Ed Stetzer on the Potential of New Technology to Either Sow Destruction or Advance the Gospel

In 1988, my wife Donna and I planted our first church in Buffalo.

Many of the issues I confronted in my congregation still exist today. We still struggle with encountering racism and sexism in the pews and in the world. While the drugs might have changed, confronting the prevalence and destruction of addiction is still very much at the center of church life today.

Yet for all the similarities, it is hard to overstate just how much the rapid advance of digital technology and the internet have changed life in and out of the church. Consider two different data points from a Pew tracking poll:

Data Point #1: Cellphone usage has grown from 62% in 2002 to 95% in 2018.

In less than 16 years, cellphone usage has gone from common to essential. We have reached a point where the idea of a person not having a cellphone is foreign.

The introduction of instant communication with anyone at any time and across multiple kinds of mediums changes the way we engage others. Suddenly we are never alone; we carry our friends and family in the palm of our hand.

Data Point #2: Smartphone usage has grown from 35% at their introduction in 2001 to 77% in 2018.

Parallel to cellphones, smartphones have gone from non-existent to seemingly essential. More than just our family and friends, suddenly the entire world is open to us. We are always plugged in, always connected, always presented with endless voices shouting for our attention.

Given these two points, is it surprising that the congregations pastors engage every Sunday are radically different than those I stood in front of in 1988? In my new book, Christians in the Age of Outrage, I argue that this rapid change is one of the main causes for outrage today. We have all these new technologies and online platforms by which to instantly react and to amplify the loudest, most divisive voices. We are a society where everyone has a megaphone and an increasingly smaller capacity to resist using it.

Unfortunately, the church, like the rest of society, has been slow in adapting to this change. There is a technology discipleship gap between the importance of technology in our daily lives and how effective Christian leaders are at discipling their people in proper technology usage. In the book, I reflect on this:

Christians often have the same bad habits as everyone else, practices that damage not only their well-being and relationships, but also their spiritual vitality and witness. Despite these dangers, when was the last time your church taught on social media or proper media consumption? Substantive, disciple-making teaching on how Christians can develop godly technology habits? Aside from youth pastors warning of cyberbullying, when have messages touched on the way technology is shaping our lives or how our online behavior relates to our faith? I have heard plenty of sermons that address the problem of pornography, but I can count on one hand the number of times a pastor or Sunday school teacher discussed a more comprehensive online discipleship.

Christians have seen the emerging digital marketplace, and rather than thinking critically about its nature and effects, they have dived in. Innovation for the glory of God, we tell ourselves, even though we know that innovation for the expansion of the platform is often closer to the truth. Discipleship may not even cross our minds.

In a recent study we conducted at the Billy Graham Center Institute in partnership with LifeWay Research, we explored the ways that technology and social media impact the lives and witness of evangelicals.

We found that technology and online habits of evangelicals largely mirror those of the general public, if not slightly exceeding them. By far, the most common social media platform is Facebook, with over three-quarters of evangelicals by belief (77%) saying they regularly use the website (compared to 71% of non-evangelicals). Although not as widespread, YouTube (46%), Instagram (28%), and Twitter (22%) all record significant usage among evangelicals.

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Source: Christianity Today