I recently had the privilege of sitting on a panel discussion about faith, technology, entrepreneurship and Sabbath rest for a class of students from Gordon Conwell Seminary co-taught by my friend Al Erisman. It was a great mix of students ranging from age 22 to 70 with varied professional backgrounds.
Here are some of my prepared responses to the questions I received ahead of time:
What was life at Amazon like?
Let me give a backstory to frame my discussion about life at Amazon. When I started there over 5 years ago, I was a green bean software engineer fresh out of college. I wanted to start a company with my graduate research work, but when those plans fell through to my great disappointment, I resolved to make it my ambition to serve God faithfully where ever he sent me for as long as he wanted me there.
So when I started at Amazon, I actually had minimal expectations and simply kept my head down and did my work. Over time God began connecting me with other believers at Amazon and we eventually formed a group to study the theology of technology. We started with From the Garden to the City (affiliate link) and transitioned to other books about faith in the workplace and I noticed that many times some of our most meaningful conversations were about encouraging one another through the trials of the workplace and praying for one another–side note: I think there is a large opportunity to send and provide “corporate chaplains” to serve people in tech companies.
We eventually did a series comparing Amazon’s Leadership Principles, which are a key part of our performance review process, with the Scriptures. It was called “Succeeding at Amazon as a Christian” and it was a big hit. I would send out write ups of our discussions to the christian-interest mailing list and I got replies from people in South Africa and Japan for example saying, “This is amazing, please keep it up, I wish I could be there!”
The simple, but powerful conclusion of the study was that God in fact disciples us in and through the marketplace and specifically conforming to Amazon’s vision of leadership in many ways helps us conform to the image of Christ and vice versa. There are limits to this of course, but by and large as Christians, we have the confidence that we can and ought to excel in exhibiting Amazon’s leadership principles. In places where those principles are not being manifested, we ought to work to change the culture so that they not only conform with Amazon’s principles, but also give people a foretaste of God’s kingdom.
How do you think theologically about technology & its creation?
I think one of the major insights I gleaned from From the Garden to the City is that God is redeeming not only human beings, but also human makings. The Scriptures say that the glory of the nations will be brought into the Kingdom of God at the end of the age. God intends for the things we create to be included in his glorious new creation and that infuses both the acts and artifacts of technology with significance–they are all designed to display the glory of God in very particular and marvelous ways.
How does your faith inform your technological work?
I think I begin with the assumption that the two are already integrated at the source. Faith is not something tacked onto an essentially faith-less product–when you begin with that approach you end up with some potentially weird applications like a church attendance tracking program that uses facial recognition to automatically track everyone who attends your events–kind of creepy and not something you would like associated with God’s Kingdom (caveat: I think there are thoughtful ways this tech might still be used).
If we are to invent on behalf of the Gospel, our creations ought to reflect the glory and flavor of the Kingdom of God that the Gospel proclaims. So this begins with a deep understanding and empathy for what God truly loves, values and delights in. One powerful text that comes to mind is Jeremiah 9:23-24 (ESV):
Thus says the Lord: ‘Let not the wise man boast in his wisdom, let not the mighty man boast in his might, let not the rich man boast in his riches, but let him who boasts boast in this, that he understands and knows me, that I am the Lord who practices steadfast love, justice, and righteousness in the earth. For in these things I delight, declares the Lord.’
So if we take these words seriously we learn some values that as technologists/creators we should seek to embody in our creations:
- Technology should not exalt man’s wisdom, might or riches.
- Technology should be designed in a way that calls attention to God
- Technology should be designed to help people know and understand God
- Technology should promote steadfast love, justice and righteousness in the earth.
If God is the customer we aim to delight, then in the least we should have these tenets in mind as we do our inventing.
Let me give an example from a product TheoTech is currently developing called Ceaseless. This is an app that helps you pray for others. I created the first draft during a season of life when I felt like my prayers were so selfish, being always about me, my problems and needs. I wanted to pray for others more, but it often felt like an overwhelming to-do list.
So I created a Facebook app that sent me a daily e-mail with 3 Facebook friends to pray for each day. This was a surprisingly simple habit to adopt and eventually about 70 people were using the app with me. And to my surprise after 6 months, I checked the numbers and the 70 of us had personally prayed for over 20,000 people.
Doing some math, I realized that a seemingly impossible goal was actually within reach of my generation: together as Christians we can personally pray for everyone on earth. If each of us had 130 unique friends, it would only take 55 million Christians (less than 1% of the world’s population) to pray for everyone on earth, just by praying for 3 friends a day.
Now you may wonder: is this an outcome God desires? I believe it is based on 1 Timothy 2:1-4 (ESV):
First of all, then, I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for all people, for kings and all who are in high positions, that we may lead a peaceful and quiet life, godly and dignified in every way. This is good, and it is pleasing in the sight of God our Savior, who desires all people to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth.
And the beautiful thing is that technology is what makes it possible for us to fulfill this biblical exhortation. Faith and technology go hand in hand.
On a more detailed level, I could go into the design of the Ceaseless app itself (it is now available in the App Store). We wanted to create an inviting experience–something beautiful and simple that you would look forward to doing everyday.
Prayer shouldn’t feel like a to-do list. Praying for others shouldn’t feel like clicking a “Like” button. It shouldn’t feel like a Facebook news feed with an endless stream of prayer requests that would only overwhelm you and cheapen the experience.
So we made several design decisions:
Keep it simple. We only show 3 people to pray for each day.
Make the experience personal. You’re praying for people. Requests are transient, but people are forever. So instead of a request management system, let’s build software that helps you cultivate relationships with God and others.
Aim for comprehensiveness. Ceaseless helps you pray for others–it is technology designed to help you step outside of yourself and love your neighbor. And not only your Christian neighbors, mind you, but also people who would never ask you to pray for them–like non-Christian neighbors, colleagues and friends.
Make space for God. At the end of the day the joy of using Ceaseless must come from God hearing the prayers of his people and answering. The experience of the app is not designed to simply give you a dopamine rush from fulfilling your prayer duties for the day or from getting an alert telling you that 20 friends prayed for you. The app is designed to invite you into God’s presence and to help you remember how he responds to your requests–the joy must come from God’s action and not simply human interaction. What might happen as believers around the world increasingly pray for relationships & people they have never prayed for before?
So these are some of the design principles that went into the creation of Ceaseless and as you can tell it is very intimately informed by faith–the whole app is designed to help people exercise faith in their walk with God and in their requests for his transforming power to work in the lives of others.
What is your passion and how does it relate to your faith?
My passion is to activate a movement of technology entrepreneurship for the Gospel. This means beginning with God as the customer and working backwards to invent the products he wants to see in the world. I gave an example earlier and I would love to see more and more people activated to do what they really love in a way that delivers results God wants to see in the world.
I fully embrace a theology of work that infuses all labor done for Christ with meaning and significance. Anything we do for the Lord and in the Lord is not in vain. I also believe that much of the time we are not thinking critically, systematically and creatively about how our work can more closely align with God’s will in the world and his grand purposes. Whether in explicitly Kingdom-oriented work or in work that the world generally considers valuable, I think having this mindset of beginning with God and working backwards has the potential to unleash joy, creativity and Kingdom outcomes like never before.
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