Bishop Mark Hanson: Grappling with Technology

Grappling with technology

Communication tools can bear good, bad fruit

Astonishing. Stupefying. Are there words that even begin to capture the technological advances in communication in our lifetime? While my grandmother found no need to have a phone in her home, I carry a cell phone through which I receive text messages from our children, e-mails from colleagues, voice mail from my wife, and can access the Internet, my calendar and, yes, the entire Bible. I panic when I misplace it.

Our son and grandson in Florida could not be with us for Christmas. Through the marvels of Skype, we were able to share the joy of opening gifts together. Some grandparents, separated from grandchildren by hundreds of miles — even oceans — share nightly stories and prayers because Skype erases the miles and joins loving faces and tender voices.

In his book, Here Comes Everybody (Penguin, 2009), Clay Shirky contends: "We are living in the middle of the largest increase in expressive capability in the history of the human race. More people can communicate more things to more people than has ever been possible ... [making] the change unprecedented." The key to change, he says, is not technology, but the adoption of new behaviors.

Think with me: what new behaviors shall we adopt as the ELCA because of what these tools make possible? That question is being pondered with imagination throughout this church. Prayer teams respond almost instantly to prayer requests sent by e-mail and text messages. Pastors distribute weekly devotions to members through listservs. Blogs invite lively discussions about faith and life. Companion synod relationships deepen through in-person visits and frequent contact online. Electronic "town hall meetings" allow me to meet with ELCA members sitting in their homes and congregations. Just as the printing press reformed the church in Martin Luther's day, think about the possibilities for grassroots movements through which the Spirit will continue to reform the church today.

However, ... the technology that bridges distances also creates barriers. One barrier is that technology may distract us from being fully present to each other. It is more than frustrating to talk with someone who also is texting. Another barrier is the reality — slow in coming to our awareness — that the manufacture of electronic communication devices depends upon rare mineral resources mined in delicate environments and from economies that are easily exploited. Also, the very social tools that can be used to create community can divide us on the basis of who has access and can afford to use them.

Many also recognize that instantaneous communication can create misunderstanding and resentment, especially when misleading inflammatory and hateful words are broadcast to wide audiences with little restraint.

The most forbidding communication barrier, in other words, isn't a technological problem that can be solved by turning up the volume or expanding the network. When messages communicate suspicion, resentment, mistrust and hatred, the amplified sounds cement a barrier whose foundation is sin.

This is why God's saving mercy didn't come as an innovation in technology. The true innovation — what brings in God's new creation — is Jesus, the embodiment of God's breaking through every barrier of sin. In his forgiving embrace of outcasts, strangers and sinners, Jesus introduced a love that, although it was as old as God's promise, clothed this tired and tattered world in the newness of God's reconciliation.

"Look!" Paul wrote to the Corinthians. "Suddenly, everything is new in this life from God." The all-too-familiar accounting of resentments and wrongs that dominated public discourse gives way to a different calculation: the multiplication of sisters and brothers in the ministry of reconciliation.

With this new accounting comes a sacred trust. As Paul reminds us in 2 Corinthians 5, God's reconciliation recruits us as ambassadors to embody forgiveness joyfully in all our relationships even as we sing it imaginatively in every tongue and on every continent.

Some who serve this ministry will use the latest technologies. We need not fear them or become enslaved to them. Used faithfully, these innovations can build and strengthen communities of faith as God's ambassadors sing the song of God's new creation.

Mark S. Hanson

Presiding Bishop

[Taken with permission from the website of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America.]