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The Gospel and Technology

By Robert S. Fortner

The Gospel and Technology

Back In The Day

In the mid-twentieth century, starting an international broadcasting ministry was as easy as setting up a shortwave radio station and beaming programs at a target. Christian broadcasters were confident their programs would be heard because shortwave was a domestic medium of choice in most of the world.

In the 1960s – as eighteenth and nineteenth century empires began to crumble – newly formed, independent countries simply built on the aging infrastructure of the former empires.

New technologies, even television, developed slowly around the world and didn't offer the same possibilities as radio until the 1970s with the arrival of communications satellites.

Although a three-satellite system that could beam Christian television throughout the world was envisioned, it was never a real possibility. There were too many political, economic and linguistic issues affecting the use of television in the days of limited transponders and heavy bandwidth requirements.

The century ended much as it had begun, with many visions and dreams, but with limited ability to make them a reality.

A New Story

The twenty-first century, however, has begun on a much different note. While the digital explosion and the proliferation of new technologies tend to dominate the communications picture, it's not the whole story. The emergence of technologies is also about the convergence of technologies.

We now have the ability to deliver messages through a variety of increasingly compatible technological systems. It's not one message for print, another for radio, still another for TV. It's one message streamed and podcasted, broadcast and texted, from one source to multiple platforms -- simultaneously.

What does it all mean? What has changed and what remains the same?

A New Look

New communications research undertaken by Dr. Robert Fortner, Executive Director of the International Center for Media Studies (ICMS), offers a tantalizing look at the new playing field.

Emerging technologies such as mobile telephones – including smart phones – are joining the traditional technologies of radio and television in the media landscape of many countries.

The Internet has opened new possibilities for the gospel, especially in urban areas. Changes in the regulatory environment of many developing countries have also resulted in new private, commercial, and even Christian-based radio stations in formerly inaccessible places.

Satellite transponder capacity has increased many times over, opening the way for new channels as evidenced especially by the explosion of Arabic-language channels aimed at the Middle East and North Africa.

Unfortunately, research suggests that the primordial concerns of much of the worlds population are not being addressed by the technological explosion.

Technology alone falls short in its capacity to reach minority language groups, tribal groups, or people in geographically remote regions.

Often, the oldest, simplest technologies and methods are still the most trusted and effective means to provide information, perspective, and entertainment – but even traditional channels of communication are subject to the increasing pressure of emerging technologies and globalization.

What are the Questions?

Is it possible that such changes might actually reduce the impact of media and make people harder to reach? Are assumptions built into the use of new media that could result in the least-educated populations being left outside the orbit of the gospel?

If we take Jesus' words seriously – including his concern for the "least of these" – what are the implications for the use of communications capability? What does it mean for our investments in capability – which technologies, in which places, for what people?

What Are The Dangers?

The New York Times reports, based on an anthropological study conducted by Intel's Genevieve Bell, that "values of humility and simplicity may make technology less welcome in some Hindu homes in India or some Muslim homes in Malaysia and Indonesia. 'If part of the value of the home is this space of purity, that's protected from the pollution of the world, a place where you express values like simplicity, humility, modesty, grace,' Dr. Bell said, 'that becomes a barrier to adopting some technologies."

Sometimes even Christian efforts to communicate carry some of this pollution, and many Christians in developing countries, fascinated by Western pop culture, imbibe this pollution without recognizing it for what it is.

What Are The Challenges?

We often think the most challenging aspect of evangelism is moving a person from curiosity to conviction – to that place of decision. What if we're wrong? What if the most difficult task is inspiring the man in Niger watching TV in the street after dark to switch the channel away from the soccer match? Or getting the teenager listening to Madonna or the Black Eyed Peas on the radio to look for a gospel broadcast?

What if the gospel needs to target opinion leaders – who may be the illiterate teachers in the madrassas – rather than the common man?

What if the tactics we've long used are inappropriate for that effort? What if some technologies could help break through that barrier while others would merely fortify it? What if the question for Christian use of technology doesn't have as much to do with ubiquity or audience size as it has to do with targeting? What if "slivercasting" is more effective than broadcasting?

These are difficult issues for the American mindset, influenced by our culture of celebrity, cash and commodity. But they are crucial issues for reaching the whole world with the gospel, making it relevant in different circumstances, and reaching those who can become powerful advocates in their own cultural circumstances.

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