The coronavirus pandemic has brought about unprecedented disruptions to the life and ministry of churches across the globe. This has led churches with access to digital technology to exploit their various offerings in innovative ways, such as conducting Sunday services online.
Given the sudden onset of COVID-19, many churches have hitherto taken a pragmatic approach to technology, experimenting with its capabilities and utilising whatever works well for them. This is understandable since churches were forced to make quick adjustments as governments rapidly issued a slew of restrictions.
However, deeper reflection is needed on the role of digital technology in the life and ministry of the Church, if this medium is to be used responsibly. What are some issues and concerns surrounding the digitalisation of the Church and her ministry?
One of the most basic considerations, it seems to me, has to do with a theological assessment of digital technology itself.
From the Christian perspective, digital technology—like all other forms of modern technology—is a tool that the Church can and should use to advance the gospel. With remarkable prescience, Pope John Paul VI wrote in his Apostolic Exhortation (1975)—almost two decades before the advent of the Internet—that “The Church would feel guilty before the Lord if she did not utilise these powerful means that human skill is daily rendering more perfect.”1
However, the Church must at the same time be cognisant of the fact that technology is never simply a tool controlled by its users. Philosophers such as Martin Heidegger2 and theologians like Antonio Spadaro3 have perceptively shown that technology also influences society and culture in subtle but profound ways.
“Technology,” write Maggi Savin-Baden and John Reader, “is not something out there or detached from us that we happen to employ when it suits our purposes to do so, it is always already part and parcel of what we are and might become as humans.”4
The Church must never be naïve about the power of ubiquitous technology to shape our culture and change our perspectives about our world and about what it means to be human. In a similar vein, the Church must be wary of how digital technology and the culture it creates can influence and sometimes distort her self-understanding as the body of Christ.
This means that while the Church must embrace digital technology as God’s gift, she must never do so uncritically. She must always use technology in a theologically prudent and principled manner.
Perhaps an example could illustrate what I mean.
The churches in Singapore are not new to the world of digital technology. Even before the pandemic, churches here were using technology imaginatively to offer online sermons, articles, seminars not only to their members but to many “anonymous others” as well.
Churches must be encouraged to continue to take full advantage of digital media in this way as it is a means of bringing the gospel to people who refuse to step into a church building.
The coronavirus pandemic, however, has led churches here to explore something quite novel (pun intended), namely, online services. Through pre-recorded or live-streamed services, Christians have had to learn how to worship together, remotely.
Now, we must acknowledge that digital technology has in some important ways mitigated the disruptions brought about by COVID-19. It has enabled churches here and elsewhere to maintain some semblance of stability and continuity in these extraordinary times.
However, some are worried that Christians may be so bewitched by the convenience of technology that online services will become the norm, post COVID-19. These concerns are not misplaced.
Here is where theological wisdom is needed for principled practice.
God has ordained the body of Christ such that the physical presence of its members is an important if not integral aspect of its communal life.
This means that while online services have indeed proved to be a useful (if inadequate) means of mitigating the disruptions caused by the coronavirus, they must be seen as provisional and temporary arrangements, and should never be allowed to become the “new normal”. They should not be regarded as alternatives to offline services, or as their substitutes.
Simply put, Christians should never deliberately choose to worship together remotely when they can do so in the flesh, face-to-face.
1 Pope Paul VI, Evangelii Nuntiandi (“Evangelisation of the Modern World”), para 45. See http://w2.vatican.va/content/paulvi/en/apost_exhortations/documents/hf_p-vi_exc_19751208_evangelii-nuntiandi.html.
2 Martin Heidegger, The Question of Technology and Other Essays (London: Garland Publishing, 1970).
3 Antonio Spadaro, Cybertheology: Thinking Christianity in the Era of the Internet (New York: Fordham University Press, 2014).
4 Maggi Savin-Baden and John Reader, Technology Transforming Theology: Digital Impacts (Lancashire: William Temple Foundation, 2018), 17.
Dr Roland Chia is Chew Hock Hin Professor of Christian Doctrine at Trinity Theological College and Theological and Research Advisor at the Ethos Institute for Public Christianity (http://ethosinstitute.sg).