Why are the Laborers Few? Part 2: Technology Induced Sleep

Stacey began a series last week discussing the question: Why are the laborers few? There are many answers to that question, one is that some people are unwilling to raise support, which is what Stacey discussed. This week I want to think through a different response: the rise of technology.

Currently we live in a village in Cameroon, Africa and we are able to regularly see and talk to people all around the world. Just the other day I had a Zoom call on which I talked to someone in the Philippines, another in France, and another in Canada, all at the same time. Especially after the global changes resulting from the COVID pandemic, one can peruse thousands of church services all around the world on a computer or smartphone.

Of course, access to Zoom requires internet. But I went on a trip deep into the tropical rainforest that borders our village the other day. Far away from any cellular tower or any way to get internet connection, I was still able to pull out my phone and read the Bible. There is an app that any smartphone can download called YouVersion which has 2,062 different versions of the Bible in 1,372 languages.

This is amazing. Missionaries of yesteryear would have cried to even think that this level of information could be available deep in the heart of the African jungle. And it certainly begs the question: with such technological advances, are missionaries even needed?

I propose, however that technology has lulled us into a false sense of accomplishment. All of the available information online makes us feel like the job is done. We can surely sit down and relax now, right? Well, no, not right. The job is not nearly over and there is still so much need for missionaries.

I believe this is clear in the Great Commission. When Jesus was leaving the earth, knowing that his disciples would be carrying out the ministry that he started, he could have said a lot of things. He could have told them to write down everything and send out letters. He could have told them to preach on the top of every hill. I mean, Jesus is God, he could have taught them how to make YouVersion.

Instead of all of that, Jesus said: “Go therefore and make disciples of all the 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.”

1. Technology Cannot Go, Disciple, or Baptize

There are four very clear commands in this passage: go, make disciples, baptize, and teach. Yeah, yeah, I know, some of them are participles. But that does not make them any less commands (see THIS POST). Jesus told his disciples (read: us) to GO. That means we cannot fulfill his commission by staying. The Great Commission cannot be fulfilled only through letters, emails, and video calls. Correspondence can be a great benefit in the process, but it cannot be everything.

The main reason for this is that you really cannot disciple someone online. Sometimes, in case of need, you can talk to and encourage people online as a part of discipleship. But discipleship requires living life with others. One of the main reasons for this is that a big part of discipleship is helping people see and turn away from their sin. But sin is much too easy to hide from a distance. Talking to someone often online or on the phone does not reveal their heart. The best that you can do is get an idea of how they view themselves.

As an example, I once heard about a church that started a ministry in Africa. Members of the church came to a country over here and met a man that was very responsible (we can call him Pierre). Pierre was active in his church and very helpful to the team. Remaining in contact with Pierre they were able to send funds and build a medical building, orphanage, church, and offer many services to many people. They reported to their members showing them the pictures Pierre sent them. After years of furthering this relationship and being encouraged by the progress, they sent another team. This team was astonished to find that the entire operation had been fabricated. Pierre had sent pictures of medical clinics and orphanages, but they were not created using the funds this church sent. All of the work that they thought they had done, and praised God for, never happened.

This is obviously an extreme example. But it gets to the heart of what I am talking about: distance restricts relationship. From the perspective of this church, everything was going very well. But the pictures, phone calls, and videos were not enough to know for sure what was going on in Pierre’s heart. Had there been someone on the ground, not only hearing Pierre’s words, but also seeing his actions, they would have been more likely to avoid that situation. Pierre could have been confronted early on and given the opportunity to repent of his deceit.

Discipleship is like this. People can disguise themselves, act a certain way for a certain time, but eventually they will be known by their fruit. Discipleship is a process in which you get to know people, know their struggles, know their sins, know their successes, know their dreams. Discipleship is breaking up fights, mediating conflicts, trips to the hospital, live births in your car, knocks on the door at 3am, confrontation in sin, and restoration after repentance. Sure, some of this can be done over Zoom. Discipleship involves LOTS of conversations. But discipleship is much more than conversations, most of which cannot be done online.

Not the least of which is baptism. You can’t baptize over Zoom.

2. Technology Cannot Teach

Jesus included in the Great Commission the statement: “teaching them to observe all that I commanded you.” Now this one might seem pretty easy to do using technology, right? Stacey and I studied linguistics at the school that is now known as Dallas International University. Even before the pandemic, they had moved to make all of their classes available through online learning. Taking into account that all that we know of what Jesus taught is available to us in the Bible. There is a finite amount of Jesus’ teaching, and a great number of awesome places to explain it, surely, we don’t need missionaries to do that right?

Here is where it falls apart. First of all, Jesus’ teachings are not available to all. There are over 2,000 languages in the world that do not have any Scripture and over 6,000 that do not have the entire Bible. I will talk about translation next, so I won’t get into that here. But the main thing here is that, while all of Jesus’ teachings are in the Bible, the way that these teachings work out varies by culture. If you bring American curriculum to Cameroon, you will TOTALLY miss the people. For instance, 99% of people here will agree that God exists, that homosexuality is wrong, that children need discipline, etc. These are not the topics that need to be confronted, but these are the issues that American curriculum focuses on. So, what topics do need to be confronted?

Stacey and I are finding more and more answers to this question each day. Some of them are obvious: drunkenness is common, fighting and anger happen in the streets, sexual immorality is all around us. But some issues are not so obvious. Until a few months ago I would have said that the Kwakum do not really worship “gods.” Then, a friend told us that he saw some Kwakum people offering sacrifices to the gods of the river. It only took 7 years to figure out that polytheism was something that we needed to address! To give you an idea of some other issues, here are some of the questions that have come up in discipleship Bible study: Can people control the weather? Do young men really need to sleep with many women or else they get sick? Do we need to be afraid to go into the forest after dark?

While these are great questions, most of which you wouldn’t know need to be addressed without living here, it is the questions they don’t ask which are the most important. For instance: Does tying a cord around the waist of a baby really protect them from spirits? If you find money on the ground and you know who it belongs to, is it a sin to keep it? If I put a charm in my field to protect it from stealing, does that mean I am not trusting in God? When someone insults me, should I insult them back?

These questions are how the teaching of Jesus needs to be worked out into the lives of the Kwakum people, but they don’t see it. The Kwakum can hear Jesus’ words: “If someone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also” and have no idea that this should change the way they react to insults. This is because from a very young age kids are taught that when insulted they need to respond in kind. It is so natural they would never question it. And people living in Colorado would never even know it happens. The reality is: you cannot teach people all that Christ taught from afar. This is especially true when you do not speak their language.

3. Technology Cannot Translate

There is a reason that we translate the Bible. Cameron Townsend said, “Understanding Scripture in a language other than the heart language in which we think, and experience emotion is like trying to eat soup with a fork. You can get a little taste, but you cannot get nourished.” Compounding all of the difficulties of understanding the Bible (including a wildly different culture), trying to read it in a language that is not your own is just too much. We do not want people to eat soup with a fork. We are not going for a little taste of the Bible, we want life-changing understanding.

I won’t dwell on this, because I have already covered it elsewhere (HERE and HERE), but technology cannot translate the Bible. Technology helps, but language is human, and it takes humans to translate. And, it takes a long time.

Jesus told us that the harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few. This condition has not changed in the last 2,000 years. One of the reasons for this is that many Christians do not understand the need and urgency. We live in an amazing age, where information seems to be omnipresent. But let us not think that all of this incredible technology changes the task that the Lord gave us. He did not tell us to send the Gospel out, he told us to go and make disciples. There is still no good way to obey this other than missionaries going to where the Gospel is not preached. Let’s keep going until the job is done!

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Author: David M. Hare

Dave is a husband, father of four Africans, and is currently helping the Kwakum people do Oral Bible Storying and Bible translation in Cameroon, Africa.

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