and church leaders to see themselves, in the role of performer, just by putting it on? Doesn’t its trick of making preachers sound closer really just let them move further and further away?
Wi-fi and Web Presence
Wi-Fi in churches, like Wi-Fi anywhere, turns a congregation into Wi-Fi users. Maybe you have a great and useful app that they can download, and maybe they will, but you can bet your collection plate that much of the time spent online in your church will be spent on Facebook, YouTube, Twitter, Pinterest, and Instagram. The service hasn’t started yet; let me check my email, just like I do when I have 15 seconds of unplanned time in any other context.
Ah, but perhaps the church has Wi-Fi so that congregants can access its great website! One that includes sermon downloads, the worship team’s recordings, and even social media features to help congregants “connect” with each other. In other words, one that lets congregants timeshift the whole experience and “go to church later” via the online version. Do we want to do to our church services what video did to movie theaters? Or what Facebook has done to friends having dinner together? Do we want to create a “good enough” replacement that pushes the physical experience toward greater and greater spectacle? Or diminishes it altogether?
The Christian story is God made flesh, the invisible humbling himself to walk among us in embodied solidarity with our miserable plight. The root of community, communication, and communion is the same. We have to be together in the flesh. So just what would a church hope to gain by disembodying the entire contents of its weekly services? Sending out your sermons may help the sick, invalid, elderly, and infirm, but wouldn’t those folks much prefer an in-person visit than a website with slick graphics? If the embodiment of Christ matters—and the embodiment of his real presence in Communion matters—then churches should be very wary of deploying any medium that disembodies those things. Using a disembodied medium to tell the story of an embodied deity is, not to put too fine a word to it, hypocrisy—a little bit like a virtual meet-up, where you don’t actually meet up with anyone, but are all alone at your home computer. The temptation now is that we can be all alone on our phones inside the church, next to someone but not really with them.
Don’t Text and Catechize
Studies have shown that one-fifth of all traffic accidents are caused by distracted driving. According to one 2011 study, texting while driving is responsible for up to 23 percent of all crashes. We’re acutely aware of this threat already. So why can’t we notice the same problem in our churches? The increase in depression, aimlessness, anxiety, addiction, desensitization, meaninglessness, loneliness, ignorance, and narcissism are all quantifiably real among heavy users of smartphones. Our solution seems to be more apps and better social media presence.
Can the technologies of distraction within the church actually grow the church? If we make church more exciting, more technologically stimulating, will we keep the message of Christ alive? Or will we exchange the truth for power, and replace our congregation with an audience? Even with Joel Osteen’s budget, your church can’t compete with the network, the cloud, or the Star Wars franchise. The only thing of any real value the church has to offer is the truth told in embodied love. If it forgets that, it deserves to die like the bad sitcom it would be.
The church’s true calling in a technological society is to do the slow, difficult work of embodying God’s love, one embodied soul at a time. Embodied love is profoundly inconvenient, painful, and even excruciating. But the opposite of love is not hatred; it is efficiency. Hatred has a specificity and heat that can be persuaded and cooled. Efficiency is anonymous, cold, and ruthlessly indifferent. Efficiency communicates to the masses. Efficacy—love—saves one soul, willing to leave the 99.
It is Mary, not Martha, who best embodies the church’s relationship to technology. She sat still, at our Lord’s feet, and listened. She quieted herself, turned away from her distractions, and heard the still, small voice. It was not as exciting as the wind, the earthquake, or the fire. It did not sound like Siri. But she chose the better part, and it could not be taken away from her. It could not be switched off.
Read Mercer Schuchardt is associate professor of communication at Wheaton College and coauthor of Understanding Jacques Ellul.
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