Pastoring in light of technology: Shepherding souls shaped by screens

September 12, 2018

“The glory of God is a human being fully alive. Moreover, the life of man consists in beholding God.” -St. Irenaeus

Our social media use, smartphone addictions, and television-binging sessions are changing us—and not for the better. In fact, we can find plenty of blog posts, articles, statistics, and news reports through those same devices that testify to the reality that we are losing basic relational skills, like empathy and communication.

Human relationship in the context of community is central to what it means to “love one another” and display the image of God. When we lose this, we lose a primary way of beholding God himself. Using Irenaeus’ logic, therefore, we lose “the life of man”—we are no longer “fully alive.”

If we take our calling as pastors seriously, we ought to think deeply about leading people to engage faithfully with technology without losing the necessary and loving engagement with other human beings we were made for. So, here are three things that pastors can teach and practice that will help our churches use technology, rather than be used by technology, and ultimately, behold God more than our devices.

Teach and practice hospitality

Our God is serious about hospitality. The Old Testament displays God’s heart to provide a home for the sojourner. In Psalm 23, God as the Good Shepherd “prepares a table for us in the presence of our enemies.” And the New Testament is replete with commands to “practice hospitality.”

Of the eight people that live in my house, three of them don’t share my last name. They are young adults who come from non-believing or divorced homes, and they all spent too much time in front of screens. Most nights, my wife, my three kids, and the three of them sit around the dinner table and talk. We break up fights between our kids, tell funny stories, ask hard questions, and say things we have to apologize for. But, there is never a TV on or a phone at the table.

Breaking bread together without the manufactured distraction of a screen is one of the most human things we can do. It's a daily break in the ever-present call from technology. It slows the day down and makes everyone practice listening, talking, and responding to each other. Hospitality humanizes us by pushing us into community, not for entertaining guests, but to turn our homes from being fortresses of isolation, to hostels of discipleship.

Teach and practice the Sabbath 

With technology, we barely have to stop working. We can send a message at any time to anyone we know. And we can seemingly be anywhere and know anything we want with just a few taps. Technology makes an insidious promise of being “god,” much like the serpent in Genesis 3. When he tempted the woman, he awoke the craving for the incommunicable, or unshared, attributes of God while conveniently ignoring the image of God already displayed in humans.

The same story plays out in our lives today. We reject those good, hard things that display the image of God in us—love, compassion, and empathy—which are the ways he intends for us to imitate him. Instead, we chase after omniscience, omnipresence, and unimpeded power—all of which distort his image in us and cause us to distort his image in others.

This is why the Sabbath is such a beautiful gift from God. It forces us to stop and admit we aren’t God while we practice all the ways we are supposed to be like him. The Sabbath reminds us that the world won’t stop if we don’t respond to an email or a text in the next 15 minutes. It reminds us that we need God more than we need anyone or anything. Practicing the Sabbath is an act of humility and trust.

Keep the deep stuff face to face 

A few years ago, I noticed that I was revealing more to my wife about my thoughts and feelings through text than I was face to face. It was almost like the people we were in our phones were different than the people we were in person. Neil Postman, in his book Amusing Ourselves to Death, warned that the medium we use to communicate changes the message. When I was communicating deeply with my wife through text, the “me” in the phone started to become more connected to her than the “me” in the flesh.

Social media allows us to develop connections that aren’t real. We can say things into echo chambers without looking another person in the eye. It produces a false sense of security; safe behind a screen, we get to choose whether we want to face the consequences of our political rants, dogmatic parenting “advice,” or condemning theological positions. We don’t have to see the hurt or humanity in another person’s eyes. We lose empathy, understanding, and a sense of risk.

So, the deepest truths, as much as possible, should be communicated in the flesh. For example, our pastoral leadership does not counsel through text or email. Like our Savior, who is the Word made flesh, we want to be an embodiment of his glory to the families, church, and communities he has entrusted to us.

Technology isn’t evil. Yet, as with all that we create, there is an evil twist that beckons us to “be like a god” and reject the Imago Dei. As humans, and even more so as Christians, our diagnostic question regarding all technology should echo Ireneaus: “Am I beholding God with this device? And will it help me to be fully alive?”   

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Trevor Atwood

Trevor graduated from Middle Tennessee State University and then proceeded to get his Master of Divinity at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary in Wake Forest, North Carolina. He completed the Summit Network Church Planting Residency at the Summit Church in Durham, North Carolina, which led him to plant City Church in Murfreesboro. Trevor … Read More

Article 12: The Future of AI

We affirm that AI will continue to be developed in ways that we cannot currently imagine or understand, including AI that will far surpass many human abilities. God alone has the power to create life, and no future advancements in AI will usurp Him as the Creator of life. The church has a unique role in proclaiming human dignity for all and calling for the humane use of AI in all aspects of society.

We deny that AI will make us more or less human, or that AI will ever obtain a coequal level of worth, dignity, or value to image-bearers. Future advancements in AI will not ultimately fulfill our longings for a perfect world. While we are not able to comprehend or know the future, we do not fear what is to come because we know that God is omniscient and that nothing we create will be able to thwart His redemptive plan for creation or to supplant humanity as His image-bearers.

Genesis 1; Isaiah 42:8; Romans 1:20-21; 5:2; Ephesians 1:4-6; 2 Timothy 1:7-9; Revelation 5:9-10

Article 11: Public Policy

We affirm that the fundamental purposes of government are to protect human beings from harm, punish those who do evil, uphold civil liberties, and to commend those who do good. The public has a role in shaping and crafting policies concerning the use of AI in society, and these decisions should not be left to those who develop these technologies or to governments to set norms.

We deny that AI should be used by governments, corporations, or any entity to infringe upon God-given human rights. AI, even in a highly advanced state, should never be delegated the governing authority that has been granted by an all-sovereign God to human beings alone. 

Romans 13:1-7; Acts 10:35; 1 Peter 2:13-14

Article 10: War

We affirm that the use of AI in warfare should be governed by love of neighbor and the principles of just war. The use of AI may mitigate the loss of human life, provide greater protection of non-combatants, and inform better policymaking. Any lethal action conducted or substantially enabled by AI must employ 5 human oversight or review. All defense-related AI applications, such as underlying data and decision-making processes, must be subject to continual review by legitimate authorities. When these systems are deployed, human agents bear full moral responsibility for any actions taken by the system.

We deny that human agency or moral culpability in war can be delegated to AI. No nation or group has the right to use AI to carry out genocide, terrorism, torture, or other war crimes.

Genesis 4:10; Isaiah 1:16-17; Psalm 37:28; Matthew 5:44; 22:37-39; Romans 13:4

Article 9: Security

We affirm that AI has legitimate applications in policing, intelligence, surveillance, investigation, and other uses supporting the government’s responsibility to respect human rights, to protect and preserve human life, and to pursue justice in a flourishing society.

We deny that AI should be employed for safety and security applications in ways that seek to dehumanize, depersonalize, or harm our fellow human beings. We condemn the use of AI to suppress free expression or other basic human rights granted by God to all human beings.

Romans 13:1-7; 1 Peter 2:13-14

Article 8: Data & Privacy

We affirm that privacy and personal property are intertwined individual rights and choices that should not be violated by governments, corporations, nation-states, and other groups, even in the pursuit of the common good. While God knows all things, it is neither wise nor obligatory to have every detail of one’s life open to society.

We deny the manipulative and coercive uses of data and AI in ways that are inconsistent with the love of God and love of neighbor. Data collection practices should conform to ethical guidelines that uphold the dignity of all people. We further deny that consent, even informed consent, although requisite, is the only necessary ethical standard for the collection, manipulation, or exploitation of personal data—individually or in the aggregate. AI should not be employed in ways that distort truth through the use of generative applications. Data should not be mishandled, misused, or abused for sinful purposes to reinforce bias, strengthen the powerful, or demean the weak.

Exodus 20:15, Psalm 147:5; Isaiah 40:13-14; Matthew 10:16 Galatians 6:2; Hebrews 4:12-13; 1 John 1:7 

Article 7: Work

We affirm that work is part of God’s plan for human beings participating in the cultivation and stewardship of creation. The divine pattern is one of labor and rest in healthy proportion to each other. Our view of work should not be confined to commercial activity; it must also include the many ways that human beings serve each other through their efforts. AI can be used in ways that aid our work or allow us to make fuller use of our gifts. The church has a Spirit-empowered responsibility to help care for those who lose jobs and to encourage individuals, communities, employers, and governments to find ways to invest in the development of human beings and continue making vocational contributions to our lives together.

We deny that human worth and dignity is reducible to an individual’s economic contributions to society alone. Humanity should not use AI and other technological innovations as a reason to move toward lives of pure leisure even if greater social wealth creates such possibilities.

Genesis 1:27; 2:5; 2:15; Isaiah 65:21-24; Romans 12:6-8; Ephesians 4:11-16

Article 6: Sexuality

We affirm the goodness of God’s design for human sexuality which prescribes the sexual union to be an exclusive relationship between a man and a woman in the lifelong covenant of marriage.

We deny that the pursuit of sexual pleasure is a justification for the development or use of AI, and we condemn the objectification of humans that results from employing AI for sexual purposes. AI should not intrude upon or substitute for the biblical expression of sexuality between a husband and wife according to God’s design for human marriage.

Genesis 1:26-29; 2:18-25; Matthew 5:27-30; 1 Thess 4:3-4

Article 5: Bias

We affirm that, as a tool created by humans, AI will be inherently subject to bias and that these biases must be accounted for, minimized, or removed through continual human oversight and discretion. AI should be designed and used in such ways that treat all human beings as having equal worth and dignity. AI should be utilized as a tool to identify and eliminate bias inherent in human decision-making.

We deny that AI should be designed or used in ways that violate the fundamental principle of human dignity for all people. Neither should AI be used in ways that reinforce or further any ideology or agenda, seeking to subjugate human autonomy under the power of the state.

Micah 6:8; John 13:34; Galatians 3:28-29; 5:13-14; Philippians 2:3-4; Romans 12:10

Article 4: Medicine

We affirm that AI-related advances in medical technologies are expressions of God’s common grace through and for people created in His image and that these advances will increase our capacity to provide enhanced medical diagnostics and therapeutic interventions as we seek to care for all people. These advances should be guided by basic principles of medical ethics, including beneficence, non-maleficence, autonomy, and justice, which are all consistent with the biblical principle of loving our neighbor.

We deny that death and disease—effects of the Fall—can ultimately be eradicated apart from Jesus Christ. Utilitarian applications regarding healthcare distribution should not override the dignity of human life. Fur- 3 thermore, we reject the materialist and consequentialist worldview that understands medical applications of AI as a means of improving, changing, or completing human beings.

Matthew 5:45; John 11:25-26; 1 Corinthians 15:55-57; Galatians 6:2; Philippians 2:4

Article 3: Relationship of AI & Humanity

We affirm the use of AI to inform and aid human reasoning and moral decision-making because it is a tool that excels at processing data and making determinations, which often mimics or exceeds human ability. While AI excels in data-based computation, technology is incapable of possessing the capacity for moral agency or responsibility.

We deny that humans can or should cede our moral accountability or responsibilities to any form of AI that will ever be created. Only humanity will be judged by God on the basis of our actions and that of the tools we create. While technology can be created with a moral use in view, it is not a moral agent. Humans alone bear the responsibility for moral decision making.

Romans 2:6-8; Galatians 5:19-21; 2 Peter 1:5-8; 1 John 2:1

Article 2: AI as Technology

We affirm that the development of AI is a demonstration of the unique creative abilities of human beings. When AI is employed in accordance with God’s moral will, it is an example of man’s obedience to the divine command to steward creation and to honor Him. We believe in innovation for the glory of God, the sake of human flourishing, and the love of neighbor. While we acknowledge the reality of the Fall and its consequences on human nature and human innovation, technology can be used in society to uphold human dignity. As a part of our God-given creative nature, human beings should develop and harness technology in ways that lead to greater flourishing and the alleviation of human suffering.

We deny that the use of AI is morally neutral. It is not worthy of man’s hope, worship, or love. Since the Lord Jesus alone can atone for sin and reconcile humanity to its Creator, technology such as AI cannot fulfill humanity’s ultimate needs. We further deny the goodness and benefit of any application of AI that devalues or degrades the dignity and worth of another human being. 

Genesis 2:25; Exodus 20:3; 31:1-11; Proverbs 16:4; Matthew 22:37-40; Romans 3:23

Article 1: Image of God

We affirm that God created each human being in His image with intrinsic and equal worth, dignity, and moral agency, distinct from all creation, and that humanity’s creativity is intended to reflect God’s creative pattern.

We deny that any part of creation, including any form of technology, should ever be used to usurp or subvert the dominion and stewardship which has been entrusted solely to humanity by God; nor should technology be assigned a level of human identity, worth, dignity, or moral agency.

Genesis 1:26-28; 5:1-2; Isaiah 43:6-7; Jeremiah 1:5; John 13:34; Colossians 1:16; 3:10; Ephesians 4:24