In this increasingly digital age, what is the role of technology in Christian education? How do we decide when to try something new and when it is just another passing trend that risks distracting us from our core mission and vision? If we survey Christian educators on this topic, we will find some who are passionate advocates and others who call for more caution. To help frame these important conversations, I put together the following five concepts. They are what I see as the philosophical foundations to thinking about educational technology in Christian education.
Technology is interconnected with culture.
Technology is applied scientific knowledge. Or from another perspective, it is the use of scientific (or some just say systematic) knowledge in applied or practical ways. This definition includes much of the modern world: the appliances in our kitchen, our means of transportation, the system of roadways and traffic laws, the medicine in our cabinets, the entertainment devices in our living rooms and basements, the tools that we use for communication, grading students, planning the school schedule, organizing lessons and curricula, collecting tuition, paying teachers from year to year, managing classrooms, refining our golf swing, and planning a family trip. Now consider the definition of culture, which usually includes something like, “the beliefs, values, practices and arts of a group of people.” Technology is interconnected with culture. It reflects our beliefs, values, and traditions. It also sometimes shapes or shifts them. There is a constant interaction between the two.
Technology is not neutral.
Given the definitions just shared, notice that technology is not just some neutral tool that one can choose to use for any purpose without unexpected side effects and implications. Replace the practice of washing dishes by hand with a dishwasher and that changes things in a household. It might change certain traditions, communication patterns in the home, the electric or water bill, or what sort of dishes you buy and use (they have to be dishwasher safe now, right?). Or consider the technology of the automobile. That is definitely not a neutral tool. Just look at how the world changed due to the ability of people to travel long distances in a fraction of the time. People can live in one town and work in another. The concept of commuting was brought into existence. We even have an entire genre of movie called “road movies,” illustrating the deep sense of values and belief that people attach to having their own car, traveling cross-country, and hitting the road. Technology inevitably shifts, tweaks, amplifies, or completely changes important aspects of a culture. Consider, for example, how the value of being connected to others at all times (and even beliefs about what it means to be safe) emerged with mobile phones. None of these are neutral devices or systems. For this reason, Neil Postman argued that a given technology is always a Faustian bargain. There are benefits and limitations. Notice that I am not saying right and wrong. While that may be the case, that is more difficult to discern in some of these areas. Is it morally right or wrong to commute two hours to work each day? People have different opinions on that matter, and they can make compelling cases for a given situation. While there is certainly biblical wisdom to help one grapple with such decisions, I am cautious of legalistic claims and assertions.
There are spiritual and theological implications to technology.
If technology does indeed influence the beliefs, values, traditions, and practices of people, then that means there is a spiritual dimension to considering the nature of life in a technological world. It could be said that it is important to explore a theology of technology in society. Religious doctrines, beliefs, moral issues, and value systems have something to say about our lives in a technological world. While I do not promote all of their beliefs, the Amish seem to understand this. Many mistakenly think that the Amish are anti-technology. If that were true, they would not use plows, buggies, saddles, shoes, or tools. Instead of being anti-technology, some argue that it is more accurate to see the Amish as pro-community. They seek to consider the impact a given technology (whether it be an object or a system) has upon their core values and beliefs. If there is valid concern that a given technology will jeopardize their beliefs and values, then they may well decide to exclude or limit it in their community life. While I am not arguing that we should follow suit with the Amish, there is a general lesson worth noting. Take the time to consider the implications of a technology on your mission, vision, values, and goals.
The answer is not rejection.
The Lutheran tradition has a rich historical connection to technological innovation, one that often includes embracing the use of emerging technologies. The printing press is the one that comes to mind right away. However, if we go back earlier in Christianity, we see that God used the technologies of a given day and time. You will likely be amazed to see how many technologies are present if you scan any book of the Bible. At the same time, these technologies all had benefits and limitations. They were not neutral. In other words, God’s work can and will be accomplished amid the ever-changing, complex technological world. While there are dangers and blessings, benefits and limitations, we are called to live in this world. Even as we live in the world, God uses us in our vocations to love our neighbors, and new vocations will emerge as a result of technological innovation. Consider the concepts of digital culture and digital citizenship. It is becoming increasingly necessary to engage in the digital world to be an active participant in society. Similarly, a growing number of people connect and live out parts of their lives in the digital world. As such, there is opportunity for Christians to live out vocations in love to these neighbors in the digital world, even with current and emerging technologies.
Discernment is valuable.
While we are called to live in this increasingly technological world, there is immense benefit to prayerful consideration and study of the Scriptures and Lutheran Confessions with the contemporary world in mind. We seek out how the Ten Commandments inform life in a digital context. We revisit the promises of God and His declaration of our life in Christ as we see media representations of goodness, truth, beauty, and life and claims about what it means to be successful. God’s Word is unchanging, and it provides us with stability in this ever-changing world. A Christian education in the digital world finds ways to help students cultivate such discernment. Martin Luther’s Large Catechism is a wonderful example of this, as he not only teaches about the meaning of the Ten Commandments but does it using specific examples and illustrations, even cases and scenarios from daily life. We can use that same model to reflect upon God’s Law and Gospel in the contemporary world, even life on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Pinterest, and the blogosphere. Part of our mission as Christian educators is to challenge people to persistently consider the significance of the Christian worldview in light of modern life, thought, trends, and events.
From my perspective, these are five helpful foundations for thinking about the role of technology in faith formation and religious education. Then we can move on to thinking about different ways that we might use specific technologies. There are endless possibilities, and each will have benefits and limitations. The answer is not to reject it all. Rather, it is to keep our beliefs and values central (speaking and thinking about them often) and then to prayerfully (with the Scriptures open) live out those beliefs and values in this digital world, helping our learners to grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.
If this topic of technology in Christian education interests you and you want to learn more, look for two dedicated chapters on this subject in the forthcoming CPH book The Pedagogy of Faith. You can also check out a recent monograph that I published on this subject through the Lutheran Education Association (LEA membership required to access).