In September of 2015 Mark Zuckerberg (founder and CEO of Facebook) addressed the UN as part of a movement seeking to ensure the internet is accessible for all people. He declared “ensuring [internet] access, is essential to achieving global justice and opportunity”. Zuckerberg is not alone in thinking that internet access is a basic human right; many foundations, charities and organisations have been formed in order to promote this idea.
Moreover, there are many organisations and companies working on making global internet access real. Google have announced their ‘Project Loon’, a network of hot air balloons drifting across the globe with connectivity. Facebook have announced their internet.org project. SpaceX and One Web both have plans to provide Low Earth Orbit satellites in a network that covers the globe.
Whether or not you agree that internet access is a human right, it is undeniable that the internet has a significant impact on our global society. An advocacy organisation called ‘A Human Right’ claim that a 10% increase in internet access in developing countries causes an increase in GDP of 1.28 – 2.5%. Robert Atkinson, president of the Information Technology for Innovation Foundation, cites research which shows the same 10% increase in internet access “is associated with a 1.7 percent increase in exports and a 1.1 percent increase in imports.”
Bill de Blasio, Mayor of New York City, has made big policy and investment decisions in order to improve the connectivity of NYC, particularly for the city’s poorest. An estimated 2 million people in NYC do not have internet access, but programs implemented by council to supply internet connectivity are having an impact in providing opportunities for those who previously had nothing.
Sugata Mitra installed computers connected to the internet in remote locations throughout India and left them to be used by the kids in the area. When he returned, the kids said “You’ve given us a machine that works only in English, so we had to teach ourselves English in order to use it.” They asked him for a faster processor and a better mouse. He discovered that “in nine months, a group of children left alone with a computer in any language will reach the same standard as an office secretary in the West.”
The potential the internet has for transforming the world we live in is astounding. With it, we can create truly revolutionary educational techniques like Sugata from above, or Khan Academy’s online videos. With it, we can reshape what it means to be in a democracy. With it, we can dramatically increase our ability to respond quickly and helpfully in disaster. With it, we can significantly improve healthcare outcomes. In a world where an astounding amount of information is processed every second, we have only tapped the surface of possibility.
In Facebook’s statement about its plans to bring the internet to the whole world, Mark Zuckerberg states “The internet not only connects us to our friends, families and communities, but it is also the foundation of the global knowledge economy.”
As a christian working in technology, I believe this potential for transformation has profound gospel implications. To paraphrase Zuckerberg, we are connected in new ways to the global community, not just to our friends and families. Our networks can be broader and further reaching, while also connecting with those close to us more intimately. We can disseminate information faster, further and more effectively than ever before. And we have a wonderful opportunity to both connect with and support the poor, needy and oppressed.
In order to capitalise on the gospel opportunities presented by the internet, there are three things I want to encourage churches, christian leaders and all other christ centred organisations (the christian community), to do.
Firstly, get onboard. I have seen a lot of churches who aren’t interested in, or are not open to, using the internet. These churches not only miss out on a huge amount of opportunities, from creating efficiencies in their administration to reaching people they otherwise would not connect with, but also often also struggle to stay relevant. On the other hand, the churches that embrace the internet find their ministries flourishing in many ways.
There are some great new internet technologies available for churches (and the wider christian community), and many great organisations leveraging the internet for gospel work. For example, Elvanto creates amazing database and church management software and GRN uses the internet to distribute Gospel stories to never-before reached people groups in their own language. There has been an array of mobile applications developed, some with translations of the bible, others with access to resources such as sermons and articles and still others aimed at creating better church communities. Organisations like Common Grace are doing great work using social media and other online tools to bring forward the cause of the Gospel, particularly for social justice. Our team at Open Box Technology is making internet based software which supports church services and kids ministries.
There is no doubt in my mind that embracing the internet and the many tools and applications available for ministry will allow the christian community to become more effective and better equipped at sharing and spreading the good news of the gospel.
Secondly, get involved. Using the internet well isn’t a passive process, it’s active. Sitting back, going with the flow, and just being a ‘user’ doesn’t allow you to get the most out of the technology. At Open Box Technology, our mission statement is to ‘help churches do technology better’. When I wrote that statement, I deliberately chose the word ‘do’ rather than ‘use’. I want us to help churches to be more than just users of technology, I want them to be actively involved in it’s creation, adoption and implementation.
This doesn’t mean that churches should become web development startups, rather they should be seeking to push the boundaries of the applications they use, asking “how can things be done differently and better” and always pushing software developers to improve the products they make. A great example of this is the community of elvanto users who are always asking for new features, and always suggesting small changes that significantly improve the product. The elvanto team are great at responding to these requests, and reap the benefits of an active community. At Open Box, we are developing some applications alongside some partner churches. We are really excited about the software we make, but it is only through the partnership with churches that we can create something actually helpful for them.
Thirdly and lastly, dream big. The internet is immensely powerful and flexible. There are few limitations to what it can be used for, particularly now that internet access is becoming more ubiquitous and global. An application developed in Australia (or anywhere else) can have a profound influence throughout the world (like 2fish5bread from Logosdor). We have an opportunity to use our God given creativity to design and create powerful new ways to give the world the Good News about Jesus.
However, I feel that the christian community is far from being at the forefront of innovation when it comes to the internet. I do see us utilising new technologies and appropriating them for Gospel purposes, and I do see us taking advantage of existing technologies in order to improve our ministries and churches. These are wonderful things; we should be doing them and we should keep doing them. But I don’t see us developing something new. I don’t see us investing money on research and development of innovative technologies. I don’t see a big vision to engage with the internet in new and exciting ways. Where are the christian versions of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation or the Rockefeller Foundation?
Furthermore, as followers of Christ we have an imperative to serve the poor and needy, and not just by proclaiming the gospel to them. Integrating social justice and gospel proclamation is a huge challenge, but is central to the idea of making disciples of all nations. The internet is a great and powerful tool that can help bring these facets together.
What can we do? What does this look like? I don’t know. But the power of the internet is incredible. With increasing access to the internet there is so much possibility for social justice and for the gospel. What can we achieve? What good can we bring to this world? What new ways can the internet enable us to spread the gospel to all nations? I don’t know, but I want to find out. It’s what gets me up in the morning.
This is a challenge I am embracing as I look at the future of OBT. I want to set us up on a journey to discover and explore what is possible. I want to continue to invest time, money and effort in thinking big and creatively. And I don’t want to be alone on this journey. I would love to see others take up this challenge as well. I would love to see a diverse community of people with far reaching ideas set on a path to discover the undiscovered. I would love to see technology that brings hope to the poor and needy, that builds loving communities based on the love of God and that spreads the Good News to those who have never heard it before.
Will you also take up this challenge? Will you embrace the internet and all it can offer for the Gospel? Regardless of it’s status as a human right, internet access across the globe will soon be almost universal. Will you take this opportunity to jump on board, get involved and dream big?
I would love to hear from you if you have any ideas or thoughts on how the internet can be used for the gospel. Please drop me a line at firstname.lastname@example.org.