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The Death of Distance

Embracing technology for spiritual applications

In 1997, I read a fascinating book called, The Death of Distance, by Frances Cairncross. Before the digital revolution really was underway, Ms. Cairncross predicted that life would be significantly altered with Internet technologies. Global, real-time communications would be enabled.  Employers would soon be able to look for talent, not only in their own urban area but from a mountaintop far away.  They could just find the best talent, regardless of location. Technology would bridge the distance gap.

Over the years, this vision came fully into focus. Now it is common for many knowledge workers to be employed without geographic proximity being a major consideration. Employees often work in virtual teams. We can only imagine how terribly impacted our economy would be if virtual work from home had not been available.  A primary limitation we will always experience is time zones.  These need to be respected carefully. The workplace revolution has been underway for over three decades. In many ways, the revolution is already quite well established.

We’ve generally not had such a shared vision for ecclesial life, though I suppose we have all seen vast changes in our personal ecclesial lives. Social media, despite all of its concerns, allows us to broaden our ecclesial network and share joys and sorrows in real-time. During the COVID-19 pandemic, our ecclesial life has quickly transitioned to online meetings and Bible classes. Names like “Zoom” and “Vimeo” may have been unknown to many prior to March 2020, but they have been largely demystified during this crisis. If one wants to participate in a streaming memorial service, there are multiple options and a wide variety of geographies to choose from. During the pandemic, while we may feel largely isolated from work or friends, our ecclesial life was too essential in our lives to be fully paused. I have been pleased when seniors in our ecclesias have openly embraced these technologies and connected during this time of isolation. Many of us have found great comfort in virtual fellowship. It is not an intended or reasonable replacement for gathering ourselves together, but it is a valued alternative.

It is during times of crisis that most innovation occurs. We think differently when we find ourselves constrained or limited.  The proper use of technology for our community is to explore ways that we can come closer to each other and reach more who are searching. The creativity that I have observed by brothers and sisters has been exceptional. The streaming of memorial services and Bible classes has blossomed in ecclesias. They are excellent, especially during this pandemic, but unfortunately, they don’t easily facilitate interaction from the viewers.  Beyond this, I have seen ecclesial work continue with arranging brethren using Zoom-type meetings. I have seen sister’s classes and fellowship meetings that have raised the level of intimacy, particularly as technology brings others right into our own homes.  One group of sisters all shared dessert virtually during a video conferenced class! Brothers and sisters are using Zoom to continue meetings with interested friends at a time when meeting together would not have been possible. I am aware of at least one public seminar that switched to virtual when the pandemic interrupted the planned meetings at a local hotel.

There is risk, of course. When the pandemic ends and we are able to gather together again, it is essential that we do so. We need to encourage each other to return as soon as it is safe. Virtual fellowship must not replace the assembling of ourselves together. We cannot let the convenience of streaming services govern our decisions about where to be on Sunday morning. We also need to support our local ecclesia and not “shop” for speakers or topics that may be more appealing online somewhere else.

I suspect that there will be change coming to our community and it may modify the way we think about participation and fellowship. Jesus told the woman at the well of Sychar that it wasn’t at a place that true worship would occur, such as Mt. Gerazim or Mt. Ebal. But the time now was at hand for true worship to be done in “spirit and in truth.”  Where we worship has never been about the place — one of the very essential understandings we have about what the “ecclesia” really means. We are the ecclesia and wherever we are, the ecclesia exists.

The opportunity for our community is not to see our participation in streaming and video conference technologies as episodic, something we only employed during the pandemic. Rather, we need to turn our minds to think about how these available technologies can supplement and improve our interactions and service. How can we better meet the needs of our community? There are technologies now available which enable broadening our interactions as well as developing intimate groups to discuss and share, regardless of distance. Technologies may facilitate staying in touch better during the week, between ecclesial gatherings. They can also help us to broaden resources to work on ecclesial projects. Without forsaking the gathering of ourselves together, how can these technologies nurture greater “touch” throughout the week? This time may be a great opportunity to involve our young people in these technology solutions.

One author described believers today as living in a “digital Babylon.” We are exiles, surrounded by the idolatry and sinfulness of the world we live in. Ours is a message of faith and hope in a world of great darkness. Let’s use the digital resources that God has permitted to not only survive, but to thrive as we long for our Lord’s return beside the waters.

Dave Jennings

The Death of Distance: How the Communications Revolution is Changing Our Lives, Frances Cairncross, Harvard Business School Press, 1997.
Faith for Exiles, David Kinnaman and Mark Matlock, Baker Books, 2019.

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