Technology Can’t Replace In-person Community

A Roundtable Discussion

Jason Thacker: As churches haven’t been able to gather in many months and as some begin to gather again under various restrictions, what kinds of things do you think we miss about the gathered church that technology cannot replicate or replace?

Jay Kim: Embodied presence. Almost everyone I talk to expresses the same sadness and longing—that all of the digital online mediums at our disposal are helpful but ultimately unsatisfactory. Several months into sheltering-in-place now, as digital fatigue sets in, I think what we miss most is the ability to be near one another as we worship and commune—hearing voices sing together, listening, learning, leaning in together as we hear the Word preached, the shuffling of feet and the extending of hands as we take the bread and the cup together. We miss the conversation in the lobby or courtyard, before and after, all the stuff of human experience that digital connections try but fail to replicate. Technology is doing a fine job keeping us pseudo-connected in this time, but it’s shortcomings are also becoming abundantly clear.

Julie Masson: I miss the atmosphere of being in a room with voices worshipping together. You can’t replicate the sound of the person behind you singing slightly off-key or the visual of the girl in front who is raising her hands and swaying. All five senses seem to be irreplaceable in a virtual setting.

John Dyer: The first things that come to mind are all the little accidental things that happen with physical proximity—reading the face of someone you haven’t seen in a while and knowing you need to go up to them, feeling the room react to a point (or joke) in a sermon, hearing someone else’s baby who’s not on mute. At the same time, I think it’s important to acknowledge that there are already elements of our in-person gathering that technology has replaced, but not replicated. An example of this is online giving, which is so helpful for churches in the summer months, but which also hides the spiritual practice of bringing money every week and the communal practice of seeing our brothers and sisters give together.

 I’m not that concerned that we use our technology too much, I am concerned that we use it with too little reflection on how its form shapes our message. – John Dyer

JT:What are some of the best practices you have seen in regards to technology and the church in this season?

JK: It feels a little archaic even saying it but using phones as a listening/talking technology has proven itself to be a beneficial practice during this season, at least in our context and community. Turning away from the lure of social and news media, even texting, and picking up the phone to call someone has become a way of focusing our energy on little things that go a long way. I’ve tried to call people in our church community several times a week throughout this time of sheltering-in-place.

Before the coronavirus, it was mostly emails and texts from me. But now, exhausted by the digital disconnect, being able to focus solely on a voice without the added element of video and text has become a respite. And for some in our community, phone calls are so rare these days that receiving one is almost akin to receiving a hand-written letter in the mailbox; there’s been something surprisingly pleasant about it. Aside from the phone calls, the chat feature during online gatherings has been a helpful tool in creating at least some form of interaction as we “gather” in online spaces.

JD: Churches that had previously built their Sunday gathering times around highly commodifiable elements—three fast songs at pitches only professionals can reach, four minutes of video announcements, two slow songs, a sermon, etc.—were probably most prepared to enable those to be consumed online. What is rarer are churches that have intentional times of silence and prayer, songs that people and families can sing, and interactive elements that bring people out of the “watching church” mode.

JT: In what ways can churches bear the burdens of those who are still unable to attend in-person gatherings for a while due to this virus?

JK: One of the most encouraging and inspiring things I’ve seen come from this season has been the way so many have given their time, energy, and resources to come alongside the most vulnerable and needy in our midst. From picking up and dropping groceries to gardening to delivering meals, I’ve seen people bearing one another’s burdens in very visceral, real-time, real-life ways; an analog leaning, if you will. In some ways, this is one of the simplest and most powerful ways for us to truly be the church.

On an ecclesiological level, one of the most encouraging things I’ve experienced is how this pandemic has unified church leaders. Every Tuesday I’m on a Zoom call with dozens of others serving and leading local churches in the Silicon Valley and greater Bay Area. We pray for one another, share best practices, express specific needs, etc. Much has come of this; specific, pragmatic help from one church to another, as well as constant prayer for each other, and a unified plan for reopening, even though the rollout of that plan will look different from church to church. 

I’m hopeful that the church can and will continue to leverage technology. But as we do, we must never forget that the information must always point toward an invitation into embodied realities. – Jay Kim

JM: Overcommunication is key. Our church leaders have done a great job of sending weekly email updates to members, and they keep emphasizing how people can connect with the pastors, what is and isn’t happening in the church, and encouraging people to reach out to their small group members. This same information is repeated in different formats on social media. Overcommunication will help people feel like they know who to reach out to for help and how to be connected to the church while remaining at home. 

JD: I see congregations doing all kinds of wonderful work through activities like grocery shopping for those who can’t go out, sharing favorite local restaurants, supporting healthcare workers at nearby hospitals, and holding outdoor gatherings. On a more personal level, I’ve also found that returning to phone calls has been particularly meaningful. One incredible tool is SoundOfYourLove.com which allows friends and family of those quarantined in the hospital to record a soundtrack of messages to give patients hope and connection.

JT: Help us understand some of the dangers of technology in the church and what we might do to avoid abusing these tools or relying upon them too much.

JK: Digital technology often values speed, choice, and individualism. Everything is always getting faster (speed), the options are vast and endless (choice), and our entire experience is customized to our personal preferences and personalities (individualism). When we’re not careful, these values can turn in on themselves and become not only counterproductive but also quite dangerous. Speed can make us impatient, choice can make us shallow, and individualism can make us isolated. 

When we find ourselves relying on these tools too much, and our reliance goes unchecked for too long, these values inevitably form us into an increasingly impatient, shallow, isolated people—and the danger here for followers of Jesus is that discipleship is actually a patient, deep, communal work. Awareness of the subtle, subversive, and dangerous ways our use of these technologies is forming us is step one. Implementing defined limits and parameters for use is step two.

JD: I think we need to relentlessly challenge a way of thinking that’s deeply wired into the circuitry of evangelical thinking on technology: “the methods may change, but the message stays the same.” On the surface, this seems right because the gospel seed can grow in the soil of any culture. But this way of thinking also seems to say that form doesn’t matter, that our faith is simply content that can be delivered in any medium, and that beauty, truth, and goodness are separate things. So I’m not that concerned that we use our technology too much, I am concerned that we use it with too little reflection on how its form shapes our message. Instead of using whatever shiny thing we see on Twitter, we have to think intentionally about using form and content together to shape our bodies, souls, messages, and communities.

JT: How might God use technology to further the mission of the church in the coming years?

JM: It reminds me of how people used to believe that ebooks would end up destroying the print book. They were ultimately wrong because ebooks, while convenient, have primarily served to increase the desire for physical books. I agree with others about a similar parallel with online church services driving a greater desire for in-person church gatherings. I hope that more churches will keep an eye toward accessibility, and perhaps, those who were not streaming their services will start so that shut-ins or those who are sick can still partake in a part of the service, even if virtually. 

JD: In the opening chapters of Genesis, God says that our creativity is part of our image-bearing and part of our call to have dominion over, cultivate, and care for his creation. In the center of the story is Jesus, who is a second Adam, both by perfectly following the Law and by being a tektōn, a carpenter, who cultivated the Garden and the Temple, and who died on a hideous machine made from the very tools with which he worked. And at the end of the story, we see a resurrected Jesus bringing down from heaven a new city, a holy city, full of all of the things humans make—swords beaten into plowshares, roads paved with gold, trumpets filled with music, and gates in all directions. I think this means that technology and human creativity are not just a means for telling the story, but they are part of the story. I enjoy my work building things like Bible software for closed countries, online education platforms for seminaries, and other tools.

JK: A helpful differentiating line between digital and analog realities has been the divide between information and transformation. Digital technologies offer us incredible opportunities to inform people. And information is undoubtedly an important element to sharing the gospel. But ultimately, the mission of the church does not stop at information but rather, transformation—to be remade day by day into the image of the risen Christ. The work of transformation, I believe, is always an embodied, incarnational work. It’s communal too, in the sense that we cannot do it alone. 

We are not saved as individuals headed for a far off place called heaven. We are saved into a family, called to embody heaven’s reality, the rule and reign of Christ as King, here and now, as we look forward together toward the day when Christ shall return and right every wrong. I’m hopeful that the church can and will continue to leverage technology to inform the world of kingdom possibilities in compelling ways. But as we do, we must never forget that the information must always point toward an invitation into embodied realities, where we gather together as the people of God to be transformed in real ways, in real time, and in real space.

Jason Thacker serves as senior fellow focusing on Christian ethics, human dignity, public theology, and technology. He also leads the ERLC Research Institute. In addition to his work at the ERLC, he serves as assistant professor of philosophy and ethics at Boyce College in Louisville Kentucky. He is the author or editor of several books including the Essentials in Christian Ethics series, The Age of AIFollowing Jesus in a Digital Age, and The Digital Public Square. He is a graduate of The University of Tennessee and Southern Seminary, where he is currently a PhD candidate in Christian ethics and public theology.

Jay Kim is an author and serves on staff at Vintage Faith Church in Santa Cruz, California, overseeing teaching and leadership.

John Dyer is an author and serves as the dean of Enrollment Services and Distance Education and adjunct professor in Media Arts and Worship at Dallas Theological Seminary.

Julie Masson is the director of communications at the ERLC. She brings her fifteen years of marketing and communications experience from working for SBC entities and other non-profits to serve Southern Baptist churches. She directs the strategy and implementation of the organization’s comprehensive communications initiatives. Julie holds a Master’s degree in Journalism and Mass Communications from the University of Kansas. Julie and her husband served as church planters in Spain with the International Mission Board before settling in Kansas City with their three children.

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