In 1949, Father Roberto Busa approached Thomas J. Watson, the founder of IBM, with a simple proposal: let’s bring words to your computer! Busa recognized God’s ultimate creativity and dominion over all creation. And he challenged Watson to take the computer beyond pure computational power and make it work with text.
Busa was motivated by a desire to digitize the works of Thomas Aquinas so they could be accessible to anyone with a computer, but the result was that digital text revolutionized communication. Busa once said, “Since man is a child of God and technology is a child of man, I think that God regards technology the way a grandfather regards his grandchild.”
I wonder what God thinks of his technological grandchildren today? Is he pleased with the way we have used our God-enabled creativity to create the tech that is impacting this world?
5 Tech Trends and the Implications for Mission
Let’s take a quick tour of five technology-enabled trends and explore their implications for Christian mission.
Definition: To subject (an industry) to a business model in which services are offered on demand through direct contact between a customer and a supplier, usually via mobile technology. (Collins Dictionary)
Why Uberization is trending: Workers seek more control and better quality of life while employers look to reduce costs and risk. When an industry “uberizes,” it allows individuals to take resources they already have that are being underutilized and monetize them through a larger ecosystem that attracts and coordinates the service. In turn, companies have a seemingly limitless pool of people that can respond with rooms to rent (AirBnB) or rides to give (Uber).
Mission implication: From the moment Jesus ascended after leaving his disciples with the Great Commission (Matt. 28:18–20), the missionary workforce has been flexible, scalable, and responsive to the movement of the Holy Spirit. Uberization can help missions sending agencies in considering how to redesign organizational structures. Mission agencies might adopt models that allow people to commit latent talent and resources directly to the cause in a way that keeps overhead low and empowers people to generously serve as God leads. The challenge is to harness the innovation of uberization while also retaining high value on training and member care that sends people out prepared and supports them while they serve.
“As God’s servants, our challenge is to use every tool at our disposal to advance the kingdom with the understanding that none of these technology-enabled trends should govern our ministry.”
Definition: Blockchain allows digital information to be distributed, but not copied. That means each individual piece of data can only have one owner. (Medium)
Key fact: 39 percent of companies surveyed across seven countries plan to invest five million plus in 2019.
Why Blockchain is trending: There is significant distrust (the Trust Gap) between individuals and the institutions that make society work (banks, governments, corporations, and even nonprofits). The middlemen that have traditionally guaranteed trust (FDIC, United Nations, World Trade Organization, ECFA, etc.) are currently in a trust deficit. So, people are decentralizing trust by choosing to manage financial transactions directly by harnessing solutions like Blockchain. The technology enables individuals to convert money into a cryptocurrency so that funds can be sent and received without bank involvement. Home buyers, news readers, suppliers, and people using digital devices appreciate the transparency of a process that cuts out a middleman.
Mission implication: The same lack of trust in institutions extends to nonprofits. According to the Global Trust Index there was a 9 percent drop in the trust of NGOs by Americans in the last year. What could that mean for believers? There may be a deterioration in trust between mission agencies and individuals who seek to have more control over how they give and serve globally. Sending churches might increasingly look for a direct connection with the mission field and a high level of transparency about the path their money and service will take. Given this trend, mission agencies must step up efforts to increase trust and empower people by engaging them with greater transparency.
Definition: Surveillance involves the monitoring of a person, place, or object to obtain certain information or to alter or control the behaviour of the subject of the surveillance. (Australian Government)
Key fact: Video surveillance market will be close to 40 billion dollars by 2023.
Why surveillance is trending: In times of uncertainty, individuals, organizations, and governments attempt to reduce insecurity by tightening control. Surveillance on a grand scale has been made possible by significant innovations in facial recognition, video capture, and big data analysis. Countless hours of video footage are now captured and analyzed by governments and businesses.
Mission implication: Governments want to know about people within their borders, but increasingly people will not want to be known by them. Believers will be watched closely and sanctioned if those in power do not want Christianity to prosper. Increasingly, surveillance will extend beyond national borders as countries profit from exporting their technology to other countries in order to gather more data to train the artificial intelligence in their systems and keep tabs on diaspora communities. Agencies will need to train missionaries to recognize surveillance while calling God’s people to step into ministry knowing that persecution and opposition should be expected.
4. Artificial Intelligence (AI)
Definition: AI is the science and engineering of making intelligent machines. (John McCarthy)
Key fact: 77 percent of consumers are utilizing a product or service that is enabled by artificial intelligence
Why AI is trending: The natural result of wanting to reduce risk, gain control, enhance security, and rebuild trust is artificial intelligence. Since we struggle to find a common moral framework in a post-Christian world order, we look to machines to provide objectivity. Our hope is that machines will crunch through the data, learn how to solve problems, and maybe even make up for the relational struggles that have plagued us since the Fall. One example is a new messaging app called Ixy that promises “conflict-free” conversations with the help of an AI mediator.
Mission implication: There is huge potential for AI to help mission sending agencies with cross-cultural communication, streamlining operational tasks, and creating better donor experiences. However, at its core, AI may be the latest Tower of Babel—a manifestation of the desire to control our destiny and be our own god. We must utilize AI-based tools with caution to make sure that we’re not buying into assumptions and expectations that remove God from his place in our lives. AI tools could push mission agencies to conform to the biases and assumptions of their creators and the corpus of human knowledge they learn from. AI systems cannot be designed to recognize spiritual priorities or have spiritual discernment.
5. Internet of Things (IoT)
Definition: Simply, the Internet of Things is made up of devices—from simple sensors to smartphones and wearables—connected together. (Matthew Evans)
Key fact: There will be over 14.2 billion connected devices in circulation by 2019.
Why the Internet of Things is trending: The Internet promises connectivity that creates efficiency, convenience, and new opportunity. With the growing number of devices that are connected via the Internet, users are finally seeing some of those promises realized in their daily routines. Whether they are starting their car, heating the living room, syncing grocery lists, or a million other daily tasks, the information and devices that manage them are now connected online. Users hope that this connectivity will improve their quality of life.
Mission implication: As the world’s citizens live in an increasingly connected world, mission agencies and missionaries have to design programs, products, and services that interoperate with their lives. This means that in order to get a hearing from many people around the globe, we’ll have to connect into their connected lives. Our messages will have to be on the platforms and devices that they already depend on. Because the number of devices is so massive and diverse, we have to be intentional about where to integrate and how that will impact other ministry efforts. We’ll also be challenged to consider how interoperability is creating distracted people who can hide behind the gadgets that order their lives. The very tools we hope will give us access to people may also actively block us from sharing the good news with them.
Into the Future
What are we to make of the world that is taking shape around us? As God’s servants, our challenge is to use every tool at our disposal to advance the kingdom with the understanding that none of these technology-enabled trends should govern our ministry. We walk boldly into the future open to innovations that could further mission while recognizing our hearts desire is for God’s ways and our value and identity are from God’s hand.
Jon Hirst has served the global mission community as an innovator for over twenty years. He currently serves as director of program innovation for SIL International. He is the co-editor of Innovation in Mission (IVP) and has written or co-written three other books and countless articles. Jon and his wife, Mindy, live in Colorado and have three children, a dog, and three birds. You can find Jon at www.generousmind.com or on Twitter.