LOUISVILLE, Ky. — While evolving technology propels the world to new and digital frontiers, Southern Seminary confronted the unique questions of missions in a technological age last month at Future Shock, the 2023 Missions Conference hosted by the Bevin Center for Missions and Mobilization. The event brought together experts on missions and technology to tackle the pressing challenges of modern digital tools and platforms reshaping the global missions' landscape.
"The digital world is clearly a world in need of the gospel," said J. Keith McKinley, professor of missions at Southern Seminary and Director of the Bevin Center. "But that world is fraught with dangers and theological/ecclesiological landmines. The dangers include various addictions and physiological changes in our brains, as well as exposure to all manner of evil that I do not care to elucidate. Theological issues of personhood and embodiment are especially critical to our missiology. Whereas most would agree that we should take the gospel into the digital world, things quickly get more complicated when it comes to discipleship, community, and being the church in a virtual realm. This is why we sensed the need to start talking about these issues and the questions we must be thinking about concerning missions in the digital world."
Jason Thacker, professor at Boyce College, author of Following Jesus in a Digital Age and editor of The Digital Public Square: Christian Ethics in a Technological Society, pointed to four fundamental questions Christians should consider to begin thinking about the intersection of faith, technology, and global outreach.
When Thacker asks students this question, they often respond with examples of technology—but it's a more profound philosophical question. "It's not a trick question,” Thacker said. “But it's trying to get to the heart of what these examples of technologies are. Is it merely a tool?" There are two main ways to understand technology, according to Thacker: as a tool and as a formative influence. “We are morally responsible for how we use these tools but technology is always working to form us and our world by driving everything in life to the goal of efficiency.”
“Nothing is really neutral,” Thacker said. “Everything is shaping us toward a particular end. The questions we have to ask as Christians are, ‘to what end?’ and ‘to what purpose?’” Christians must be aware of the shaping effect of technology. “When we fail to acknowledge the formative goals of technology, we can fall victim to the dehumanizing results of seeing everything through the lens of efficiency,” Thacker said. As Paul urges Christians to not conform to the world in Romans 12:2, believers should recognize that no technology is ever truly neutral before embracing the latest innovations. “Technology is one of the primary disciplers of our culture,” Thacker said. “You didn’t wake up one day addicted to your smartphone. That is a subtle discipleship shaping us to always want something new and to always feel like we’re missing something.”
Reading his notes from an iPad, Thacker is not anti-technology. “The question for our age is not if you have a smartphone but how you choose to use your smartphone,” Thacker said. “Many of these companies are at odds with what we believe, but we can use these technologies for the glory of God. We have more access to people than at any time in history and that can be a really good thing.” Thacker said there are countless ways we can build relationships and connect with people in order to share the gospel through the use of technology, but we must remember there are always possible unintended consequences.
“Study after study shows how isolated and disconnected we are as a society,” Thacker said. “The utopian promises often fail and there’s a rapid rise of addiction, misinformation, and belief in the lie that all the information and social connectivity in the world will improve our lives.” Technology, according to Thacker, can also feed into a “hyper-individualism” that leads people to believe they can construct their own reality rather than existing in a world governed by God. “If we can reach more people with the gospel, praise God!” Thacker said. “But what happens when people are addicted to their phones and more comfortable in virtual worlds rather than fellowshipping with embodied human beings?”
“The Gospel message has always been more than an information transfer,” Thacker said. “The gospel message is about a whole person's transformation that takes place in an embodied community. We serve an embodied savior who suffered a real, not spiritual, death and was physically resurrected. Hope is real and is alive.”
“So what do we do and how do we respond?” Thacker asked. “We go therefore and make disciples of all nations, even in a digital age.”