Technology and Religion

September 7, 2007 | 37 comments
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Get Religion has posted a review of an interesting Wall Street Journal article examining how cell phones are affecting Hutterite culture. The GR post uses that example to touch on the larger issue of religion and technology, which is one of those rare topics that hasn’t been kicked around the Bloggernacle much. Christian radio, televangelism, and online churches come to mind for American religion in general. How has technology impacted the LDS Church?

Obviously, LDS.org has become a real focus of the Church, the realization of what I have termed the One True Website concept. While I coined that term in jest, I have to say that I’m impressed with how useful the site has become over the years. The emergence of the LDS Newsroom site is just the latest good thing to happen there. [Since it is really part of the LDS.org colossus, the Newsroom is sort of a site within a site.]

A couple of other recent examples: Missionaries are now using cell phones in some missions, although I don’t know how widespread that is or how use of the cell phones is controlled. [I wonder if text messaging is allowed?] And every LDS chapel now sports a stylish satellite dish somewhere on the back lawn. They’ve been around for awhile and weren’t used much for the first ten or fifteen years, but recently I have noted a real surge in attempts to beam live discussion by area or general leaders into stake conferences or leadership training meetings. I’m not sure how effective that has been.

So tell me, dear reader, what has your experience been of the impact of technology on LDS practice and culture? I’m especially curious whether it is able to bring overseas LDS congregations, which have always felt somewhat isolated, into closer contact with the larger Mormon community.

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37 Responses to Technology and Religion

  1. Adam Greenwood on September 7, 2007 at 1:51 pm

    Aargh! I was planning on posting on this. Well, I think I still will, since my post goes in a different direction.

    I’d say the biggest effect technology has had in LDS practice and culture is p*rn. 15 years ago it seemed less of a concern.

  2. Adam Greenwood on September 7, 2007 at 2:03 pm

    Also online fora like Fair message boards, online dating, the bloggernacle, Meridian Magazine, and so on.

  3. Ugly Mahana on September 7, 2007 at 2:08 pm

    The largest impact, I would have to say, is conference and the increased ability of general authorities to speak to large swaths of the Church at once. This binds us together across continents even while limiting the opportunities for more personal exposure to our leaders.

  4. Matt W. on September 7, 2007 at 2:14 pm

    Well, for one, the Satellites have initiated the “leadership training” broadcasts, which are sort of like General Conference for practical practicioners. The Church is using technology to mass produce the ensign in multiple languages (which some have misgivings of).The Church Website is used to desiminate information to the membership. Looking at the 1968 church handbook of instructions, and at MLS, I’d say that technology has had a dramatic impact on how records and tithing are centrally handled from Church Headquarters. Tech has opened up all kinds of practical solutions to genealogy, pushed forward greater capacity for LDS community (see the bloggernacle) and has opened up greater access to information and misinformation about the back ground of the church. (This being the key point of the innoculation discussion, right?)

    That’s all I could come up with off the top of my head.

  5. JrL on September 7, 2007 at 2:28 pm

    Missionaries are getting cell phones in our area — at the same time they are moving into member’s homes. Part of the reason is that they’ll move from one home to another every 6-18 weeks, and having land-line phones move with them isn’t feasable. The phones apparentlly will allow incoming text messages but not outgoing. The church will send media referrals via text message, making it possible for someone to call for a Book of Mormon, for instance, and have it delivered by the missionaries the same day.

  6. Matt W. on September 7, 2007 at 2:30 pm

    Technology also plays a big part for me in LDS peripheral organizations. FAIR wiki is easy to use and understand. Dialogue’s site and BYU.edu are pretty accessible. Blogs are really easy to use and understand and allow interaction. So I use these the most. Sunstone’s website is a mess and hard to get around on.

  7. Dave on September 7, 2007 at 2:30 pm

    Yes, I’d have to say that the ability to Google any controversial Mormon issue and get tons of information in seconds (some reliable, some not) has had a significant impact on some people. It doesn’t get discussed in those terms publicly by LDS leaders, but I’m sure it is a concern that gets discussed behind closed doors. Not clear what response the official Church can take, other than broadening the coverage of those issues in the Ensign and at LDS.org, which does seem to be happening.

  8. Matt W. on September 7, 2007 at 2:33 pm

    Oh, and I texted on my mission, but that was 5 years ago, in the philippines.

  9. Bob on September 7, 2007 at 2:42 pm

    I would have to say Genealogy Technology has to be near the top. I can’t imagine there would be 1/2 the Temples today without the Data Bases and Search Engines, and Software that is now used.

  10. J. Stapley on September 7, 2007 at 2:45 pm

    Email. Ward organizations have been transformed just as much as businesses have because of it. Missionaries even get to email. I still would love to see the IM transcripts in the COB and the brethren’s handles.

  11. J. Stapley on September 7, 2007 at 2:46 pm

    …or even better: the Quorum of the Twelve mail list.

  12. Norbert on September 7, 2007 at 2:47 pm

    Speaking to the question of the overseas crowd: yes, the instant conference on sattelite and internet in dozens of languages is incredible, compared to videos posted weeks later. The content at lds dot org is largely English, beyond conference, but it is still quite useful.

    Texting is more common and established in Finland than in the US, I think. I’ve heard the term ‘hometexting’ used for keeping in contact with ward members. My wife and I send 20-30 texts a week on church business, mostly contacting people we missed at church and checking in on needier members.

    Almost nobody has land line phones anymore here, so of course the missionaries have mobiles, and have for years. They text a lot. In London they all had them too, but were tightly restricted on how much they called, so they’d call members and hang up before they answered and get a callback.

  13. John Mansfield on September 7, 2007 at 2:51 pm

    Personal connection between local church leaders and the central church organization has been stretched pretty thin over the decades. I think technology has filled the gap and kept us from adding layers of hierarchy; North American area presidencies were even dissolved three years ago.

  14. Ann on September 7, 2007 at 2:57 pm

    Disaffected Mormons are more likely to continue to attend church and all their meetings, because they can play with their handhelds to distract themselves.

  15. Dave on September 7, 2007 at 2:59 pm

    Now that’s an interesting observation, John (#13). I wouldn’t have thought of the technology and communication angle as having anything to do with the elimination of Area Presidencies. In fact, I don’t recall hearing any explanation as to that move. But I have heard reference in the last year or two to conference calls involving a dozen stake presidents and a senior LDS leader, so maybe available technology is part of the explanation.

  16. Dave on September 7, 2007 at 3:00 pm

    Ann (#14), I find books fill the same purpose … and they don’t beep.

  17. Matt W. on September 7, 2007 at 3:18 pm

    Dave #7- on the flip side, access is also much more available to amazing lds apologetics, like the work of Kevin Barney or Blake Ostler, which I wouldn’t even know about without the internet.

  18. Jack on September 7, 2007 at 3:18 pm

    Funny how the rise of the internet and the decline in church growth seem to correlate so well.

  19. Dave on September 7, 2007 at 3:27 pm

    Jack (#18), decline in church growth also correlates (inversely) to climate (global warming) and to the rising popularity of tattoos. Do you have links to data or a paper?

  20. Dan S. on September 7, 2007 at 3:48 pm

    “I’m especially curious whether it is able to bring overseas LDS congregations, which have always felt somewhat isolated, into closer contact with the larger Mormon community.”

    That’s an interesting question. I can see some benefits to that. On the flip-side, is there a draw-back to quickly assimilating overseas LDS congregations (or anyone else) into the LDS mainstream? I think about the isolated groups in the Book of Mormon that were not connected to main Nephite population, how they seemed to find strength in being isolated, and were marked by their zeal when they finally were assimilated into the main group.

  21. Jack on September 7, 2007 at 3:53 pm

    Nope. They just seem to correlate.

  22. queuno on September 7, 2007 at 4:34 pm

    Ask any ward clerk, and he’ll tell you how much easier ward membership is today compared to 20 years ago (despite how awful MLS continues to be).

    The CIO of the Church has his own blog now: ldscio.org

    You can submit names to the temple from your easy chair.

    You can use the Internet to prepare lessons.

    You can read the scriptures during a conference call at work — just bring your browser (no needing to pack my scriptures on a business trip; I can even mark my scriptures virtually until I get home).

    We can save on trees and not print out membership lists.

  23. Visorstuff on September 7, 2007 at 4:41 pm

    The internet in particular has led to more organized and community-driven efforts by anti-Mormons and exmormons (re-inforcing their decsions, not contributing as #18 seems to think), as well as Church members. They post a lot of “sorta trues” out there, perpetuate Mormon cultural doctrines, and push information. For the most part, online Mormon apologists go on their territory to defend, so there is an unbalance of neutral information about the church. It seems to be apologetic and cultural on one hand, or anti and cultural on the other. There are very few sites that don’t charge that are in the middle, hense most of the online stuff focuses on controversies and culture rather than accuracy of doctrines. It will be interesting to watch and see if the trend continues over the next decade…

  24. jjohnsen on September 7, 2007 at 4:48 pm

    Missionaries have cells phones now? That’s so great. I can’t count the number of times contacts would leave us messages postponing appointments after we had already left. Meaning we’d show up and either have to bike to a totally different area to tract, or re-do an area we’d recently tracted.

  25. Ray on September 7, 2007 at 5:24 pm

    queuno, the clerking responsibilities are exponentially easier than they were less than 5 years ago.

    Technology just might be the best example (other than individual human nature) of “there must needs be opposition in all things”. It has increased our ability to do so many wonderful things, as well as our ability to do so many terrible things. It has assisted and will continue to assist the Church in its various efforts, and it does and will do the same thing for those who oppose us. The operative term in my mind is “sophistication / sophistry”.

  26. Bob on September 7, 2007 at 5:45 pm

    #9: Ok, more logs on my fire. Which of the above could the Church do without? All of the above but Genealogy Technology. Work for the Dead is core and unique to Mormonism. Without the Technological advances in name searching, the old paper system could not meet the needs of today.

  27. queuno on September 7, 2007 at 6:14 pm

    Ray – that’s an interesting statement. I interviewed with one of the Church’s IT departments (not going to say which one, or what job) recently and was told that about 6 years ago, the Church decided to finally start seriously investing in modern technology, including paying market salaries. That corresponds with what I’ve seen in terms of improvement.

  28. Sarah on September 7, 2007 at 6:51 pm

    1. The Church seems to be catching up to cultural/tech stuff sooner. I remember being so annoyed, 1996/97/98ish, that there still wasn’t a good Church-owned website out there, while every film trailer was putting a URL up at the end — I’d say we were at least 5 or 6 years behind on that one. The switch to MP3s and PDFs on the Church website was only 2 years behind the curve, and the Church is downright fast on things like that Ensign article about Mountain Meadows.

    2. We’re also actually doing things that are new and interesting, too. I was impressed with the efficiency of the ID process at the Church Office Building, both in terms of speed and environmental-friendliness (no plastic to get thrown away.) And that music player on the Church website, where you can transpose to a different key? Wow.

    3. The gap between Utah and everywhere-else Mormons (in terms of advantages) is much narrower. I find out about new features to the website at the same time as everyone else; the only gap now is the last few physical-only things (example: the Primary program for next year is available from the Distribution Center now and has been for over a month, but the PDF won’t be up for a few more weeks at least.)

    4. Individual members who aren’t in high positions and don’t have family connections have a much bigger voice. So do detractors without a lot of money. Oh well.

    5. Can’t say how glad I am that we’re finally catching up. If the stakes and wards could do just a wee bit more with their websites… ahhh…

    6. The usual society-wide stuff: timeshifting (I simply *don’t* go to YSA firesides — where there’d be two of us in the chapel, BTW — now, because I can see the things at a more convenient time at home,) reduction in distribution costs (I don’t have to buy the CDs from conference or for church music, because they’re online,) etc.

    7. My lessons in church are much better, and I do them in less time. There’s almost no temptation to read from the manual when it takes 15 minutes to redo the thing in your own words and targeted to your audience.

    And yes, the genealogy thing is important, especially the rise in digitization. It’s cost prohibitive for someone making $12/hour to order microfilm at $5.50 a pop.

  29. Anita on September 7, 2007 at 7:03 pm

    I’m waiting for tithing to be payable by credit card so I can get miles for it :-)

  30. Bob on September 7, 2007 at 9:43 pm

    Not to over due the Genealogy, But as good as the Church’s “Family Search.org” is (and it is). Commercial sites and softwares like Ancestry.com. Family Tree. and Legacy, all of whom build themselves using the Church’s databases, are starting to pull away with their produces. This isn’t problem because their found “Family Tree’ info., is linked back into the Church’s database.

  31. Wilfried on September 7, 2007 at 10:14 pm

    A basic question was: “So tell me, dear reader, what has your experience been of the impact of technology on LDS practice and culture? I’m especially curious whether it is able to bring overseas LDS congregations, which have always felt somewhat isolated, into closer contact with the larger Mormon community.”

    Needs a nuanced answer. Yes, Mormons overseas are now much more in closer contact with the larger (U.S.) community, in all its facets, IF they have tech and can read English. At the same time this development is probably widening the gap between those members and those who don’t have tech and don’t read English, within international Mormon units. Next, in the same vein, tech availability and its information sources are no doubt creating a widening gap between Mormons in regions with higher living standards and many Mormons in the Third World.

  32. Left Field on September 7, 2007 at 10:18 pm

    In my mission, we used small filmstrip projectors. And the original candle had been replaced by an electric light.

  33. Ben H on September 7, 2007 at 11:15 pm

    JrL (#5), you say the missionaries in your area are moving in with members. Where are you? Do you know how widespread it is?

  34. Ray on September 7, 2007 at 11:47 pm

    Ben H, it is being done in a lot of places where housing is expensive, mostly in order to avoid having to raise the standardized monthly cost each missionary currently pays. The Church currently is subsidizing missionary costs and is trying to keep those costs as steady as possible. There are very strict rules about who can and cannot live in the houses, as well as stipulations like separate entrances and kitchen facilities. Most situations will be something like empty-nesters who still have large houses where a separate apartment could be feasible – or with a classic mother-in-law suite. The vast majority of members won’t qualify, and most missionaries still will live in separate apartments, just as they do now.

  35. mlu on September 8, 2007 at 1:19 am

    The bloggernacle has been among the largest changes for me. Maybe not as influential as downloading general conference talks to my IPOD for commuting or actually knowing what most of the general authorities look and sound like, but still a pretty dramatic change.

    Living in a rural area far from Utah, my only knowledge of the church for most of my life was the official teachings, which I never scorn but that seldom go very deep, staying with the basics of the gospel which of necessity must be repeated over and over, and lots of folklore which is sometimes quite good but also sometimes quite mistaken.

    There are occasional threads in the bloggernacle that come very near to what I’ve always looked for–well trained minds full of knowledge thinking through questions that don’t get addressed from the pulpit. It’s not all gold, of course, but some of it is, and it can make life much better for a few people in circumstances like mine. . .

  36. Jeremy on September 8, 2007 at 4:33 pm

    Three experiences come to mind:

    1) The recent pinewood derby, at which two well-meaning but overly officious officials, insistent on bringing all of their Excell skills to bear on the accurate matching and scoring of each heat and the projection of the statistics onto a movie screen set up in the cultural hall, made everone wait for 45 minutes while they fixed a bug in one of the pivot tables.

    2) The recent stake priesthood meeting, where one counselor in the SP insisted, again, on using Power Point to accompany a talk wildly unsuited for bullet-pointing.

    3) Longer ago, on my mission, in a tiny branch in Puerto Rico, where the deacons would eagerly come up to us before the meeting started and ask “Elders, can we wear your pagers to pass the sacrament?”

  37. AHLDuke on September 9, 2007 at 12:50 am

    I would agree that the way that technology has changed the duties and tasks of ward and stake clerks is huge, but in the end, that directly affects only those people who hold those callings and their families.
    The temple and genealogy software is also a big deal and has changed the way temple work is done drastically. Whoever said that we could not sustain the number of temples currently in operation without it was 100% correct.
    However, I think the two biggest effects of technology on the Church are both negative. First is p*rn. I really cannot imagine all of the references to pornography in talks during Conference or directed at the youth if I still had to visit the seedy little adult bookstore in my town to get some of this stuff. Second is all of the anti-Mormon stuff that is out there. Make no mistake, it vastly outweighs the positive or neutral treatment of the Church on the internet. I discovered that first hand when I was investigating the Church back in the late 90s. The anti-Mormons beat the Church (and its members) to the Internet by a mile. While this may not directly affect members of the Church and their families, I have no doubt that it hurts missionary work and is shaping the way that the outside world perceives Mormonism.

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