The Face-To-Face Gospel And The Death Of Distance

Al Erisman 01 Jun 2010

Missionaries study the culture of the people they serve. Al Erisman says we need to look deliberately at the digital culture, in which we now live.

Interview by Tim Stafford

Technology is swiftly and unpredictably changing our lives and changing the way we communicate the gospel. We interviewed a man with decades of practical experience with technology in business. Al Erisman spent 32 years at Boeing, 11 of these as director of research and development for technology. He now teaches in the business school of Seattle Pacific University, USA, and is co-founder and editor of Ethix (

What does technology have to do with the gospel?

A lot. We could look at the broader impact of transport, nuclear power, or biotechnology. But let’s narrow our scope just to information technology (IT). It is all about information and communications: basic elements of proclaiming the gospel. It is also about what kind of people we become and how we communicate to this new kind of person.

I think of IT in five layers. The bottom layer is the basic component: for example, the microchip, which is predicted to halve in size every 18 months. This enables change in the second layer: the products these chips make possible. These influence us more directly – new devices to speed up what we did before, or new products with new capabilities. So we have the internet, Google, social networks, Twitter, digital cameras, the iPhone, etc. Sometimes new products introduce a whole new way of thinking and working. The third level is where products are combined into our infrastructure.

The fourth layer is of particular interest to church leaders  – where the technology enables fundamental redesign of what we do. A pastor can readily access many sources, incorporate video into a presentation, or put sermons online to reach more people. Discussion groups can reach across the community, even across the world. More than one author has suggested this is ’the death of distance.’ We can maintain communication with people worldwide in a remarkable way. Every technology allows us to do something new.

In the 1980s, televangelism began to attract criticism as viewers could not experience congregational life. Today video is used to extend a preacher’s reach to multiple congregations. Does real preaching require real presence?

Television lacks the worshipful atmosphere of physical presence. But if we think of previous technological advancement, the printed text of a sermon also lacked this presence. Yet I recently talked with a pastor in Nepal who had come to Christ through a tract he found in the street. There are pluses and minuses. With a printed sermon, we can go back over it; in televised sermons there is more nuance in delivery. As we move to e-mail or WebEx conferencing, or start using holographic images, we see similar pluses and minuses.

We shouldn’t think of these technologies as replacing face to face contact; but as layering to form an overall effective pattern of communication. A live small group was our Lord’s primary method of discipleship, but he also spoke to large groups. If he had come in the 21st century, I believe he would also use these new tools.

The virtual Lausanne Global Conversation, of which this interview is a part, is wonderful. But the value of being present with another person over coffee or dinner or through an unexpected side conversation cannot be replaced.

How has this technology changed people?

That is the fifth layer: in an Ethix article, former software designer Rosie Perera wrote, ’German philosopher Martin Heidegger writes that humans are so immersed in technology that we are rarely even aware that we have a relationship to it that affects us.…Taking time away from technology on a regular basis can help transform the way we relate to it and can bring life back into focus.’

We all see the positive and negative aspects of the influence of these technologies: it is great to deal with people who can instantly respond to needs since they are always connected; but it is challenging to engage a congregation which reads less, tries to multitask and gets easily distracted.

We need to think about this as a cross-cultural challenge. A missionary would not go to another country without trying to understand its culture. So it is important for church leaders and missionaries to understand the culture of the digital generation.

How can church leaders learn about new possibilities and challenges of IT?

I have not seen a systematic, global look at IT in the context of the gospel. The secular press has written much related to business and society, some of which could be carefully adapted to the needs of the church. A good start is to read discriminately (e.g. Don Tapscott’s Growing Up Digital or Robert Reich’s The Future of Success) and create a Christian study group around the material.

By ’dissolving distance,’ will communication technology undermine congregational fellowship?

Someone once suggested he could program his computer to work through his prayer list every morning, so he could sleep in! (I don’t think he was being serious.) But if you put your best into an article and people read it at another time via the internet, it can serve fellowship, although it’s a different kind of communication from a conversation.

Former Intel vice president Pat Gelsinger said, ’If I go back and forth with someone in e-mail more than four or five times on the same topic, I stop. We get on the phone or we get together face to face.’  A lot of readers will identify with that. You can do some things in conversation (building trust, establishing a context for remarks, clarifying) that are simply not possible through e-mails. In business, where we work globally with virtual teams, we’ve found that a team best begins its work face to face, to define its objectives, make sure team members understand them and learn to trust each other. Then when you start defining the work and parcelling it out, it can be done by telephone or videoconference. And from here, when you reach the stages of implementation and evaluation, you can use e-mail to update each other. Different forms of communication are best in different contexts.

Is technological innovation our ’tower of Babel’?

In Genesis 1 and 2, you see Adam and Eve carrying on God’s work in the world under God’s authority. The problem came after the Fall, when people thought they could do their work autonomously. Now we have a world in which some people use their creativity under the authority of God and others use theirs autonomously. Thus technology can be both like the Tower of Babel and also like Eden. By God’s grace, non-Christians do develop wonderful technology because they are made in the image of God. But we also have the capacity to develop harmful technology.

Why do so many people see technology pessimistically?

Technologies used to affect just our businesses. For some, technology is the reason they lost their job through outsourcing. But IT now affects everyone personally, it’s disruptive and persistent. It hits the ways we communicate with our neighbours and spouses. We have come to depend on mobile phones, and increasingly on smartphones, and others depend on us depending on them.

Some digital people feel alienated and alone with their technology. There are documented reports on suicide among Japanese young people who are spending long periods of time using technology isolated from others. They have lost elements of what it is to be human. This is like other addictions and must be recognized. Paul spoke to the Areopagus about the idols in their culture, and we can offer something to those trapped with the idols of the digital culture.

Our challenge will be to continue to unpack the changing culture, communicating effectively with the tools we are given. Years ago Francis Schaeffer warned us not to flee our emerging culture but to engage it thoughtfully. We should not be afraid.

Thank you.

For a thoughtful and theological treatment of the impact of technology in bio-ethics, see Matters of Life and Death by John Wyatt (IVP) and How to be a Christian in a Brave New World by Nigel M de S Cameron and Joni Eareckson Tada (Zondervan).

This article was a part of a special series called ‘The Global Conversation’ jointly published by Christianity Today International and the Lausanne Movement in the months leading up to Cape Town 2010: The Third Lausanne Congress on World Evangelization to help prepare the global church for the issues to be addressed at the Congress. Each lead article had several commissioned responses, and was published by dozens of publications around the world. (View all Articles)