This blog is part of our series entitled “Techno-Sapiens in a Networked Era: Becoming Digital Neighbors,” following the theme of the upcoming 2019 Missiology Lectures (October 30 – November 1). The lectures and this blog series will explore connections between technology, neighboring and the global body of Christ through reflections from Missiology Lectures guest speakers and SIS faculty members. For more event details, click here.
In the year 2000, I was one of several authors who noted that the growth of awareness of world Christianity coincided with the emergence of the “world wide web.” At that time, the web image with its nodes and links seemed to exemplify an ideal of Christianity as globally widespread, locally rooted and interconnected. This was not merely an analogy but actually reflected a new reality, or at least possibility, of a truly worldwide Christian communion.
Thanks to the economic and political globalization that took place after the end of the Cold War, it was possible for Christians who had been separated into East and West to re-connect and, where Christianity had been suppressed – such as Eastern Europe and China, it could thrive. Technological means opened up other parts of the Christian world where other infrastructure was weak, such as parts of Africa. At the other end of the spectrum, the phenomenal development of digital technology in South Korea contributed to its Christian influence globally.
At that time, the web image with its nodes and links seemed to exemplify an ideal of Christianity as globally widespread, locally rooted and interconnected. This was not merely an analogy but actually reflected a new reality, or at least possibility, of a truly worldwide Christian communion.
Teaching world Christianity in the West becomes much more exciting when you can show videos of worship services in India or Zimbabwe, live-link your classroom with students in Malaysia or Brazil, browse websites of Christian art from China or Ethiopia, and research opinions of Christians in another region through social media. Online teaching allows access to classes by people from many different regions and enables the rich experience of a global classroom.
The networked era allows for sharing theological resources between North and South, East and West (for more ideas, see https://www.lausanne.org/content/lga/2017-11/unlocking-theological-resource-sharing-north-south). We can record and learn one another’s histories through open-access resources like the Dictionary of African Christian Biography (https://dacb.org/) and build ongoing relationships through chat and messaging apps.
However, this is only one side of the reality.
Theologically, the image of the world wide web for world Christianity is flawed, because its idealism hides the ground realities of sin and injustice.
The internet and social networking are not a panacea for these deep-rooted problems of domination and exclusion. The kingdom of God is the answer to that.
The growth of the internet is remarkable, and it is true that it has enabled hitherto undreamed-of global connections. The ability to access it through different platforms and the growth of satellite technology has enabled Christians in poorer parts of the world to join in as well.
However, interconnection can mask the fact that inequitable relations persist and are even heightened in the networked world. Not only is the infrastructure for access far from evenly spread, new barriers are being erected to limit freedom of access and engagement because of politics and abuse.
The egalitarian ideal of the early years of the internet created a lot of opportunity for hitherto unheard voices and for boundary-crossing initiatives. However, it is increasingly clear that the winners were largely those who already had privilege, and that the excited participation of millions was taken advantage of by the few to build new online empires. Countless people have become victims of trolling, extortion, and other forms of online abuse. What is more, there is increasing evidence that social media divides rather than unites people.
Digital technologies may have shifted the centers of power slightly, but they have not changed the underlying fact of inequality in access to power and the exercise of it. The internet and social networking are not a panacea for these deep-rooted problems of domination and exclusion. The kingdom of God is the answer to that.
The networked world is just another area in which we are called to exercise values that in the early days of Christianity were “turning the world upside down” more fundamentally than the internet – or any new form of technology – ever did.
The heavenly kingdom is not a virtual reality, but a physical one. It was created together with the earth and its people. The networked world is just another area in which we are called to exercise values that in the early days of Christianity were “turning the world upside down” more fundamentally than the internet – or any new form of technology – ever did.
The church has always struggled to express its catholicity or universality in ways that also honor diversity and do justice to the poor. New media presents opportunities to address this challenge afresh. It does not of itself generate equity and inclusion. But it does make the community of disciples of all nations more imaginable. And it offers tools for realizing a globally-connected, mutually-sharing Christianity.
Kirsteen Kim joined Fuller Theological Seminary’s School of Intercultural Studies in 2017 from her native England as Professor of Theology and World Christianity. She also brings experience from India and South Korea.