On Choosing Digital Tools and Why Churches Should Cancel Their Livestream

By Joe Holland    |    June 20, 2022

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I’m writing this longhand. Later, my wife will type it up and send it to my publisher. The first sentence I just wrote is true of Wendell Berry and me. The second sentence is only true of Wendell (and his wife).1 Wendell Berry, one of my favorite essayists, is known for two things: his writing and his love for local, sustainable farming in the hinterlands of Kentucky. He is an elite essayist and an agrarian activist. And yet, this brief essay of appreciation won’t highlight either of those facets of Berry’s work. Instead, I want to reflect on a passing quote from one of his longer works, a comment he makes about tools.

At the outset, I concede my suspicion that my readers are seminarians and pastors, Christians and church-goes, not farmers, philosophers, or farmer-philosophers. Why then the focus on tools? My contention is that everyone uses tools, and I hope, with Berry’s help, to show that everyone is shaped by their tools. In the church sphere, your tools may be older and proven like hymnals in the pews or the large bell that hangs at the top of the tower above the narthex. But for most of you, you’re dealing with the use of technology in church settings, digital tools for spiritual growth. And there are questions. Should you livestream services? Should you have online forums for communication? How much time should you spend on social media as a pastor or just as a church member? I could ask endless questions like these which illustrates the point. We are constantly faced with the decision to either adapt to new technology or to adopt new technology. And we’re not just talking about your comfort level with self-driving cars and Nest thermostats you can control while on vacation. This is about reaching the lost with the gospel, about disciplining the nations in the ways of Jesus.

Tools matter.

In his work writing and thinking about agricultural advancements, or agricultural malfeasance as he might call it, Berry reflected a good bit on the invention, and use, of tools. Berry was prescient in his belief that not all new tools were good tools, were tools that should be adopted by farmers, were tools that positively affected society. And in that thesis, there are broadly applicable principles for all tool users, even if we don’t share Berry’s agrarian concerns. Here is my thesis: we must choose whether to adopt new tools and that choice will require a recalibration of how we judge good tools. And I’ll look to Berry for help sorting both of these things out.

In the chapter titled “Horse Drawn Tools” in his book The Gift of Good Land, Berry writes,

And so it becomes clear that, by itself, my rule-of-thumb definition for a good tool (one that permits a worker to work both better and faster) does not go far enough. Even such a tool can cause bad results if its use is not directed by a benign and healthy social purpose. The coming of a tool, then, is not just a cultural event, it is also an historical crossroad—a point at which people must choose between two possibilities: to become more intensive or more extensive; to use the tool for quality or for quantity, for care or for speed.

Berry admits at the outset that he has in mind a working definition for how to define a good tool. He also admits, with humility, that his working definition has been measured and found lacking. His original thought was that a good tool is one labeled by two adjectives—better and faster. What he means is that the positive moniker of good can and should be applied to tools that facilitate the production of goods of higher quality and produce those goods at a higher speed. Who would disagree with him? Who would think any more needed to be added to the definition of a good tool? I think, likely, none of us. Imagine that I show up at the outset of your day and make this pitch to you, “I have this new wonder tool-app-doo-hickey. If you use it today, you’ll finish by 3:00 PM with higher quality work than you’ve ever produced before.” Would you say, “No thank you”? Would you say, “Tell me more”? Or, if you’re answering honestly, would you say, “Give it to me now, I’ll pay anything”? For most of us, caution would answer with option two and reality would answer with option three. That is what brings Berry to this thoughtful moment of prose where he considers the difference between a horse-drawn agricultural implement metaphorically parked in his field next to a super-electronic-air-conditioned-cab-GPS-directed-mega-harvester. The easy decision may be the wrong decision. Even worse, the easy decision may be disastrous.

And this is where we need to listen to Berry whether or not we care about gardening.2 Berry is using the example of how local, rustic agricultural methods are replaced with Big-Ag implements to show us how tools work, or, more accurately, to show us how the human heart works. From deep inside our existential longing we want tools that make work faster and better—good tools, as we’d call them. And that is why our culture is like a kid with a fork near a light socket, or like a drunk with car keys—tools that seem good at the moment may end us. And we don’t necessarily get second chances.

When we choose our tools, we choose our culture.”

—Joe Holland

That is why we need to make sure we consider what he is saying when he says that tools are moments of decision, not acceptance. Tools are a moment to prioritize the tool’s “social purpose,” to ensure it is “benign” and “healthy.” Don’t get lost in what might pass as vague and cloudy social activism language. Berry is writing soberly. Tools can help and prosper the relationships that exist between man and man, or they can be the match to the gasoline we’ve all collectively poured on the floor. That is why Berry insists that tools are a decision. They come and we must decide to use them, adopt them, and for what purpose.

And this is where Berry goes deeper in describing the decision before the potential tool adopter. The new tool is not, as Berry describes it, a cultural event. Cultural events are noticed as significant and then written into the canon of a community. You don’t make decisions about cultural events; you observe them.3 Instead, Berry suggests that tools are historical crossroads, moments to decide to go in one direction or another. And it is at this point that Berry is adjectivally precise. Tools can be chosen by three sets of opposite effects. A new tool will help society become more intensive or extensive. A new tool will help society produce goods at a higher quality or a higher quantity. A new tool will help society optimize for care or for speed. These are not three choices producing multiple combinations. This is a single, binary choice that produces one or the other type of culture—a culture that is intensive, quality-based, and marked by care or a culture that is extensive, quantity-based, and marked by speed.

Berry’s Two Cultures

This is important enough to belabor: Berry isn’t suggesting a number of comparative adjectives that can be combined willy-nilly in any number of combinations. You cannot have an intensive, quantity, care-based society in the same way that you cannot have an extensive, quality, speed-based society. Berry’s chosen adjectival triplets are inseparable. There are mutually teleological; together they describe the same end. They are societal siblings, describing different aspects of what culture will (not might) become based on the characteristics of the tools that culture chooses to use. Take for example the extensive, quantity, speed-based culture.

Extensive, Quantity, Speed

By extensive, Berry means to extend. Think suburban sprawl. The goal is to cover ground; the means don’t matter. This is manifest destiny combined with Myrtle Beach—kitsch and ubiquitous. And then we add quantity to Berry’s description. With the addition of quantity, we need to say again that these are triplets of polar comparatives. They describe one side as compared to another side which is its polar opposite. And so, in saying quantitative, we are making a comparison to qualitative. This is important because we are again making decisions and trade-offs. It would be nice to adopt a tool that produces both quality and quantity. But that is not the way tools work, at least not yet. There is always a tradeoff. Yes, I meant to use that absolute—always. By deciding to produce the most amount of widgets possible we are also deciding to not produce high-quality widgets. You can’t buy a turn-of-the-century pipe organ at Ikea. And the third adjective goes with and describes the first two—speed. You cannot focus on extending and producing massive amounts of a product without also prioritizing speed. In fact, that is about all you can prioritize. If it is more and further then it also must be faster. The Spam factory got rid of its quality control position long ago.

So, we have three aspects of a given tool working together to define both the tool and the culture. This is Berry’s genius, at least the genius of this quote plucked from a larger work about tractors, combines, and tools that still require equine power. A culture’s tools will define the culture. Extensive, quantity-focused, speed-based tools will make a culture that values these same things. Homes will be cheap, large, and occupy big lots that the owners don’t care to tend to as much as they tend to lay claim to. Garbage men will never go out of work because no home can hold the sheer amount, the sheer quantity of goods that move through these households in any given year. The jobs and schools that feed them will all rank employees on overall production. Metrics will be gods. “Artisan” and “craftsman” will be bygone and antiquated words, not just outdated professions. And the speed will create a harried populi requiring a massive amount of entertainment, downtime, me-time, anti-depressives, and therapeutic spending to alleviate. Life will be riding the brake. Always.

And this will all be because people chose their tools, and their tools chose their culture.

Intensive, Quality, Care

But Berry offers an alternative. This culture, based on its tool decisions, will choose to be intensive rather than extensive. An intensive culture will operate with intent. We might say that it will be thoughtful. And to be thoughtful it will be focused, eschewing distraction with disdain. People will operate with intent and will align their actions with that intent. Rather than extending, they will be intending. This culture will also choose quality over quantity. We should also state the obvious that those who focus on quality are never lazy. Quantity is a problem that solves itself once quality is prioritized. The slouch and the frenetic are equally quality-averse. These will be people who care about the past, craft, guilds, and the future of industries and time-honored labors. And lastly, this culture will be marked by care. Care is a distinctly Berry concept as he so often equates it to care of the land. But we don’t need to leave that term in the agricultural frame. Care is a way of personally relating to creation. In the same way that Adam, in that first garden, was called to subdue and exercise dominion with the care of a skilled gardener and husbandman (Gen. 1:28; 2:15), our action should display the same care for the creation our God made and placed us in. And if there were time, we could point out how responsibility—personal and societal—flows from this concept. But for now, we can note that a society can choose tools that make it more intensive, quality-focused, and care-based.

Good Society or Thunderdome

And we cannot move beyond these cultural descriptors without recognizing them as just that, descriptions of cultures—collections of people. And that is why Berry moves beyond the personal, the individualistic, and the solipsistic to validate the communal implications of the tool decisions for which he is advocating. It isn’t your bottom line that is the arbiter; it is the good of the society in which you live. Capitalism is one thing, all well and good, but Mad Max in Thunderdome is no one’s plan for societal prosperity. And that is Berry’s point. He looks across the Kentucky fields he calls home, from the porch of the Long-Legged House, and espies far off the property of some other farmer, some cobelligerent. He looks at that neighbor and makes decisions as to what tractors will work his own land. He knows that his decisions affect others, neighbors who may or may not get a John Deere catalog. Berry knows that the tools he uses will have consequences for folks a few acres away.

Berry helps us here by providing a description for assessing tools and their impact on society, your society, your church. And make no equivocation, it is a decision you are making and there are value judgments involved. You are actively shaping your church through the tools you decide to use. Would you let me poke at your digital staples for a minute? You do not need a website or a Facebook page; but you chose both. You don’t need to livestream or record your service, but you chose both. Should you cancel your websites and shut down your streaming? I don’t know. But I do know you need to be very thoughtful about the tools you use and how they shape your communities.

All of this may feel like I’m leading the witness, leading him straight to an Amish commune, but that type of thinking misses the point. Berry is advocating for informal, thoughtful decision-making. At one point in agricultural history, someone hitched a large metal soil blade to a horse and said, “look what I made.” It was a moment of decision that had cultural implications. A few farmers said “That looks great, we’ll use it too,” then a few more, and then Wendell was using that invention as an example of a good tool from antiquity. It worked out ok. But as we’ve seen, it doesn’t always. The line between culture-enhancing tool and exiting the societal gene pool is not always so clear-cut.

What Berry is providing us with is a tool to assess tools. Am I saying you should buy a dumb phone and let your website URL expire? Maybe. More than that I’m saying that you should see your tools and your church culture intrinsically linked. I’m saying you should make decisions to adopt or drop technology—any piece of technology—based on thoughtful considerations about what you want for your church, and what God designed for your church. He wasn’t unclear. Good, when defined as better and faster, will destroy your church as fast as a good pin pulled quickly from a great grenade.

Recalibrating

What we must consider next is recalibrating our judgment when it comes to tools. I do not mean to be patronizing. I do mean to say that unless you are a Kentucky farmer-philosopher then you are a lifelong obligate adopter. It’s bad. Choosing a new tool or not choosing a new tool is not an option you’ve considered save for those weak moments when, late at night, you thought about buying something off of the home shopping network. Is a Scrub Daddy a good tool you need for better and faster dish cleaning?4 No, you’re an adopter; you’re not a chooser. iPhones regularly show up in your pocket in the newest versions with nary a reason. And I should add that it is easier to not make decisions moving forward than to undo decisions previously made. But sometimes we must ensure a camel-less tent whether or not he’s shoved his nose under already. So, let’s consider two case studies to recalibrate our tool choices: livestreamed services of worship and the always-connected pastor (or parishioner).

Livestreaming the Road to Hell

Covid may not have been the instigating event for your livestream. In fact, think hard, what was it? I’d say it is a combination of two technological innovations: the iPhone (particularly the iPhone camera) and the high-speed internet connection. I’m pressing here because it proves Berry’s point.5 Covid was a historical event, something we stand witness to. Technology is a choice, a crossroad. Livestreaming during Covid happened because churches chose to adopt technology that in turn changed and is changing their church culture. To which you may respond, “What? They are good tools! They allow people to see and hear 6 the church service.” To which Berry would reply, “We must do more than label a tool good.” We have to ask more questions and consider more contingencies.7

Does a livestream produce extensive-quantity-speed oriented cultures, or does it foster intensive-qualitative-care focused social priorities? Could any reasonable person argue for anything other than the former? Livestreaming isn’t making corporate worship higher quality or richer with meaning. Livestreaming is extending the reach of the audio and visual portions of a worship service8 to more people, and with great speed. And whereas this solved a “problem,” it created others, worse problems I’d argue using Berry’s logic. Good ideas can have awful outcomes. Culture is changing, and it is because we made a decision about technology.9

Pastors, Retreat to the Manse

Imagine the life of the pastor before iPhones, phones, computers, and the internet. There are still some men alive who could describe it to you. Pastors were either very reachable or very not reachable, but not much in between. If the pastor was sitting in your living room on a visit or standing in the narthex after the service, he was very reachable. Even as the doctor’s house might be known as the street address to which you would go with a medical emergency, so the church parsonage was a commonly known place to go at all hours with a spiritual emergency—usually a death or an impending death. These were moments when the pastor could be found and was expected to be on. But outside of pastoral visitation, the Sunday service, and mortality-level emergencies, the pastor was incommunicado, on purpose. He might be in his study, or somewhere in prayer, or taking a slower morning at home to recover from an especially eventful Lord’s Day.

Contrast that to my most recent extended break and recovery from church planting and pastoring. After three years of not actively serving on an elder team, I can finally hear my phone ring without flinching. My phone was how people could get in touch with me—ABOUT ANYTHING AT ANY TIME. Yes, I had all the usual boundaries on my work and home life as pastors should have. But still, even if my phone and computer were completely turned off,10 the thought of accumulating messages could feel crushing at times.

My phone, computer, and email (and Slack, and GDrive, etc . . . ) made life easier and faster, extensive and quantitative. And that was the decision I made with consequences for my own soul and all my relationships. The pastoral life is not getting more intensive, higher quality, or care focused. If anything, pastors are burning out at a higher rate than ever before. There are many, many reasons for this. But few people consider that our tools, tools that make us more available for more trivial reasons, are significant contributing factors to pastoral burnout.

We could go on with our case studies—recording sermons, planning center, etc. Each is a decision with consequences. Berry would tell you—and I would agree—don’t slouch into technocratic oblivion. Make good decisions about all the tools you use with the communities you love in mind. And never forget, when we choose our tools, we choose our culture.

  1. Writing in Harper’s Magazine in 1988 on why Berry had no plans to buy a computer, he described his writing life with his wife and included that Tanya, “types my work on a Royal Standard typewriter bought new in 1956 and as good now as it was then. As she types, she sees things that are wrong and marks them with small checks in the margins. She is my best critic because she is the one most familiar with my habitual errors and weaknesses. She also understands, sometimes better than I do, what ought to be said. We have, I think, a literary cottage industry that works well and pleasantly. I do not see anything wrong with it.”
  2. I should say that I do care about gardening. When Berry describes the Kentucky hillside with words that spill out from deep inside his soul, I’m moved to tears thinking of my own Virginia and this little plot of land on which my house stands, a plot of land with a little garden in the backyard.
  3. For example, we should not observe the date of the creation of the iPhone. We should note the point at which more than half the market share chose that particular brand.
  4. Moment of honesty: we own a Scrub Daddy, and I can confirm that it is a good tool that contributes to societal health.
  5. I know many (most?) churches do not livestream their services from iPhones. But, I argue that having a high quality camera in our pocket connected to high-speed internet connection has fundamentally changed how we think about time, place, privacy, and what should and should not be filmed.
  6. Let us point out, as I do in this article, that two of the five senses is still less than half a person.
  7. Also see this article on the historical experience of churches ceasing to meet for a time. The argument that the show must go on therefore livestream, does not hold up biblicaly or historically.
  8. Also, these are coming from one angle, the angle of the camera. There is only one other time this happens: when we’re watching television programming. When we watch TV we don’t imagine ourselves there, we know we’re not there. This is a big deal.
  9. I’m content in not belaboring this point. What are the deleterious effects? I will let you chart those yourself based on what you’re seeing. Or you can disagree with my thesis and think that folks (still) sitting at home in their pajamas is a great thing on a good societal trajectory.
  10. They do have power switches.
Joe Holland

Joe Holland is managing editor for Grimké Seminary.

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