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How Do We Make Disciples in a Digital Age? Jason Thacker

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Guest: Jason Thacker | Dr. Arnold interviews Jason Thacker about the influence of technology on Christian discipleship.

Topics of conversation include:

  • What we mean when we say we are living in a digital age
  • How technology is discipling us
  • Some obstacles that technology presents to Christian discipleship
  • How technology affects relationships
  • Advice for those experiencing technology fatigue
  • Some resources for further thinking about technology

Jason Thacker serves as chair of research in technology ethics and director of the research institute at The Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission. He is currently pursuing a PhD in Christian Ethics at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, and his writing has been featured in Christianity Today, USA Today, and The Gospel Coalition. Jason is the editor of The Digital Public Square: Christian Ethics in a Technological Society (B&H Academic, 2023), and has authored several books, including Following Jesus in a Digital Age (B&H Books, 2022), and The Age of AI: Artificial Intelligence and the Future of Humanity (Zondervan, 2020).


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Intro (00:00):

Welcome to Faith Seeking Understanding, a podcast from Phoenix Seminary—helping Christians grow in their understanding of the faith, hosted by Dr. Brian Arnold, president of Phoenix Seminary.

Brian Arnold (00:15):

We are living in an age of incredible technological advance. Here I am, recording in a studio with our amazing sound engineer, Ramon, reading from my iPad, and chances are that you’re listening to this on a streaming platform with earbuds, or while you’re driving a car. All of this would’ve been unintelligible 120 years ago, and for all of human history to that point. Technology has changed all of our lives. And we need to recognize that technology is both good and bad. And regardless of our feelings about it, it’s not only here to stay, but today’s technology will be ancient history very soon. We are on the sharp rise of the exponential curve. So we have a unique challenge that those who’ve gone before us didn’t have. How do we think Christianly in a digital age? What are the good aspects? What are the pitfalls? And how do we not only maintain our own Christian discipleship through the use of technology, but how do we train up the next generation who only knows this new digital age? Here to help us understand this question today, is Jason Thacker. Jason serves as chair of research in technology ethics and director of the research institute at the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, and is currently pursuing a PhD in Christian Ethics at Southern Seminary.

Brian Arnold (01:28):

His writing has been featured in publications like The Gospel Coalition, USA Today, and Christianity Today, and he’s the author of several books, including The Digital Public Square, The Age of AI: Artificial Intelligence and the Future of Humanity, and most recently, Following Jesus in a Digital Age. Welcome to the podcast, Jason.

Jason Thacker (01:48):

Thanks for having me, Brian.

Brian Arnold (01:49):

So we always ask our guests one big question, and today it’s this—how do we make disciples in a digital age? So maybe to start off, could you explain what you even mean by calling this “the digital age”?

Jason Thacker (02:02):

Yeah, that was something I really wanted to make a point of in the book, is that we do live in a very unique time. But it’s a digital age, meaning there are other ages to come. There will be more technology. There will be more advancements. But the blessing of our faith and the reality of the Bible, is that it applies to all times, and all contexts, to all people, because it’s the truth of God. And so it’s more than a sufficient guide to navigate a lot of the big pressing challenges of our day. But as you said in that big opening question is—how do we then disciple…seek to be discipled, and disciple others, when there are so many distractions and so many challenges before us? And that’s what I try to do in the book.

Brian Arnold (02:38):

Well, you make the point in the book that technology is actually discipling us, whether we know it or not. What does that mean, that it’s discipling us?

Jason Thacker (02:48):

Yeah, I think that probably shocks most readers when they see it, because in reality, we often think about technology as just merely a tool that we use. We use it for good reasons, or for bad reasons, or bad purposes. And it’s really not having an effect on us, per se. And this is just that tool-based approach. But when you go to the Scriptures, but you also look at the nature of technology, we realize that it is shaping us. It is kind of forming us in many ways. And in some ways it’s actually discipling us. It’s making us into its own image, in some sense. And I have a quick example of that is, you know, most of us go to bed with our phones next to us, and we do that last minute check right before bed. And then we wake up in the morning, the first thing we grab is our phone.

Jason Thacker (03:27):

And there was a documentary from a couple years ago that said the question isn’t—do you check Twitter in the morning? It’s—do you check Twitter before your feet hit the ground, or while you’re using the restroom? We have been trained and formed by technology, and by these tools, to feel like we always have to be on, we always have to connect, we always have to be networking, we always have to be kind of performing and showing ourselves in a particular way. And that’s one of the aspects of how technology is shaping us. It’s not just a tool we use, but it’s actually a tool that’s using us, and shaping us, and forming us. And, as we think about it as Christians, is discipling us. Are we being made into the image of the world? Or are we being made into the image of Christ? Because we are being discipled, it’s just what is doing that discipling?

Brian Arnold (04:08):

And I think that’s a really helpful definition for people as we begin, of thinking of discipleship as being made in the image of something, right? Like the whole point of Christian discipleship is we’re becoming more and more like Jesus. And the world is going to tug us in its direction, to become more and more like the world. And, you know, technology does have a neutral kind of imprint on our lives. You know, I talked recently to Tony Reinke, and he’s very tech-positive. I’m like a curmudgeonly old man who’s like—give me a fountain pen, and a notebook, and, you know, an old VHS player, something like that. But recognizing—we also live in a time of great human achievement, in terms of technology. And that’s not a bad thing. God created us to create. People are creating. It’s actually glorifying to him as we do these things. But we must be careful, because we are living in the first generation, really, of this new digital age. So what do you see, then, as some obstacles? I can already imagine, thinking about how if we’re checking Twitter at night and in the morning, it’s going to impact our Christian discipleships, as people maybe 200 years ago—the last thing they did was read Scripture. And the first thing they did in the morning was read Scripture. And now it’s Twitter. So what are some obstacles you see in the way that technology is creating an obstacle to Christian discipleship?

Jason Thacker (05:27):

Yeah, one of the main ways we see that is just how we’re always on. We’re always connected. I mean, listeners, regardless if you’re listening to this on your smart device or not, you probably have a phone or a tablet or a computer within about a foot of you at all times, all day long, even while you’re sleeping. And the reality is, is that even the gathered church might gather together a few hours a week. You might have some personal discipleship study, and reading of the Word of God, and prayer. And that may be a few hours a week, maybe 10 or 12 at the most, if we’re being gracious. But we’re with our devices 24/7. They’re always with us. And that exposure is shaping our perception. In reality, it’s shaping, discipling us—to see God in a particular way, to see ourselves in a particular way, as well as the world around us in particular ways.

Jason Thacker (06:10):

And that’s what I try to do in the book, is unpack some of those ways. Which one of the big ways I see is our perception of truth and reality. What is true, what is real? That shapes us in terms of social media, and technology in general. Also the way we think about responsibility. It’s not somebody else’s problem, it’s actually something that we’re dealing with as well. And we’re part of the problem, part of our society. As well as how we think about the nature of relationships and our identity, especially as Christ-followers. How we think about, how we engage with other people, how we love on them, how we’re commanded, even in Scripture, to love God and to love others, is that we are…inside, we are a relational type of people who are called to love God and to love others, which is focusing outside of ourselves.

Jason Thacker (06:54):

And so often technology causes us to focus inwardly, and kind of look to ourselves. And we see that kind of playing out in a host of different ways, from conspiracy theories and misinformation, to debates over governance and content moderation, and what big tech and what the big government should have access to, or control over. And then even just thinking about the way we think about relationships, and how we navigate a lot of the challenges before us. Technology is profoundly and deeply altering every single aspect of our life. And that’s one of the reasons I wanted to write a book like this, and focus on it, is because the Christian ethic has a lot to say about how we navigate a digital age.

Brian Arnold (07:30):

Well, I want to jump into a couple of those points that you made, starting with this crisis of truth. You know, growing up in the nineties—if the news reported it, or if you read it in a newspaper, you just felt like that was the most trustworthy thing you could have. It’s going to be fact-checked, and as bias-free as possible. And then, around 2016, you get this moment of “fake news” and “can we trust these things?” So we have more access to information, but probably a lot more questions about the reliability of the information that we’re getting. So how have you seen technology change all that?

Jason Thacker (08:08):

Yeah, and the reality is this didn’t even just start even five or 10 years ago. This has kind of always been a problem, in some sense, with technology. One of the most revolutionary pieces of technology in human history was not your iPhone, it was actually the printing press.

Brian Arnold (08:21):

Absolutely.

Jason Thacker (08:22):

It opened up the opportunity to not only read God’s Word in your own language, and to study these things, and to know more, but it also allowed the ability for misinformation, or fake news, or propaganda, to spread widely throughout our society. We see that kind of throughout the 19th and 20th centuries. But we see a particular kind of exponential shift and rise in that, especially in a digital age, in terms of technology and social media. And as you said, we saw this in 2016. By, I think it was 2016, the word of the year that year was “fake news.”

Jason Thacker (08:53):

This kind of jutted onto the scene, and kind of altered everything. And I’ve heard from a lot of pastors and ministry leaders, too, about how this is affecting the people in their church. About how they think about politics or society, how they think about their community, and even the Word of God itself. It’s profoundly altering how we see truth. But one of the things we have to be careful with in the study of Christian ethics and public theology, is to kind of reject kind of these simplistic understandings or trajectories, in some senses—that things are often a lot more complicated. It isn’t just your phone. It isn’t just Twitter or social media that changed everything. These things have long tails, and long histories, and long buildups. And so this is a very complex narrative, but essentially comes down to—it’s this kind of inward turn, inward focus.

Jason Thacker (09:38):

It’s my truth, my reality. It’s who I am, how I want to express myself. And that plays itself out in social media and technology. It plays itself out in sexuality and sexual ethics. It also plays itself out in just society and politics in general. And so, when we start to zoom out, we see that technology is an element of all of these other conversations that we’re having in our society. And we need to think holistically, not just about technology as a specific issue, as if we can have a checklist to kind of five ways to right your relationship with technology, but to see it as one of the crucial players, and part of the larger narrative of how our society’s changing and shifting. And I think that’s one of the reasons it’s behooved upon Christians to think deeply about these issues, and how all of these things connect together.

Brian Arnold (10:22):

And one of the words you’ve used multiple times is relationships. Technology is changing our relationships. Well, if we think about even the greatest and second greatest commandment that Jesus gave us, is to love God—that’s a relationship—and to love others—that’s a relationship. So the Bible’s constantly putting us in relationship with other people. So if we’ve got these, you know, if we’re on the cusp of this technology age, which is going to change relationships, well, that’s going to be a fundamental aspect of Christian discipleship. So how do you see it changing relationships, both vertically and horizontally? And then how do you counsel pastors who are coming to you, especially who want to know—how can I help my church think through discipleship and technology?

Jason Thacker (11:03):

Yeah, I mean, I agree especially with Tony Reinke, in some sense, that I’m an optimist in many ways. I’m an optimist, because I’m an eternal optimist. We already know as Christians the end of the story. It’s already written. Jesus is King, he’s sitting on his throne. So we can have kind of an eternal perspective. But we have to realize that technology is profoundly altering our society—for good and for ill. I’m able to even have a conversation with you because of technology. Many of the ways that we’ve connected or spent time with one another has actually been through social media, or through digital technology. So I don’t want to say it’s all bad, but there’s only a certain depth that can happen there. And that’s one of the things that we noticed throughout the pandemic, and a lot of the shutdowns, and things like that, was there was this longing to be in-person and connect with one another, because we’re embodied beings.

Jason Thacker (11:49):

God created us to know one another, to be in relationship with one another. And to be in a relationship with him. One of the things that technology does is it alters how we see each other. We start to treat each other as simply a means to an end, rather than an end in themselves. Meaning, we start to see people as just somebody to get ahead, somebody to connect with, somebody to have, to make us feel good about ourselves, or to kind of represent ourselves in a particular way. And technology aids that, and kind of inflames that in many ways. Because one of the things I always say is that technology doesn’t cause us to ask new questions of humanity per se, but to ask these age old questions of identity, relationships, responsibility and truth, in light of these new opportunities. Meaning that technology is kind of expanding our horizons. It’s expanding what we think is possible.

Jason Thacker (12:37):

And so what does that mean for the church? Well, one—pastors and ministry leaders have to recognize that our people are seeing so much information, and they simply cannot navigate it. We weren’t designed to navigate this much information. So that means that, not only having ongoing deep relationships and connections as the body of Christ, and as pastors to our parishioners, and connecting together through community groups and things like that, stuff matters. Gathering together as the church matters. Not just because we’re embodied people, but we also need one another. We need to be challenged. We need to have our eyes reoriented around the truth of the gospel, the truth of who God is, how he created us in his image, and how he calls us to live in this world. And so this is having a profound effect on the church, because we have a major discipleship, almost crisis, on our hands in terms of digital technologies. Just based on the amount of time we spend with these technologies, versus the amount of time we spend together as the body of Christ.

Jason Thacker (13:32):

And so, obviously, there’s so much to unpack there about how the church can respond. But one of the ways we do respond is not through panic, not through kind of throwing up our hands and saying, “oh I…you know, none of this stuff matters, we don’t really need to focus on it.” No—we can do so with a confident optimism. We can engage these issues seriously and realistically and understanding the complexities and the depths of them, but do so as a people of hope. We already know the end of the story. Jesus is already sitting on the throne, he’s already defeated death, and he calls us to live in a particular way to honor him and to love our neighbor as ourself. And so we can see that the Scriptures are more than a sufficient guide to navigate these challenges. But it takes time and intentionality if we’re going to do so in a way that honors God.

Brian Arnold (14:15):

So if God created us to be relational beings with one another, and technology is beginning to tear that apart—will nature win out? So is there going to be a rebound in the future, do you think, of people saying—you know what, technology was actually a bit toxic for us, and things like social media become on the decline? Or is it here to stay? And so let me give you just one illustration from my seat, as a seminary president, as we talk about online education, and a lot of pastors wanting to be trained online now. But they don’t want to have online churches. Right? So I struggle with this all the time, of how can we effectively train somebody online, and then tell them—but you need an in-person church, because relationships matter? And I have prognosticated several times, in hope that one day we’ll see a bit of an end to online education, because people will recognize—especially for training for ministry—it’s incarnational. We need to be in the room. We need to know our professors. We need to know our peers. And there’s something that happens in that process. So kind of using that as an analogy, do you see anything like that on the horizon of technology, where nature must win out?

Jason Thacker (15:23):

I would say yes and no in some ways. I can’t be super prophetic here, knowing exactly what’s going to happen. But one of the things that we saw throughout the pandemic, especially, was almost kind of a realization, almost like a society-wide kind of waking up to the power and the influence of technology. Because I was talking about these things and writing about these things well before 2020, and things like that. And it was interesting to see the way people thought about technology. It was kind of essentially good. There’s a lot of optimism—in some sense, unbridled optimism. And then that happens. And what happened to me, the way I understand, is that it didn’t really change things, fundamentally. What it did is it sped things up, in some sense. So I do think there is kind of a time that we’re coming to—and we’re already in it, in some sense—where people are a little bit more skeptical of technology.

Jason Thacker (16:13):

They’re trying to kind of research and talk about, and write about, and think deeply about the nature of technology and how it’s shaping us. But one of the things that I think we have to be honest, is that technology really isn’t going anywhere, per se. I don’t think we’re all going to get rid of our smartphones, or we’re going to somehow be able to disconnect—whether personally, or corporately, or even society-wide—and completely reject the use of these technologies. My hope is that we become wiser. And that’s really the thrust of the whole book is—how do we cultivate wisdom to navigate these challenges? Because they aren’t going away, per se. But I do think there’s kind of a waking up. But to your point about, especially with like online education, some of the flip side of that, though, is that people can actually be in incarnational ministry, not uprooting their lives and their families. They can be connected to their local church where they’re going to be serving.

Brian Arnold (16:58):

Absolutely.

Jason Thacker (16:59):

And so, really, there’s both sides of this. And that’s kind of illustrative, I think, of the nature of technology. There’s a lot of good of technology, but there’s a lot of dangers. And the problem is, is that we either focus solely on the dangers and can have a dystopian view, or we focus solely on the good aspects and have a utopian view. What I want to call Christians to, and call the church to, is to wisdom, and to a realistic wisdom to say—yes, there’s good here, yes, there’s bad here. But how do we then seek to navigate these things with wisdom and honoring God as we seek to love him and love our neighbor as ourself? And that’s really the core of the Christian ethic, and the core of how God calls his people to navigate and to follow Christ in a digital age.

Brian Arnold (17:39):

So what advice would you give, just pastorally, to the fatigued Christian, who feels like life is coming at them too fast, technology is a big part of that, and they just need to hit a pause button or something, right? I mean, we see the anxiety building in a lot of people’s lives. What would you say to them?

Jason Thacker (17:59):

Yeah, I think one of the things is to say—we can have a realistic understanding of what’s going on, but not to focus solely on the bad aspects or to focus solely on the good, is for some of us, it sounds really trite and simple, and almost simplistic, like too good to be true. But one of the best things we can do is to seek to slow down. One of the core elements of technology is that it’s always causing us to go faster, better, stronger, to seek the more efficient way to do something, to speed up. But one of the things about the Christian discipleship, and especially about the nature of Christian wisdom, even specifically that we see in the Proverbs, is that we’re called to slow down. And sometimes in that slowing down we can be reflective, we can be more thoughtful, we can focus on the things that matter, and to kind of shut out some of the noise.

Jason Thacker (18:44):

So a really practical way to do that is not to throw your cell phone away. Maybe some of us need to. So I don’t want to say that the heavy-handed approach is exactly what you need to do, but some of you may need to do that. Others of us, maybe it’s just having some downtime. On my phone—and my wife has the passcode, so I can’t change it—but about 8:15 every night my phone basically becomes a brick. I can barely do anything on it. And it doesn’t change that…go back to allowing me access to social media till about 7:30, 8 o’clock in the morning. Well, why? That keeps me from constantly being tied to my device. Is it perfect? No, but it’s a helpful tool in that. Or maybe a day a week where we can have a no-phone dinner, or a no-phone day, where we’re not kind of tied and always looking at our phones and our devices.

Jason Thacker (19:27):

This is a constant conversation in our family about—hey, can you put your phone down? Or—hey, can you do this? Or—what are you doing on your phone, can you be present with us? So think about the ways that you can slow down and disconnect, because gaining that space allows you the opportunity to reflect, to connect with God, and to connect with others, not mediated through technology. And so there are a lot of ways, but I think starting small, and being very thoughtful, and taking that time to slow down is one of the ways we can seek to start to cultivate wisdom for our digital age.

Brian Arnold (19:55):

I think that’s a really healthy approach—to recognize we can’t go one extreme or the other. It’s going to take wisdom and pacing to use technology in a healthy way today. However, technology’s not stopping. It’s not going anywhere. We’re going to continue to have even new technology that we have to keep thinking through—how are we going to do this? There’s a church here in Phoenix that recently launched their first virtual night of worship, where they use, everybody who’s engaged, uses an Oculus. And so they show up into this worship venue and worship together. And I’ll be honest, I had to pause and think—I don’t know if I love that. But is that where we’re even headed as a church? And surely not. And I don’t think they would say that that’s sufficient for all of time.

Brian Arnold (20:42):

But can we experience technology in these kinds of ways? And then I just think about our kids, and their kids, and their kids will never know the, you know, slower-paced technology that we had growing up. I don’t know when you, like the decade you kind of say was growing up, but for me it was the nineties. And I remember getting some new technology that was still like an answering machine. Like that was a huge deal. My friends can call me and leave a message. Well, now it’s in your pocket. And that’s just the world they know. So they’re going to accommodate to that in ways that the older generations—the Boomers, and then the Xers, and Millennials, who had kind of life before and after a lot of these major changes have happened. My kids, who are 11 and nine, won’t know that. They just know this life. And there’s something actually nice about that—that doesn’t feel maybe as shifting for them.

Jason Thacker (21:34):

Yeah. I think in many ways that a lot of times that’s talked about in terms of being a digital native. Meaning one who doesn’t know a time before these technologies. And what that does is it…it’s not like God is sitting on his throne going—oh man, I can’t believe they invented that! I don’t really know how to handle all of this. What do I do? No, God’s Word is sufficient. It calls us to be a particular type of people, to act in a particular way in the world, no matter the circumstances, especially the shifting and changing circumstances of our day. One of the blessings that we have is the wisdom literature in Scripture, which is where I focus a lot of the book on, is the book of Proverbs, and even the book of James in the New Testament. And one of the things it calls us to is…it’s almost as if the book of James and Proverbs is written for Twitter.

Jason Thacker (22:14):

You know, James 1:19—be slow to speak, slow to anger, and quick to listen. Man, we all need that. And so you can start to see the way that these truths of Scripture apply to these days, and the shifting and changing circumstances. And as we seek to raise up the next generation, we do so with hope. We do so with confidence. We do so tied and tethered to the Word of God and how he calls us to live in this world, because none of these things surprise him. None of these things kind of take him off guard. And so we’re called to be faithful, to keep our eyes fixed on the resurrection and the coming kingdom, and to seek to model that kingdom in this present age and present day. And raising up the next generation to navigate the challenges, but also the opportunities that are before them, that the church prior didn’t have, and didn’t have access to. And so thinking holistically, and looking at the good and the bad, but seeking to honor Christ and to cultivate wisdom, I think, is the best path forward for the church today.

Brian Arnold (23:06):

Well, I’m grateful for people like you who are reflecting on this question and helping us think through discipleship. I mean, this is the reality of the world, and as Christians, we need to be thinking through how we approach these, you know, technologies of today, and then what we’re going to do tomorrow as well. So, besides your books, which we mentioned earlier, what are some other resources you found helpful?

Jason Thacker (23:29):

Yeah, some of the resources might shock a little people, because you think—oh, if it’s going to be about technology, it has to be probably written in the last five or 10 years, because it’s probably out of date. Some of the most forward-thinking and helpful writings on technology are actually really old. So one of the guys I reference throughout the book is a French guy, named Jacques Ellul—E-L-L-U-L. And Ellul has written really helpfully in the fifties, sixties, and seventies about the nature of technology. And you’re almost thinking—he’s writing about social media, but he’s not. He doesn’t even know internet. He dies in 1994. So his book, The Technological Society, and some other lectures and books that he wrote are very, very helpful. A lot of things written by Neil Postman.

Jason Thacker (24:10):

Listeners may or may not be familiar with him, but Postman—Amusing Ourselves to Death. A book named Technopoly, talking about the way technology is shaping and forming us, I think is really helpful. But we also have to read a lot of these figures with kind of a clear head and open eyes, to say—you know, we may not fully agree with everything they say. So going back to some of those older primary sources is helpful, but also, as you mentioned earlier, Tony Reinke has written some very, very helpful stuff on this. Andy Crouch—especially his newest book on relationships and technology—is very, very helpful. There’s a lot of kind of an emerging kind of library of books that are coming out, almost each and every day. And it’s really encouraging to see the church start stepping into these questions, to not be as responsive and kind of…but to be more forward-thinking in navigating these things. And so I would say—go get some old books, but also grab some of those newer titles as well. They can be really, really helpful.

Brian Arnold (25:02):

Well, and again, I appreciate your work on this, in helping Christians be discipled through technology today, and how we can be good Christian disciples in this world. We need it. I know my family needs it, and we benefit from it. So thank you very much, and I appreciate you joining me today.

Jason Thacker (25:16):

Yeah, thanks for having me.

Outro (25:18):

Thank you for listening to Faith Seeking Understanding. It means so much to us that this content is helping you grow in your understanding of the faith. I want to take a moment to tell you about our new online learning experience at Phoenix Seminary. Over the last year, we’ve been creating what we believe to be the highest quality of online courses for ministry training. If you’re called to train for a lifetime of faithful service, but can’t join us on campus, I’d like you to invite you to join us online. Take courses featuring some of the guests you’ve heard on Faith Seeking Understanding, including Wayne Grudem, Mike Thigpen, Steve Duby, myself, and more. Learn more about Phoenix seminary online, and even access the entire online lecture content for my church history course at ps.edu/online.

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