It’s déjà vu, all over again – are our current church challenges really unprecedented?

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As our churches have met online, we think we face two unprecedented challenges: a global pandemic, and a digital revolution.

Put it like that, though, and I reckon it’s misleading. To be clear, there is a global pandemic, which is life-threatening and has a widely available vaccine only just on the horizon. And undoubtedly there has been an emergence of technology which is dizzying in its speed and power. 

The problem is the word ‘unprecedented’.

If you know me, I’m a bit of a history geek, and so when I see that word ‘unprecedented’ I itch to challenge it. Because in the past there have been many international pandemics, some of which were recorded in painful detail. From the plagues of Rome in the second and third centuries, through the Black Death ravaging Asia and Europe in 1400’s, through the epidemics which devastated 80% of the Aztecs, up to the influenza which hit a war-weary world in 1918, and killed tens of millions. For many of those pandemics, Christians were present, and we can follow their responses, in their thinking, their faith and their action.

Pandemics have happened before.

You might also work out that I’m a bit of a tech geek, and I can fall for the shiny and new just as much as anyone. But, again, I want to argue against ‘unprecedented’. The printing press, the steam engine, the spinning machine, the steamship, electricity generation, the telegraph, the telephone, movies, the airplane, the combustion engine, splitting the atom – these were all massively disruptive technologies, creatures of their times which also changed their times. What’s more, many of them were the subject of intense public debate, with overheated claims and conspiracy theories. None of them was above criticism. None of them was inevitable. And, yes, there were Christians taking advantage of them, and being suckered in, and Christians protesting against them, for both sound and bizarre reasons.

Technological innovations have happened before. 

The social critic Evgeny Morozov summarises his long view, and puts the cutting edge in context: ‘Once we realize that for the last hundred years or so virtually every generation has felt like it was on the edge of a technological revolution – be it the telegraph age, the radio age, the plastic age, the nuclear age, or the television age – maintaining the myth that our own period is unique and exceptional will hopefully become much harder.’ (Evgeny Morozov, To Save Everything, Click Here: Technology, solutionism and the urge to fix problems that don’t exist (London: Penguin, 2014), 357). To say that a technology is ‘unprecedented’ is a myth, marketing spin, like saying, ‘new’ or ‘improved’. It makes the product unchallengeable. Whoever would want old, or unimproved? The question isn’t worth asking. So it’s never asked.

To say that a technology is ‘unprecedented’ is a myth, marketing spin, like saying, ‘new’ or ‘improved’.

Putting you and me into the mix is unprecedented, though. As they say, this is my first pandemic, so bear with me while I work it out. Like you, I’ve been pushed and dragged into church leadership issues that I’ve never had to face before. Our church has been reinvented numerous times in the last few months. We started out in lurching crisis. Then everyone said, remember it’s a marathon, not a sprint. We steadied. I pointed out that from my end, it felt like a marathon made up of an endless series of sprints. Someone else said it’s more like a triathlon, where just when you’ve finished the marathon someone hands you a bike, and you’re off again with a whole new set of skills to learn. Before you get to swim. Mostly, I’ve felt like Gromit in The Wrong Trousers, laying down the track from the front of a speeding train.

The academic Shoshana Zuboff has another way that ‘unprecedented’ is the right word. There is a new economic engine, which she calls ’surveillance capitalism’ defined as ‘the instrumentation and instrumentalization of behaviour for the purposes of modification, prediction, monetisation, and control.’ (Shoshana Zuboff, Surveillance Capitalism: The Fight for the Future at the New Frontier of Power (London: Profile Books, 2019), 352.) If that sounds complex, it is, and she would be the first to say that she is struggling to describe this phenomenon, in which our attention and behaviour is not only monitored and monetised, but modified, predicted and controlled for financial ends. She is ambiguous whether there are knowing individuals behind this or it is the inevitable outworking of algorithms designed to make profit, but as we’ll see she names companies, and explicitly aligns part of it with politico-economic totalitarianism emanating from China.

Despite all that, there is a third reason and deeper why the word ’unprecedented’ is misleading. Throughout Scripture, God’s people have been on the difficult end of technological innovation. The architectural demands of Egypt, the overwhelming force of armies with leading-edge iron or bronze weapons, the ruthless efficiency of the Assyrian forces, the bureaucratic brilliance of the Babylonians, with a capital city built over specially designed canals, running a communications network spanning thousands of miles, then the technology of Greece, the engineering of Rome – the descendants of Abraham faced, were dwarfed by, and yet out-lived, them all.

Plagues, too, from the Exodus to the climax of the Book of Revelation. 

So here’s the plan for the next few blog posts.

First, we shall take a tour of what has happened so far, and you’ll have a chance to reflect on how your church has responded.

Second, we shall lay some biblical foundations, building just enough of a theology of God, humanity, church and technology that we can get some perspective and distance.

Third, we shall dive deep into some key thinkers and storytellers, creators and curators of meaning, to start to develop the words and thoughts we need to describe and respond to our culture’s moment.

And finally, we shall look at a series of topics that every church leader has to process right now, with some tools to talk it though with others.

Don’t look to me for the right answers – I’m making this up as I go along, too. But we might, together, come up with some better questions, and that’s always a good start.

I don’t know about you, but I’d really value some time out, to catch my breath, think, pray, and grab some cold water before I have to check the time and start running again.

Process questions

Track back over the changes your church has undergone since the beginning of 2020. How have you as a pastor experienced them – threat, opportunity, chaos, or something else?  Your fellow leaders?  Your members?

This is an adapted excerpt from @church: is online, off limits?, now available on a Kindle near you!

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