Today's post is by UM & Global blogmaster Dr. David W. Scott, Director of Mission Theology at the General Board of Global Ministries. The opinions and analysis expressed here are Dr. Scott's own and do not reflect in any way the official position of Global Ministries.
Four weeks ago,
I raised the question of what features of the world and its various
contexts in the 21st century might constitute new areas of mission, in
the same way that features of the world 50, 100, or 150 years ago led to
areas of mission work that we now consider central: education, poverty
relief, healthcare, etc.
This week, I suggest a fourth possible new area of mission work: access to electronic information technology. This area is in part a rethinking of a former area of mission work: paper-based information technology.
Missionaries were a key player in a previous wave of access to printed information. This type of print information technology mission was carried out through translation work, education, and printing. Missionaries were leading figures in promoting the development of written languages for previously oral-only languages. They were leading figures in promoting literacy in many languages, regardless of whether or not they were previously written. Missionaries (especially Methodist missionaries) started printing presses, newspapers, and magazines in many countries around the world, helping to democratize access to print materials.
The incentive for missionaries in promoting literacy was so that converts (and potential converts) could access religious writings--primarily the Bible, but also hymns, devotional texts, and other religious and theological works--and so that native Christians could communicate with missionaries and each other.
For those used to reading, it is easy to overlook the basic fact that literacy is not just a skill, but a skill at using a set of technology--pens, paper, and printing presses are all items of technology. Reading and writing is thus an information technology.
Yet when the phrase "information technology" is used today, it denotes not print material, but electronic communications equipment - cell phones, email, the internet, etc. All of these forms of technology depend upon skills of reading and writing built upon earlier, physical forms of reading and writing technology, but transposed into the medium of electronics.
Missionaries are not the pioneers of contemporary electronic information technology in the same way that they were of paper-based information technology. Businesses, along with education, government, and secular nonprofits lead the way here.
Yet it is worth asking why missionaries are closer to the forefront here. Is access to the Bible and other devotional and theological materials really only best done through paper? Are there no religious (or other missional) benefits to having access to the world of electronic information technology? Certainly many in the West use information technology to access the Bible, to receive daily devotions, to access online resources in theological, ethical, and other church-related materials. Why do we assume these materials are only appropriate or relevant for Western Christians? Is there no benefit to Christians around the world being better able to communicate with each other?
Access to the Internet varies significantly by country. While the average percentage of the population online in the 50 most well-connected countries is 84.4%, in the rest of the world, it's only 31.6%. Cell phones are much more widely available, and SMS messages along with apps like WhatsApp represent a significant, albeit more limited, form of information technology access for many in developing countries. Certainly, though, there is more to be done in providing access to electronic information technology
Moreover, The United Methodist Church is already doing work in this area. It is both distributing new forms of electronic information technology, such as the e-reader program for theological education in the central conferences, and using existing electronic information technology to new missional purposes, such as the use of text messages to combat the spread of Ebola.
These efforts are good starts, but certainly the types of work in this area of mission could be expanded. Thinking of providing access to electronic information technology as a basic form of mission work (and not just a nifty means to an end) would help to further such work. Moreover, seeing this type of mission work as a continuation of a long-standing mission focus gives historic emphasis to the work, even as it brings it into a new era.