Maybe you prefer old-fashioned face-to-face interaction… but you still love getting out your phone or tablet to scroll through social media, video chat, send emails or read the news?  Sophia Sinclair looks at communication trends and why Christians should use the tools and opportunities digital communication affords us.

Another day of staring at the big screen while scrolling through my little screen so as to reward myself for staring at the medium screen all week.” 

Does this tweet describe your life? 

If you’re doing computer-based work, you’re probably staring at your ‘medium screen’ for most of the day. 

Interacting with digital technology is an unavoidable reality for most people, and for many it is a lifeline. 

As a new mum I sat awake pumping milk in the middle of the night, chatting with new mums I met in a Facebook group. I found support, we shared tips on new motherhood, and it kept me from dozing off! 

Digital technology has provided new supports for people with disabilities. In 2020 I downloaded ‘Be My Eyes’, an app connecting blind and low-vision people with sighted volunteers who provide them with assistance via video chat. Last year I helped someone select the right dressing gown, and another person identify a cut of steak. 

Digital technology is not only a tool for offering help; it can also provide a platform for those with disabilities to share their gifts and serve the church. I recently received encouragement and support from a friend. As her capacity for verbal communication has been restricted by illness, she shared her wisdom by typing on a tablet as I sat next to her reading her words aloud.  

Who can deny the significance of digital technology during the coronavirus pandemic? Not only has it allowed for greater sharing between scientists and medical professionals, we’ve all adjusted to using online platforms to connect us for corporate worship, spiritual sustenance, friendship and fellowship. 

The shadow side of digital technology

The Netflix docudrama The Social Dilemma opens by interviewing people who formerly worked in key development for tech companies—people who invented the Facebook ‘like’ button and the famous algorithms that determine what we see on our newsfeed. Each interviewee expresses their growing distress and concern with the tech industry, and the producer asks, “So, what’s the problem?”

The docudrama explores a range of issues, but fails to articulate a simple truth: sin is the problem. Even something good can be corrupted by our human propensity for evil. Don’t believe me? Increased teen suicide rates, an out‑of‑control porn industry, a loneliness epidemic, post‑truth and misinformation—these have mushroomed as a result of our world of digital connection. Technology is a wonderful servant, but a terrible master. 

Communicating in a digital world

The changing landscape of technology has had a profound effect on communication. Globally, news providers are struggling to fund traditional models of delivering journalism, and our habits are driving this. I can’t remember the last time I picked up a physical newspaper, yet I read news online every day. 

If it’s digital, we expect it delivered free, or to pay the price—our personal information and viewing habits in exchange for content. In the past decade we’ve seen a move away from long-form, investigative pieces with a depth of reporting, in favour of anything that produces clicks or views—bonus points if it goes viral. Not to mention a growing distrust of media and the suspicion of ‘fake news’.

However, there are some encouraging developments. Podcasting platforms have seen a massive increase in users. Many newsrooms have taken advantage of the public’s listening ear and are producing daily podcasts as well as long-form investigative podcast series. 

Online platforms simply allow more content. Video and audio often appear in complementary forms alongside the written word. Where you might read a news article, there is also an accompanying video story, or a link to a long-form podcast to listen to. 

There are also more options for interaction—a forum for response or discussion of ideas. This is an area still fraught with issues, however. Platforms like Facebook, YouTube and Google are increasingly facing serious legal repercussions over their responsibility, with an ethical framework desperately needed. 

Why should Christians care about these changes?

The theme for the 2020 Australasian Religious Press Association conference was set to be ‘The Changing Landscape of Communication’ before the pandemic appropriately changed our plans! As Christian communicators we’ve been faced with challenges of funding, shifting audiences and changing mediums. 

The darkness of digital technology shows us how desperately we need a saviour. It reveals our hunger for goodness, our desire for justice, and our inability to redeem ourselves. The tech world is growing in awareness of the need to face these uncomfortable truths, but are we? Do we really believe the redeeming work of Jesus is still good news for our world today, even in a digital setting? 

If we believe these things, we must prayerfully entrust our resources, our gifts, our desires and our creativity to the Holy Spirit. At its best, digital technology is a tool for connection. At our worst, technology becomes a tyrannical idol. In Acts 17 Paul is greatly troubled by the idolatry he sees in Athens. His response is not to run away or hide, instead he asks questions and engages the culture around him. He grasps the opportunity of being in the heart of the city to present the gospel in context so it can be heard and understood. What if we spoke into the digital world like Paul spoke to the people of Athens? Like Paul, we must rely on the Holy Spirit to help us discern the good and give us wisdom to use digital tools and opportunities, as we learn how to be as “wise as serpents and harmless as doves” (Matthew 10:16, KJV). 

In a movement where hundreds of people are speaking to groups on a weekly basis, could more of us explore what it would take to develop podcasts or high-quality audio content? God is already at work in our communities; how can we use video to share these stories? A large portion of our communities are already engaging with social media; how are we using our platforms to speak God’s truth and life?

The landscape may be changing. But the gospel has not. It’s still the same good news: that Jesus died for our sin and was buried, that he rose to life, according to the scriptures, and that he will return again.

If that is still good news, it’s definitely worth sharing.

Contributor: Sophia Sinclair

Sophia is a communications specialist and has been working with Christian non-profits for more than a decade. She is the current president of the Australasian Religious Press Association, a trans-Tasman network of Christian writers, editors and communicators. Sophia belongs to Levin Baptist Church, where she serves as a member of the leadership team.