Nicholas Knisely on the Effect of Technological Change on the Church
Though I’ve not done the research to say this conclusively, my instincts tell me that the numerical decline of the Episcopal Church relative to the population of the United States is due in large measure to the fact that our parishes are still mostly in urban centers, but many of our parishioners (historically speaking) have migrated to the suburbs and exurbs. The denominations that have grown explosively in the past four or five decades are ones that have moved aggressively to plant new congregations with LARGE parking lots which cater to a motoring and mobile society better than a large downtown building with no parking and few bathrooms. Because the Episcopal Church has, by and large, been slow off the mark in responding to population migration we’ve declined and they’ve grown. (It has less to do with theological orientation than many people think, though the fact that more theologically conservative denominations are also often more evangelistically-oriented and more committed to new church starts has to be recognized.)
In other words, the numerical decline of the Episcopal Church may be caused as much by changing technology and our inability to respond to it as it is anything else. I wouldn’t be surprised if a shift of similar proportions wasn’t upon the church now as well.
As technology makes it easier for business and industry to customize their products for to the taste and needs of individuals, those same individuals are coming to expect the same sort of customization in the rest of their lives and from their faith. The rise of Gods carefully crafted in our image is less a result of a rising tide of selfishness and narcissism than it is a direct consequence of a person’s everyday experience of what has come to be normal. In a society saturated with messages that proclaim “Have it your way!”, why should we expect people to instinctively understand that learning to be accountable to a community and to God by dying to self is going to be the path to Truth and happiness? And yet, paradoxically dying to self is the way to true happiness and part of our mission as catholic Christians is to show that it is just so.
I don’t believe however that the solution is to loudly decry the rise of individualism in the West, or to point fingers at people whom we decide are acting selfishly. The interactions between society, religion and technological innovation are much too subtle and deep to expect such tactics be successful. The good news though, is that we have in our treasure an antidote. We have the ability to see the world through the eyes of people from different cultures and from different times.
The same technology that allows us to “narrow-cast” information to small sub-groups of people, can also make it possible for us to hear the voices of the sorts of people we might never have encountered before. It’s no longer remarkable that we can read in real-time the words of people who live in war zone. We can see, for instance, the horror of war directly without having it filtered by our society’s own lenses. Learning to see our own actions through the eyes of others makes it a great deal easier for us to truly love our others as ourselves—because technology allows us to become their neighbors.
But frankly, more importantly, we have in our treasure a gift that will allow us to see ourselves not just in the eyes of others, but in the eyes of God. The lessons that we have in the Bible, the collected experiences of the God’s people over thousands of years and the stories and teachings of Jesus give us a timeless perspective upon our own lives. And I think it’s that perspective that can allow us to be proactive and not reactive in the way that we use technology.