Thursday, August 8, 2013

Technology limitations and the global church

Today's post is by UM & Global blogmaster Dr. David W. Scott, Assistant Professor of Religion and Pieper Chair of Servant Leadership at Ripon College.

Yesterday, I blogged about a couple of stories of United Methodists coming together in partnership to successfully deploy technology to further ministry in Africa.  Today, I'd like to take a look at some of the limitations of technology as a ministry tool in Africa and elsewhere around the world.

This reflection was inspired by discovering that UM Communications offers on online course in "United Methodism 101."  The course includes four modules and costs $10.  In itself, that's great.  It's a good thing for people to have more opportunities to learn about our denomination, and this resource may be especially useful for new members in small churches without the ability to do an extensive new member training.

Nevertheless, seeing this course and thinking about its potential uses made me reflect on the way the Internet is often talked about in American circles: as this revolutionary technology that totally reshapes or even erases geography.  Yet while the internet does significantly reshape geography and people in disparate locations can interact, it does not erase geography.

Geography still matters, even in the internet age, largely because geography is connected to access to the internet, as this series of visualizations nicely shows.  Africa is connected to the internet, but not nearly as connected as North America or Europe.  Thus, while online courses on United Methodism are a great resource for Americans and maybe Europeans, they're likely to be of limited use in promoting knowledge of the UMC in Africa.

Two other reasons why the internet is limited in its use to bring together United Methodists across the globe are language and cost.  This online course and much of the rest of the internet are in English.  While many United Methodists Africans, Asians, and Europeans do speak English, many do not.  English can only reach a limited audience.  Moreover, while $10 US is not that much for an American to spend on learning about Methodism, that price is much more expensive in a country with a significantly lower average annual income.

I'm not saying that this online course is bad, nor am I saying that the Internet is of no use in helping forge a global United Methodism.  I am saying, however, that as amazing as technology is, it is still limited in what it can do - limited in function, distribution, price, and access.  United Methodists should use technology to build global connectionalism, but they should also be aware of its limitations.

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