by Curtis Sergeant
When Charles Dickens said, “It was the best of times. It was the worst of times,” he could have easily been speaking of the times we live in today. There is plenty of good and bad news.
As I write this text (in early April 2020), the United States is in the throes of the COVID-19 pandemic. This period can be characterized by the military acronym VUCA: volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity. One similar episode in biblical times occurred when the people of Israel were beginning to turn to David rather than Saul. At that time some of the leaders of the tribe of Issachar defected. They were described as “men who understood the times, with knowledge of what Israel should do” (1 Chronicles 12:32).
Not all times are created equal. Jesus’ first coming was described as being in the “fullness of time” (Galatians 4:4). His second coming will also be at a special time, known only to the Father (Mark 13:28–32). Jesus said we should learn to recognize the signs of the times (Matthew 16:1-4).
As God’s people, we have a need to keep two worlds in view. The first and most important is the eternal Kingdom. God is unchanging, and so are his character, nature, purposes, and will. At the same time, He has ordained that we should live as foreigners in this temporal world as His emissaries. So we must understand this world as well if we are going to be effective in communicating to it. Just as an ambassador needs to learn the language, culture, history, and values of the country where he or she serves in order to function effectively, we must do the same with regard to the world and time in which we live.
Language, culture, and technology are changing far more rapidly today than ever before. Therefore, we need to be more alert than ever before to cultural trends and assess how our own life patterns should change to help us address cultural developments effectively.
Not all parts of society are changing at the same rate, however. Generally, younger people, the wealthy and better-educated, those living in cities, those without close family ties, and those who are fluent in one or more major world languages, are more rapidly influenced by global technological changes.
Despite these differences in adoption rates of change, these trends are firmly set in terms of their direction for society as a whole. Most of these changes are directly or indirectly tied to historically recent changes in technology.
Let’s look at some specific technology trends, considering the good news and bad news accompanying each one and some possible practical implications for how we need to adjust our behavior as a result.
Collaboration is increasing
The good news is that with the right structure, collaboration outperforms competition. This can now happen to an extent never previously possible thanks to the availability of long-distance, real-time connections.
The bad news is that this capability can largely undo what happened at Babel (Genesis 11:1–9), thus reviving the dangers that were observed at Babel. God confused people’s languages at Babel to limit the extent of man’s rebellion against God’s will. God noted that when people could communicate and collaborate freely with each other, nothing would be impossible for them. (Google Translate may, therefore, not be an entirely good thing!)
Technology tools are, in themselves, neutral; they can be used for good or for evil. In the Kingdom, we still have tremendous untapped potential for collective creation and action. We need to learn how to maximize our connectedness for the purpose of Kingdom advance.
Technology tools are, in themselves, neutral; they can be used for good or for evil.
We have a stronger basis for unified action than those in the kingdom of darkness. “There is one body and one Spirit, just as also you were called in one hope of your calling; one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all who is over all and through all and in all” (Ephesians 4:4-6).
Wikipedia is a great example of the potential resident in collaboration. Just a few years ago the very idea of a collaborative, publicly produced encyclopedia written by amateurs, let alone one good enough to displace Encyclopedia Britannica as the world’s most widely used encyclopedia, would have been laughable. Today we don’t give it a second thought.
We must overcome some challenges to maximize collaborative efforts for the Kingdom. We must learn how to maintain focus rather than being distracted by the massive streams of input and output that surround us today. We must maintain agility and flexibility (or even fluidity) so that we can respond in a coordinated fashion.
A major focus of collaboration in society is aimed at answering questions. Ironically, one result of this trend is the asking of still more questions. In 2018, Google was answering more than 70,000 queries per second. Today that number is even higher. One result of this trend is the decreasing value of answers and the increasing value of good questions. We must learn to ask the right questions so as to elicit good thinking from others and draw people to the only answer that satisfies, Christ.
Competition, pride, and acting on behalf of “small k” kingdoms are all enemies of collaborative progress in God’s Kingdom.
Measurements of people are on the rise.
Measurements in the physical realm accelerated around the Renaissance. Measuring time accelerated around the Industrial Revolution. Today, measurements about people are accelerating. We track all sorts of aspects of our physical well-being: our interactions with others, our movements, our online activity, our purchases. We do these things in greater detail and with less privacy than would have been imaginable just twenty years ago.
The good news is that this makes possible the evaluation and optimization of our health and development and habits as never before.
The bad news is that as our privacy is compromised in the gathering of these data, we give others the power to influence and shape our lives. This tendency can also lead to an unhealthy level of introspection and preoccupation with ourselves.
We need to strive to develop appropriate attitudes toward self-evaluation and the evaluation of others in the spiritual realm, attitudes of humility and grace. At the same time, we need to aspire to greater growth both individually and corporately, in quantity and quality of outputs.
Creativity and interaction with others are at an all-time high.
The good news here is that technology is reawakening peoples’ innate desire to create, participate, communicate, and produce. People are interacting more with others than ever before.
The bad news is that much of this energy is being steered toward fantasy or frivolity, which can result in withdrawal from reality. Online games and virtual reality are just the tip of the iceberg. The massive amount of time spent in production and consumption of Youtube videos and shallow uses of social media are also massive time wasters for many people. Also, the quality or spirit of technology-driven interactions is often far from ideal.
Any tools or content we create must not be merely consumable. Rather, they must provide for and encourage interaction with others.
Any tools or content we create must not be merely consumable. Rather, they must provide for and encourage interaction with others. We must allow for participation and a degree of co-creation or application or interaction from the user.
Combining things and adding value through interaction with other things continue to accelerate.
The good news is that although there is “nothing new under the sun,” what exists can be limitlessly improved and expanded via new combinations and interactions. This allows for an unending stream of creativity and improvement. In particular, connecting things via technology (making them net-connected) is on the rise.
The bad news is that practically nothing is safe from being altered, adapted, or changed.
An example of appropriate response is that we need to establish and promote Scripture as a trustworthy and authoritative resource and look for opportunities to infuse it into everything. There are numerous other aspects of ministry which could be connected to great effect.
Sharing and decentralization are rapidly expanding.
The good news is that this trend follows the godly principle of being blessed to be a blessing and demonstrates that it is more blessed to give than to receive. This has resulted in a culture of participation and volunteerism that contributes to the greater good. It results in engagement and production rather than mere consumerism.
The bad news is that it is possible to pool ignorance or promote large quantities of inferior input. Quantity does not always lead to quality.
We must begin to develop opportunities and platforms for user-generated content related to ministry and mission that can be broadly shared. In doing so, we need to establish effective processes for rating, refining, or curating the content.
We also need to consider new ways to pay for innovation which doesn’t lend itself directly to crowd-sourcing (where the users create the content themselves). This could include crowd-funding, micro-finance, or contests for production where a complete solution is needed from a single source.
Filtering to find content that is useful and appropriate is becoming more essential every day.
The good news is that content is abundant. More material and information are created and made available every day than anyone could hope to review in a year.
The bad news is that a wealth of content results in poverty with regard to attention. A superabundance of information and options results in a scarcity of focus.
We need to remember that we are being shaped by what we give attention to. We will become what we consume.
We must collectively pay more attention to filtering inputs for ourselves and others. We need to look for opportunities for Kingdom-focused filtering via authorities, organizations, brands, institutions, and curators.
We must equip every citizen of the Kingdom to promote key inputs through their own relationships and influence via social media and other methods. Similarly, we must learn to use advertising effectively.
We need to recognize that not all attention is equal. Greater impact and focus are created by attention that is active, participative, and interactive. This means we should not create or use content that is merely consumable.
Culture is increasingly flowing rather than fixed.
The good news is the availability of real-time, often free access to many resources at any time or any place. Countless spiritually helpful tools, such as Scripture translations and commentaries, are at our fingertips. The trend of real-time access also tends to develop a sense of urgency, which can be helpful.
The bad news is that people can be inoculated against perceiving the value of resources that are not pretty, polished, or constantly updated. They can also easily ignore spiritual resources in the flood of other topics and tools.
We need to find ways to make quality resources free and readily accessible. We need to be more prolific in linking Scripture to other online tools and resources and in cross-linking various resources.
We need to find ways to make quality resources free and readily accessible. We need to be more prolific in linking Scripture to other online tools and resources and in cross-linking various resources. We need to have communities of translators in trade languages who are finding and translating the best and most appropriate resources for free.
We need to design tools to be optimized for use on phones, to encourage access at any time and place. We need to tag and link as many (non-spiritual) resources as possible with Bible references to show Scripture’s relevance to all of life.
We need to find ways to add value to resources that are not being continuously updated. We might do that by:
- Offering beta version access to apps or software or websites.
- Discovering ways to personalize coaching. This requires discovering processes that quickly upgrade participants into mentors. This in turn requires people to be continuously involved in both learning and equipping others.
- Having major, widely known brands such as organizations, institutions, or well-known leaders that are willing to put their stamp of approval on worthy projects they did not originate.
- Create opportunities for live events/training when possible.
- Develop guides to available resources at trusted nodes online.
Questions to consider:
- What are possible implications for adapting your life and ministry to align with this trend?
- What first steps can you take to begin making those adaptations?
- Who do you need to share those adaptions and first steps with?
- Who do you need to share this principle with?
Processes and tools are getting “smarter” thanks to connections and interactivity.
The good news is that these trends are making it easier to see connections between all aspects of life and to think and behave more holistically.
The bad news is that this technology can take the place of God in people’s lives. Technology can be viewed as the unifying force of life, rather than God who creates and sustains all things. People can begin to look to technology for answers or guidance rather than to God.
Technology and the internet are causing people to view things in a more holistic and connected way. The internet is seen as a source of information on everything, from the insignificant to the sublime. Phones are the modern version of a Swiss army knife, with many uses in one: flashlight, map, camera, encyclopedia, stereo, translator, and (almost overlooked amidst all these new applications) communication device. There are apps to cover a massive range of functions. The internet is expected to guide decisions not just with general information, but with specific, personal application. Technology is becoming infused in a broad range of everyday items to bring more and more of these patterns into daily life.
We must think, act, and live in full dependence on God for our purpose, direction, and intentions while taking full advantage of technology and the new capabilities and connections it makes possible for the pursuit of our God-given tasks.
The world is changing and developing faster than ever before.
The good news is that people experiencing one form of change are more open to other changes. Therefore, changing worldviews and beliefs is easier, so it is becoming easier to bring people to faith.
The bad news is that people are also more susceptible to being drawn away from faith or having their faith distorted or corrupted.
Since things are more dynamic and unstable, people are in a state of constant searching and discontent. This can work for us or against us.
We must capitalize on discontent among unbelievers by anticipating or observing their needs that could be used to draw them to Christ. We must emphasize a life of constant listening to the Holy Spirit and saturation in Scripture for all disciples. Among followers of Christ, we need to harness this discontent to motivate continued growth and longing for full realization of our faith.
We must promote a state of becoming, of being in process. This means equipping people with patterns and processes rather than merely content. People can then apply those patterns and processes to other content on their own.
Disciples must be participants and creators in their own development and in the advancement of the Kingdom. They cannot be viewed merely as empty vessels to be filled. This is a 24/7, all-of-life habit. This will enable all disciples collectively to saturate and shape every aspect of society rather than segregating our impact into “religious” segments of life.
We are foreigners and exiles in this world.
As Kingdom citizens, we are foreigners in this world. In some ways the current COVID-19 pandemic makes that feeling more acute, since everything feels so unfamiliar.
God uses exile in positive ways. He uses it to bless, shape, and grow the exiles and the nation where those exiles reside.
Let’s look at the Jewish exile in Babylon as an example.
- The Israelites were first called Jews during that exile. It changed their identity.
- It broke down the priesthood and sacrificial system and developed the recognition and authority of scholars and moral authorities, making the Jews a people of the book (Torah). It resulted in the establishment of the Old Testament canon.
- It broke down temple worship and Judaism became decentralized, practiced more in the home than anywhere else. The faith became simple and personal rather than ceremonial. It belonged more to the common people rather than just the professionals.
- It broke down Jerusalem-centric practice and made the religion portable. Traders and craftsmen started to spread the faith.
- Some resisted these changes. They disobeyed God’s instructions through Jeremiah to submit to Babylonian rule and seek the welfare of their land of exile. They focused on the past rather than on what God was making them into and preparing them to do.
Let’s respond to our exile on earth and the new situation created by the COVID-19 pandemic by seeking the blessing of our land of exile and maximizing God’s glory in the midst of the current environment. Don’t allow homesickness, nostalgia, or fear to prevent us from living for God’s glory and Kingdom.
The current societal responses to the pandemic may make it easier for us to advance the Kingdom. The pandemic reveals the inadequacy of depending on anyone or anything other than God. It makes clear our own inability to control circumstances. It is causing people to clarify what and who is important to them. People are analyzing and reevaluating their lives due to the disequilibrium they are experiencing.
Potentially, the institutional church could go through very similar changes to those that Judaism experienced in Babylon, paralleling points 2-4 above. I am not speaking of online church here, but home-based and work-based church rather than building-centric church. I am speaking of churches that are primarily led by non-professionals. I am speaking of churches that are expressed by God’s people in the marketplace, the office, the classroom, the neighborhood, and the home.
There could well be an economic shaking which contributes toward those same results. Historically, major economic disasters such as the one which could be brought on by the pandemic, have not been fully felt in the institutions of Christianity for up to 18 months after the onset of the turmoil. This could mean that it could be the fall of 2021 before we have a clearer picture of the economic impact upon churches and Christian agencies and organizations. It could be that many of them will cease to exist. Others will merge in order to survive. It will be extremely important that the people, opportunities, knowledge, experience, and resources represented by these churches and organizations are preserved and stewarded well.
This will call for many people to do for free what has previously been done by others for pay. It will call for many people who previously did certain work to freely equip others to carry on that work. It will call for humility and sacrifice and selflessness.
Old values can be expressed in new structures.
The challenge in all this is to learn how to operate in these fluid new patterns and directions so that we can maximize our relevance and effectiveness while maintaining our ancient, God-ordained values, priorities, and purpose.
How can we preserve and promote God’s will, ways, and reign while expressing them in new ways that make sense to our generation and capitalize on new resources and technologies?
May the Lord guide us and give us wisdom both individually and corporately as we navigate these unfamiliar currents.
Questions to consider:
- What are possible implications for adapting your life and ministry to align with these trends?
- What first steps can you take to begin making those adaptations?
- Who do you need to share those adaptions and first steps with?
- Who do you need to share these principles with?
The author is involved in several projects which are seeking to implement these principles. Learn more at 2414now.net, zume.training, zume.vision, and Kingdom.training. He has also written a book relating to some of these issues and available for free in e-book and audio book formats at TheOnlyOneBook.com.