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Rated: ASR · Essay · Technology · #2313887
On the intersection of faith and technology. Share Your Faith entry, February 2024.

Technology has always been a double-edged sword. Clear benefits exist, but so do a number of drawbacks depending on how the technology is used. Whether we like it or not, technology affects our faith for both good and bad.

Cell phones often serve as lightning rods in the debate over the use of technology, because they’re nearly ubiquitous in our society and are used so frequently that the word “addiction” comes up regularly when discussing their use. In a church context, it’s no different. Cell phones can be remarkable tools for connection; you can download mobile apps that contain the text of the Bible so you can read along with the scripture being preached in church even if you forget your physical Bible at home. Many churches will have QR codes you can scan to directly sign up for events, information, etc. rather than having to wait around after church to talk to somebody. And many churches these days have their own mobile apps or group texts to handle announcements, connections, etc.

Of course, the utility of having your cell phone with you in church also comes with the temptation to shift focus to things other than church while you’re sitting in service. If you do use your phone to follow along with the Bible verse, how tempting is it to switch over to your Messages if someone sends you a text? Or to check the score of the sporting event that’s going on at the same time? Or, if you’re finding yourself a little bored, to check your email, update your to-do list, or do a little social media scrolling?

As with so many things, use of technology comes down to how you utilize it. If it’s used responsibly for a specifically-intended purpose, it can be a wonderful tool that really adds value to our everyday experience. If it’s used irresponsibly or even abused, it can be a distraction or, at worst, an idol in our lives.

Having spent the past year on staff (as a volunteer) at my church, I’ve also seen this issue of technology play out in the background. One of my responsibilities was to streamline our church management software (the database we use to do everything from sending “all church” emails to the congregation to tracking volunteer shifts, finances, and important information). In this space, there are a lot of options, but Church Community Builder (CCB) and Planning Center are the two that seem to be most competitive with one another, always adding new features and functionality to be “all inclusive” in terms of what they can accomplish for you. When our church switched from Planning Center to CCB, I started going through and figuring out what we could do with it.

As it turns out, you can do a lot with it. But that doesn’t mean you should.

If a church were so inclined, they could completely automate their backend processes through CCB. For volunteer shifts, you can create a calendar and allow volunteers to sign themselves up for a specific shift or even a recurring role, send a notification to the team if they have to cancel a specific shift, move from one team to another, etc. Similarly, for our small group activities, CCB allows you to go as far as letting people assign themselves to (or automatically get assigned to) a small group.

That’s probably really useful in certain situations, but our church found that level of automation to be really depersonalizing. We want to get to know the people that go to our church. It’s important to us that they actually get to meet with a member of the staff and feel personally known, and that when they do indicate interest in volunteering or joining a small group, we can help them find the ideal match for their abilities and interests. That kind of connection doesn’t happen when everyone can do everything remotely without ever talking to another human being.

One of the personal benefits I’ve found about the intersection of technology and faith is the sheer volume of information and ready access to it. When I was growing up, if you had questions about the Bible, or faith in general, those answers were found at church and only at church. Now, if you’re so inclined (and I most certainly am), you can find an abundance of information freely available. The website Bible Gateway has the complete text of over 200 translations of the Bible in 70 different languages, allowing you to compare the text of the King James Version against the New International Version against The Message without having to actually buy physical copies and compare them side-by-side. There are dozens of podcasts and streaming options available so that you can get pastoral perspectives from around the world. You can purchase biblical commentaries from preeminent scholars like N.T. Wright which offer in-depth perspectives on individual books (and sometimes even select passages) of the Bible. There has never been a better time in terms of access to religious knowledge and information, and the rapid developments in technology over the past few decades are largely responsible for that.

Technology has been a real value-add to my faith in recent years, but it is a frequent struggle to make sure that technology isn’t taking over and making true moments of spirituality more difficult.

Two of the things that I’ve struggled with in recent years are making time for dedicated prayer and Bible reading, and making those things a priority in my life, as opposed to something that I only get to when I remember to do so.

A friend turned me onto a mobile app called Inner Room, which helps you keep track of all your prayers. You can set a notification where it’ll remind you to pray at a certain time of day, and it’ll prompt you to start a prayer practice where it’ll randomize all of your active prayers and present them to you during a dedicated prayer time. When a prayer has been answered, you can take it off the list and it’ll archive your old prayers so you can reflect on what you’ve been praying about, including how many minutes and hours you’ve spent praying about it!

I also used an app called DBTC (Don’t Break The Chain) which helps you track daily goals with a simple interface where you can get reminders to do your habit, then check off the day once you’ve accomplished it. I used that app to prompt and remind myself to take time reading the Bible a little every day and, between Inner Room and DBTC, I was able to successfully make it four months (over 120 days) without missing a single day of dedicated prayer or Bible reading. This also helped me push through and complete my current “reading challenge” where I’m attempting to read the Bible in a year, five different translations in five years.

The downside to these experiences, however, were the times where it started to feel rote and almost performative; where it became more about the act of checking the box than the quality of what the experience was supposed to provide. Reading the Bible in a year, for example, is great for getting a broad overview of the entire book (and you definitely learn something new every time), but there are definitely moments when you’re just pushing through and trying to read as many words as possible, rather than really doing a deep dive on the text and absorbing its nuances. Similarly with prayer, there are times where you’re really in the moment, and others where you’re just kind of going through the motions. Which isn’t really anything new; people have struggled with those elements of faith forever, but it’s even easier to fall into those ruts when we’ve gamified our experience of faith through apps and other technology.

Tools are meant to make our lives easier. Technology, like any tool, can definitely accomplish that. But also like any other tool, technology is only as good as the person using it. If you’re not using technology to genuinely enhance your faith and are instead using it incorrectly, it’s going to end up doing more harm than good.

Faith and spirituality, by nature, require some degree of space and focus in order to get the most out of them. Technology, by nature, is designed to pull our focus and take up space in our lives. Keeping those two oppositional forces in balance is a lifelong effort, but successfully managing to do so means that one can enhance and complement the other in new and profound ways.


1,438 words

Written For: "Share Your Faith

Prompt: In what ways (if any) has modern technology affected your faith? Has it helped you find community? Has it made you question and/or find answers?
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