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Reassessing Digital Engagement, Part II

From the series Second Thoughts on Digital Engagement

This is the second post in Jesse Ciccotti’s series “Second Thoughts on Digital Engagement,” which reconsiders the autumn 2023 ChinaSource Quarterly, “Digital Engagement.” Read part one of the series.

Technology is something broader than what we identify as “the tech sector” that encompasses the digital products of Apple, Google, TenCent, and other technocratic empires. For Jacques Ellul (1912-1994), technique (to avoid confusion with “the tech sector”) refers to all of the ways we use our rationality to achieve maximum efficiency in every area of human life.1 The goal is to “maximize the ratio of output to input,”2 and its role is to “bring efficiency to everything.”3 There is a power to technique, such that we are unable to disentangle ourselves from the “technical milieu” (that is, the technical social environment) we create, and we gradually become conformed to and enslaved by it.4

Reviewing the Rhetoric

1. The first critical perspective of the autumn 2023 ChinaSource Quarterly I would like to offer is to highlight rhetoric that often accompanies new digital techniques. In order to keep our attention and focus our choices around new techniques, technical rhetoric places an enormous amount of psychological pressure on us to conform to it. When we accept these rhetorical perspectives, it can make us fearful, paralyzed, or dismissive.

Fearful, because we come to adopt the point of view handed to us by technicians. When we repeatedly use words like need, necessity, must, and crucial, a question that imposes on our minds is, if we don’t jump on this new digital technological development, will Christianity become a relic of the paper age, an icon of an era that is now bygone?

Paralyzed, because every new technical change requires time and energy to adapt to, often with painful hurdles. Zoom replaced Skype almost overnight, and for some people the learning curve was almost too much.5 And when you multiply these kinds of experiences by the number of new technical adaptations our lives require, and the pace at which new techniques are rolled out, we ought to raise the question, “Is it worth it?” It might be! But, asking the question forces us to slow down and examine and consider its consequences. Yet, when we do, we are quickly thrown back again on the fear that we might be falling behind.

We can also become dismissive of ministries or ministers that do not avail themselves of the most recent technical trends. For example, in the autumn 2023 Quarterly, I was surprised by the parallel drawn between Jesus’ statement in John 10:12-13 and brothers and sisters who chose not to participate in a digital evangelism team. In my mind, a link is clearly made between John 10 and the choices of those who withdrew participation, pointing out that they were, in fact, not good shepherds (those who care that others hear about Jesus, from the paragraph before), but mere hired hands (posting “content”) who ran when the wolf (the police) came along. Is it possible that their choice came from a sense that the value of online evangelism was not worth the risk of years in prison? This may be hard to admit, because it dims the radiance of a pioneering ministry technique. But it may be a more faithful presentation of the situation.

While I do not think it is intentional on the part of most people, the above example included, the excitement generated around the promises of new techniques can lead us to vilify those who choose not to participate in or who critique our new technique. What is communicated is that anyone who opposes the adoption of a particular technical advancement in gospel work is fundamentally opposed to the work of the gospel!6 As another autumn CSQ article put it, “To not change or do anything about it can be fatal for the spread of the gospel.” When we adopt the rhetoric and views of technicians, we can easily and unintentionally slide into such conclusions.

Examining Expectations

2. The second critical perspective to technical rhetoric I would offer is a view to the unrealistic expectations and inflated results that come through adopting technical means and discourse for kingdom work.

For example, the internet is now accessible to two-thirds of the world’s total population, and a majority of these people are in places least reached with the gospel. Stating this gives us the impression (or is stated explicitly) that more people will be transformed through a personal encounter with the God of the universe, because we can be “connected” via the internet. “Through global connection online, we can see how digital natives may cross cultural boundaries with others online,” and by extension, be evangelized and discipled. Yet we know that crossing cultural boundaries with the gospel is exceedingly difficult. Is a mere internet connection, even among digital natives, sufficient to overcome cultural differences? What about the different ways in which digital discourse manifests itself in different cultural contexts?7 This is not impossible, but neither is it as easy as it sounds, as Sean Cheng points out.

Another article points out that through online evangelism a team “connected” with 30 million people, and “shared the gospel” three million times, with 3,000 people per month “making decisions for Christ.” This sounds absolutely incredible. An analog life will never achieve such results, and we might be moved to drop everything for a new and more efficient digital mode of ministry.8 If we can put the information of the gospel in the hands of more people with less overhead (one person with a laptop in a coffee shop can reach five billion people), then technique decides for us that this is the most “effective” or “efficient” mode of evangelism.

I would have liked to hear more about how these 36,000 new believers are being discipled. A hard question worth asking is, what does effectiveness in evangelism and discipleship really look like, and in what ways do digital techniques support these best discipleship practices?

Similarly, is digital technology really capable of mobilizing the 99% of “non-professional” Christians (those who do not get paid to engage in ministry)? Were the 99% really just waiting for an internet connection to be involved in God’s mission? Or is something much deeper, on a heart level—messy and intensive relational discipleship—required? And if only two-thirds of the world has internet access, then what about that other one-third? How does that calculate to the whole church reaching the whole world?

Using overstated language around technique, rather than serving the mission, in fact adds to our malaise. It gives us a sense that reaching the world with the gospel can be done with ease, as simple as logging into your account. Throwing people completely ignorant of local cultural realities into digital spaces for evangelism and discipleship, in my opinion, brings at least as many risks of misrepresenting the gospel and inoculating people against the good news by misrepresentation, as it provides positive possibilities for kingdom expansion.9

We are called for and to ministry modeled after the Word, who showed us what God was like by living among us in the flesh. Jesus could have been born in a king’s palace, and sent out a royal decree to all corners of the world, so that all might hear the good news. Instead, he chose the least “effective” or “efficient” modes of ministry. In John 6, when technique proved most “effective” at raising a crowd of people, he quickly responded with offensive language that turned them away, yet all the while continuing to call people to faithfulness on a personal level, to the great confusion and embarrassment of his closest disciples.

In my next post we will explore the nitty-gritty realities of an embodied (incarnate) Christian life, looking at evangelism and discipleship through the lens of brain science.


  1. In Ellul’s own words: “the totality of methods rationally arrived at and having absolute efficiency (for a given stage of development) in every field of human activity.” Jacques Ellul, The Technological Society, trans. John Wilkinson (New York: Vintage Books-Random House, 1964), xxv (English edition; French edition first published in 1954).
  2. Jeffrey P. Greenman, Read Mercer Schuchardt, and Noah J. Toly, Understanding Jacques Ellul (Eugene, OR: Cascade Books-Wipf and Stock), 22. This book is an excellent introduction to Ellul’s thought, for anyone who would like to take this reading further.
  3. Ellul, The Technological Society, 5.
  4. The Pixar animated film Wall-E is a masterpiece adaptation of this perspective.
  5. The classic viral video of a lawyer who appeared at an online court hearing as a cat is a pristine example of failure to keep up with the rapid technical changes, and the embarrassment that comes with failure to keep up (see a clip of the hearing here: Our minds immediately leap to the thought, “we don’t want to be like that guy!”
  6. Ellul observed that “The worst reproach modern society can level is the charge that some person or system is impeding technical automatism…If a machine can yield a given result, it must be used to capacity, and it is considered criminal and antisocial not to do so.” Ellul, The Technological Society, 80-81.
  7. Think of the tremendous linguistic adaptations with homonyms that political critics have leveraged in Chinese contexts.
  8. Indeed, the purpose of such rhetoric is to heighten our desire for more converts, inducing us to join their ranks.  But to point out the subtlety of this rhetoric is similar to pointing out the emperor’s new clothes.
  9. If you want to reach someone in the 10/40 Window online, you almost invariably still need to go to language school (several years of study), and you almost certainly need to live in that context for at least a few years to have a true sense of the social, political, economic, physical, and emotional realities of those people, in order to faithfully and consistently communicate the gospel.
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Jesse Ciccotti

Jesse Ciccotti

Jesse Ciccotti holds a PhD in Comparative Philosophy from Hong Kong Baptist University and an MA in Chinese Philosophy from Wuhan University. He and his family lived in China for 12 years.      View Full Bio

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