Guest Post: Technological Contemplatives

Being called to be both a pastor and a geek is often difficult. The calling of a pastor frequently places me in the structure of the institutional Church which, despite whatever theological claims an individual congregation makes, is an inherently conservative institution. Churches embrace change and innovation slowly (if at all).

The calling of geek, however, places me in the world of the ever-changing. In the digital world technologies rise and fall at a rapid pace, and the ways people communicate with one another is constantly morphing into new forms. From my dual-calling perspective, I have come to appreciate these two opposing experiences of the world. The institutional church’s slowness to adapt often stems from a concern about the dehumanizing tendencies which comes with technological innovation.

The world of the digital revolution, the realm of the geeks, strives to make human communication the social currency of the 21st Century. It is not a matter of one being “right” and the other “wrong.”  Rather, it is in the tension between the two callings that I am afforded an opportunity to be a distinctly Christian presence in the world. I call this presence, “technological contemplation.”

Natives, Immigrants, and Aliens – Oh My

Since Marc Prensky first coined the terminology in 2001, language about internet usage has been discussed between the poles of Digital Native and Digital Immigrant.  Natives, are those who have grown up with the presence of computers in their midst, which has changed the way their brains actually process information. Immigrants, on the other hand, are those who remember a time in which computers were not the ever-pervasive tool they are now. As such, their minds don’t process information in the digital world as readily as natives. They have what Prensky calls an “accent.”  The example he uses is the use of e-mail to see if someone got a voicemail message (I actually consider the use of any voicemail at all a digital accent).

Since Prensky first wrote in 2001, the shift has happened again. It’s no longer simply a matter of being a digital native or immigrant. We now have to wrestle with the reality of mobile natives and immigrants. These are people whose primary means of communication is their cell phone or, increasingly, their smart phone.

In this mix of natives and immigrants, I want to posit a third identity – there are aliens among us. Digital, and mobile, aliens do not have accents – they don’t even know the language!  These are people, or organizations, which have rejected the digital and mobile aspects of the communications revolution. Tools like e-mail frustrate them. Cell phones and text-messages tend to frighten them out of their minds. Church institutions make up one of the most populous groups of digital and mobile aliens in our culture. Older churches, in particular, lag behind the curve in the use of technology for communication. Many older (in terms of “years incorporated”) congregations do not even have access to the Internet in their buildings.

As such, tools like e-mail, Facebook, Twitter, texting, and instant messaging are not utilized to keep people connected. These digital aliens continue to use a tool from the 1800’s to communicate (the land-line telephone) and use this tool in a way that hasn’t been popular since the 1990’s (leaving voicemail at home). To digital, and mobile, natives (and immigrants) the efforts of these aliens are often met with a sense of hostility – as though a foreign world were invading their lives.

Crossing the Bridge

This sense of hostility between “native” and “alien” is a serious problem for churches. How can a congregation, which is called to communicate the message of the Gospel, spread the message of Jesus if the tools they use are met with a hostile response (often times from members of their own neighborhoods)? To begin, churches must recognize that that is a divide between the way they are designed to communicate and the way the rest of the culture communicates. Without this spark of recognition, congregations will continue to mark themselves as “aliens.”  This awareness must then lead to actions which enable the message of the Gospel to cross into the world of the mobile native.

Transitioning into action, however, is more than simply taking the tools of mobile natives (and immigrants) in hand and assuming that communication will happen naturally. To communicate effectively in the mobile world three interacting realities must be wrestled with.

First, it must be understood that “natives” of any culture have any number of rules and practices which attend their actions – most of which are not verbally transmitted but are rather learned intuitively. The intuitive nature of these rules makes it difficult for non-natives to discover what they are, as natives have never been forced to describe them!  They are simply, “what you do.”

When churches try to take up the same communication tools which mobile natives use, then, they will inevitably violate some of the rules which guide behavior. At first, natives (and assimilated immigrants) will view these violations as humorous or mild annoyances because they realize that the aliens simply don’t know better. If the church is not sensitive to the lines they are crossing and refuses to learn from past violations, however, mild annoyance can shift to hostility.

Second, churches must understand that taking up new tools of communication is not simply changing the means of communication. We must understand, and embrace, that what communicates well in one cultural setting will not communicate equally well into another!  When a church migrates into the world of mobile connectedness great care must be done to compensate for the drift in meaning from one culture/medium to another. If this care is not taken, a church may very well end up communicating the opposite of what they believe they are communicating. Taking the Gospel into a new communications medium needs a care which is similar to that of translating it into a new language. Time must be spent learning to idioms and grammar which is unique to the mobile world.

Third, churches must learn how to appropriately critique the culture of the mobile world without condemning. As the unspoken rules, idioms, and grammar of new communications tools are discovered Christians must ask, “How are we able to take up these tools within bounds of the culture, while honoring Christ?” It is as we wrestle with these questions, churches can take on a prophetic role, pointing out some of the unforeseen consequences of the mobile culture as a fellow traveler rather than as a voice from “on high.”  In fact, it may be that churches and individual Christians which have wrestled with the mobile world and it’s realities may choose to limit the presence of the technology in their own communities (for example, Twitter fasing).

Calling all Contemplatives

Churches must come to the understanding that, because of the digital and mobile revolutions, they are now missionaries to a foreign culture. The means by which they typically pass information is now as alien to the culture as a foreign language, and must change. This is where technological contemplation is vitally important. The call to cross the chasm between mobile native and alien is not simply a call to immigrate into this new era and pass ourselves off as natives. Rather, it’s call to re-engage the message of the Gospel while simultaneously reflecting on this rapidly changing culture in which we now live.

Churches need contemplatives who are filled with a missionary passion to identify the best of this mobile world in which we live – for that’s where the Gospel is ready to break through.

Wes Allen is the geek-pastor of the Central Baptist Church of Riverton-Palmyra and the Associate Regional Pastor for Ministry and Technology with the American Baptist Churches of New Jersey. He can be reached via Twitter, Facebook, or his blog Painfully Hopeful. He loves Jesus, technology, and the Phillies. He has never been subjected to Vogon poetry.