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« Technology and Theology: A Negative Example | Home | Only in Texas »

Technology and Theology: Unexpected Consequences

By Mark D. Roberts | Friday, June 12, 2009

When we begin to use a new technology, usually we focus on its primary impact. For example, when I got my first cell phone, I was excited about the possibility of staying in touch with people with whom I worked when I wasn’t near a phone. I envisioned sitting in traffic on the way to a meeting, and instead of fretting about how rude my lateness would be, I’d be able to call and let the others in the meeting know why I was delayed and when I might arrive. This happened many times, in fact, during my cell phone years in Southern California. Because, as a pastor, I was often on the move, visiting folks in the hospital, studying in the library, or meeting with leaders over lunch, a cell phone improved my work life, in addition to letting folks know when I was stuck in traffic. It made me more available to my colleagues and my parishioners. (For the record, I didn’t publish my cell phone number for the whole congregation, but I was quickly available through my assistant or other church leaders.)

Besides the primary impact of my having a cell phone, there were several unexpected consequences. Some were positive; others negative. On the positive side, my cell phone made me much more available to my family. Before my mobile days, my wife and I might talk by phone once during the workday every other day or so. But new technology made it easy for us to check in a couple times a day. Not only did this strengthen our relationship, but also it allowed us to work together on some of the challenges of family life, such as: Do you think the plumber’s estimate is fair? Or, do you think we should take Nathan to the doctor because of his cough? Or, could you pick up some milk on the way home? I would still say one of the very best things about having a cell phone is the opportunity for me to stay in closer touch with my family when we’re not in the same location. I had not expected this when I got my first phone, which was meant primarily for work. (Photo: One of the early cell phones from the 1980s.)

The main negative unexpected consequence of having a cell phone won’t be a surprise to you. It had to do with the intrusion of work into private life, even vacations. Although my colleagues knew not to call me when I was “off duty” unless there was a genuine emergency, inevitably somebody would interrupt my family time with some trivial work matter.

A related negative consequence of having a cell phone had to do with raised expectations. Some people in my church expected me to be “on” 24/7, and I don’t mean just for emergencies. I made it clear to my parishioners and elders that I was happy to be called at any time of day or night in the case of an emergency hospitalization or similar situation. But I asked people to respect my boundaries when it came to church business. Almost everybody in the church respected this request . . . almost everybody. Some folks were unhappy with my unwillingness to be available at their convenience. The fact that I had a cell phone exacerbated the problem.

I know of other negative consequences of cell phones. I think of one-on-one meetings I’ve had with people. When their cell phone rings, they answer the phone right away, without apologizing for the interruption or asking if I minded if they got the call. Their unspoken rule seems to be: If my phone rings, I answer it. Period. This is rude. It also can sidetrack or squelch a valuable conversation.

Of course then there is the nagging problem of cell phones ringing during worship services. Nothing can ruin a profound spiritual moment in church like a cell phone going off. For the most part, this isn’t a major problem on Sunday mornings, since most folks don’t get calls during worship hours. But it can be a terrible nuisance in midweek memorial services. I remember one service in which seven, count ‘em, seven cell phones rang. I quickly learned to begin each memorial service with an invocation that included this line, “And Lord, please help everyone here to silence their cell phones, or else may they be damned to Hell.” Well, okay, I didn’t really pray that. But I did ask people to silence their phones.

So, evaluating the use of technology in our lives is often difficult given the prevalence of unexpected consequences. Yet these need to be weighed in to our strategic and theological evaluation of technology. I’ll have more to say about this next time.

In the meanwhile, I’d be interested in your comments about unexpected consequences of technology. What have been your experiences?

Topics: Technology |

7 Responses to “Technology and Theology: Unexpected Consequences”

  1. Thomas Buck Says:
    June 12th, 2009 at 1:58 am

    I loved the invocation! :-)

    Also, I’d consider having to get milk on the way home from work one of the negatives. LOL! JK!

    Have a good weekend, Mark.


  2. Bill Goff Says:
    June 12th, 2009 at 8:19 am

    Several years ago I was rehearsing for a play called “Museum” and my cell phone rang. It was my wife. Nothing important. I told her I’d call her back and sheepishly turned off the phone. At a break in the rehearsal the director asked to speak to me about the interrupting call. I thought I was in trouble. Instead he said, “I think we can use the cell phone in the play.” So at every performance of the play my cell phone interrupted me adding a bit of contempory realism to the play.

  3. Mariam Says:
    June 12th, 2009 at 10:30 am

    I still exist without a cell phone, and I only occasionally miss the convenience. But I would agree that they are (mostly) an asset for couples. Thanks for the photo of the klunker.

  4. Lorynne Young Says:
    June 12th, 2009 at 10:35 am

    I think the financial cost of technology is a huge issue for organizations doing ministry. In addition to the equipment, there is software that needs regular upgrades, and, eventually you have to hire staff to maintain the technology. Then, if you need to make budget cuts, you have to cut ministry people, because if you cut your technology budget, the whole place shuts down.

  5. J Falconer Says:
    June 12th, 2009 at 11:23 am

    Rev M. Roberts & readers, Thanks for the pros & cons of technology- it seems it’s more overall positive than negative. I remember when cars did not have alarm systems & parking lots (work, stores, mall, churches, schools etc) were quieter while after the early 1980’s -awhile ago a lot of false alarms went off in Southern California car parking lots.( Meaning hearing a lot of computerized parked car alarms ) So sometimes there are irritating aspects but the values seem to far outweigh the negative side effects. Thanks for sharing this technology series.Peace j & all

  6. Mariam Says:
    June 12th, 2009 at 1:11 pm

    I think Lorynne makes an excellent point.

  7. john alan turner Says:
    June 13th, 2009 at 8:03 am

    i actually wrote some about the idea of twittering in church a couple of weeks ago at my place:

    my big concern is that technology’s ability to connect us with everyone in the world might have the unintended consequence of disconnecting us from the people right in front of us.


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