Spirit-breathed technologies?

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The use of technology has divided the waters in the Christian world. Some remain skeptical and conservative, while others are jumping into all the exciting opportunities technology offers without giving it a second thought. Of course, there are also many who are in between these two extremes, and today we see how technology is gradually being integrated in church services and mission activities all over the world. In The Relay Trust, we want to reflect on our use of technology. We must ask ourselves, “can our use of technology be defended Biblically and are we using technology in the right way?” We do not want technology to define our mission, rather we want our mission to define the technologies we are using to accomplish our goals. It is extremely important that technology is not turning into the “tail that wags the dog”.

The term technology has been narrowed down from the original meaning. “Technology” is a combination of two Greek words: “techne” and “logos”. “Techne” means art, skill or craft and “logos” means word or an expression. So literally technology means “words by which something is gained”. The ancient Greeks would use the term “technology” in relation to arts and politics, but today we see technology as something created by a scientific process to make our lives better or simpler. Almost everything we use in our daily lives is a piece of technology, even an ordinary toothbrush. I believe the best present-day definition of technology is “a science or knowledge put into practical use to solve problems or invent useful tools”. In this light, we should see technology as an attempt to make a solution to an identified problem.

In the Bible there are many examples of the use of technology for good and bad. When the Israelites were building the Tabernacle, it was carried out by “skilled men” (see Exodus 36:8). Building the Tabernacle required significant technical skills, and the detailed descriptions found in Exodus testify to the importance of these skills. The skills were approved and blessed by God, because they served a purpose in God’s mission. However, this was certainly not the case with the Tower of Babel (see Genesis 11:1-9), where the peoples came together and used their skills to build a tower which would reach into heaven, so they could make a name for themselves. They had skills and advanced technology but used them for the wrong purposes. God stepped in and created confusion among them, so they would not accomplish their goal. This shows us that we should always consider how we are using our technological knowledge; just because we can do something does not mean that we should. Technology is neutral. We cannot say that it is either good or bad. But the way we choose to use technology is not neutral: most technologies can be used for both good and bad.

Since the dawn of Christianity, different types of technologies have been used to promote the Gospel. Think about the Apostle Paul and his letters and journeys that were only made possible because of the well-organized Roman infrastructure of roads, boats and security, about how the Reformers 500 years ago used the printing press to share their thoughts with a wider audience. Johann Gutenberg (1394 – 1468) did not invent the printing press to promote the Reformation, but in many ways this technology became the vehicle that carried the Reformation and brought the Word of God to common man. Suddenly, most households had access to a Bible, and this made a huge difference.

Now consider how modern digital technology has opened the door to a new world. Today 3.8 billion people have a smartphone, which is equivalent to 48.33% of the world’s population. This number is increasing every year, as cheaper phones are now on the market. Even though smartphones are still defined as “phones”, they are nothing like the first phone invented by Alexander Graham Bell (1847 – 1922). They are powerful media devices, available right in our pockets. Over the past ten to fifteen years the new smartphone technology has revolutionized the world for good and bad, and granted people access to huge amounts of information through the internet. Just like the printing press was used to make the Bible more widely accessible, so can we use smartphone or mobile technology to reach a new audience with the Word of God. Through mobile technology we can deliver the Word of God to those who are primarily oral learners, and we can do so in multiple languages. There are an estimated 5.7 billion oral learners (this number includes children, illiterate, functionally illiterate, visually impaired, or members of predominantly oral cultures), which is roughly 80% of the world’s population. The new technology can be used to reach this vast majority group with the Word of God and to deliver training resources in an audio/visual format to equip the many pastors who are members of this demographic of oral learners.

We have found many problems with theological training, such as a lack of trained theological teachers, lack of contextually appropriate training resources, remoteness, and poor infrastructure, just to mention a few. All these issues are hugely disruptive to fruitful church growth – and in many places church leaders carry congregations with minimal or no training. The internet is not necessarily the solution to these problems, since many have limited or no access, or they live in areas where persecution is an issue. Even though the number of active internet users has increased significantly in recent years and counts roughly 4.66 billion people, it does not mean that they have good or reliable access or that they can afford to pay for data subscriptions.

In recent years, The Relay Trust has worked on a technological solution to support training in areas where internet is non-existing, unreliable, or too expensive. Our goal has been to support learning communities in churches and institutions. We have carried out substantial research into existing products and have only found very few solutions that cater to training scenarios and next to none that can deliver structured learning in offline or semi-online environments. We needed a solution which could enroll students, monitor their progress, and allows them to submit assignments or ask questions to a remote teacher without ever being online themselves. It should also be possible for students to carry assignments or important portions of the teachings with them home. It was very important for us to build an intuitive system, so students with less technical skills would still find it easy to use the system. We wanted the solution to be delivered through mobile technology to make it more widely accessible. Maybe these sounds like simple requirements, but in the world of digital technology, it is a very complex process to build something simple.

Our solution is called “The Well”. It is a set of technologies combining a piece of hardware with different software solutions. The hardware is a small, robust computing device the size of a soap box. This makes it easy to carry the device from one location to another. The hardware device is built to withstand the challenges of an African climate such as dust, high humidity, and high temperatures. This computing device generates a Wi-Fi signal, so any mobile device or computer can access the pre-stored content. No internet access is necessary. Students who are going through a structured training programme are enrolled on the device and will have an app installed on their mobile phones. This app grants them access to the content. While they are away from the Well device, they can manage their homework assignments and write or record questions using the app. When students meet in their groups and reconnect with the Well, their answers or questions will synchronize with the device. If the trainer is remote the Well device is brought to a location with internet so it can synchronize with the Well cloud. It only requires one connection. A remote teacher/trainer can respond to the students individually or send group messages. The Well device can also synchronize with new course resources, and it is possible for a remote training coordinator to monitor different devices under his or her supervision.

Thanks to a good and thorough research process last year, we were able to begin programming in January this year. Through generous help from Kolo Group, a US-based Christian IT ministry, we identified the right programmers. Six months later, we are now testing the first version of our product in Sierra Leone, so we can learn from experience and adapt the product to serve communities better.

Though we have reached a real milestone in our product development, we are still far away from our goal. We have a lot of things to develop on the Well in the coming six months, but we will do this, while we are testing and using devices with trusted clients across Africa.

We see our tools as crucial to equip pastors and theological trainers all over the world but especially in the majority world. But of course, we must be mindful that this technology can be used for other purposes that may contradict our original intentions. Therefore, we should always be aware that development of new technologies involves great responsibilities. We must have our own protocols in place to guarantee that our various users are using the system for the right purpose.

Currently the Well is only used internally during the testing phase, but The Relay Trust will make the product more widely available in 2022, so different Christian ministries can use it.

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