We live in a technological age that is rapidly changing how we do business, banking, education, and on and on. Certainly there are disadvantages of being constantly in touch with everyone who demands our time and attention, and the anxiety caused by information overload is evident in the harried, hurried lives we live. Only the future will tell whether the ever-increasing velocity of new developments is new and better or simply “fast and furious.”
Missionaries and missions administrators have had to adjust to innovations just as much as every other field. More often than not it is the new missionaries who are introducing agency administrators to new developments, who must then decide whether the new ways are better or worse. In the book, Changing World, Unchanging Mission, I discussed contemporary global trends and changes and their missiological implications. As I have continued thinking about technological changes, seven developments are worthy of further consideration for the ways they have changed the way we do missions.
- Ocean travel versus air travel
It sounds ridiculous to just now be evaluating the benefits of jet travel, and it would certainly be so if the evaluation sought to determine the best method for traveling to the field. No, the point here is simply to recognize the changes that the speed, ease, and affordability of contemporary international air travel have brought to deploying missionaries – not to decide whether or not we should return to ocean travel.
Only a generation ago, many missionaries traveled to their countries of service on ships that required several weeks to arrive. The first day after waving good-bye to loved ones at the dock was hard, the next day the processing began, and by the time the missionary family arrived on the field, they were renewed in their sense of God’s call and excitement to get started. Today, the missionary leaves family and friends at the TSA checkpoint and arrives within hours. In fact, many do not completely leave home because technology allows them to remain in constant touch. Blogs, emails, FaceTime, and Facebook allow a virtual community to continue.
- Postal letters versus iMessage
As late as the 1990s, a missionary needing to communicate with their home office or a family member would write a letter and mail it. The letter would take two weeks to arrive in the USA, and if the recipient sat down that very minute and wrote back, it would be two more weeks before the answer arrived – if it ever did. Missionaries were “on their own” more often than now. In our age of constant and uninterrupted communication the missionary may be able to get an answer to a question within seconds. Depending on the issue, that could either be a great blessing or stunt his or her growth and leadership development.
- Special occasion calls versus 8 calls per day
Because of the great expense, hassles of having to go downtown to the phone company to place an international call, and then the frustration with poor connections if it ever came through, missionaries were only able to call home on special occasions such as Mother’s Day, birthdays, or Christmas. Technology has changed all of that. A missionary told me that with her Vonage (voice over Internet protocol) phone, she talks to her Mom about 8 times per day. “After all,” she said, “it’s the same as a local call, just as clear, and I used to talk to her that much everyday. So, why not?” I can think of some reasons why not, and I suspect you can too.
- Quarterly prayer-letters versus blogs and email updates
Before email, there was snail mail, and it was aptly named. The missionary would wait for several months of ministry before sending out the family newsletter. It would be typed, copied, stuffed into hundreds of envelopes, and then mailed back home to churches and families who would read them, collect the exotic stamps, and pray for the missionary family. Today missionaries have access to immediate prayer updates and communication methods that are much less expensive and cumbersome. The blessing is that the missionary can let prayer supporters know of a crisis prayer need, or supporters know of a financial need, on the same day that it arises. The downside is that many missionaries complain of the hours they must sit in front of the computer answering follow up emails from supporters who want to know “immediately” how a situation was resolved. Updating a blog is amazingly easy, inexpensive, and can keep everyone in the loop much more efficiently but may multiply hours online.
- Landlines and paper notebooks versus iPhones
The required telephone wires that once were strung throughout countries limited telephone communication in many countries. Today’s cell phones leapfrogged right over landline requirements and enabled virtually everyone to have a phone. SIM cards are used for distributing gospel truth and messages may be sent and deleted easily in creative access locations. My missionary aunt once changed planes in Singapore in pre-cell phone days and realized about 30 minutes into her next flight that she had left her address book and calendar at the pay phone in the last airport. All of her phone contacts, calendar of committed events, and vital information for ministry were gone – with no digital copy or backup. Today’s iPhones not only have cloud storage capabilities, they are digital photo albums of family, calendars, and house a myriad of useful apps for international living.
- Snapshots and Polaroids versus Skype and FaceTime
I remember the pictures that would arrive in the mail from my aunt and uncle showing how much my cousins were growing and their family’s ministry. Today we may Skype and FaceTime with our missionary friends and families and see them in real time as we talk to them. Those who enjoy this technology today and take it for granted will never know the wonder of how Dick Tracy’s television watch fired our imaginations. As a parent of missionaries and a grandparent of MKs in another country, I am so thankful for the technology that allows me to see them, hear their laughter, and listen to their sweet voices telling us exciting activities of that day.
- Learners versus Finders
This is much like the difference between exegesis and eisegesis in biblical interpretation. The former unpacks a scripture passage and discovers what’s there, the latter goes to the Bible having already decided what he is going to find and reads that into it. In former times missionaries went to the field as a sort of blank slate and learned the language, the culture, developed relationships, and explored life in a new land for themselves. Today’s missionaries have the blessing and the disadvantage of the internet. The blessing is being able to research and go forewarned. That is also the disadvantage. Many simply find what they expect to find, and reinforce negative stereotypes when they get off the plane. They embrace unfair assessments that were formed by someone who had a bad experience.
In each of these seven changes there are pro’s and con’s of the change. Each of us must steward technological changes by embracing them, saying, “No thanks,” or finding the balance that is best for us.