Thoughts on the ERLC’s Statement on AI

The Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission (ERLC) of the Southern Baptist Convention recently published a widely shared statement on Artificial Intelligence.

As a founding member of the AI & Faith Consortium via Theotech, I was asked for some personal thoughts on the statement, which I wanted to share through this blogpost.

News outlets like Christianity Today, Religion News Service and The Christian Post reported on the wider response to the statement.

Others have produced some thoughtful work prior to this statement and I’ve spoken and been interviewed on the topic of AI and Faith as well.

A Good Start with Good Intentions

First, I was glad to see people making a contribution to the conversation around faith and AI. It’s something I hope other Christian organizations and denominations do as well.

Unfortunately in its present form, I felt like the statement focused too much on grounding its principles in human dignity instead of what God is doing through technology to fulfill the Scriptures.

This means that for people who research, develop, train, and use AI in their work, the document doesn’t provide much ethical guidance beyond the human rights promoted by the UN and the privacy practices of the Western world.

The statement may help Christians reaffirm their beliefs, values and tenets, but it’s not helpful as a document to operationalize.

Could I take this statement into the Google (or Apple, Amazon, Microsoft, Facebook, etc.) board room? Maybe not.

Does it provide substantive moral and ethical guidance for the engineers, scientists and product managers in these companies? Would it help Christians in the tech industries of Europe, China, Russia or elsewhere in the world?

I think these questions show that simply affirming human dignity as creatures made in the image of God doesn’t get us very far in the present ethical conversation around AI.

What’s Interesting

I was happy to see the final article on the “Future of AI”. It’s one place that I felt went beyond boilerplate ethical statements about technology to address some of the unique questions artificial intelligence brings up.

It tries to address the following questions:

  • Will AI surpass human abilities (i.e. superintelligence)?
  • What role does the church have as AI pervades and dominates more of society?
  • What does AI reveal about what it means to be human?
  • To what degree can AI bring about the world we hope for?
  • What is God’s purpose for AI?

These are very weighty topics and since Article 12 is only two paragraphs long, I think it’s the questions themselves that are more valuable for Christians to think about and discern.

Discerning how God is using AI (and how we should too)

The statement rightly speaks of God’s omniscience and redemptive plan for creation. However, it fails to proclaim God’s design in the advancement of technology to bring about God’s cosmic purpose to unite heaven and earth in Jesus Christ through the Church.

Our discoveries and work in AI while powerful and dangerous are also directed by a sovereign God to help bring about the future the Scriptures bear witness to. And for Christians, that is exceptionally hopeful. God is using AI and we Christians get to join God in directing it to fulfill God’s purpose.

Ethics for us is interwoven with vocation.

For such a task, the Christian role is not simply to preserve human dignity, but to also carefully seek the will of God so we can prophetically discern and say what unique contribution God is calling every Christian to make in the disruption AI is inevitably bringing to all of society.

Appendix

Brief thoughts by article:

Image of God – This section is a good foundation for the statement–I only wish it included “the Purpose of God” for technology.

AI as technology – Upholding human dignity/mitigating suffering/promoting flourishing is good, but may not be the ultimate telos of technology. Again, I wish the statement affirmed that God is using technology such as AI to fulfill his purpose in Jesus Christ to reconcile humanity to its Creator and that we affirm the use of AI towards that very same end.

Relationship of AI & Humanity – Thoughtful section on responsibility, but hard to operationalize in practice. Once you’ve created an autonomous agent you can hold its creator or operator responsible, but sometimes they really don’t have control.

Medicine – I’m not well-versed in medical ethics, but this section sounds good. I think the last sentence speaks to the question of transhumanism. It assumes transhumanism comes from a materialist/consequentialist worldview, but the two do not have to coincide.

Bias – The issue with bias is that our training data for AI comes from past human decisions and datasets. So AI naturally amplifies the biases we’ve practiced for a long time. I think this article should have addressed the human aspect of the problem more thoroughly.

Sexuality – Sex technology has existing for a long time. The issue with AI would seem to be the substitution of human beings with artificial bodies and minds. The article could do more to address this, which is potentially even more problematic than the present pornography crisis.

Work – I loved this section, including how it calls out the dignity of work and rest by not using AI to pursue lives of pure leisure. (Check out my friend Al Erisman’s Theology of Work project).

Data & Privacy – Privacy is jeopardized by the idols of money and power. I think this addresses the power issue, but not quite the money issue, which is a big problem in the West at least.

Security – Sounds standard. I wonder if they could have affirmed the use of AI to preserve and promote individual freedom and responsibility via better self and community-based policing. There’s also some challenges around easily abused tracking technologies, social credit scores, etc.

War – AI is easier to proliferate than nuclear weapons. This article reiterates that humans are responsible without providing guidance on how AI can be used in war ethically. This is an issue some Microsoft, Google and Amazon employees were concerned about because of their company’s Pentagon contracts. How can Christians in those companies serve their companies and countries in the deployment of their skills in wartime?

Public Policy – This article focused on public policy governing AI, but I wished this article addressed how AI can benefit civil liberty and righteous governance. This would guide conversations like how to ethically use big data to make policy decisions, which AI may one day be making on the fly.

The Future of AI – I already gave my thoughts on this earlier.

Diversify your Dopamine Portfolio

After a 24-hour hackathon last weekend, my body feels out of whack. I’m staying up late, have a hard time focusing, and waste hours playing an addictive game on my phone.

I’ve run hackathons before. This year was great because I got to take on a supportive role to a friend from Microsoft who led it.

So why do I feel burnt out?

Simultaneous to running the hackathon, my company launched a campaign called Project Pentecost. One of our promises is a powerful video in many languages that churches can play on Pentecost to cast vision for diversity in the church that reflects the Kingdom of God.

(sign up to get it when it launches :-))

We were filming across the hall from the hackathon.

Turns out that pulling together fluent speakers of 10 languages in one place to shoot a high quality video is very stressful! Aside from calling in tons of favors, there’s the pressure of promoting what we’re doing so it gets widely used.

So what does this have to do with “Diversifying your dopamine portfolio”?

Sleeping in and vegging hasn’t help me recover. Here’s what I’m trying instead.

Recovering from Burn Out

Dopamine is a neurotransmitter that gives us pleasure. All the networking, pitches, filming, outreach and connections this weekend probably overloaded my neuroreceptors.

(Disclaimer: I’m not a doctor–these ideas are inspired by a conversation with my brother-in-law who is one, but errors & oversimplifications are my own).

Some of us have a lower baseline that makes us more susceptible to addictive or obsessive behavior because a single pleasurable experience can cause a spike that we crave again and again.

A person with a higher baseline of dopamine receives a pleasurable experience as a good thing to be enjoyed, but continues to feel positive even when the stimulus is gone.

This got me thinking: I need to diversify my dopamine portfolio.

If I’m couped up in front of a computer (or my phone, which is a highly optimized “dopamine delivery mechanism”!) doing mentally/emotionally exhausting work, I only get four sources of “reward”:

  • Achieving something at work
  • Phone notifications (could be stressful too)
  • Eating something tasty
  • Watching TV or a movie at the end of the day

The latter two feel more like coping mechanisms than actual refreshment. Thus, I’m more at risk for addictive behavior like endlessly scrolling through Facebook, mindlessly watching YouTube videos, or constantly checking my inbox.

The Alternative

If on the other hand, I do a 15 minute workout, eat good food, put in a few hours of focused work that delivers a result, connect with a friend, go for a run, practice violin, read a book and play a game with friends, I have so many varied sources of dopamine that my risk of addictive or obsessive behavior is drastically reduced.

Even if I have a bad day in a few areas, there are other sources of enjoyment to counteract them. And a single spike of euphoria is less destabilizing.

Diversifying your dopamine portfolio results in greater emotional resilience.

Learning to Rest

In school, I was focused on optimizing one metric: Grade Point Average. It sort of worked, but resulted in a very stressful and narrow life. It also produced addictive behaviors.

Now, I’m increasingly appreciating the significance of rest or “sabbath” as well as the value of the liberal arts.

Liberal Arts

First, the liberal arts promote the love of learning and a breadth of experiences as an essential part of what it means to be human.

This includes creating and consuming great literature, art, dance, sports, music and the great diversity of creativity that falls under the heading of “the humanities”.

It asks the timeless philosophical questions of “What really matters in life?” and “Why?”

And it promotes intellectual humility and curiosity about how life works in everything from quantum physics and astronomy to sociology and religion.

The liberal arts help us diversify our dopamine portfolios as we seek to experience the fullness of what it means to be human.

Pro-tip: it’s not just maximizing a metric like money or GPA ;-).

Sabbath

Second, the biblical command to rest on the Sabbath can be interpreted as wisdom from the Creator who uniquely wired human bodies with neurotransmitters to give pleasure not from one main activity, but from a vast array of experiences that let us fully live into what God made us to be.

These feedback loops can be hijacked, corrupted and compromised, but in their original design it’s so brilliant that we have a carefully designed mechanism for reinforcement learning (to use the term from AI research), which helps us learn what it means to be made in God’s image, what it means to be human.

God gives six days for people to work and enjoy the pleasures of achievement, provision, growth, mastery and the like. And on the seventh day, God set aside time for people to enjoy the fruits of their labor, to enjoy Creation and to enjoy God.

It’s a day to rewire our dopamine feedback loops so we can experience ALL of what it means to be human, not just the work part.

It’s a day for our souls to unfold after being worn down by the toils and hardships of the week.

We get to remember that our worth goes beyond our productivity, success and contribution to society–we get to rest and enjoy life because we’re made in the image of a God who rests and enjoys.

A Digital Kingdom for a Digital World

This talk was originally delivered on September 15, 2018 at the GottDigital conference in Darmstadt, Germany.

Outline / Slides

Manuscript

Brothers and sisters in Christ, I am honored to be with you today to share about the grace of God, in activating a movement of believers in the technology industry to use their gifts to advance the Gospel.

Guido, thank you for the invitation to speak and for the labor of love you have put into organizing this conference. I’ve already learned so much from you about what God is doing in Germany and I hope that the stories I share today will accelerate the good work that is already happening here.

My goal today is to share 3 things:

  1. How have I seen God use digitalization to build the Kingdom?
  2. How is God using digitalization to bring about our future?
  3. What is God calling us to do today?

By the end of this talk, whether you are a technologist, a pastor or a student, I hope you come away with the conviction that God wants to use you to build His Kingdom through the digital transformation we are experiencing and gain a clear idea of what your role could be in the movement.

So let’s begin by briefly considering the impact of digitalization in general.

The Impact of Digitalization

I grew up in the era of long distance telephone calls via landline. It’s hard to believe that thirty years ago, making a phone call from Seattle to Indonesia could cost up to $1/minute.

That price made calling home a very special occasion. I remember my dad would gather the entire family in our living room to make sure we each got a chance to say “hi” to grandma and hear her laugh. We had to schedule the time for the call to make sure we called when she would be available. And once we connected, every minute was precious.

Today, my dad chats all day long with his siblings in Indonesia over WhatsApp. He’ll do a video call with my grandma whenever he feels like it. And best of all, the price is free. Free unlimited video calling to halfway around the world.

The digital transformation has taken less than thirty years to completely change how we communicate.

And this change is accelerating.

This is an oversimplified timeline of some communication history highlights.

First, God created Adam and Eve, breathed life into them and gave them the gift or technology of spoken language.

Eventually, around 3200 BC, writing was first invented and developed over time to include alphabets and ideographs.

Then it takes four thousand six hundred years before Gutenberg invents the printing press in Europe around 1440 AD, introducing the technological basis for mass communication, the Renaissance, the Reformation and the Scientific Revolution.

Around 500 years later in 1948, Claude Shannon lays the foundations for digitalization with the introduction of Information Theory. For those who are not familiar with it, let me quote an MIT Technology Review article on the significance of his discovery:

Shannon showed how the once-vague notion of information could be defined and quantified with absolute precision. He demonstrated the essential unity of all information media, pointing out that text, telephone signals, radio waves, pictures, film and every other mode of communication could be encoded in the universal language of binary digits, or bits-a term that his article was the first to use in print. Shannon laid forth the idea that once information became digital, it could be transmitted without error.

From there, it took about 50 years for IBM mainframes to give way to personal computers running Microsoft Windows and for the Internet–or the world wide web specifically–to be created in 1990 by Sir Tim Berners-Lee.

Then in 2007, Steve Jobs introduces the iPhone to the world, ushering in the smartphone and mobile internet revolution.

And 5 years later in 2012, a stunning breakthrough by students of University of Toronto Professor Geoffrey Hinton in applying deep neural networks to image classification spurs the current Artificial Intelligence Resurgence. It is also the year that Facebook reached the 1 billion user milestone.

From 5000, to 500, to 50, to 5 years, the pace of communication technological breakthroughs keeps accelerating exponentially.

This is the Digital Transformation we’re experiencing.

So what impact does it have on God’s Kingdom?

I think there are some very obvious examples such us:

The distribution of the YouVersion Bible App, which in April 2017 had been downloaded more than 268 million times, making 1492 versions of the Bible freely available to people on their smartphones in more than one thousand languages.

The proliferation of church and evangelism websites and Christian blogs, along with the influx of Christian content in social media platforms like Facebook, YouTube, Apple Podcasts and Twitter. Many people who would not otherwise have access to the Gospel because of social stigma or legal bans are hearing the message through these platforms.

The creation of specialized IT applications for churches and ministries like church administration software, worship lyrics presentation software, Bible study software and donor relationship management systems.

These are all very clear examples of how God is using digital technology through churches in the present age.

However, I believe there is a much bigger story about how God is using digitalization to build His Kingdom, one that goes beyond incremental improvements to how Christians practice their faith in the day-to-day and connects more broadly with God’s cosmic purposes.

That is what I wish to speak about today.

How God is using digitalization to bring about our future

As Christians living in a digital age, we have the unique challenge of figuring out what this transformation means for God’s story and our place in it.

As this timeline shows, we believe so many of the most significant events of human history have happened in the ancient past.

The creation and fall of humankind. God’s judgment on creation through the flood. The confusion of languages and division of peoples at the Tower of Babel. The call of Abraham to be father of a chosen nation that would bless the world. Israel’s enslavement in Egypt and subsequent Exodus to the Promised Land. The giving of the Law of Moses and the eventual formation of the Kingdom of Israel. The anointing of a human King whose descendant would build a house for God. The construction of the Temple and its subsequent destruction due to Israel’s unfaithfulness to the covenant with God. Israel’s exile and return along with a promised new covenant. The reconstruction of the Temple. And of course the birth, death, burial, resurrection and ascension of Jesus Christ, followed by the outpouring of the Holy Spirit and the proclamation of the Gospel to all creation.

How is God using digitalization to drive forward this story that He has been telling throughout human history? How is God using digitalization to bring about the future that He promised from the beginning?

The answer is that He is doing it through the Body of Christ. He is doing it through us.

To demonstrate this, let’s read several excerpts from Paul’s letter to the Ephesians.

The first passage is Ephesians 1:7-10; 18-23.

In [Christ] we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of sins, in accordance with the riches of God’s grace that he lavished on us. With all wisdom and understanding, he made known to us the mystery of his will according to his good pleasure, which he purposed in Christ, to be put into effect when the times reach their fulfillment—to bring unity to all things in heaven and on earth under Christ.

This is the mystery of God’s cosmic purpose: to bring unity to all things in heaven and on earth under Christ.

I pray that the eyes of your heart may be enlightened in order that you may know the hope to which he has called you, the riches of his glorious inheritance in his holy people, and his incomparably great power for us who believe. That power is the same as the mighty strength  he exerted when he raised Christ from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly realms, far above all rule and authority, power and dominion, and every name that is invoked, not only in the present age but also in the one to come. And God placed all things under his feet and appointed him to be head over everything for the church, which is his body, the fullness of him who fills everything in every way.

The unity that God wills is brought about through Christ as head over the church, the Body of Christ. God brings about this unity by uniting us with Christ.

Let’s continue by reading Ephesians 2:6-10, 18-22

And God raised us up with Christ and seated us with him in the heavenly realms in Christ Jesus, in order that in the coming ages he might show the incomparable riches of his grace, expressed in his kindness to us in Christ Jesus. For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God—not by works, so that no one can boast. 10 For we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.

This is where God’s cosmic purpose becomes personal. By grace, through faith, we are raised with Christ and seated with him. We are God’s handiwork, God’s product. God made us and he made us for a purpose: to do good works. Not random good works, but specifically designed tasks, “hand-crafted” by God.

For through him we both have access to the Father by one Spirit.

Consequently, you are no longer foreigners and strangers, but fellow citizens with God’s people and also members of his household, built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the chief cornerstone. In him the whole building is joined together and rises to become a holy temple in the Lord. And in him you too are being built together to become a dwelling in which God lives by his Spirit.

Now God’s cosmic purpose becomes communal. In Christ, God is joining us together as individuals into a beautiful house, a holy temple for the Holy Spirit to live in.

Next let’s read Ephesians 3:6-11; 3:20-21

This mystery is that through the gospel the Gentiles are heirs together with Israel, members together of one body, and sharers together in the promise in Christ Jesus.

I became a servant of this gospel by the gift of God’s grace given me through the working of his power. Although I am less than the least of all the Lord’s people, this grace was given me: to preach to the Gentiles the boundless riches of Christ, and to make plain to everyone the administration of this mystery, which for ages past was kept hidden in God, who created all things. His intent was that now, through the church, the manifold wisdom of God should be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly realms, according to his eternal purpose that he accomplished in Christ Jesus our Lord.

Now to him who is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine, according to his power that is at work within us, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, for ever and ever! Amen.

So tying this back to God’s purpose of unifying heaven and earth we see that God does it through the Church in Christ Jesus and that is how God’s wisdom is displayed and God’s glory revealed.

Let’s pause here and think about a few things that digitalization has done to the church, the people of God:

First, digitalization has disrupted the old ecosystems and gatekeepers. Before, you had to go to seminary in order to become an accredited pastor and teach at a church. Today, the Internet has made it possible for anyone to write a blog, share a song, or broadcast a sermon to share their message with the world. This sounds like the orderly and participatory worship described in 1 Corinthians 14.

Before churches would compete with other churches for attendees on Sundays, but today churches compete with everything under the sun for people’s attention. Before people had to buy physical bibles, in much of the world today the bible is ubiquitous and free. This sounds like a good thing.

Second, digitalization has connected previously impossible relationships. Our conference organizer Guido found me by searching the Internet, found Code for the Kingdom, heard one of my talks on YouTube, connected over email, talked with me on Skype and finally, after many months we met face to face a few days ago when he picked me up at the airport. This relationship would not be possible without digitalization, but look at what God has made possible through it. It resonates with God’s purpose to bring people together in Christ.

Third, digitalization has increased the scope of our responsibility to God and the world. Before obeying Jesus’ command to love your neighbor as yourself was limited in scope to your neighborhood, your place of work and local community. Today, digitalization and the Internet have put the world in our pockets. The world is our neighborhood now, which means the scope of our responsibility to love our neighbor has increased by an order of magnitude. That sounds like it fits with God’s plan to bless the world through the Church in Christ.

God is using digitalization to disrupt, reform, renew and empower the Church to fulfill her destiny.

What is God calling us to do today?

So in light of God’s cosmic purpose and the role of digitalization in bringing it about, what is God calling us to do today? What role does God have for you in the Kingdom?

In Ephesians 4:11-16, the apostle Paul wrote:

So Christ himself gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the pastors and teachers, to equip his people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ.

Then we will no longer be infants, tossed back and forth by the waves, and blown here and there by every wind of teaching and by the cunning and craftiness of people in their deceitful scheming. Instead, speaking the truth in love, we will grow to become in every respect the mature body of him who is the head, that is, Christ. From him the whole body, joined and held together by every supporting ligament, grows and builds itself up in love, as each part does its work.

Our role in God’s Kingdom is to do our part so that the Body of Christ is built up in love. The Church as the Body of Christ is like a spiritual infrastructure or scaffolding that unleashes us to use our gifts to do the good works God has prepared in advance for us to do–to use our most effective and productive gifts to build up the Body of Christ into the Temple of the Lord.

So let me ask for your opinion:

How well are our church institutions today fulfilling this function?

Are there ways they can better equip the saints and unleash them to use their gifts, to do the good works God prepared for them?

I want to share one model that churches and communities like this one can use to fulfill this function. It’s called Code of the Kingdom.

Code for the Kingdom is a hackathon and movement that brings together Christian technologists, entrepreneurs, designers, analysts, pastors, missionaries and other creatives to build technical solutions to Kingdom challenges. Thousands of people around the world have used their gifts and passions to advance God’s Kingdom through these events.

The hackathon model has also been adopted by other Christian organizations like Intervarsity, Cru’s Indigitous, KingdomCode, FaithTech and others.

Let me play a 2 minute clip to give you a feel for the experience.

[ Play https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hNCyqX-4PBY ]

So let me walk through an example of what it’s like from a prior Code for the Kingdom Hackathon.

  • At the beginning of the event anyone with an idea will have 2 minutes to share it at an open mic. So 15 ideas means ~30 minutes.
  • Then each person with an idea gets a sign and everybody mingles to chat and decide which team they want to join.
  • They will form teams and brainstorm about how they can take the idea to the next step. Then they implement the idea and prepare for a final presentation for it. Some people pull an all-nighter, others take a nap–either way, it’s lots of food and lots of fun.
  • On the last day of the event every team has the opportunity to pitch their project to a panel of judges. These judges get to vote on the projects they want to award with seed money to help it grow. The audience also gets to vote for a “people’s choice award”.
  • Then we end with a prayer and blessing and everyone goes home energized and inspired with new ways they can use their gifts to advance the Gospel.

The hackathon model is flexible way to help people use their gifts for the gospel in community with other like-minded people. It doesn’t have to be a large scale production. In fact I started by hosting simple hack days at my home with just a few friends.

These kinds of experiences bring people together, not just to talk, but to do something. They create an opportunity for people to use their gifts for the Gospel. They are an opportunity for each son and daughter of God to discover their calling and how to use their gifts to do the good works God has prepared for them.

Now one of the challenges we faced with Code for the Kingdom was including people who were not technical. We did not want to limit the event to only coders, designers and startup founders. So we tried several things like having technical workshops, having Bible teaching and a prayer track and mentors.

But as I thought about the situation a bit more, I realized something incredible: many of the key people who made Code for the Kingdom possible were not coders!

So for everyone in the audience who isn’t technical, let me share a few different personas to help inspire you with ideas for how you can use your gifts as a part of this digital movement for God’s Kingdom.

The Entrepreneur Persona

The first persona is the entrepreneur. You may not know how to code, but you have an idea and are willing to sacrifice to make it real. You have taken responsibility to do whatever it takes to give birth to an initiative and help it grow.

My friend and mentor Chris Armas is a good example of that. He is the founder of the Code for the Kingdom hackathon movement. I have his permission to share some of the trials that led to the movement, so let me share with you the origin story.

Chris is a serial entrepreneur, originally from Venezuela who started his career in business creating interfaces for operating trains.

After achieving some success in the business world, he longed for something more. As he put it, he wanted to live a life of significance, not just success.

Long story short, Chris was asked to join a church growth think tank called Leadership Network to lead a church planting initiative in India. Tens of millions of dollars were allocated by a major donor’s foundation towards the endeavor and they had a mission of planting thousands of churches within the next few years.

Immediately after he got that invitation, he got a competing offer to run CitiBank’s International Wire Transfer division–a very lucrative position. He asked for the discernment of his mentors and through the counsel of several brothers and sisters in Christ, discerned that God was calling him to India.

Confident in God’s call, Chris dove headlong into the work, applying the experience and wisdom he gained through the marketplace to the task at hand.

However, all was not well.

During a surprise trip to India, Chris was not welcomed with open arms. The local partner refused to meet him and he realized that they had been cheated. As he interviewed pastor after pastor that the grant was supposed to fund, he discovered that they were getting paid less than a third of the stipend that they were to receive per month. There was systemic corruption.

Chris returned to the United States depressed and they withdrew from the program entirely.

The initiative that Chris believed God had called him to serve in was over.

Why did God call him out of the marketplace to lead such an initiative? What was he supposed to do now? Look for a job?

Oftentimes responding to God’s call does not produce the results that we expect.

At the request of the founder of Leadership Network, Bob Buford, Chris joined a team to leverage the connections between innovative and entrepreneurial movements within the Kingdom. The idea was that by bringing together innovators, entrepreneurs, leading nonprofits and Kingdom investors, they could catalyze an ecosystem that would bear a lot of fruit.

Believing that God had called him out of the marketplace for a reason, Chris started to explore other possibilities and came across Startup Weekend. This is a weekend where aspiring entrepreneurs rigorously test their ideas by talking to potential customers, collecting real-world feedback on their idea and pitching to an audience of judges. Winners get seed money to start their companies and everyone who participates gains hard-won, rigorous experience.

Chris flew to Silicon Valley to experience one of these weekends himself and he came away inspired by what such an event and movement could mean for the global church. Why?

He realized that technologists and entrepreneurs, the startups changing the world were the culture makers and influencers of our digital age. He realized that this vitality and entrepreneurial energy could transform churches to empower the people in the pews to use their most excellent and valuable gifts to advance the Gospel.

Chris once said to me that he felt like a rhinoceros because he couldn’t see very far in front of him, but had to charge forward by faith into whatever God had next. He would always remind me that God has prepared many good works for us to do, not just one single work. The hard experience of discerning the will of God and failing taught him to stay open to the Lord’s leading instead of being fixated on why his plans failed.

So like an entrepreneurial rhinoceros, Chris charged forward, creating the concept for a Christian hackathon, pulling together the resources and the team to debut a world class event in the heart of Silicon Valley. He brought together leaders from the technology industry, local churches, non-profits, VCs and global ministries so they could spend the weekend together, connecting with like-minded individuals in order to create technological solutions that would advance God’s Kingdom.

He called it: “Code for the Kingdom”

And a movement was born.

This is the role of the entrepreneur.

You may not be a pastor. You may not code.

But your ministry is hearing God’s call, stepping out in faith, making the sacrifices, shouldering the risks, adapting to constant change, and bringing together the relationships and resources necessary to create value and fulfill the mission God has given you. You are essential to building up the Body of Christ.

The Pastoral Persona

The second persona is the pastor. How do pastors use their gifts and skills in a digital movement?

Well, I’d like to introduce you to Shamichael Hallman. He was a pastor from Tennessee who heard about the first Code for the Kingdom and immediately jumped on a plane to attend.

Today he works in civic technology and authored the first book about Code for the Kingdom titled, “Hacked: How a Christian Hackathon is Shifting Traditional Engagement Models and Creating an Ecosystem for Life-Transforming Technology”

While many pastors may view digitalization as just a way to expand their reach through a social media presence, livestreaming worship services and making sermons available for download, Shamichael viewed it as more.

He viewed it as–dare I say it–an opportunity to reform the church. What do I mean?

Pastor Shamichael noticed that many churches were not effectively engaging with the people creating technology. Many pastors lacked a robust theology of technology, they viewed it as a morally neutral tool that was for other people to worry about. At best, they would think about how technology could help church programs and goals. They weren’t awake to the way digitalization was changing the world around them and they so often overlooked the people in their pews who were leading the digital transformation.

In many churches, the technologists creating the software that runs the world are merely asked to run a powerpoint, create a church app or lead a small group. Hasn’t God gifted them for so much more?

As a pastor, Shamichael wanted to offer the church a new model for discipleship. He wanted to help churches better fulfill their role of empowering and unleashing Christians in the technology industry to use their gifts to bear witness for the Gospel. And in order to do so, he had to practice what he preached.

Even though he isn’t a coder, Pastor Shamichael participated in several hackathons, pitching ideas, collaborating with teams and affirming people that God is calling them to use their technical gifts in significant ways to build the Kingdom.

He went so far as to write the first book documenting the Code for the Kingdom movement. It’s called: Hacked: How a Christian Hackathon is Shifting Traditional Engagement Models and Creating an Ecosystem for Life-Transforming Technology.

In his role as a pastor, Shamichael has stood out as a powerful encourager who continually prays for Christians in the technology industry and reminds them that whatever else the world or the church may say, God has truly gifted and empowered them to use their technical gifts for the Gospel.

The Missionary Persona

Third is the missionary persona.

I can’t show his picture, but my friend Chris–I have so many friends named Chris–is another member of the Code for the Kingdom movement. He’s been an organizer and participant, but what I think is unique is the way he views digital technology in relation to his work as a missionary.

Instead of simply being a user of technology, he wants to create it. He wants to make technology that can be a force-multiplier for missions work.

Although he is not primarily a coder, Chris is leading a team of developers to build a Salesforce for missions. They are creating an open source platform that missional networks use to connect people interested in Jesus with network members for in-person follow up.

Already, the platform has been deployed for two missional networks as well as many individual missions teams. And these groups are already reaping the benefits. As you can see in this chart from a North African missional network to the unreached, out hundreds of thousands of people who see an ad impression, thousands inquire about Jesus resulting in hundreds of in person follow ups and a few baptisms, new churches and new church planters.

You can get a case study of the impact of the technology at kingdom.training and you can participate in the open source project by visiting disciple.tools.

Even if you cannot code, as a missionary, you can be involved in digital projects as a team leader, tester, trainer, promoter, user and so much more. In doing so, you use digital to accelerate the Gospel.

The Wildcard Persona

Last, but not least I want to talk about the wildcard persona.

This is my sister and co-Founder Natasha. She’s a very talented person, but if you ask her “What are you good at?” she often shrugs her shoulders and says, “I don’t know…”

I want to share her story because I realize that some of you may feel like: “I’m not a techie, entrepreneur, pastor or missionary…is there a role for me?”

Natasha will be the first to tell you that the answer is “Yes!”

My sister is a former Treasury Analyst at Amazon. She was responsible for accurately transferring hundreds of millions of dollars between Amazon’s bank accounts to ensure all payroll and other expenses were properly funded every single day. I remember that she even had to handle Cash Operations for Europe for a time, meaning that she would get up at 4am to ensure Amazon’s European bank accounts were properly funded.

I think this sounds impressive, but Natasha is perhaps too modest to acknowledge it.

But what does cash operations have to do with the gospel? How can she use her gifts for the gospel?

Well until my company becomes as large as Amazon, there may not be a way for her to directly apply that skill in our context.

But she took her operations background and adaptability to help make Code for the Kingdom happen in Seattle multiple times.

Natasha would fill in the gaps, encouraging people when they felt overwhelmed, collaborating with people who needed a team or felt like they had no skills to contribute, handling logistics and food preparations to ensure the entire event went smoothly. She sourced merchandise, created marketing materials, helped run ads and much more to make the event possible.

By overcoming her self-doubt, she adapted and took on many jobs that made her ambiguity over her gifts not a weakness, but an asset.

So, I say to you today, even if you feel like you have nothing to offer, the truth is you do. And you must.

The Holy Spirit has gifted you even if you cannot see it yet and your heart to see other people activated for the Gospel and willingness to do whatever it takes is a powerful gift in and of itself.

Conclusion

As followers of Jesus we must have the conviction that God has given us the digital skills, resources, capabilities and tools of our day for reasons that go beyond entertainment, productivity, profit and communication as good as these all are.

We must accept the responsibility God has given us to reform, renew and transform the future so that it reflects the Kingdom of God and bears witness to the Gospel: that Jesus Christ died for our sins, is risen from the dead and will return to give us a new Creation free from Satan, sin and death and full of righteousness, peace and life. This Gospel of the Kingdom will be preached as a testimony to all nations and then the end will come.

That is our hope isn’t it?

Yes, we weep for the world to repent and receive mercy and healing from God. And we are ultimately hoping that Jesus will return to judge the world for its injustice, immorality and idolatry and give eternal life with true joy, true wealth and glory in a beautiful restored world to everyone who believes in Him.

Our job as Christians living in the Digital World is to ensure that this transformation is used for the Gospel.

Today, God is calling you to use your digital gifts for the Gospel.

Will you be a developer for the Gospel?

Will you be a designer for the Gospel?

Will you be an entrepreneur for the Gospel?

Will you be technologist for the Gospel?

In whatever you do, will you be for the Gospel?

In Ephesians 5:25-32, Paul wrote that Christ loved the Church and gave himself up for her…to present her to himself as a radiant church without blemish. He wrote:

“For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh.” This is a profound mystery—but I am talking about Christ and the church.

Although I am builder who loves creating amazing technology that reaches the world, I’ve come to realize that there is something God desires far more than the next billion dollar unicorn startup.

God deeply desires the Bride of Christ.

The Bride of Christ is God’s most beautiful creation.

And we are the body of Christ, united and led by the Holy Spirit, fully exercising our most excellent gifts, adorning the Gospel with good works. We are the Bride, waiting for and hastening the return of Christ who will soon make all things new.

God is using digitalization to unite heaven and earth in Jesus Christ through the Church.

God is using digitalization to connect and unleash Christians to use their gifts to build up the Body of Christ.

Therefore, God is calling us to use digitalization to do the good works he has prepared in advance for each of us to do.

Let’s join His movement.

Amen.

Living with hope deferred

In light of Seattle’s snowpocalypse, I had to quote C.S. Lewis’ description of hope deferred: “It’s winter in Narnia…Always winter but never Christmas” (The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe).

Hope deferred is different than delayed gratification. Waiting for hours to try a delicious new hot pot restaurant on a snowy day isn’t what we’re talking about here.

It’s more like a child waiting for a parent who never shows up or an adult hoping for a relationship that never exists, or a couple longing for children who are never conceived.

It’s the person unjustly imprisoned and kept from freedom by delay after delay. Or the entrepreneur who puts all they have in a venture that increasingly feels like a sunk cost. Or the missionary laboring for decades with very little to show for it.

This is the stuff groans are made of.

As the saying goes:

Hope deferred makes the heart sick, but a desire fulfilled is a tree of life.

Proverbs 13:12 ESV

For Christians in particular, this Proverb maybe hard to swallow because we believe in a God who could cure our heartsickness. But God withholds our desires so often it can leave us feeling alienated, disillusioned, and embittered.

Godliness doesn’t automatically produce the outcomes we want. In fact, the Bible’s “hall of faith” passage explicitly says:

These all died in faith, not having received the things promised, but having seen them and greeted them from afar, and having acknowledged that they were strangers and exiles on the earth.

Hebrews 11:13 ESV

Saints in the past got to say “hello” to God’s promises, but knew they weren’t going to get them in this life. So Christians not only have to live with hope deferred, they have to live with hope deferred indefinitely.

Coping with the heartsickness

Without a light at the end of the tunnel, it’s tempting to give up hope. Unfortunately this produces self-sabotaging behaviors (aka sins).

For example, the allure of pornography is strongest when you feel hopeless about ever getting to enjoy a secure and intimate relationship with another human being. And caving to that pressure hinders the very thing you hoped for.

It’s also tempting to compromise and burn out trying to satisfy your desires (aka relying on the flesh).

So how do we cope with the heartsickness of indefinitely deferred hope? The Apostle Paul writes:

Not only that, but we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us.

Romans 5:3-5 ESV

It’s not enough to remember God’s grace in the past or to be encouraged by a new creation future. We need something here and now when our unfulfilled desires are so painful we could burst.

And that is what the Holy Spirit provides: an ongoing outpouring of God’s love into our hearts.

It’s based on Christ’s death for us in the past and fulfilled in all the good God has promised in the future, but it’s something we experience in the present.

So we don’t misinterpret circumstances as a sign God doesn’t love us. We don’t drown in self-pity or the anxious fear of missing out. We don’t withdraw into resentful isolation or get consumed by angry outbursts.

God’s love is with us now.

Our heartsickness is relieved by an outpouring of love so thorough it washes out any doubts we had that everything is working together for our good.

It may feel like it’s always winter in Narnia and never Christmas, but they say Aslan is on the move. And that changes everything.

What godliness doesn’t get you (and what it does)

Some people think godliness is a way to get rich. And I don’t mean the swindling televangelist stereotype. I mean the average person who believes that being faithful to God means blessing for their career or company.

While the Apostle Paul warns his disciple Timothy about false teachers who imagine godliness as a means of gain, he also speaks to the general problem with desiring to be rich:

[False teachers imagine godliness is a means of gain.] But godliness with contentment is great gain, for we brought nothing into the world, and we cannot take anything out of the world…But those who desire to be rich fall into temptation, into a snare, into many senseless and harmful desires that plunge people into ruin and destruction. For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evils.

1 Timothy 6:5-10 ESV

A different dimension

Money is orthogonal to godliness; riches are on a different dimension.

There are both godly and ungodly rich people. There are both godly and ungodly poor people.

And I think this orthogonality applies to other desires too.

For a young man like myself, it’s easy to mistakenly believe that by being devoted to God, my desire for a wife will be fulfilled. But that desire is also on a different dimension than godliness.

Some godly people are married and some who wish to be married remain single all their lives. Godliness does not get you a spouse!

In fact, according to Paul, what all godly people have in common is persecution:

Indeed, all who desire to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted

2 Timothy 3:12 ESV

Godliness may actually act as a filter.

Because of devotion to God, you may forgo lucrative business deals or sacrifice something important to your career. Because of devotion to God, you may choose not pursue many desirable relationships (or others may find your faith undesirable to them).

What godliness DOES get you

So what do you gain with godliness?

One word: contentment.

Godliness doesn’t promise riches or a spouse, but it promises contentment, which when you think about it is amazing.

Everyone has unfulfilled desires.

Even if you were a celebrity, your money wouldn’t be able to buy love. Even if you had a long happy marriage, you could still want things outside of it. And even if your startup got millions in funding, the pressure to perform would only increase with it.

Having our all desires satisfied isn’t all it’s hyped to be. Having godliness with contentment is the “dark horse” that wins every time.

Godliness helps you feel grateful for everything in your life because you perceive it as a gift from God. It orders your life around God’s will, giving meaning to your experiences and purpose to your decisions.

So if you have unfulfilled desires and tried to use godliness as a way to get it: what could happen if you sought contentment instead?