A Second Reformation?

Summary

What would it look like around the world as people catch what it means to serve God in all areas of our lives?

What would it mean for our churches to experience a Second Reformation?

We explore the history of the first Reformation to uncover the striking similarities to our present situation–similarities which explain why we’re ripe for a Second Reformation.

By seeing the implications for our society, churches and personal lives this talk presents a kind of roadmap for leaning into what God is doing in our disruptive times.

Listen on YouTube or read the manuscript below.

[Note: Catholics are welcome in this conversation–we are exploring history to understand the present situation we all face. Historians may also point to other occasions that could be called second theological reformations, but this talk focuses on the social, political and technological dimensions that make our time particularly disruptive.]

Outline

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Manuscript

Today, we’re discussing the possibility of a Second Reformation. What it would look like, why now, what it’s impact could be and what that means for you and me.

The First Reformation

But before we begin, let’s consider what happened in the First Reformation.

If you’re not familiar with the origin story, it goes a bit like this:

In 1515, Pope Leo X needed money to build St. Peter’s Basilica. He had a revenue stream through the sale of indulgences, which were said to absolve people from sin in exchange for money, regardless of contrition.

Johannes Tetzel, a Dominican preacher was commissioned to sell these indulgences in the region of Bishop Albrecht. He was an effective growth hacker, inventing a catchy slogan, “When the coin in the coffer rings/the soul from purgatory springs” that soon reached the ears of Martin Luther in the neighboring region of Frederick the Wise.

In 1517, disturbed by the sketchy theological basis for indulgences and by the manipulative religious extortion happening at the expense of his people, Luther posted his 95 Theses–written in Latin–to start a scholarly debate.

But this soon spun out of control into what we of the Internet age might call a “flame war”.

Why did it go viral?

Unbeknownst to Luther, someone translated the 95 Theses from Latin into German–the language of the people. Gutenberg’s printing press, invented about 77 years earlier was already widely in use, printing books for the wealthy. But Luther’s 95 Theses was a major breakout hit that demonstrated the scale of its disruptive potential. Within 2 weeks, pamphlets of Luther’s writing had spread throughout all of Germany.

Other Reformers from other regions joined the debate and started new threads surrounding the authority of the Pope, the Scriptures, the nature of salvation, and much more. The floodgates were opened, society was upended and there was no going back.

Five years after the 95 Theses were posted, Luther published a popular vernacular German translation of the New Testament and completed the whole Bible 12 years later. His translation was unique for its basis in the original Greek and Hebrew manuscripts and high quality German that commoners could understand. The result was an explosion in Biblical literacy among ordinary German speaking peoples and a unification of the language. It busted the privilege of the religious elite and gave the movement legs, which leaders would parlay into greater freedom.

Different Reform movements allied to secure religious freedom and in 1526, an initial imperial parliament gave each government within the Holy Roman Empire permission to decide which religion it wished to follow. But 3 years later, this freedom was rescinded and Lutheran teaching was condemned resulting in an April 20th “Letter of Protestation” by the German princes and delegates of the Imperial Free Cities. Incidentally, this letter received legal status as a formal complaint on April 25th–490 years ago, to the day.

This is where the word “Protestant” in “The Protestant Reformation” comes from.

And so we come to today.

History is messy, but I want to draw out a few observations from the First Reformation to get hints for what a second might look like.

My first observation is that the Reformation was initially about correcting an injustice in the church. The church was corrupted and having monopolized salvation and the Scriptures, it ended up selling the forgiveness of sins to enrich its hierarchy.

Second, the Reformation was effective because of translation and technology, which rapidly reached and connected diverse people into a greater movement. Without the translation of the 95 Theses into German and the printing press to affordably put these pamphlets in the hands of every person, no movement would have formed and the status quo along with its injustice would have prevailed.

Third, this movement was enabled by innovations in the arts and humanities and resulted in the prolific creation of new artifacts and institutions to carry it forward.

Beyond the numerous pamphlets, songs, cartoons, sermons and other creative works generated by the Reformation, Luther’s Bible stands out as the powerful artifact that reshaped all of Europe. It was made possible by the Christian humanist scholar Erasmus who published bible manuscripts in the original language. And it resulted in a unified German language as well as a pluralistic polity with new religious and political freedoms.

And perhaps an even bigger outcome? The emergence of vocational integration. Every person in every discipline had a contribution to make for the glory of God. The sacred/secular divide was broken.

So what might these observations mean for “A Second Reformation” in our day?

The Injustice in our Day

Let’s begin by talking about injustices we see in the church in America today.

Yes, there’s everything from abusive leadership to sex scandals to plagiarism to embezzlement. Jesus said there would be wolves in sheepskins who would not spare the flock.

But let’s talk systemically–institutional churches, the Christian market and the non-profit industrial complex. What injustices do you see?

[ Discuss examples from the audience ]

I want to highlight one systemic injustice I’ve noticed. Bear with me as I speak boldly, but generally–I’m not referring to any church in particular.

I think the injustice in our day maybe less in the use of money, but in the use of time. Churches waste people’s time. And by extension they devalue their labor.

The sacred secular divide enables church institutions to claim greater significance for the activities and needs of the church, which justifies extensive unpaid labor and time. Instead of activating and unleashing people to use their most valuable gifts to build up the Body and bless the world, churches pull people into church activities to serve the church community in cookie cutter roles.

Not only are people expected to volunteer, but much of their efforts are ineffective at producing change, which is at the heart of meaningful labor. When you work, you never want to work in vain. That’s what makes people quit their jobs.

When you volunteer at church, you go through the motions, but to very little effect and may try to resolve the cognitive dissonance by attributing it to a different spiritual economy or a different spiritual causality. In actuality, much of the action keeps people busy, distracts them, gives them something to do in order to involve them in church as an end in itself.

This is an injustice.

Instead of selling indulgences, churches try to be value-added resellers of meaning, purpose and relationship by claiming eternal significance when you participate in the activities and work of the church. But deep down, I think many people can tell it’s grasping at straws. They can seek their need for meaning and connection elsewhere.

Completing the Truncated Gospel

Strangely enough, this error flows from a misunderstanding of salvation–it flows from a truncated Gospel.

When you hear the word “salvation”, what do you think of? I think for the majority of Americans, it would mean a personal relationship with Jesus that ensures you go to heaven when you die because your sins are forgiven by believing he died for you and rose again from the dead. That’s not the Gospel–in the least it is incomplete.

What’s missing?

When Jesus began his ministry, he preached, “The Kingdom of God is at hand, repent and believe the Gospel.” When Peter preached at Pentecost, he said, “Believe in Jesus for the forgiveness of sins and you will receive the promised Holy Spirit.” When Paul spoke of what happens when we die, he said, “If anyone is in Christ, he/she is new creation. The old has passed, the new has come.”

The Gospel was that God’s cosmic purpose to unite heaven and earth in Jesus Christ through the Church is being fulfilled. Jesus through his death on the Cross not only bore our sins, but also became the seed for the New Creation, which would be given as an inheritance to everyone in Him.

The apostles bore witness to his Resurrection inviting all people to repent and believe in him so they would become a new redeemed humanity that would inherit and rule this New Creation with Christ. In the present time, every believer receives the Holy Spirit as a downpayment in advance of this promise.

So, the hope of the Gospel wasn’t to go to heaven when you die. It was always, a New Creation ruled by a New Humanity redeemed by Jesus Christ–aka the Kingdom of God.

Do you see the difference?

When salvation is understood merely as forgiveness now and eternal life when you die, all work unrelated to these two things are demoted in significance. But when salvation is understood as God making all things new in Jesus Christ and giving it to redeemed people from every tribe, tongue and nation to rule, all work done in Jesus’ Name is significant and all people in Jesus Christ are indispensable.

Making disciples is no longer about making converts to our way of life–it’s getting people ready for the New Creation through the good works God has prepared for them to do today.

It is in a sense vocational integration.

So if the First Reformation broke the institutional church’s unjust monopoly on salvation and Scripture by making God’s Word available to people in their own language, then perhaps a Second Reformation will break the monopoly on what it means to serve God by unleashing God’s people in every vocation to be productive for God’s Kingdom throughout the world.

Why is the time ripe for A Second Reformation?

Now, what I am saying is not new. Vocational integration has been a movement for some time.

What makes our present time ripe for A Second Reformation?

I want to suggest three things: Technology, Politics and Translation.

The First Reformation started about 77 years after the invention of the printing press, which enabled mass communication.

The political situation was a highly fragmented, restive Holy Roman Empire. Local rulers saw in the Reformation an opportunity to press for greater freedom and oppose the hegemony of the empire.

And translation lit the fuse of Luther’s 95 Theses by pushing it out of academia and into the international political scene. It brought together diverse people from many nations into a continental movement that disrupted all of Europe.

Today, we have the Internet, which recently turned 30 years old. It amplifies mass communication to the extreme where everyone has access to overwhelming amounts of information for free and anyone can distribute their own ideas–as long as they can get attention.

We also have a highly divided political situation in America, which cuts through our churches. It’s exacerbated by the ways we’ve come to use the Internet and other countries have taken advantage to undermine the United States. Trust in general, feels scarce.

And advances in AI and automatic translation mean we’re approaching human quality for many major languages, driving down the cost and speed of translation and enabling diverse people to connect and collaborate even internationally in unprecedented ways.

Something disruptive is coming.

What will be the impact on the church?

So what does this mean for reforming the church?

Here are three ideas.

First, gatherings must shift from being a product to be consumed to a platform for productive vocational integration. This requires a change in the pastoral role and turns denominations from being clergy-oriented to focus on equipping and unleashing the saints. It also makes church gatherings “lightweight”.

Second, technology must be used for large-scale ongoing interaction and collaboration rather than just mass content distribution and consumption. This may even go beyond off-the-shelf collaboration software like Slack or WhatsApp and require churches to become innovative creators and early adopters of technology, not just consumers.

Third, church communities must embrace the unity in diversity that bears witness to the Kingdom of God. This means including and empowering people with disabilities and people who speak many languages because they are indispensable to our witness that Jesus is Lord.

Let’s dive into each of these ideas in turn.

From Product to Platform

The first idea is a paradigm shift from church as a product to church as a platform. What’s the difference?

A platform empowers others to build on top of it. A product satisfies a felt need.

For example, Amazon Web Services is a platform that equips startups to build products that meet customer needs like ordering a pizza through an Echo. Platforms like AWS have a brand, but customers don’t choose to subscribe to Netflix because they built on AWS.

Similarly, the church is a platform that equips saints to produce good works which satisfy God’s desires for them and for the world. God is the customer. The church gathered is not a product that meets the felt needs of those who attend. It is a place of shared discernment and pursuit of God’s will.

The Apostle Paul frequently used the analogy of building in reference to the Church where each person gets to build on the foundation of Christ and each person’s work will be tested at the return of Christ.

His description of worship gatherings in 1 Corinthians 14:26 seems to be an example of one way church services can be a platform for all members of the Body to exercise their gifts in an orderly way to build up the Body:

When you come together, each one has a hymn, a lesson, a revelation, a tongue, or an interpretation. Let all things be done for building up. (1 Corinthians 14:26)

There are other ways as well–steps to take that move from church as a product towards church as a platform.

Some churches have discussion groups on certain Sundays where people can think through Scripture together and benefit from the gifts and perspective of every member of the Body.

Some parachurch ministries form vocational integration and discernment groups for people in different industries and spheres of society to practice the implications of the gospel in their work.

And some events like hackathons, which can be extended to prayathons, preachathons and pitchathons, facilitate in an orderly way the sharing and exercise of every member’s gifts, ideas and contributions to build up the Body of Christ.

The common thread in these models is that every member of the Body of Christ is doing the work of the ministry together with their Spirit-given gifts.

This is how the Body is built up according to Paul in Ephesians 4:

[God] gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the shepherds and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, until we all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ, so that we may no longer be children, tossed to and fro by the waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by human cunning, by craftiness in deceitful schemes. Rather, speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, from whom the whole body, joined and held together by every joint with which it is equipped, when each part is working properly, makes the body grow so that it builds itself up in love.

In this picture, our church gatherings and institutions become like a spiritual infrastructure or spiritual skeleton, connecting people who are equipped and activated to build up the Body of Christ.

A New Role for Pastors?

Many pastors and laypeople are burnt out because they are not fulfilling their roles. Pastor teachers are not to do the work of the ministry, it is too much for them! They are to teach and equip the saints. And this goes far beyond preaching a sermon or visiting someone in the hospital.

Saints have work to do and that work happens outside where they gather on Sunday. Pastor teachers must help them make their strengths, their work, productive for the Kingdom of God. Pastor teachers must equip them to think theologically about their work, to discover how their work bears witness to the Gospel of the New Creation God will give us in Christ, and how to be motivated to carry out their work as unto God.

Pastor teachers must set an example for saints to not love money or worry about money, to find their identity in Christ instead of their work, to practice justice, righteousness and steadfast love, to be a courageous witness and a humble and generous leader, to find their place in God’s story, their role in the Body, how they build up the Body and to help them maximize their impact for God’s Kingdom.

Then the work of the ministry will be effectively accomplished by the Body of Christ. Then our churches will be a platform that unleashes the gifts of every member to bear fruit for the Gospel in every sphere of society.

This function is desperately lacking in the institutional church today, but a Second Reformation might change that. I have heard from so many people that their motive for entering the pastorate was exactly to equip the saints and unleash them for the work of ministry, but the existing church systems, expectations and structures made it virtually impossible to change the status quo.

Which leads us to the next big idea of using technology to bust the status quo.

Busting the Status Quo with Tech

Whether the church changes or not, society is being disrupted by technology. The pace of innovation has increased to the point where breakthroughs are happening in the span of years rather than centuries. That makes it very hard to hold on to your traditions and survive.

Churches in America may have a Facebook page or a website. More affluent ones may even have an app. They use it to share announcements, accept donations and post videos.

What’s wrong with this picture?

It’s stuck in the age of the printing press!

Print was a one-way medium for mass communication. The Internet is a two-way medium for mass, group and private communication. Not only that, it gives us the capacity for real time feedback.

We have the capacity for massive many-way communication. We can now connect people to one another on a regular basis across the world for free.

Think about that.

Not only do we have access to feedback loops that we can learn from and adjust to, we can also help people directly engage with one another in order to do the work of the ministry God has called them to do.

We already see evidence of how technology is helping the church transition from product to platform.

Around the world, small groups of believers are growing exponentially while remaining connected to one another via group chats in WhatsApp, Facebook Messenger and other apps. Removing the requirement of physical buildings for churches has resulted in a lightweight, networked infrastructure that enables people to gather on demand, collaborate and act on a fluid basis.

They share videos and pictures and texts of what God is doing throughout the day. They are passionate about hearing God’s will and obeying. They share requests for prayer and pray together in many languages via video conferencing.

What could happen if our category for church shifted from primarily a physical gathering place and 501c3 to instead emphasize the relational networks we’re connected to in-person and now through technology? Would it change when and where we gather? Would it change our liturgies? Would it change our business model? Would it change our expectations for pastors and staff?

I think so.

I think it could free up pastors to show up at many people’s places of work. It could result in flexible gathering times and locations to create space for people of various scheduling and geographical constraints. It could create a new expectation of personal relationship with church leaders and personal investment as co-laborers for the Kingdom. And from that could flow a new business model oriented around investing in God’s Kingdom throughout society and in the world rather than growing a church budget.

And now we get to one of the most important ways I think technology can disrupt the status quo.

The Community as the Witness

Earlier I mentioned that the First Reformation resulted in the prolific creation of new artifacts and institutions to carry it forward. And that this was well-represented by the Luther Bible and the early stages of denominationalism.

I expect a Second Reformation to also result in the prolific creation of new artifacts and institutions, only this time we may have YouTube videos instead of pamphlets, apps instead of books and networks instead of polities.

And if the First Reformation resulted in the Word of God being available in every language–which we’re still working on!–I think an enduring “artifact” of the Second Reformation might be the People of God united across many languages.

Here is what I mean.

As the internet reaches the ends of the earth, the truncated Gospel message can theoretically reach the ends of the earth also. Just buy enough Facebook ads so that people get exposed to a gospel presentation in a 15 second spot right? Translating the spot into every language will be easier and faster than translating the Bible and once everyone has a chance to believe, Jesus is going to return. Done!

I think we all know that this isn’t how it works.

It turns out that bearing witness to the New Creation inaugurated by the Resurrection of Jesus requires a community of diverse disciples who love one another as Jesus loved them. In such communities, people experience the power of the Gospel, not just the message.

Unfortunately, most churches around the world remain segregated by language, race and culture. Before, there were practical barriers to language diversity, but as technology enables us to bridge that, we’re running out of excuses.

The Apostle Paul explicitly rebukes Peter for rebuilding the wall of separation between Jews and Gentiles as out of step with the Gospel. He goes on to teach church integration across weighty cultural differences as the way we learn to imitate Christ’s attitude of self-denial and welcome in Romans 14 and 15.

Diversity is a Gospel issue.

Furthermore, against the backdrop of a rapidly diversifying and polarized society, our message will sound increasingly meaningless unless the language diversity of God’s Kingdom is reflected in our communities. As the Internet commoditizes our message, the reality of our integrated communities must be the witness that Jesus is Lord, that Jesus makes us one.

Project Pentecost

So in anticipation of a Second Reformation, I’d like to ask you to join something my company launched called Project Pentecost.

It’s a movement of people and churches who want to reflect the diversity of God’s Kingdom in their gatherings.

If you believe God’s Kingdom is incomplete without the Deaf, the blind and people of many languages, and if you want to do everything in your power to welcome them and unleash the gifts of every member of the Body of Christ, then Project Pentecost is for you.

In the short term, we’re campaigning together to make Pentecost a thing. We want Pentecost celebrations to be as big of a deal as Easter or Christmas. It’s the day Jesus poured out his Holy Spirit on the Church and opened the gospel to many languages.

What if this Pentecost tens, or hundreds or even thousands of churches create foretastes of God’s Kingdom by incorporating other languages in their celebrations?

Here are a few ways Project Pentecost can help with that:

We’re providing a video of people from many nations glorifying God in many languages that helps you feel connected to the global Body of Christ and catch God’s vision for unity in diversity.

We’re providing a series answering from Scripture the hard questions of:

And we’re providing an open-licensed worship song that has been translated into multiple languages that you can sing, perform and translate freely.

And after Pentecost, we plan to continue collecting and sharing the learnings and stories of how the Holy Spirit is uniting us across languages, cultures and abilities into the brilliant diversity of the mature, beautiful Bride of Christ.

If God wills, we may one day see a world where every church is accessible in any language and people from every tribe, tongue and nation glorify God together with one voice–a foretaste of the God’s Kingdom that people can experience today.

Join the movement at projectpentecost.com

Conclusion

So in conclusion, what would a Second Reformation mean for you and me?

The first of Martin Luther’s 95 Theses went like this:

When our Lord and Master Jesus Christ said, “Repent”, he willed the entire life of believers to be one of repentance.

Perhaps that’s where we can start–with repentance.

It’s true, the sacred secular divide has devalued your work and vocations outside of the institutional church. The teaching of a truncated Gospel may have hindered your fruitfulness for God’s Kingdom. And our churches all struggle to welcome people different than us.

But instead of feeling bad or angry or acting out of guilt, what if we repented–what if we changed our minds?

What if we realized that our work and vocational integration isn’t just about us finding purpose–it’s about others? And it isn’t just about people like us. It’s about people from every tribe, tongue and nation–including people with disabilities–who are gifted by the Holy Spirit and have an indispensable contribution to make to the Kingdom of God.

What if we realized that God is using our vocations to fulfill the Scriptures?

What if we understood what repentance meant in our field, just as John the Baptist specifically explained to soldiers, tax collectors and others in Luke 3?

What if our personal ambitions were eclipsed by Jesus’ heart’s desire?

Jesus Christ is returning for a beautiful holy bride, consisting of people from every tribe, tongue and nation who are made into one new humanity through union with him. She’s going to reign in the New Creation with him when she finally matures to reach his full stature. She’s clothed in bright, pure linen, which are the righteous deeds of the saints–those good works which God has prepared in advance for each saint to do in the cosmic project of building up the Body of Christ.

As that Body, we must work together, equipping, unleashing and activating each other to fulfill God’s call so we can be complete and ready for the New Creation at Christ’s return.

Let’s get to work. Soli Deo Gloria.

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Discussion Questions

  1. How is God using your vocation(s) to fulfill the Scriptures?
  2. How can the church serve as a platform to support and unleash you to use your most valuable gifts to bear fruit for the Gospel in every sphere of society?
  3. How is God calling you to create and to be that platform to activate and unleash others?

Thoughts on the ERLC’s Statement on AI

The Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission (ERLC) of the Southern Baptist Convention recently published a widely shared statement on Artificial Intelligence.

As a founding member of the AI & Faith Consortium via Theotech, I was asked for some personal thoughts on the statement, which I wanted to share through this blogpost.

News outlets like Christianity Today, Religion News Service and The Christian Post reported on the wider response to the statement.

Others have produced some thoughtful work prior to this statement and I’ve spoken and been interviewed on the topic of AI and Faith as well.

A Good Start with Good Intentions

First, I was glad to see people making a contribution to the conversation around faith and AI. It’s something I hope other Christian organizations and denominations do as well.

Unfortunately in its present form, I felt like the statement focused too much on grounding its principles in human dignity instead of what God is doing through technology to fulfill the Scriptures.

This means that for people who research, develop, train, and use AI in their work, the document doesn’t provide much ethical guidance beyond the human rights promoted by the UN and the privacy practices of the Western world.

The statement may help Christians reaffirm their beliefs, values and tenets, but it’s not helpful as a document to operationalize.

Could I take this statement into the Google (or Apple, Amazon, Microsoft, Facebook, etc.) board room? Maybe not.

Does it provide substantive moral and ethical guidance for the engineers, scientists and product managers in these companies? Would it help Christians in the tech industries of Europe, China, Russia or elsewhere in the world?

I think these questions show that simply affirming human dignity as creatures made in the image of God doesn’t get us very far in the present ethical conversation around AI.

What’s Interesting

I was happy to see the final article on the “Future of AI”. It’s one place that I felt went beyond boilerplate ethical statements about technology to address some of the unique questions artificial intelligence brings up.

It tries to address the following questions:

  • Will AI surpass human abilities (i.e. superintelligence)?
  • What role does the church have as AI pervades and dominates more of society?
  • What does AI reveal about what it means to be human?
  • To what degree can AI bring about the world we hope for?
  • What is God’s purpose for AI?

These are very weighty topics and since Article 12 is only two paragraphs long, I think it’s the questions themselves that are more valuable for Christians to think about and discern.

Discerning how God is using AI (and how we should too)

The statement rightly speaks of God’s omniscience and redemptive plan for creation. However, it fails to proclaim God’s design in the advancement of technology to bring about God’s cosmic purpose to unite heaven and earth in Jesus Christ through the Church.

Our discoveries and work in AI while powerful and dangerous are also directed by a sovereign God to help bring about the future the Scriptures bear witness to. And for Christians, that is exceptionally hopeful. God is using AI and we Christians get to join God in directing it to fulfill God’s purpose.

Ethics for us is interwoven with vocation.

For such a task, the Christian role is not simply to preserve human dignity, but to also carefully seek the will of God so we can prophetically discern and say what unique contribution God is calling every Christian to make in the disruption AI is inevitably bringing to all of society.

Appendix

Brief thoughts by article:

Image of God – This section is a good foundation for the statement–I only wish it included “the Purpose of God” for technology.

AI as technology – Upholding human dignity/mitigating suffering/promoting flourishing is good, but may not be the ultimate telos of technology. Again, I wish the statement affirmed that God is using technology such as AI to fulfill his purpose in Jesus Christ to reconcile humanity to its Creator and that we affirm the use of AI towards that very same end.

Relationship of AI & Humanity – Thoughtful section on responsibility, but hard to operationalize in practice. Once you’ve created an autonomous agent you can hold its creator or operator responsible, but sometimes they really don’t have control.

Medicine – I’m not well-versed in medical ethics, but this section sounds good. I think the last sentence speaks to the question of transhumanism. It assumes transhumanism comes from a materialist/consequentialist worldview, but the two do not have to coincide.

Bias – The issue with bias is that our training data for AI comes from past human decisions and datasets. So AI naturally amplifies the biases we’ve practiced for a long time. I think this article should have addressed the human aspect of the problem more thoroughly.

Sexuality – Sex technology has existing for a long time. The issue with AI would seem to be the substitution of human beings with artificial bodies and minds. The article could do more to address this, which is potentially even more problematic than the present pornography crisis.

Work – I loved this section, including how it calls out the dignity of work and rest by not using AI to pursue lives of pure leisure. (Check out my friend Al Erisman’s Theology of Work project).

Data & Privacy – Privacy is jeopardized by the idols of money and power. I think this addresses the power issue, but not quite the money issue, which is a big problem in the West at least.

Security – Sounds standard. I wonder if they could have affirmed the use of AI to preserve and promote individual freedom and responsibility via better self and community-based policing. There’s also some challenges around easily abused tracking technologies, social credit scores, etc.

War – AI is easier to proliferate than nuclear weapons. This article reiterates that humans are responsible without providing guidance on how AI can be used in war ethically. This is an issue some Microsoft, Google and Amazon employees were concerned about because of their company’s Pentagon contracts. How can Christians in those companies serve their companies and countries in the deployment of their skills in wartime?

Public Policy – This article focused on public policy governing AI, but I wished this article addressed how AI can benefit civil liberty and righteous governance. This would guide conversations like how to ethically use big data to make policy decisions, which AI may one day be making on the fly.

The Future of AI – I already gave my thoughts on this earlier.

A Digital Kingdom for a Digital World

This talk was originally delivered on September 15, 2018 at the GottDigital conference in Darmstadt, Germany.

Outline / Slides

Manuscript

Brothers and sisters in Christ, I am honored to be with you today to share about the grace of God, in activating a movement of believers in the technology industry to use their gifts to advance the Gospel.

Guido, thank you for the invitation to speak and for the labor of love you have put into organizing this conference. I’ve already learned so much from you about what God is doing in Germany and I hope that the stories I share today will accelerate the good work that is already happening here.

My goal today is to share 3 things:

  1. How have I seen God use digitalization to build the Kingdom?
  2. How is God using digitalization to bring about our future?
  3. What is God calling us to do today?

By the end of this talk, whether you are a technologist, a pastor or a student, I hope you come away with the conviction that God wants to use you to build His Kingdom through the digital transformation we are experiencing and gain a clear idea of what your role could be in the movement.

So let’s begin by briefly considering the impact of digitalization in general.

The Impact of Digitalization

I grew up in the era of long distance telephone calls via landline. It’s hard to believe that thirty years ago, making a phone call from Seattle to Indonesia could cost up to $1/minute.

That price made calling home a very special occasion. I remember my dad would gather the entire family in our living room to make sure we each got a chance to say “hi” to grandma and hear her laugh. We had to schedule the time for the call to make sure we called when she would be available. And once we connected, every minute was precious.

Today, my dad chats all day long with his siblings in Indonesia over WhatsApp. He’ll do a video call with my grandma whenever he feels like it. And best of all, the price is free. Free unlimited video calling to halfway around the world.

The digital transformation has taken less than thirty years to completely change how we communicate.

And this change is accelerating.

This is an oversimplified timeline of some communication history highlights.

First, God created Adam and Eve, breathed life into them and gave them the gift or technology of spoken language.

Eventually, around 3200 BC, writing was first invented and developed over time to include alphabets and ideographs.

Then it takes four thousand six hundred years before Gutenberg invents the printing press in Europe around 1440 AD, introducing the technological basis for mass communication, the Renaissance, the Reformation and the Scientific Revolution.

Around 500 years later in 1948, Claude Shannon lays the foundations for digitalization with the introduction of Information Theory. For those who are not familiar with it, let me quote an MIT Technology Review article on the significance of his discovery:

Shannon showed how the once-vague notion of information could be defined and quantified with absolute precision. He demonstrated the essential unity of all information media, pointing out that text, telephone signals, radio waves, pictures, film and every other mode of communication could be encoded in the universal language of binary digits, or bits-a term that his article was the first to use in print. Shannon laid forth the idea that once information became digital, it could be transmitted without error.

From there, it took about 50 years for IBM mainframes to give way to personal computers running Microsoft Windows and for the Internet–or the world wide web specifically–to be created in 1990 by Sir Tim Berners-Lee.

Then in 2007, Steve Jobs introduces the iPhone to the world, ushering in the smartphone and mobile internet revolution.

And 5 years later in 2012, a stunning breakthrough by students of University of Toronto Professor Geoffrey Hinton in applying deep neural networks to image classification spurs the current Artificial Intelligence Resurgence. It is also the year that Facebook reached the 1 billion user milestone.

From 5000, to 500, to 50, to 5 years, the pace of communication technological breakthroughs keeps accelerating exponentially.

This is the Digital Transformation we’re experiencing.

So what impact does it have on God’s Kingdom?

I think there are some very obvious examples such us:

The distribution of the YouVersion Bible App, which in April 2017 had been downloaded more than 268 million times, making 1492 versions of the Bible freely available to people on their smartphones in more than one thousand languages.

The proliferation of church and evangelism websites and Christian blogs, along with the influx of Christian content in social media platforms like Facebook, YouTube, Apple Podcasts and Twitter. Many people who would not otherwise have access to the Gospel because of social stigma or legal bans are hearing the message through these platforms.

The creation of specialized IT applications for churches and ministries like church administration software, worship lyrics presentation software, Bible study software and donor relationship management systems.

These are all very clear examples of how God is using digital technology through churches in the present age.

However, I believe there is a much bigger story about how God is using digitalization to build His Kingdom, one that goes beyond incremental improvements to how Christians practice their faith in the day-to-day and connects more broadly with God’s cosmic purposes.

That is what I wish to speak about today.

How God is using digitalization to bring about our future

As Christians living in a digital age, we have the unique challenge of figuring out what this transformation means for God’s story and our place in it.

As this timeline shows, we believe so many of the most significant events of human history have happened in the ancient past.

The creation and fall of humankind. God’s judgment on creation through the flood. The confusion of languages and division of peoples at the Tower of Babel. The call of Abraham to be father of a chosen nation that would bless the world. Israel’s enslavement in Egypt and subsequent Exodus to the Promised Land. The giving of the Law of Moses and the eventual formation of the Kingdom of Israel. The anointing of a human King whose descendant would build a house for God. The construction of the Temple and its subsequent destruction due to Israel’s unfaithfulness to the covenant with God. Israel’s exile and return along with a promised new covenant. The reconstruction of the Temple. And of course the birth, death, burial, resurrection and ascension of Jesus Christ, followed by the outpouring of the Holy Spirit and the proclamation of the Gospel to all creation.

How is God using digitalization to drive forward this story that He has been telling throughout human history? How is God using digitalization to bring about the future that He promised from the beginning?

The answer is that He is doing it through the Body of Christ. He is doing it through us.

To demonstrate this, let’s read several excerpts from Paul’s letter to the Ephesians.

The first passage is Ephesians 1:7-10; 18-23.

In [Christ] we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of sins, in accordance with the riches of God’s grace that he lavished on us. With all wisdom and understanding, he made known to us the mystery of his will according to his good pleasure, which he purposed in Christ, to be put into effect when the times reach their fulfillment—to bring unity to all things in heaven and on earth under Christ.

This is the mystery of God’s cosmic purpose: to bring unity to all things in heaven and on earth under Christ.

I pray that the eyes of your heart may be enlightened in order that you may know the hope to which he has called you, the riches of his glorious inheritance in his holy people, and his incomparably great power for us who believe. That power is the same as the mighty strength  he exerted when he raised Christ from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly realms, far above all rule and authority, power and dominion, and every name that is invoked, not only in the present age but also in the one to come. And God placed all things under his feet and appointed him to be head over everything for the church, which is his body, the fullness of him who fills everything in every way.

The unity that God wills is brought about through Christ as head over the church, the Body of Christ. God brings about this unity by uniting us with Christ.

Let’s continue by reading Ephesians 2:6-10, 18-22

And God raised us up with Christ and seated us with him in the heavenly realms in Christ Jesus, in order that in the coming ages he might show the incomparable riches of his grace, expressed in his kindness to us in Christ Jesus. For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God—not by works, so that no one can boast. 10 For we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.

This is where God’s cosmic purpose becomes personal. By grace, through faith, we are raised with Christ and seated with him. We are God’s handiwork, God’s product. God made us and he made us for a purpose: to do good works. Not random good works, but specifically designed tasks, “hand-crafted” by God.

For through him we both have access to the Father by one Spirit.

Consequently, you are no longer foreigners and strangers, but fellow citizens with God’s people and also members of his household, built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the chief cornerstone. In him the whole building is joined together and rises to become a holy temple in the Lord. And in him you too are being built together to become a dwelling in which God lives by his Spirit.

Now God’s cosmic purpose becomes communal. In Christ, God is joining us together as individuals into a beautiful house, a holy temple for the Holy Spirit to live in.

Next let’s read Ephesians 3:6-11; 3:20-21

This mystery is that through the gospel the Gentiles are heirs together with Israel, members together of one body, and sharers together in the promise in Christ Jesus.

I became a servant of this gospel by the gift of God’s grace given me through the working of his power. Although I am less than the least of all the Lord’s people, this grace was given me: to preach to the Gentiles the boundless riches of Christ, and to make plain to everyone the administration of this mystery, which for ages past was kept hidden in God, who created all things. His intent was that now, through the church, the manifold wisdom of God should be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly realms, according to his eternal purpose that he accomplished in Christ Jesus our Lord.

Now to him who is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine, according to his power that is at work within us, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, for ever and ever! Amen.

So tying this back to God’s purpose of unifying heaven and earth we see that God does it through the Church in Christ Jesus and that is how God’s wisdom is displayed and God’s glory revealed.

Let’s pause here and think about a few things that digitalization has done to the church, the people of God:

First, digitalization has disrupted the old ecosystems and gatekeepers. Before, you had to go to seminary in order to become an accredited pastor and teach at a church. Today, the Internet has made it possible for anyone to write a blog, share a song, or broadcast a sermon to share their message with the world. This sounds like the orderly and participatory worship described in 1 Corinthians 14.

Before churches would compete with other churches for attendees on Sundays, but today churches compete with everything under the sun for people’s attention. Before people had to buy physical bibles, in much of the world today the bible is ubiquitous and free. This sounds like a good thing.

Second, digitalization has connected previously impossible relationships. Our conference organizer Guido found me by searching the Internet, found Code for the Kingdom, heard one of my talks on YouTube, connected over email, talked with me on Skype and finally, after many months we met face to face a few days ago when he picked me up at the airport. This relationship would not be possible without digitalization, but look at what God has made possible through it. It resonates with God’s purpose to bring people together in Christ.

Third, digitalization has increased the scope of our responsibility to God and the world. Before obeying Jesus’ command to love your neighbor as yourself was limited in scope to your neighborhood, your place of work and local community. Today, digitalization and the Internet have put the world in our pockets. The world is our neighborhood now, which means the scope of our responsibility to love our neighbor has increased by an order of magnitude. That sounds like it fits with God’s plan to bless the world through the Church in Christ.

God is using digitalization to disrupt, reform, renew and empower the Church to fulfill her destiny.

What is God calling us to do today?

So in light of God’s cosmic purpose and the role of digitalization in bringing it about, what is God calling us to do today? What role does God have for you in the Kingdom?

In Ephesians 4:11-16, the apostle Paul wrote:

So Christ himself gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the pastors and teachers, to equip his people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ.

Then we will no longer be infants, tossed back and forth by the waves, and blown here and there by every wind of teaching and by the cunning and craftiness of people in their deceitful scheming. Instead, speaking the truth in love, we will grow to become in every respect the mature body of him who is the head, that is, Christ. From him the whole body, joined and held together by every supporting ligament, grows and builds itself up in love, as each part does its work.

Our role in God’s Kingdom is to do our part so that the Body of Christ is built up in love. The Church as the Body of Christ is like a spiritual infrastructure or scaffolding that unleashes us to use our gifts to do the good works God has prepared in advance for us to do–to use our most effective and productive gifts to build up the Body of Christ into the Temple of the Lord.

So let me ask for your opinion:

How well are our church institutions today fulfilling this function?

Are there ways they can better equip the saints and unleash them to use their gifts, to do the good works God prepared for them?

I want to share one model that churches and communities like this one can use to fulfill this function. It’s called Code of the Kingdom.

Code for the Kingdom is a hackathon and movement that brings together Christian technologists, entrepreneurs, designers, analysts, pastors, missionaries and other creatives to build technical solutions to Kingdom challenges. Thousands of people around the world have used their gifts and passions to advance God’s Kingdom through these events.

The hackathon model has also been adopted by other Christian organizations like Intervarsity, Cru’s Indigitous, KingdomCode, FaithTech and others.

Let me play a 2 minute clip to give you a feel for the experience.

[ Play https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hNCyqX-4PBY ]

So let me walk through an example of what it’s like from a prior Code for the Kingdom Hackathon.

  • At the beginning of the event anyone with an idea will have 2 minutes to share it at an open mic. So 15 ideas means ~30 minutes.
  • Then each person with an idea gets a sign and everybody mingles to chat and decide which team they want to join.
  • They will form teams and brainstorm about how they can take the idea to the next step. Then they implement the idea and prepare for a final presentation for it. Some people pull an all-nighter, others take a nap–either way, it’s lots of food and lots of fun.
  • On the last day of the event every team has the opportunity to pitch their project to a panel of judges. These judges get to vote on the projects they want to award with seed money to help it grow. The audience also gets to vote for a “people’s choice award”.
  • Then we end with a prayer and blessing and everyone goes home energized and inspired with new ways they can use their gifts to advance the Gospel.

The hackathon model is flexible way to help people use their gifts for the gospel in community with other like-minded people. It doesn’t have to be a large scale production. In fact I started by hosting simple hack days at my home with just a few friends.

These kinds of experiences bring people together, not just to talk, but to do something. They create an opportunity for people to use their gifts for the Gospel. They are an opportunity for each son and daughter of God to discover their calling and how to use their gifts to do the good works God has prepared for them.

Now one of the challenges we faced with Code for the Kingdom was including people who were not technical. We did not want to limit the event to only coders, designers and startup founders. So we tried several things like having technical workshops, having Bible teaching and a prayer track and mentors.

But as I thought about the situation a bit more, I realized something incredible: many of the key people who made Code for the Kingdom possible were not coders!

So for everyone in the audience who isn’t technical, let me share a few different personas to help inspire you with ideas for how you can use your gifts as a part of this digital movement for God’s Kingdom.

The Entrepreneur Persona

The first persona is the entrepreneur. You may not know how to code, but you have an idea and are willing to sacrifice to make it real. You have taken responsibility to do whatever it takes to give birth to an initiative and help it grow.

My friend and mentor Chris Armas is a good example of that. He is the founder of the Code for the Kingdom hackathon movement. I have his permission to share some of the trials that led to the movement, so let me share with you the origin story.

Chris is a serial entrepreneur, originally from Venezuela who started his career in business creating interfaces for operating trains.

After achieving some success in the business world, he longed for something more. As he put it, he wanted to live a life of significance, not just success.

Long story short, Chris was asked to join a church growth think tank called Leadership Network to lead a church planting initiative in India. Tens of millions of dollars were allocated by a major donor’s foundation towards the endeavor and they had a mission of planting thousands of churches within the next few years.

Immediately after he got that invitation, he got a competing offer to run CitiBank’s International Wire Transfer division–a very lucrative position. He asked for the discernment of his mentors and through the counsel of several brothers and sisters in Christ, discerned that God was calling him to India.

Confident in God’s call, Chris dove headlong into the work, applying the experience and wisdom he gained through the marketplace to the task at hand.

However, all was not well.

During a surprise trip to India, Chris was not welcomed with open arms. The local partner refused to meet him and he realized that they had been cheated. As he interviewed pastor after pastor that the grant was supposed to fund, he discovered that they were getting paid less than a third of the stipend that they were to receive per month. There was systemic corruption.

Chris returned to the United States depressed and they withdrew from the program entirely.

The initiative that Chris believed God had called him to serve in was over.

Why did God call him out of the marketplace to lead such an initiative? What was he supposed to do now? Look for a job?

Oftentimes responding to God’s call does not produce the results that we expect.

At the request of the founder of Leadership Network, Bob Buford, Chris joined a team to leverage the connections between innovative and entrepreneurial movements within the Kingdom. The idea was that by bringing together innovators, entrepreneurs, leading nonprofits and Kingdom investors, they could catalyze an ecosystem that would bear a lot of fruit.

Believing that God had called him out of the marketplace for a reason, Chris started to explore other possibilities and came across Startup Weekend. This is a weekend where aspiring entrepreneurs rigorously test their ideas by talking to potential customers, collecting real-world feedback on their idea and pitching to an audience of judges. Winners get seed money to start their companies and everyone who participates gains hard-won, rigorous experience.

Chris flew to Silicon Valley to experience one of these weekends himself and he came away inspired by what such an event and movement could mean for the global church. Why?

He realized that technologists and entrepreneurs, the startups changing the world were the culture makers and influencers of our digital age. He realized that this vitality and entrepreneurial energy could transform churches to empower the people in the pews to use their most excellent and valuable gifts to advance the Gospel.

Chris once said to me that he felt like a rhinoceros because he couldn’t see very far in front of him, but had to charge forward by faith into whatever God had next. He would always remind me that God has prepared many good works for us to do, not just one single work. The hard experience of discerning the will of God and failing taught him to stay open to the Lord’s leading instead of being fixated on why his plans failed.

So like an entrepreneurial rhinoceros, Chris charged forward, creating the concept for a Christian hackathon, pulling together the resources and the team to debut a world class event in the heart of Silicon Valley. He brought together leaders from the technology industry, local churches, non-profits, VCs and global ministries so they could spend the weekend together, connecting with like-minded individuals in order to create technological solutions that would advance God’s Kingdom.

He called it: “Code for the Kingdom”

And a movement was born.

This is the role of the entrepreneur.

You may not be a pastor. You may not code.

But your ministry is hearing God’s call, stepping out in faith, making the sacrifices, shouldering the risks, adapting to constant change, and bringing together the relationships and resources necessary to create value and fulfill the mission God has given you. You are essential to building up the Body of Christ.

The Pastoral Persona

The second persona is the pastor. How do pastors use their gifts and skills in a digital movement?

Well, I’d like to introduce you to Shamichael Hallman. He was a pastor from Tennessee who heard about the first Code for the Kingdom and immediately jumped on a plane to attend.

Today he works in civic technology and authored the first book about Code for the Kingdom titled, “Hacked: How a Christian Hackathon is Shifting Traditional Engagement Models and Creating an Ecosystem for Life-Transforming Technology”

While many pastors may view digitalization as just a way to expand their reach through a social media presence, livestreaming worship services and making sermons available for download, Shamichael viewed it as more.

He viewed it as–dare I say it–an opportunity to reform the church. What do I mean?

Pastor Shamichael noticed that many churches were not effectively engaging with the people creating technology. Many pastors lacked a robust theology of technology, they viewed it as a morally neutral tool that was for other people to worry about. At best, they would think about how technology could help church programs and goals. They weren’t awake to the way digitalization was changing the world around them and they so often overlooked the people in their pews who were leading the digital transformation.

In many churches, the technologists creating the software that runs the world are merely asked to run a powerpoint, create a church app or lead a small group. Hasn’t God gifted them for so much more?

As a pastor, Shamichael wanted to offer the church a new model for discipleship. He wanted to help churches better fulfill their role of empowering and unleashing Christians in the technology industry to use their gifts to bear witness for the Gospel. And in order to do so, he had to practice what he preached.

Even though he isn’t a coder, Pastor Shamichael participated in several hackathons, pitching ideas, collaborating with teams and affirming people that God is calling them to use their technical gifts in significant ways to build the Kingdom.

He went so far as to write the first book documenting the Code for the Kingdom movement. It’s called: Hacked: How a Christian Hackathon is Shifting Traditional Engagement Models and Creating an Ecosystem for Life-Transforming Technology.

In his role as a pastor, Shamichael has stood out as a powerful encourager who continually prays for Christians in the technology industry and reminds them that whatever else the world or the church may say, God has truly gifted and empowered them to use their technical gifts for the Gospel.

The Missionary Persona

Third is the missionary persona.

I can’t show his picture, but my friend Chris–I have so many friends named Chris–is another member of the Code for the Kingdom movement. He’s been an organizer and participant, but what I think is unique is the way he views digital technology in relation to his work as a missionary.

Instead of simply being a user of technology, he wants to create it. He wants to make technology that can be a force-multiplier for missions work.

Although he is not primarily a coder, Chris is leading a team of developers to build a Salesforce for missions. They are creating an open source platform that missional networks use to connect people interested in Jesus with network members for in-person follow up.

Already, the platform has been deployed for two missional networks as well as many individual missions teams. And these groups are already reaping the benefits. As you can see in this chart from a North African missional network to the unreached, out hundreds of thousands of people who see an ad impression, thousands inquire about Jesus resulting in hundreds of in person follow ups and a few baptisms, new churches and new church planters.

You can get a case study of the impact of the technology at kingdom.training and you can participate in the open source project by visiting disciple.tools.

Even if you cannot code, as a missionary, you can be involved in digital projects as a team leader, tester, trainer, promoter, user and so much more. In doing so, you use digital to accelerate the Gospel.

The Wildcard Persona

Last, but not least I want to talk about the wildcard persona.

This is my sister and co-Founder Natasha. She’s a very talented person, but if you ask her “What are you good at?” she often shrugs her shoulders and says, “I don’t know…”

I want to share her story because I realize that some of you may feel like: “I’m not a techie, entrepreneur, pastor or missionary…is there a role for me?”

Natasha will be the first to tell you that the answer is “Yes!”

My sister is a former Treasury Analyst at Amazon. She was responsible for accurately transferring hundreds of millions of dollars between Amazon’s bank accounts to ensure all payroll and other expenses were properly funded every single day. I remember that she even had to handle Cash Operations for Europe for a time, meaning that she would get up at 4am to ensure Amazon’s European bank accounts were properly funded.

I think this sounds impressive, but Natasha is perhaps too modest to acknowledge it.

But what does cash operations have to do with the gospel? How can she use her gifts for the gospel?

Well until my company becomes as large as Amazon, there may not be a way for her to directly apply that skill in our context.

But she took her operations background and adaptability to help make Code for the Kingdom happen in Seattle multiple times.

Natasha would fill in the gaps, encouraging people when they felt overwhelmed, collaborating with people who needed a team or felt like they had no skills to contribute, handling logistics and food preparations to ensure the entire event went smoothly. She sourced merchandise, created marketing materials, helped run ads and much more to make the event possible.

By overcoming her self-doubt, she adapted and took on many jobs that made her ambiguity over her gifts not a weakness, but an asset.

So, I say to you today, even if you feel like you have nothing to offer, the truth is you do. And you must.

The Holy Spirit has gifted you even if you cannot see it yet and your heart to see other people activated for the Gospel and willingness to do whatever it takes is a powerful gift in and of itself.

Conclusion

As followers of Jesus we must have the conviction that God has given us the digital skills, resources, capabilities and tools of our day for reasons that go beyond entertainment, productivity, profit and communication as good as these all are.

We must accept the responsibility God has given us to reform, renew and transform the future so that it reflects the Kingdom of God and bears witness to the Gospel: that Jesus Christ died for our sins, is risen from the dead and will return to give us a new Creation free from Satan, sin and death and full of righteousness, peace and life. This Gospel of the Kingdom will be preached as a testimony to all nations and then the end will come.

That is our hope isn’t it?

Yes, we weep for the world to repent and receive mercy and healing from God. And we are ultimately hoping that Jesus will return to judge the world for its injustice, immorality and idolatry and give eternal life with true joy, true wealth and glory in a beautiful restored world to everyone who believes in Him.

Our job as Christians living in the Digital World is to ensure that this transformation is used for the Gospel.

Today, God is calling you to use your digital gifts for the Gospel.

Will you be a developer for the Gospel?

Will you be a designer for the Gospel?

Will you be an entrepreneur for the Gospel?

Will you be technologist for the Gospel?

In whatever you do, will you be for the Gospel?

In Ephesians 5:25-32, Paul wrote that Christ loved the Church and gave himself up for her…to present her to himself as a radiant church without blemish. He wrote:

“For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh.” This is a profound mystery—but I am talking about Christ and the church.

Although I am builder who loves creating amazing technology that reaches the world, I’ve come to realize that there is something God desires far more than the next billion dollar unicorn startup.

God deeply desires the Bride of Christ.

The Bride of Christ is God’s most beautiful creation.

And we are the body of Christ, united and led by the Holy Spirit, fully exercising our most excellent gifts, adorning the Gospel with good works. We are the Bride, waiting for and hastening the return of Christ who will soon make all things new.

God is using digitalization to unite heaven and earth in Jesus Christ through the Church.

God is using digitalization to connect and unleash Christians to use their gifts to build up the Body of Christ.

Therefore, God is calling us to use digitalization to do the good works he has prepared in advance for each of us to do.

Let’s join His movement.

Amen.

Faith, Tech and Entrepreneurship: What difference does it make?

What difference does faith make when it comes to technology entrepreneurship?

This talk answers the question by comparing and contrasting Jeff Bezos’ wisdom with Biblical wisdom. By considering the commonalities, we discover what’s still missing, pointing us to the ways faith makes a difference in our pursuit of technology entrepreneurship.

Note: The manuscript and slides below are from a talk delivered at the “Vocational Thriving in a Changing World” conference in Seattle, WA on May 5th, 2018. Full slides are available here.

Outline:
1. Is Bezos Biblical?
2. What’s missing
3. TheoTech’s Magic Quadrant
4. How Faith Makes A Difference


Is Bezos Biblical?

About two weeks ago, Jeff Bezos–the founder of Amazon and the richest man in the world–received the Axel Springer Award for his innovative achievements in e-commerce and digital journalism. During the corresponding interview Bezos talked about: “leaving a steady Wall Street job to start Amazon, why his rocket company Blue Origin is his most important project, and what it’s like to have Trump as your biggest critic”.

Here’s what he had to say about a few topics relevant to our conference today:

First, when was asked how he was able to leave his cushy Wall Street job to do a startup, here’s what he said:

when you have loving and supportive people in your life like Mackenzie [his wife], my parents, my grandfather, my grandmother, you end up being able to take risk because I think…you kind of know somebody’s got your back and so it’s just an–I don’t even think you’re thinking about it logically–it’s an emotional thing.”

“So I think it’s, anyway, I won that lottery, I won that lottery of having so many people in my life who have given me that unconditional love

Interesting. Jeff Bezos says that the unconditional love of his family and community were the key to his risk-taking.

What could this mean for Christians who confess the unconditional love of God?

Shouldn’t we be unleashed to think big and to take big risks for God’s Kingdom?

And if we aren’t, what does it say about the love in our churches and our personal experience of God’s love?

Second, let’s talk about criticism. Here’s what Bezos said about being criticized:

“Well, first of all, with any criticism, my approach to criticism and what I teach and preach inside Amazon is when you’re criticized, first look in a mirror and decide are your critics right? If they’re right, change, don’t resist.”

Interesting. Doesn’t this sound a lot like biblical wisdom? For example, Proverbs 15:31-32 says:

Whoever heeds life-giving correction will be at home among the wise.

Those who disregard discipline despise themselves, but the one who heeds correction gains understanding.

How about generosity? Bezos is the richest man in the world, surely he could be doing so much more to help others? Some of his critics are pretty unhappy with how he uses his money.

Well, here’s how Bezos responded:

I’m finding I’m very motivated by the here and now…when you go study homelessness, there are a bunch of causes of homelessness. Mental incapacity issues are a very hard-to-cure problem, serious drug addiction, a very hard-to-cure problem, but there’s another bucket of homelessness which is transient homelessness, which is a woman with kids, the father runs away, and he was the only person providing any income and they have no support system, they have no family. That’s transient homelessness. You can really help that person. And you by the way, only need to help them for like six to nine months, you get them trained, you get them a job, they’re perfectly productive members of society.

Whatever critics may say, they can’t deny that his pragmatic and short-term approach to giving is reasonable. In fact, it resonates with what the Apostle Paul said he wanted Christians to do in his letter to Titus (3:14):

And let our people learn to devote themselves to good works, so as to help cases of urgent need, and not be unfruitful.”

Lastly, here’s what Bezos had to say about something very important to a lot of Christians in the tech industry in particular… on work-life balance:

…this work-life harmony thing is what I try to teach young employees, actually, and senior executive[s] at Amazon too, but especially the people coming in. We’re asked about work-life balance all the time and my view is that’s a debilitating phrase because it implies there’s a strict trade off and the reality is if I’m happy at home, I come into the office with tremendous energy, and if I’m happy at work, I come home with tremendous energy. And so it actually is a circle, it’s not a balance. And I think that that is worth everybody paying attention to. You never want to be that guy…who as soon as they come into the meeting they drain all of the energy out of the room. You can just feel the energy level go whoof …you want to come into the office and give everybody a kick in their step.”

Some people may cynically think work-life harmony is an excuse for overwork and I’m guessing Bezos doesn’t intentionally rest on a Sabbath day, but even this response has echoes of Biblical wisdom, for example Proverbs 11:25 says:

A generous person will prosper; whoever refreshes others will be refreshed.

So what’s the point? Why do I point out the resonances between Bezos’ words and Biblical wisdom?

It’s twofold.

First, I want to show how much the capital “c” Church–of which I am a member–can learn from leaders in the tech industry. Not to overstate it, but I fear complacency, cowardice and incompetence in the Church has damaged the cause of Christ more than persecution.

  • We’re more ambitious for our careers and salaries than we are for God’s Kingdom.
  • We tolerate ineffectiveness and laziness in Christian community that would be unacceptable in the professional world.
  • We forget rigor, due diligence, and accountability when it comes to Christian leaders and causes only to get blindsided by scandal and mismanagement.
  • We uncritically assume our activities are aligned with God’s Kingdom so we can focus on pursuing our own comforts, interests and definitions of success.
  • We forgo Biblical sacrifice and suffering, believing worldly methods can accomplish God’s will.
  • We seek fame, riches and recognition for ourselves, thinking we can use it as a platform to glorify God.

I don’t like speaking this way. It’s hard to be vocally self-critical.

I know it doesn’t equally apply to everyone and that there are nuances in every person’s situation. But I’ve spoken in these terms to drive home the point that we as the Church have much to learn and much room to grow.

If technology’s power can be so effectively harnessed by entrepreneurs like Bezos to deliver spectacular shareholder value and reshape our entire world, shouldn’t it be intentionally and effectively leveraged to advance the Gospel?

The Gospel is not a hobby or a community service project. The Gospel is God’s power to save the world. If we can make our greatest strengths productive for companies in the marketplace, how can we make them productive for the Gospel too?

Which leads to my second point. In all of the biblical wisdom espoused by Jeff Bezos, what’s missing?

What’s missing in Bezos’ wisdom?

Bezos doesn’t make any reference to the Bible, God, Jesus, the Gospel, or the church, yet his answers resonate with biblical wisdom. Can we just follow what he says?

What does faith have to do with any of it? What does the Bible have to meaningfully say about technology and entrepreneurship beyond what he’s said?

To think about this question, I want to share with you this diagram I made that has helped me think about vocational integration. If you’ve heard of Gartner’s Magic Quadrant, maybe you could call this “TheoTech’s Magic Quadrant for Faith-based Vocational Integration”.

TheoTech’s Magic Quadrant

On one dimension you have a range from explicitly non-Christian to explicitly Christian. On the other dimension, you have a range from the Kingdom of this World to the Kingdom of God.

 

The reason why this diagram is helpful for me is that it keeps me from making the mistake of collapsing the two dimensions.

Growing up in church, it’s really easy to mistake everything Christian with God’s Kingdom and everything non-Christian with the world.

But it only takes a little bit of experience to know how much sin, incompetence, deception and abuse happens in the Christian sphere. And it only takes a little bit of experience to discover how much justice, creativity and good there is in the non-Christian sphere.

The church has suffered great harm from the collapse of these two dimensions because it has cut it off from a lot of godly wisdom simply because it lacked the Christian label, while simultaneously embracing worldly practices simply because they were labeled Christian.

By putting each dimension on its own axis, we end up with 4 quadrants. Here’s how I’ve labeled them.

In the top left, we have explicitly Christian appearances, but beliefs and practices that are actually aligned with the Kingdom of the World. When we find laziness, cowardice, injustice and deception in quadrant 1, we are in the Hypocritical quadrant.

Below that we have the non-Christian realm intersecting with the Kingdom of the World. This is evil in its most obvious forms. For example sex trafficking. There’s nothing redemptive about it because it violates the God-given worth of its victims, abuses their sacred sexuality and robs them of their freedom.

This is the Disintegrated quadrant.

To the right we have the non-Christian realm intersecting with the Kingdom of God.

This is the “Aligned” or “Common Good” quadrant. I might place the philanthropic work of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to alleviate global poverty here for example.

And above that we have the Integrated quadrant.

This is where the opening lines of the Lord’s prayer are fulfilled. Not only is God’s will practiced in justice, righteousness and steadfast love, or God’s creativity reflected in wonderful inventions, but God’s name is also explicitly hallowed.

By putting “How close is it to the Kingdom of God” on a different axis than “How Christian is it?” we have a category for all the ungodly things that happen in explicitly Christian contexts. We also have a category for all the glorious and good things that happen in explicitly non-Christian contexts. And as Christians in any context we can discern the “True North” of God’s Kingdom and actively move things in that direction.

Applying the Magic Quadrant

Let’s look at a few examples of how to use these quadrants.

How many of you have heard of Theranos?

Theranos is a startup founded in 2003 that claimed to revolutionize medical testing through new technology that could run comprehensive tests on just a few drops of blood. This would make medical testing incredibly affordable for the masses. The founder was a brilliant storyteller. Widely praised by the press, Theranos eventually raised $700 million at a $9 billion valuation. It sounds fantastic, the kind of company that would fall under the “Kingdom Aligned”/“Common Good” quadrant.

But in March of 2018, the Securities and Exchange Commission charged the company with defrauding investors by lying about the company’s technology and business performance. It turned out the tech was a total failure and today its value is virtually nil. Not only were investors swindled, but thousands of people who used the unreliable technology may have been misdiagnosed and harmed.

If you were a whistleblower in such a company, Christian or not, your actions would have aligned with God’s Kingdom and pushed the company towards the Aligned quadrant.

For a second example: How many of you have experienced a church scandal or at least a serious church conflict?

Isn’t it scary when God’s Word and Christian religiosity are used to cover up lies, protect abusers, or swindle people out of their money?

When you stand for the truth in such situations, perhaps at great personal cost to your relationships and reputation, you’re pushing things away from the hypocritical, worldly quadrant and towards the Integrated quadrant. You’re fulfilling Jesus’ description of being salt and light.

Alright, so this is how I think these quadrants can show us what’s missing in Bezos’ wisdom.

The biblical resonances in Jeff Bezos’ thinking exist in the “Kingdom Aligned” quadrant. That’s what makes it so insightful and effective. It’s not explicitly Christian or Gospel-oriented, but as Christians we affirm and learn from it. It reflects God’s wisdom and simply acknowledging God as its source would move it towards the Integrated column.

However, it’s not enough for us as Christians to stay in the “Aligned” quadrant. If we do, we get stuck in our faith.

If the most we can say about being a Christian engineer is “be a competent and honest engineer”, then the Christian adjective doesn’t really make a difference.

Many people want to do good, find meaning and purpose in work, express their creativity, make good money, and serve with excellence. It’s all well and good, but to paraphrase Jesus’ words in Matthew 5: “If you’re just as good as everybody else, what’s the point? … Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”

We live in a post-Christian context. If your faith has nothing meaningful to add, maybe we’d be better off just going to top tech conferences like AWS:Reinvent or Google I/O. Maybe we’d be better off learning leadership from Jeff Bezos than pastors. Maybe we’d be better off creating the wildly successful startups of tomorrow rather than investing in church planting.

But I hope to show you, as this diagram makes clear, that these options are not mutually exclusive and that faith does make a big difference–if we’re willing to act on it.

How Faith Makes a Difference

So how does faith make a difference? Here are three ways that I see faith making a difference for technology entrepreneurship.

#1: Faith makes God your ultimate customer
#2: Faith makes eternal salvation your ultimate exit strategy
#3: Faith makes God’s Kingdom your ultimate vision and mission

Faith makes God your ultimate customer

First, faith makes God your ultimate customer.

Have you ever heard the phrase, “The customer is always right” or “The customer is king?” Well I learned from one of the panelists we will hear from later today that in Japan, they actually say, “The customer is God.”

okyakusama wa kamisama desu” / 「おきゃくさま は かみさま です”」

Wow.

In a consumerist society that supremely values the customer, the only way a Christian can be faithful is to say, “God is my customer.”

Now you may ask, “Chris, that sounds nice, but what does this actually mean in practice?”

And I’d like to give you two approaches one is top-down, the other is bottom-up.

First, when God is your customer, it means that you will apply God-centered design instead of human-centered design in everything you create. You will deeply empathize with what God desires and study the Scriptures to understand his vision. Then you will work backwards to design a product or service that delivers the results God wants.

In my company, we’ve tried to practice this principle in the design of a prayer app called Ceaseless. We worked backwards from 1 Timothy 2, where the Scriptures say that God wants Christians to pray for all people because He desires all people to be saved. With that user goal in mind, we built an app that helps Christians do God’s will when it comes to prayer.

 

Instead of adding a Facebook “pray” button or focusing on ways to request prayer, Ceaseless is designed to help you pray for others.

It integrates with the address book on your phone and shows three people to pray for each morning. By showing you the full breadth of your relationships one day at a time, Ceaseless helps Christians, not only have more discipline or enjoyment in prayer, it actually helps Christians pray according to God’s will and desire that all people be saved.

That’s one very practical example of the principle of “God is my customer” in action. That’s the top-down Bible-based approach.

There’s also a bottom-up people-based approach.

We believe God became a human being and walked among us. The Incarnation, God in the flesh, means that many of the tools of human-centered design are transferable to a mindset where God is the customer.

Let’s pretend you own a food truck startup making multi-ethnic food available in highly trafficked locations on-demand. I actually heard a pitch for a startup like this by some students from Seattle Pacific University. They called it “Chomp!”.

Anyway, let’s say you were creating this startup. What would it look like for God to be your ultimate customer?

Well, let’s imagine it’s 1pm and Jesus literally shows up at your food truck because he wants some of your famous jambalaya, Ethiopian flatbread and spicy popcorn chicken.

I’m drooling. It may feel silly, but let’s think about this.

What if Jesus showed up as a customer? What kind of experience would you want him to have?

What if your truck was really popular and he had to wait in line for an hour in the rain–what would you do for him? What if he showed up and didn’t have enough cash–how would you treat him? How would you treat your God?

Although the idea may seem comical at first, the principle is powerful. Making God your customer is a driver for innovation and excellence. It applies the words of Jesus: “whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.”

Faith makes God your ultimate customer.

Faith makes eternal salvation your ultimate exit strategy

Okay, a second way that faith makes a difference in technology entrepreneurship is that it makes eternal salvation your ultimate exit strategy.

Today’s tech founders are so valuable and powerful because they’ve had spectacular exits. They’ve taken their startups from zero to a large acquisition or successful IPO.

They’re now so rich that they aren’t really sure what to do with all that money.

So what do they do? They set their sights on even bigger dreams. Some focus on immortality through medical science, some focus on saving humanity from the AI-apocalypse while still others focus on space, the final frontier.

Here’s what Jeff Bezos said he would do with his 12-digit net worth:  

I believe on the longest time frame — and really here I’m thinking of a time frame of a couple hundred years … I believe…that Blue Origin, the space company, is the most important work I’m doing.”

“I’m pursuing this work because I believe if we don’t, we will eventually end up with a civilization of stasis, which I find very demoralizing. I don’t want my great grandchildren’s great grandchildren to lie in a civilization of stasis. We all enjoy a dynamic civilization of growth and change and let’s think about what powers that. We are not really energy constrained…Now if you take baseline energy usage…and compound it at just a few percent a year for just a few hundred years, you have to cover the entire surface of the Earth in solar cells. So that’s the real energy crisis and it’s happening soon…So what can you do? Well, you can have a life of stasis where you cap how much energy we get to use…[Or] take the alternative scenario where you move out into the solar system. The solar system can easily support a trillion humans, and if we had a trillion humans, we would have 1,000 Einsteins and 1,000 Mozarts and unlimited, for all practical purposes, resources from solar power and so on. Why not? that’s the world that I want my great grandchildren’s great grandchildren to live in.

That’s Bezos’ vision of humanity’s salvation, filling the heavens (aka space) where we will find limitless resources to provide for all of humanity’s needs.

Let’s compare this with the Christian vision of salvation through a snippet from Revelation 22:

Then the angel showed me the river of the water of life, bright as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb through the middle of the street of the city; also, on either side of the river, the tree of life with its twelve kinds of fruit, yielding its fruit each month. The leaves of the tree were for the healing of the nations. No longer will there be anything accursed, but the throne of God and of the Lamb will be in it, and his servants will worship him. They will see his face, and his name will be on their foreheads. And night will be no more. They will need no light of lamp or sun, for the Lord God will be their light, and they will reign forever and ever.

Although it’s apocalyptic literature, I think we can say that in the long term future of God’s plan there will be infinite energy, unparalleled beauty, boundless life, complete healing, righteous power and deeply satisfying relationships with God and one another. Everything will finally make sense. Everything will finally be made right.

Christians in technology and business need to grapple with this.

What does salvation mean to us? What’s the endgame?

Which story are we living? Where do the narratives align and diverge?

Bezos sees energy scarcity as one of humanity’s biggest existential crises and he wants to use his billions to solve it by sending more humans to space. We see sin and Satan’s dominion as humanity’s biggest existential threat and we want to see billions of people experiencing the power of the Gospel so that they can inherit a renewed, flourishing planet and Universe that the Creator will give to us forever.

Yes, space exploration can serve the common good and align with God’s vision for humanity. Human beings reflect God’s glory by being relentlessly curious: “It is the glory of God to conceal things, but the glory of kings is to search things out” (Proverbs 25:2). Whose to say we won’t be a spacefaring civilization in the New Creation?

 

But as Christians, we must also seek the uncommon good. We must lead not only in creativity, curiosity or ethics; we need to lead in eschatology, in hope. We can’t be ashamed of the hope of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation for every human being not only in the past, not only in the distant future, but in the here and now.

If we really believe that through faith in Jesus Christ, God will raise us from the dead and give us a magnificent inheritance in the New Creation forever, it will change the way we go about building companies, inventing technologies and serving the common good.

Everything we create will be yet another foretaste of the future we believe God is preparing for us. We can’t help but infuse our products, services and organizations with the flavor of God’s Kingdom. And anytime our customers, investors, employees, vendors and colleagues delight in what we do, we’ve inadvertently witnessed to them about God.

The Kingdom of God is like a startup, let’s call it Gospel Inc. At the price of his blood, Jesus acquired us from being slaves of the Devil and now he’s made us co-owners of his company by giving us shares.

Right now our shares may not seem like they’re worth much. Gospel Inc. hasn’t gone IPO yet. But it has paid dividends through the joy and power of the Holy Spirit that we experience today.

And one day, when Jesus returns, when the New Creation finally launches, when Gospel Inc. goes public, our shares will be worth infinitely more than we ever dreamed.

As of this writing, 1 Amazon stock would cost you $1,580 (5/6/2018) $1,974 (9/25/2018).

The price of a share in Gospel Inc.? Free.

The value? Priceless.

Isn’t this why the Scriptures say, “Good news is preached to the poor”? The poor may not be able to buy Amazon stock, but they can receive by faith in Christ, something worth infinitely more in the long term. And when we use our Amazon stock to share with them the good news in word and deed, we show that our hope is in that future too.

Here’s how the Apostle Paul put it in 1 Timothy 6:17-19

Command those who are rich in this present world not to be arrogant nor to put their hope in wealth, which is so uncertain, but to put their hope in God, who richly provides us with everything for our enjoyment. Command them to do good, to be rich in good deeds, and to be generous and willing to share. In this way they will lay up treasure for themselves as a firm foundation for the coming age, so that they may take hold of the life that is truly life.

Faith makes eternal salvation your ultimate exit strategy.

Faith makes God’s Kingdom your ultimate vision and mission

Every modern organization has a vision and mission statement. Churches, businesses and even small meetups have a reason why they exist and how they fulfill that purpose.

A lot of books, teachers and coaches focus on how to help you find your calling, your purpose, your personal mission(s). I get it, everybody wants to know “Why do I exist?”

However, I think sometimes we can get stuck and frustrated trying to figure out our passions, interests and skills instead of lifting our heads and being captivated by the big picture vocation God has given to the Church.

What if instead of working forwards from our personality and life situation towards what God might want, we worked backwards from God’s vision and mission to our circumstances and calling?

Here’s how we’ve tried to do it in my company TheoTech. We’ve built a real time translation product called spf.io with a very succinct and common good mission: “To make every event accessible in any language”

Spf.io enables events like this one to be accessible to people in many languages with the tap of a button on their smartphones. I can speak freely and you can receive captions or translations of what I say in real time. It has widespread applications throughout society and I think spf.io’s mission is something that a lot of people can get behind, Christian or not.

But where did this mission come from? It came from God’s vision and mission.

In Revelation 7, the Apostle John receives a vision from God where he sees people from every tribe, tongue and nation worshiping Jesus together. In Matthew 24, Jesus specifically says that the Gospel of the Kingdom must be preached to every nation before the end will come.

So working backwards from this criteria, we decided on a mission for our product spf.io that would align with God’s as best as we could: “to make every event accessible in any language.” If that mission is fulfilled, it will contribute to the gospel being preached to every nation. If that mission is fulfilled, it will contribute to foretastes of God’s vision by making it possible for people to worship together in many languages every Sunday in every church.

 

That’s one example of how faith has informed and shaped the way we practice technology entrepreneurship. It’s how we move from the “Aligned” quadrant to the “Integrated” quadrant.

Faith makes God’s Kingdom your ultimate vision and mission.

So what?

So what.

You may think, “Chris, that all sounds really cool, but what does it mean for me in my work? I’m not a senior leader. I’m not an influencer. I’m still just learning, trying to figure out the basics. I just need to make a living. I want to integrate my faith and work, but what can I do?” (Start now. Build God’s Kingdom into the DNA of your career from the outset.)

Or maybe you think, “Chris, you’re crazy. You take the Bible too far to the extremes. Can’t we just do good works, succeed in our jobs and lead a quiet, dignified life as the Bible says?” (You can do all these things. But just know that they are not all of what God calls us to. You get to choose how much you want to buy into the Kingdom of God.)

Or maybe you’re thinking, “Chris, this is too abstract and impractical. I’m bored at work and stuck in a dead end job with a manager who doesn’t care. I’m tired of the drama and just want something more fulfilling that pays well.” (God cares about your work. When you make it about serving Him wholeheartedly instead of your boss, you may find the freedom, joy and guidance you’ve always longed for.)

Well I’m glad you asked, because we’re about to get really practical.

I’m going to invite three panelists to share about how they’ve practiced faith and work integration in tech, their struggles as well as their successes. (Unfortunately panelist responses were not recorded.)

But before we move on, let me restate the outline of this talk.

We started by asking, “Is Bezos Biblical?” and traced through some of his thinking and how it aligns with what the Bible says in several areas. The Church has much to learn from technology entrepreneurs and Bezos in particular. He may be a modern Cyrus or Solomon.

Then we asked, “What’s missing in Bezos’ wisdom?”

I showed you this diagram to help categorize our experiences and orient our actions towards God’s Kingdom in any context. In whatever quadrant we find ourselves, our organizations, or our societies, we serve as salt and light by relentlessly pressing into the Integrated Kingdom of God quadrant. Being a pastor is not anymore significant than being a software engineer, but serving God’s Kingdom is significantly different than serving the Kingdom of the World.

Next, we asked, “How does faith make a difference?”

I gave three examples of how faith impacts technology entrepreneurship:

First, faith makes God your ultimate customer. In a world-age where the customer is god, making God the customer is not merely a nice idea–it is the only way we can be faithful to Christ while benefitting society and thriving at the same time. By obsessing over God as your customer, you get to know God better.

Second, faith makes eternal salvation your ultimate exit strategy. Instead of hoping to become overnight billionaires by going IPO, we fix our hope on the return of Christ as our true reward.

Third, faith makes God’s Kingdom your ultimate vision and mission. Even though we don’t always have control or even clarity about our personal or organizational visions or missions, we proactively seek to align any areas of our influence with God’s stated plan.

How to build enduring habits

Think about the last time you felt seriously unproductive.

Not the casual “I feel like going to the beach and taking a day off”, but the “I don’t want to get out of bed and reply to dreaded e-mails” kind of unproductive.

Now, let me ask: Did you brush your teeth?

If you said “yes”, then you’ve experienced the remarkable resilience of ingrained habits. However stressful or depressed we may feel, they stubbornly keep us going. Like building relational redundancy, enduring habits are an effective way to stay productive in times of distress.

So how do you build a habit that lasts?

In this post, I want to use the prayer app Ceaseless as a case study for habit formation. For deeper insight, check out books like The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do In Life and Business (affiliate link) and Transform Your Habits: The Science of How to Stick to Good Habits and Break Bad Ones.

Case Study: Ceaseless Prayer

In one of his letters, the Apostle Paul writes, “Rejoice always, pray continually, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus.” (1 Thess 5:16 NIV). While there are several ways to interpret this verse in context, all of those ways include the notion of habitual prayer.

And therein lies a unique problem.

Despite the best of intentions, I know many Christians who struggle with prayer. Jesus characterized the problem as intrinsic to human nature with the famous words: “The spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak.” (Mark 14:38b NIV)

Can we apply science and technology to these spiritual problems?

I believe the answer is yes. Humans are both physical and spiritual beings. This overlap is precisely where technology can make a difference.

One common insight from the science of habit formation is the habit loop, a virtuous cycle characterized by Reminder, Routine and Reward.

Ceaseless helps people “pray continually” by nudging each part of this cycle forward.

Step 1: Reminder – Daily Notifications

Ceaseless prayer reminderThe first step to build a new habit is to connect it to an existing one.

Ceaseless does so by showing a daily reminder in your smartphone’s notifications. Since you’re already in the habit of checking and acting on your notifications, you’ll also remember to pray for others. Tapping on the notification opens the app.

Step 2: Routine – Praying for Others

Ceaseless pray for a friendKeep the habit simple.

When you open the app you see a person’s face, name and story (notes you’ve written to help you remember how to pray for them). Note: the very first screen is an inspiring picture and Scripture to help you focus.

You see everything you need and nothing distracting. The app has chosen three people from your contacts and all you do is take a moment to pray for each of them.

Step 3: Reward – See your Progress

Ceaseless prayer progress

Feel rewarded for completing the habit.

After you swipe through the people to pray for, you get a short-term reward: a progress bar shows how many people you’ve prayed for so far. You also see the number of days you’ve prayed for others.

The long-term reward is of course the joy of loving others and watching God graciously respond to your prayers for their lives.

The Result: A Habit is Born

After using Ceaseless for over a year, my prayer life has never been more consistent. I’ve been through some very difficult ongoing trials and to my surprise God has used the app to keep me from drowning in the seas of self-pity and despair. The daily nudge God-ward and out-ward to others has helped me press on in my calling.

For Christians: God has not left us powerless. While our flesh may be weak, we have been given the Spirit. Effective habit formation does not undermine grace, but is a good use of the grace God has already given us in order to obey Him.

Conclusion

Here are some ideas you can apply to your habit-formation endeavors:

  1. What existing habits can you use to start new ones?
  2. How can you simplify the habitual action so that it becomes sustainable?
  3. What short-term reward can keep you motivated until you start enjoying the long-term benefits?

There remains of course one important set of questions lurking in the background:

  • What habits are worth adopting?
  • What am I being productive for?
  • What’s the point?

These are the questions I plan on exploring in my next post.