By Eddie Pipkin

September 7, 2016

I found this article on Time Magazine’s website, “Screens in Schools are $60 Billion Hoax,” to be not only counter-intuitive, but downright provocative. The premise from author and researcher Dr. Nicholas Kardaras is that our very expensive conviction that technology will revolutionize education in our struggling schools is not backed up by actual evidence. (I am sure that the hate mail is flooding Time’s inbox even now.)

The schoolhouse is not the only place that technology has been hailed as a cure for what ails us. In ministry circles, technology has been lauded as one of the keys to solving the crisis of people who are abandoning the American church in droves. If only we can live-stream services, build intricate, interactive web sites, attention grabbing mobile platforms, and witty videos and podcasts, we can hook the agnostics and get them jazzed about Jesus again.smartphone-worship

I’m a fan of the ways communication innovations have made it possible for us to make spiritual growth opportunities more accessible, but some of the points that Dr. Kardaras makes about the shortcomings of educational technology apply with equal insight to technology as implemented in the service of ministry:

Rather than finding a digital educational cure, [Kardaras] came to understand what he calls technology’s “Law of Amplification”: technology could help education where it’s already doing well, but it does little for mediocre educational systems. Worse, in dysfunctional schools, it “can cause outright harm.” He added: “Unfortunately, there is no technological fix… more technology only magnifies socioeconomic disparities, and the only way to avoid that is non-technological.”

To paraphrase Kardaras, if he were writing for a ministry leadership website: Technology can amplify and enhance ministry where it is already being done well, but it is not an end unto itself – it’s not actual ministry in the sense that Jesus calls us to make ourselves available and useful to others. If ministry is being done poorly (whether worship, outreach, Christian education, or nurture and care), technology won’t fix it. Technology is just a tool.

I am certainly not hating on technology. You are, after all, reading my blog from a website or social media post. But I have sat in plenty of meetings where congregational leaders, struggling to find some quick-fix to declining engagement by church members, have zeroed in on technology as the path to renewal. We should definitely have a robust vision for technology in our congregations, one that understands the way this tool has become part of the fabric of day-to-day life for the people we serve, particularly young people. To fail to do so – or even more egregious, to reject technological innovations as somehow offensive to the gospel – is to stick to a horse and buggy strategy in the age of the superhighway.

But . . .

Technology only puts us on an equal footing with the other aspects of people’s lives, acknowledging their expectations for how they will experience what we have to offer. It doesn’t differentiate us. In fact, in many ways it can reinforce the ways we are no different than any other aspect of their societal experience. What does differentiate us is relationships. Relationships and partnerships. Our relationships with God, the Creator of the universe. Our partnership with fellow believers who have chosen to follow Jesus, to live by Jesus’ example and through the power of the Holy Spirit to effect change that matters in this world. What people desire, it turns out – and what we can uniquely offer – is CONNECTION. Dr. Kardaras discovered that, as enamored as students are by shiny gadgets, students are looking for relationships as well:

Students don’t even prefer e-learning over traditional education. In a 2011 study, researchers found that students actually preferred “ordinary, real-life lessons” to using technology. Those results surprised the researchers: “It is not the portrait that we expected, whereby students would embrace anything that happens on a more highly technological level. On the contrary—they really seem to like access to human interaction, a smart person at the front of the classroom.” We are projecting our own infatuation with shiny technology, assuming our little digital natives would rather learn using gadgets—while what they crave and need is human contact with flesh-and-blood educators.

This desire for human interaction, this focus on being “plugged in” to relationships at a deeper level, is what ministry is all about. We can use a highly specialized database to help us keep track of people, but the data is of no use if we don’t act on it by reaching out to personally check on the missing. We can post pictures and videos about the cool things happening in our ministries, but unless those ministries serve the gospel in meaningful ways, we’re just another club. We can have the fanciest website on the web, but if it doesn’t bring people together to nurture and care for one another, and provide a clear vision for the value and worth of all people, what’s the point?

In the coming weeks, you’ll be hearing about a brand new resource we are publishing called Connect! Creating a Culture of Relationships That Matter. It is designed to help congregations focus on practical ideas for building the kinds of connections that Jesus calls us to. In the meantime, here are some ideas for how technology best serves ministry:

• Use technology to make worship and spiritual growth opportunities as accessible as possible. For every sermon, every devotion, every ministry witness, reproduce the work that you’ve already done on as many platforms as you can, giving people access at any time and from any place. Use the available tools to enhance messages with stirring visuals and links to deeper reinforcements and explorations of theological concepts.

• Use technology to stay in touch with people. It’s never been easier to use data to keep track of people who are part of your ministry and to use technology to hold your team accountable to the work of contacting those who’ve disappeared from the radar. Similarly, we’ve never had as many handy tools for reaching out to people – know how use them effectively.

• Use technology to creatively communicate the vision for who you are. Get the creative folks in your congregation involved in taking pictures, editing videos, recording events, and getting the word out to the community about what you are doing and why.

• Use technology to give people a direct outlet for action. Whether donating to a worthy cause, signing up to physically serve others, praying for a specific need, or spreading the word about social justice, use the available tools to make it possible for people to actually take action and then invite others to do the same.

What are some of the ways that you have utilized technology to empower your ministry? Share the best things you’ve done and seen on this topic in the comments section. How have you seen technology used to forge new connections? How have you seen it flop? All experience is useful for the edification of others.