#sydneychallies: How to use emerging media for the gospel

Even though I read much of what Challies writes on his blog, I didn’t realise he was coming to Sydney until I saw it on Dave Meiers’ blog. I was able to get a free night, and so I went along to the “social media for pastors” evening, despite not particularly identifying as a “pastor” as such.

Challies has been blogging every day for the past 7-8 years, has written books on technology and the gospel, and transitioned in his career from web developer to associate pastor at his local church (Grace fellowship church in Toronto). He has made blogging a part of his thinking process, helping him work out what he thinks about a particular topic.

Here is an edited version of my notes from his talk at Toongabbie Anglican on May 14th, 2014.

Starting out with a range of stats on the subject of how many hours children (8-18 years old) spend online – 7 hours 38 minutes on average, and how many text messages that teenagers send (on average 3364 per month). 

First exposure to internet pornography is age 12 (and falling). The pace of change is very fast. The author of Little House on the PrairieLaura Ingles Wiler – was born 1867, and died in 1957. In her lifetime, she went from being amazed by steam locomotives to seeing the dawn of jet travel. Imagine the changes a child born in the age of the iPhone will see!

Challies placed “born in 1980” as the cut-off between digital immigrant and digital native (though I’ve heard elsewhere that this is more a  convention than anything approaching a strict rule).

An eight year old today will assume that it’s completely normal that everyone has a cellphone (and looks at it all the time). Your age frames how you understand and relate to technology. For pastors, this leads to a different kind of challenge depending on whether you have an older or younger congregation, and challenges in getting different groups to talk to one another.

Three points on a continuum for our relationship with technology: 1. Enthusiastic embrace 2. Strict separation 3. Disciplined discernment. We should be looking to embrace the virtuous, reject the unwholesome; live with God’s word as our guide (cf Titus 2 – live self-controlled, godly, upright lives.)

Even though there are societal commentators like Malcolm Gladwell (who in Blink says you look at something, and immediately, intuitively know about it), there’s not much from a Christian perspective: our theology about technology is poor. Challies has been trying to bridge this gap a little: we want both to think and to live as Christians, in a distinctly biblical way.

Every technology brings risk and opportunity. The charge in Genesis 2:18 and Genesis 3:8 is to fill the earth and subdue it: this means creating things (technologies). Harness the world. Plant crops, build bridges, design computers, compose music. What is the oldest technology in your house? The PlayStation One? How about your cutlery, or even the wheel on your car!

Subduing the earth involves the creative activity of using tools to shape God’s creation for practical purposes. But the kinds of technology we have to create are impacted by living in a sinful world. For example, in a perfect world, you have no need for military technology.

It’s not the technology itself that is good or evil, but the human application of that technology.

Be careful that the technology does not become an idol in itself: an idol is something that gets your allegiance in the place of god.Promises satisfaction, fulfilment. Pleasure. (cf Romans 1:22-23 – Worshipping and serving the creature instead of the creator.)

John Calvin: “We gather that man’s nature,so to speak, is a perpetual factory of idols.”
Science is the new religion

For most of us, our hope is in Jesus, not in technology. But wherever our loyalty lies, our digital technologies can enhance the power of that idol. Possible idols: Power. Money. Popularity. Pleasure.

Some teenagers need power so they turn to cyber-bullying.

Digital technology allows the idols to take root and enhance the hold they have on our lives.

Romans 12:2 Have your mind renewed day by day

Technology brings risk and opportunity.

Some things are revolutionary, others are evolutionary.
Eg Segway. Amazing thing, but just an evolution of walking.

Often you’re using a device and it brings good and bad.

Television: good for broadcasting information, bad for changing morals. Destroyed community – people stopped talking to one another outside family units, and then within families.

We tend to believe that new technologies are primarily beneficial. (This, perhaps) is a tribute to the effectiveness of technology marketing)

The risks of a technology only become apparent over time.

If you have kids, you need to get them a computer so they won’t be left behind. But what changes to the experience of childhood have come along with the technology?

The Pastor’s response
Be an example: 1 Peter 5:12-13 equip the saints for the work of ministry until we attain maturity.
With regard to technology, the pastor is to be an example in their

  1. Thought
  2. Use
  3. Dedication

The people in church are learning from you: you’re modelling technology use to them.

Teach and model maturity. Are you teaching and modelling spiritual maturity in all things?

Closing thought:

Model thoughtful engagement with devices and online.

1 Corinthians 10 – you can use any social media or devices to the glory of God. Honouring and serving the Lord and carrying out His mission in the world.

Q&A Session

After the initial presentation, there was a brief break, and then we had a lengthy Q&A session. Here’s some of what was discussed:

Q: 90-95% of the posts (on Facebook) are nonsense. How to make it more helpful?

Is Facebook like standing in the town square, yelling, or is it like listening to people speaking quietly in their lounge room? A bit of both. It can he a helpful measure of what’s happening in the life of a congregation, but much of Facebook content is going to be unhelpful. Challies doesn’t really use it.

Q: Recommended books/authors for further reading?

McLuhan, Postman – Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business (affil link)

Leading the way from their material.
More recent books: Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other

There are few Christian books about living in the social media world: there’s a gap for a book from a Christian thinker over the top of this social media world.

Part of a pastor caring for people is to teach them how to live with the technology. You need to be well thought out in this area so you’re teaching them from a theological framework.

Q: What about technology within the church gathering?

The last corporate technology to make its way into church was PowerPoint, and we took it in willingly, and uncritically. But what’s the difference between congregation members holding, even owning their own hymn books (to sing at home), and reading the ethereal lyrics on the screen? A great deal. Similarly with bible reading on a PowerPoint screen.

Q: Is it possible to have a serious discussion on fb?

No. Too much chatter, not enough thought.

Groothius: As the voice extends, the person recedes.
As society becomes more digital, the face-to-face interaction of church will be more appealing.
Coffee shops tap into a need for people to be together, even as they’re together alone.

Q: Computers may be altering our concentration spans. Is this okay?

Even as a kid, Tim was taught to skim, as the initial overview of a work. But now, looking at the website stats, few people make it to the bottom of an article.

Skimming, and distraction, are the dominant forms of reading. Make sure you’re training yourself to focus and read the things in depth that you need to be dwelling on.

Q: Youth groups are building increasingly shallow friendships – how to encourage people to invest in the relationships?

Give them a chance to talk face to face. Build activities where people will be forced to speak face to face for longer periods of time.

Q: What about video games: good? bad? indifferent?

What is in your heart that is drawing you to that game? Games, reading. Playing sport, playing with friends. How many hours should kids do something? Hard to tell – look at the wider context of their lives – aim for balance.

Q: How to engage kids with the bible?

God’s word has conquered every medium, but we are still figuring it out. At Tim’s church, the kids are loving flannel graph.

Q: North American reformed church scene. Where are the pressure points there?

It’s just a tiny fragment of a wider “Evangelical” prosperity gospel. Egalitarianism and implementing that.  Do we spend to much energy making church attractive to outsiders?

Q: Is PowerPoint appropriate for a sermon?

Tim’s preference is not much ppt, but not a biblical argument. Preaching is declarative. You want to take people to the bible. Tim preaches from a printed bible, and printed notes. Culture of honour / shame.

Q: Can social media be used to reconcile, or only to “take someone out”?

Christians tend to eat their own when a big name messes up.  In some ways, we have a “print mind” – we assume something printed has been vetted and approved. Let’s be cautious: soothing printed in social media does not have the same weight as something that has been reviewed by an editor in anticipation of publication.

Better than hearing Challies talk was getting to meet him and chat briefly. He takes his faith seriously, but he’s a warm, gracious man with a strong work ethic. I look forward to continuing to read what he puts out.

It was also great to meet Dave Miers, whose work I’ve been enjoying for quite a while.

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