“5 Future Technologies the Church Isn’t Prepared to Address” is written by Joe Terrell, Carey’s content manager. Joe’s writings for Medium, Relevant, Carey Nieuwhof, and his personal blog, Instrument of Mercy, have been read by over three million people.
From the invention of the printing press to the advent of the internet, the church has a pretty decent track record of leveraging new technology to further the mission of the church.
However, the past five decades have seen more technological advancement than in the previous five centuries. As the rapidity of innovation continues to advance, fascinating ethical and moral conundrums are introduced quicker than we can form a coherent opinion on their application.
In this article, I will explore five future technologies that will pose significant moral dilemmas for the church’s future. I’ve arranged them in order of how soon their effects will be felt in the future.
So, for example, the consequences of the first two technologies I profile – Big Data and artificial intelligence – are already being felt (and will increase exponentially). And while the final few technologies may sound like far-flung science fiction, significant research and progress are already being made in their respective fields.
And before we get started, I want to acknowledge the futility of making future predictions – especially in regards to technology. Watch any science-fiction film or television show from the mid-20th century that “predicted” what life would be like at the turn of the 21st century and prepare to be humbled.
At the same time, do you think anyone living in 1950 would’ve guessed they’d have access to all of the world’s collected knowledge and entertainment through a device that literally fits in the palm of their hand?
#1: The All-Knowing Algorithm
Have you ever had one of those moments when you’re talking about something with friends and, a few hours later, you receive an ad in your social media feed related to that exact thing?
“My phone must be listening to me,” you think.
The truth, I assure you, is much more discomforting.
The advent of the internet created a new type of gold rush – only the “gold” isn’t shiny rocks buried in the ground…it’s you. Or, perhaps more specifically, all of the data you provide.
We all select “I Agree” to the Terms & Conditions for any new app, product, or service we start using. And most of us click “Accept All Cookies” when prompted by a website pop-up.
Every time you agree to share information, new data is added to a personalized digital profile that is sold to advertisers. This is how “free” sites on the internet (like any social networking site) generate revenue. Advertisers then use algorithms – or coded formulas – to make connections between data sets that are used to analyze and predict human behavior.
How robust are these digital profiles? Well, as of 2018 (so definitely outdated), Facebook’s internal algorithms monitored 52,000 data points (or “traits”) per person. And that’s just one site. Google’s digital profiles average 2GB per person (and, yes, you can download that profile).
So, back to that creepy “my phone is listening to me” feeling. Yeah, your phone doesn’t need to spy on your conversations – the truth is you willingly hand over enough information to the major tech companies that “targeting” you with relevant online content requires no espionage or subterfuge.Your phone doesn't need to spy on your conversations. You willingly hand over enough personal information to make that kind of corporate espionage irrelevant. – @iamjoeterrell Click To Tweet
Whether we realize it or not, we’re being subtly observed and manipulated every time we go online by algorithms that “know” us better than we know ourselves. And from the virulent spread of “fake news” and ever-increasing political polarization, these algorithms are already impacting the “real world.”
What does all of this mean for the church moving forward?
I don’t want to mince words here: Tech companies like Google, Apple, and Meta know more about you than any pastor, spouse, or “accountability partner” can ever hope to know.
Additionally, as more data is collected, tech companies will become increasingly adept at capturing and maintaining their hold on people’s attention – on an individual level. In the so-called “attention economy,” more eyeballs (and time) equates to more money.
What This Means for the Church
As machine-learning algorithms improve, the church will face increasing competition from social media platforms, streaming services, online retailers, and – in the not-too-distant future – virtual reality “metaverse” experiences that can better engineer, predict, and “fulfill” the felt needs of their audiences.
In a head-to-head battle, a church that relies on entertainment and spectacle to keep people in the seats will lose out to tech companies that do it better. The algorithm is just too good. But flashy entertainment and shallow consumerism are not the ingredients to a life well lived and loved.
Instead, churches will need to double down on what an algorithm can’t provide: Sustainable community, interpersonal discipleship, and a life-giving mission bigger than a single individual.
#2: The Rise of Artificial Intelligence
At the tail end of 2022, artificial intelligence went mainstream.
Quirky and dramatic A.I.-generated artwork and profile pictures flooded our social media feeds, and OpenAI’s ChatGPT quickly became the biggest tech story of the year.
In pop culture, a lot of media about machine-learning A.I. focuses on dystopian visions of computers gaining consciousness, rising up, and hunting humans. While undoubtedly entertaining, the more immediate threat A.I. poses is automation and its impact on the job market.
And while “creative fields” were once thought safe from A.I., we now know that’s not true. Not only has ChatGPT “killed” the college essay, but people are already using A.I. software to write advanced code, compose music, and write (and illustrate) children’s books.
Some of these fears may be overblown, but people “tend to overestimate the effect of a technology in the short run and underestimate the effect in the long run” (Roy Amara). Because here’s the wondrous and scary truth about artificial intelligence: It will continue to improve.People "tend to overestimate the effect of a technology in the short run and underestimate the effect in the long run” (Roy Amara). Click To Tweet
What This Means for the Church
Let’s be honest: Will you really be able to tell the difference between an A.I.-composed worship song and one mass-produced by the Christian music industry? Would it matter?
If your pastor got up on Sunday morning and delivered an A.I.-written sermon to the congregation, would you notice if they didn’t tell you beforehand?
What about an A.I.-generated prayer or homily?
However, I don’t think pastors and clergy need to worry about A.I. taking over their jobs. As the world increasingly relies on A.I.-assisted programs, workflows, and algorithms, the inherent value of flesh-and-blood interactions will also increase.
Additionally, if the rise of A.I. does lead to a massive disruption in the job market, the consequences on a culture that derives much of its value and identity from “what I do for work” will be profound.
In the future, we’ll need spiritual shepherds to guide us to deeper places of meaning as meaning is taken from us.In the future, we’ll need spiritual shepherds to guide us to deeper places of meaning as meaning is taken from us. – @iamjoeterrell Click To Tweet
#3: The Sanctity of (Extended) Life
At the dawn of the 20th century, the average human lifespan was about 45 years.
Today, a little over a hundred years later, the average human lifespan is roughly 77 years.
But during that same time period, the quality of life across all ages significantly improved, as well. Think of it this way: A century ago, 25 would’ve been considered at least middle age.
Advancements in the quantity and quality of life were made possible through a growing body of scientific knowledge and evidence. From germ theory and better public sanitation projects to life-saving vaccines and less medieval medical treatments, the odds of living longer than your parents and grandparents increased exponentially during the 20th century.
What if it happened again?
What if by 2100 – not as far away as you think – the average human lifespan increased by 52% (just like it did between 1900 and 2000)? That would mean the average person would live to about 111.
Every year, we improve at detecting and treating life-threatening illnesses and diseases. We know more about human physiology, diet, and wellness than ever before. Advances in gene editing (which we’ll discuss below) promise even more long-term health benefits.
If increases in our technology and knowledge go unimpeded, 111 by 2100 could be a conservative estimate. At the same time, some researchers caution that we’ll only see modest gains (of about 10 years) in the next century.
So, what would happen if 70 became the new 40? Well, for starters, increased longevity would have a significant impact on how people approached their careers, relationships, and politics.
Take marriage, for example.
People are already getting married and starting a family later in life than in previous generations. If you knew you could potentially be spending a century with someone, would you decide to postpone marriage and “settling down?”
Or think about your career aspirations.
Would it really make sense to have someone choose their field of study when they’re a teenager when they may not be able to retire until age 80?
If you’re having trouble wrapping your head around these questions, think of it this way: Within the scale of human history, retirement is a modern concept, and it used to be commonplace for people to get married and start a family in their early teens.
What This Means for the Church
Conventional wisdom holds that as people age, they become religious. But that may not be the case – especially when it comes to religious involvement. As Carey shared in his 2023 Church Trends post, the Baby Boomer generation is the generation most likely not to return to church after the pandemic.
A lot of ink has spilled – both literal and metaphorical – about how the church can appeal to the hearts and minds of younger generations. But not nearly enough attention has been spared to older generations. And as our lifespans gradually increase over the next several decades, “Senior Adult” ministries will become even more vital than they are now.
As the Baby Boomer attrition rate proves, churches need to stop taking the older adults in their congregation for granted. Yes, engaging the younger generation is important, but equally important is continuing to equip and involve older generations into the life of the church. And it’s best to start now because fifty years from now, 70 is going to look a whole lot different than it does today.The lifestyles of the future will probably feel just as foreign to us as the lifestyles of those who lived in the distant past do to us right now. – @iamjoeterrell Click To Tweet
#4: Genetic Modifications ‘R’ Us
In 1999, the human genome was successfully mapped for the first time.
This means we had a rudimentary understanding of which genes contributed to specific physical and genetic traits. And since 1999, our knowledge in this sphere has grown exponentially (think of the 23andMe test kits).
In short, CRISPR is a powerful tool that scientists can use to easily edit genomes, meaning researchers can alter DNA sequences and modify gene function.
Imagine eliminating certain diseases from your family’s genetic line, or increasing your child’s capacity for intelligence before they’re even born. Now you can grasp the tip of the CRISPR iceberg.
Now, genetic engineering is still in its infancy, but a substantial amount of research and development is being poured into this field. And while talk of “designer babies” may sound far-fetched, babies have already been modified in the womb using CRISPR technology.
Obviously, genetic engineering sets off dozens of blaring alarm bells for ethicists, scientists, philosophers, and Hollywood screenwriters. And for good reason.
However, in the next few decades, it’s probable that CRISPR technology will catalyze a revolutionary new field of medicine, one that will spur endless debates about the limits of “playing God.”
This possible future isn’t without historical precedent. The technological advances we take for granted today would’ve been considered science fiction less than a century ago (and downright God-like five hundred years ago).The technological advances we take for granted today would've been considered science fiction less than a century ago (and downright God-like five hundred years ago). – @iamjoeterrell Click To Tweet
But aside from the raging theological debates and church ethics, the socioeconomic implications of genetic editing will undoubtedly prove to be another ethical battleground.
In the first installment of The New York Times‘s “Op-Eds From the Future” series, science-fiction author Ted Chiang penned a disturbingly prescient essay titled “It’s 2059, and the Rich Kids Are Still Winning.”
Chiang imagines a near future in which genetic editing and enhancements are commonplace, but only among families who can afford them.
In other words, if genetic editing becomes culturally acceptable and it’s expensive, a new brand of classism may emerge: People who can afford to be genetically upgraded and those who cannot.
What This Means for the Church
Genetic modification is poised to become the next great ethical dilemma for the church. More likely than not, it’ll make the debates around abortion and same-sex marriage look like child’s play.
If the technology becomes more readily available and acceptable, genetic editing will change everything about life on Earth. And even if you (or your church) find it morally reprehensible, that won’t stop other people from using the technology to give their children a better life.
Fifty years from now, will a genetically-enhanced person feel welcome at your church? What about the parents who decide to remove a cancer gene from the genome of their child before they’re born? And where is the line between using CRISPR-tech to heal and enhance?
This sounds like a conversation for the future, but it’s also a conversation we’re all having right now in a lot of other ways. For example, is your church only for people who think, look, and act (or were born) just like you? It really comes down to a prideful prioritization of conformity over unity.
Because, after all, a child born with a modified genome is still a child born in the image of God.
#5: Join Us in the Cloud
At the start of this article, I warned you that the further you progressed down the list, the more outlandish-sounding the technology would become.
Well, buckle up.
This idea of saving and uploading one’s consciousness has been a staple in science-fiction films and books for decades. And, yes, it sounds like pure speculative fantasy – and it probably is.
But that won’t stop people from trying to attain immortality through technology.
In his book Homo Deus, social anthropologist Yuval Noah Harari writes, “Having reduced mortality from starvation, disease, and violence, we will now aim to overcome old age and even death itself…In the twenty-first century, humans are likely to make a serious bid for immortality.”
If immortality is the quest, then digitized consciousness is the Holy Grail.
It works like this: With enough storage capacity, computing power, and knowledge of the inner workings of the mind, we may – theoretically – be able to create a copy of your consciousness and upload it into a digital world.
But, like starting work on a cathedral your great-great-great-great children will have to complete, the technological requirements for such a feat are generations away from practical fruition. But the groundwork is already being laid.
What This Means for the Church
This blending of technology and biology to enhance the human experience is called “transhumanism.” While the movement is more philosophical than technical at the moment, it is gaining traction.
In her thought-provoking essay, “Ghost in the Cloud,” Meghan O’Gieblyn explores the startling similarities between the future imagined by transhumanists and the eschatology shared by many evangelical Christians.
Both groups believe that humankind will one day be taken up into a “cloud,” the dead will be resurrected, we’ll be given new bodies, and everyone will live forever on a transformed Earth.
The primary difference between the two views is the agent of change. For transhumanists, it’s the evolution of technology; For Christians, it’s the return of Jesus.
Meghan O’Gieblyn writes,
“What makes the transhumanist movement so seductive is that it promises to restore, through science, the transcendent hopes that science itself obliterated.”
Absolutely no one alive today – even with the possibility of extended lifespans – will live long enough to grapple with the moral dilemma of digitized consciousness. And that’s assuming if it happens at all.
Like I said above, if you’re reading this article, you won’t have to worry about encountering this dilemma in your lifetime. But, as a church leader, it brings up a lot of fascinating questions about the limits of faith and science.
Human intellect is an incredible gift from God, and the application of it through science has undoubtedly increased our quality of life on Earth. But it’s also given us the ability to destroy the planet a thousand times over. Just like today, navigating the moral dilemmas of the future will require a healthy appreciation of history, wisdom, and philosophy.
Because just because we can do something doesn’t always mean we should.
The Future Will Be Weirder Than You Think
Amid all of this speculation, it’s important to remember that technology is a morally-neutral tool. How humanity decides to wield it will be the true test.
Technology will continue to innovate regardless if it has the church’s blessing or not. That was true 500 years ago, it’s true today, and it will be true in the future. Technology’s future will create new ethical dilemmas and possibly require an “upgraded” code of ethics.It’s important to remember that technology is a morally-neutral tool. How humanity decides to wield it will be the true test. – @iamjoeterrell Click To Tweet
Regardless, when it comes to the future, expect the unexpected. While the thought experiments I shared above are fun to engage with, they probably don’t hold a candle to what life will look like 30, 50, 100, or even 500 years from now.
The lifestyles of the future will probably feel just as foreign to us as the lifestyles of those who lived in the distant past do to us right now.
And if you don’t believe me, imagine trying to explain a viral TikTok dance challenge to a medieval peasant living in the 15th century.Imagine trying to explain a viral TikTok dance challenge video to a medieval peasant living in the 15th century. The future will be weirder than we think. – @iamjoeterrell Click To Tweet