The 21st Century Roman Road: How Technology Is Changing Missions

Gone are the days when mission workers could assume that our technology is more developed than that of the population we serve. Often, we are stronger on missiology than technology. Unlike those to whom we reach out, we may not be “digital natives” who navigate the world of ISPs, apps, and digital readers with fluency. Our great challenge is to understand communications technology and how to leverage it for the kingdom in every corner of the globe.

The familiar verses of Matthew 28:19-20 don’t leave anyone, no matter how isolated, outside of God’s plan for evangelism: “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you” (emphasis mine). Earlier in the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus underscores this inclusiveness: “And this gospel of the kingdom will be proclaimed throughout the whole world as a testimony to all nations, and then the end will come” (Matthew 24:14; emphasis mine).

In a similar passage in Mark 16:15, Jesus commanded his followers to take the gospel “into all the world.” Intriguingly, the Greek root word κ̏Õσμος [cosmos] encompasses more than the physical globe—it also means a world system or order. In sending his disciples into “all the world [system],” Jesus sent them into an unparalleled, orderly network of Roman roads built originally for conquest but ultimately used to spread the good news of salvation.

The Roman road system has a twenty-first century equivalent: the complex web of computer servers, programming, cell towers, and satellites that form the global telecommunications and Internet superhighway system. Increasingly, the distinction between computers and phones is blurring as cell phones take the roles formerly played by computers. This phenomenon is especially vigorous in the developing world, where many will never own a desktop or laptop computer but consider a mobile phone indispensable.

Too often, when we consider incorporating technology into our mission work, we make the decision based on our own frame of reference. For instance, Americans tend to view cell phones as luxuries, but in other parts of the world, cell phones are priced affordably and people make sacrifices to stay connected. Some seventy-one countries have greater cell phone market penetration than the U.S., and dozens are far ahead in sheer innovation in using cell phones.

In many countries that Americans might consider “third world,” cell owners use their devices to send and receive money, look for work via SMS text messages, and even record and transmit sermons.

By the end of 2010, mobile subscriptions are expected to surpass five billion—more than the number of people with access to decent toilets. Countries without adequate access to telecommunications will not have long to wait. Various initiatives such as Other 3 Billion and Connect the Unconnected have been launched to provide them with broadband and cell phone networks by the end of 2015.

The pace and saturation of technological advances pose unprecedented challenges to the mission community. How can we stay relevant and effective in a digital world, especially one characterized by high levels of poverty and reliance upon oral communication styles?

In the ministry where I serve, our answer is in providing Audio New Testaments in hundreds of languages free of charge in easy-to-use digital formats that include downloads, streaming, and solar-powered playback units. We are also developing a Digital Bible Project, designed to be the world’s largest repository of digital Bible content, freely available online or through cell phones, mobile music players, and e-readers.

We don’t have the luxury to consider our options for years on end—the first one to stake a claim online often ends up dominating the market. Now is the time to “fill the earth . . . with the knowledge of the glory of the Lord, as the waters cover the sea” (Habakkuk 2:14).

Technology and the worlds' systems aren't going to wait for the believing community to catch our breath. And it continues to change rapidly. Just six years ago Facebook didn't exist. So if you have a five-year plan for your ministry, new technology and online outlets for effective ministry may emerge before the year's end. Field missionaries must remain flexible to cultural dynamics and current events. Technology missionaries must do the same.

The digital “Roman road” has been built. Once again, the Lord has provided a way to spread the good news to places otherwise unreachable. It is the mission community’s to use—or lose.

Troy Carl is the national director of Faith Comes By Hearing. He has served as a pastor and mission director. Carl was the president and CEO of a telecommunications company and served on the Board of Directors of another Internet company with gross sales of over $50 million USD. He is a gifted pioneer and visionary, seeking to make God’s word in audio available through innovative audio Bible discipleship efforts.