Take your mind back to Victorian England. The world of Charles Dickens. The industrial revolution was in full swing. All kinds of new, miraculous inventions were transforming society.
The steam engine, the power loom, locomotives… Factories were springing up everywhere bringing cheaper goods to the masses and making luxuries like sugar and cotton commonplace.
This new technology was awesome. Except when it wasn’t.
Except for child labor and homelessness and toxic smog choking the air… they did horrific medical experiments on people in the name of science, they put cocaine in cough syrup…
Yes, the Industrial Revolution changed our world but it took another hundred years for us to adjust to this new reality - to have industrial technology without it chewing up society in the process.
Arguably we’re still adjusting. All that great progress came with a significant cost for humanity.
So why am I talking about Victorian England this morning?
Well, because just like the Industrial Revolution, our generation today is living through another massive shift for humanity: The Digital Revolution.
In my lifetime alone we have gone from record players and walking across the room to change the channel on your TV to every one of us having a little piece of glass in our pocket that can give us access to all human knowledge.
We can speak instantaneously to a moving, talking video of someone on the other side of the planet. We can tap a button and hot, fresh food shows up on our doorstep in minutes.
This new technology is awesome. Except when it isn’t.
You see, the digital revolution is changing our world just like the industrial revolution did… but I don’t think we’ve left the cocaine in the cough syrup phase.
We’re choking on the smog.
As miraculous as these new technologies are, they are chewing us up like orphans from some Dickensian nightmare.
Right? I mean, think about what this technology has cost us.
• We’re more anxious and alone than we’ve ever been.
• Society is fractured.
• Social media has stunted adolescence, and our young people are suffering because of it.
• Disinformation has interfered with democracy.
• Powerful algorithms have made us all hopelessly addicted to the dopamine hit we’ll get from the next scroll of the thumb.
• And we are totally dependent on our devices… to communicate, to remember things, to live.
We’re all little Oliver Twists saying, “Please, Siri, I want some more.”
Here’s my point. It took Victorian England decades to agree that 4-year-olds shouldn’t work in coal mines. We’ve got our own adjusting to do to the pitfalls of our brave new world.
Oh, and by the way… It’s entirely possible that we’re about to enter a new era for humanity even before we’ve adjusted to the last one: the AI revolution. It’s coming and we’re not ready.
Bottom line: Technology is changing our world and we’ve got work to do.
But here’s the thing. As followers of Jesus, I don’t believe we have the option to just be swept along like everyone else.
We have a role to play in showing our neighbors what it looks like to reflect God’s justice and love and peace and self-control in our rapidly changing world.
That’s what this new series, “Virtual Reality,” is all about: 5 biblical principles for how we as Christ-followers can and should live in the midst of the digital revolution.
Now, I know what you might be thinking. “Uh, Barry… biblical principles? Wasn’t the height of technology when the Bible was written the plow?”
It’s a fair point… which is why we’re not going to be looking in Scripture for advice about self-driving cars.
No. What we’re going to do is look at principles in the Bible that speak to how we relate to and engage with our broken world as followers of Christ.
These principles were relevant in ancient Israel, they’re relevant now, and they’ll be relevant when we’re colonizing the moons of Jupiter.
Technology changes, but human nature doesn’t. We still have a lot to learn from our spiritual ancestors.
5 weeks. 5 biblical principles that can help us navigate the technological realities of our digital world.
Should we dive in? Grab a Bible and turn with me to John 17:13, Page ______.
While you do that, I’m going to pray.
NOT OF THE WORLD
The first principle we’re going to explore today is kind of an overarching one for the series. It’s about how we think about our technological world in the first place.
Before we start answering questions about how to use technology well, we have to start with a more fundamental question: should we use it at all?
Maybe the answer to the pitfalls of the digital revolution is just to burn it all to the ground. Smash our phones, move out into the country, and start a technology-free commune where we don’t have to think about Elon Musk at all.
And while that does sound like a paradise to some of us, let’s take a look at what Jesus has to say.
In the gospel of John, chapters 13-17 are where Jesus shares his final words with his disciples before the crucifixion. And he ends this time by praying for them.
Now I am coming to you. I told them many things while I was with them in this world so they would be filled with my joy. I have given them your word. And the world hates them because they do not belong to the world, just as I do not belong to the world. I’m not asking you to take them out of the world, but to keep them safe from the evil one. They do not belong to this world any more than I do.
Let’s stop here for a moment. Jesus says that his disciples “do not belong to this world.” Literally in the Greek, we are not “of” the world. What does he mean by that?
Well, let’s talk about this word “world.” John uses it 78 times in his gospel. In Greek, it’s the word,
kosmos - world/universe/humanity
In John, kosmos generally seems to be shorthand for “all people.”
The world - human society - is walking in darkness, the world is full of sin. When you look out the window, what you see is a humanity lost in selfishness and chaos.
And so, when Jesus says that his followers are not “of the world” - that we “do not belong to the world,” he means that we are meant to be distinct from the darkness around us. We’re a new humanity. We’re meant to look different than the rest of our kosmos.
So how do we do that? Well, if you were to ask teenage me in the 90’s, I would have had an answer for you because I heard it all the time. It comes right out of this passage:
“We are in the world, but not of the world.”
The meaning for me back then was clear. Don’t hang out with non-Christians, don’t watch R-rated movies, and don’t listen to “secular” music.
“You can keep your Rage Against the Machine. I’m going to listen to DC Talk because I don’t want to be corrupted by society. I may be in the world, but I am not of it.”
At least, that was the mindset.
So there’s the answer to our question about technology, then, right? We withdrawal and don’t let it corrupt us. We’re going Amish. We’re deleting our Instagram accounts and learning how to churn butter.
We’re not of this this world, so let’s get out of here. If digital technology can be so dangerous and detrimental, then let “the world” have it. We’ll do our own thing.
Problem solved. Except, wait… Is that really what Jesus is saying here? We’re supposed to withdraw from society and wait for the afterlife?
Well, let’s keep reading and we’ll see.
INTO THE WORLD
Make them holy by your truth; teach them your word, which is truth. Just as you sent me into the world, I am sending them into the world. And I give myself as a holy sacrifice for them so they can be made holy by your truth.
I am praying not only for these disciples but also for all who will ever believe in me through their message. I pray that they will all be one, just as you and I are one—as you are in me, Father, and I am in you. And may they be in us so that the world will believe you sent me.
So, Jesus prays that his followers would be made holy. That’s another way of saying “set apart.” Not like the rest of the kosmos. Distinct from the world around us.
Again, it seems like maybe Jesus wants us to withdraw from society.
But then look at what he says in verse 18. “Just as you sent me into the world, I am sending them into the world.” Into the world.
All of a sudden it’s clear that we’ve been misquoting this verse the whole time. It’s not, “in the world, not of it.” It’s “into the world, not of it.”
There’s intentionality here. Mission. That changes everything.
We’re not just living in this dark world, we’re being sent into it.
That is way different than just hanging out in a holy huddle.
Jesus is sending us into the world just like he was. And how was he sent? Well, just flip back a few pages to John 3.
For this is how God loved the world: He gave his one and only Son, so that everyone who believes in him will not perish but have eternal life. God sent his Son into the world not to judge the world, but to save the world through him.
Out of his incredible love, God sent his Son into this dark world not to condemn it or to judge it… but to save it. To transform it. He didn’t avoid the darkness. That’s exactly where he spent his time.
That’s how Jesus was sent into the world, and according to him, that’s how we are too.
So we have two truths about what it means to follow Christ.
Yes, we’re called to be holy. Set apart. Free from the corrupting influence of sin and injustice and hatred and all the rest of it. We’re not of this kosmos. We shouldn’t look like the rest of humanity.
But that holiness - that set-apart-ness - serves a purpose. It allows us to bring God’s healing into the places that need it most. Christ’s holiness is contagious. We don’t withdraw. We move in so it can spread!
We’re not of this world. But we are sent into it. To change it. To transform it. To bring the light of Christ into the darkness.
Teenage me had it all wrong.
YOU ARE ON A MISSION
So, with all of that in mind, let’s get back to our question about technology. We’re living in the digital revolution, whether we like it or not, so what are we as Christ-followers supposed to do?
Should we withdraw? I think our answer is clear. When it comes to our dark world, Jesus has called us to be holy, but he has also sent us in.
So, this is our first principle for the series. And it’s probably the most important one for you to remember.
As a follower of Jesus in the digital world:
Principle 1: You are on a mission.
You’re on a mission. Your job is not to withdraw but to move in. To bring healing to the brokenness of your day.
Back in Victorian England, as new industries were transforming society, what the world did NOT need was for Christ-followers to abandon the technology of their day and leave the cities behind.
No. What it needed was followers of Jesus willing to move into the filth.
To adopt orphans, to advocate for labor reforms and the abolition of slavery, to fight for women’s right to vote, to start businesses dedicated to improving society, not just profiting off of it…
Now, some Christians did exactly that. But so many more sat on the sidelines or withdrew. So much so that the Church began a decline into irrelevancy in England. It was a missed opportunity.
Well, today the revolution is different but the invitation to mission is the same. What if this time we didn’t let the moment pass us by?
What if we moved into the filth of our world? What if we took these technologies that are so often abused and worked to redeem them?
What if we - the church - set out to find those who have been crushed by this digital world and give them new hope?
Yes, there are times where we have to be wise and limit our exposure to toxic and dangerous technologies. We’re not of the world. And we’re going to talk about that in this series.
But what I want you to hear today is that we have an opportunity. An invitation to be more than just passive bystanders as our world changes around us. We can be more than the brain-dead humans in Wall-E.
We can step into this brave new world with a Christ-like dedication to change it.
Imagine if Christ-followers started using social media as an opportunity to build bridges, not sow more division and hate.
Imagine if the Church moved into the technology-fueled anxiety and depression of Gen Z with hope and ideas and open arms, not just shrugged shoulders.
Imagine us creating compelling new media that reconstructs faith for people, that doesn’t just tear the old structures down.
Imagine the Church inventing applications for artificial intelligence that bring healing to our world, not just power to a few wealthy billionaires.
Imagine us using digital tools to sharpen our faith, not just dull our minds.
I believe all of this is possible. And not just possible, mandatory.
We are on a mission. As my dad used to always say, “The Church is God’s plan A for the salvation of this world, and there is no plan B.”
Who is going to save our world from the perils of the digital revolution? We are, in the name of the one we follow.
Principle 1: You are on a mission.
Over the next five weeks we’re going to talk about what it’s like to be Christ-followers on mission in a digital reality. To be sent into the world of our day even as we remain not of it.
We’re going to talk about the content we consume and create. We’ll talk about the powerful forces trying to keep us addicted and enslaved to our devices – and what we can do about it.
We’ll talk about how our identity is shaped online and we’ll explore the challenge and necessity of rediscovering in-person, face-to-face relationships even as we move in more deeply to our digital world.
It’s going to be an awesome series.
For now, though, as we wrap up this week’s message, I want to leave you with one final question to think about this week.
In light of all we just talked about. How do you, personally, relate to the digital revolution?
For example, are you being chewed up by the excesses of these new technologies like an orphan on the streets of Victorian London? Does your use of technology and the way it affects you look identical to the world around us?
Are you withdrawn and refusing to engage with all this stuff? Are you moving out to the metaphorical country and letting the rest of society choke on the digital smog?
Or are you moving into the filth? Are you on a mission in this digital world? Does the way you use technology shine the light of Jesus into the darkness?
It’s ok if your answer is no right now. Because this is uncharted territory for us. What a privilege that our God has called us to be the ones who find a way.
Are you chewed up? Are you withdrawn? Or are you on a mission?
Because we are not of this broken world. But we are sent into it.