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What Is Theological Design?

    Design and design thinking are topics that are at the center of “21st century skills” and are being widely written about, but how does one really define design. In his book Toothpicks and Logos: Design in Everyday Life, John Heskett describes design as “...the human nature to shape and make our environment in ways without precedent in nature, to serve our needs and to give meaning to our lives.” By this definition, the church’s use of design predates the church itself. God is the original designer of the world and as beings made in God’s image humans have shaped their worship to fit their context from the very beginning. In this same tradition the church has designed its organization, buildings, and worship services to fit the specific time and place it existed. This design has included the incorporation of new technology into the church when it was appropriate. The church has always viewed new technology as a tool to help it accomplish its goals more effectively. At its essence, Theological Design is a method to help the church incorporate technology in the modern age where the technological landscape is so diverse and complicated. 

    The most visible example of this incorporation of technology throughout the history of the church is the pipe organ. When we look at the organ (especially the pipe organ) today it is almost exclusively associated with the church. The organ was originally associated with gladiatorial combat and therefore churches shunned this piece of technology as something wholly secular and gruesome. Around the 8th century the organ had finally gotten past these initial associations and and was beginning to be incorporated into the liturgy of the Catholic church. It is amazing how completely this one piece of technology has been transformed over time from being shunned by the church to becoming a staple of most churches. While this may be an extreme example, it is a good illustration of how the church has taken secular technology and transitioned it into use for the worship and mission of the church. Traditionally this has happened slowly as the church explored the technology and found how it best fit into the work of the church.

    Most people understand Jesus’ Great Commission to be the mission of the church: “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, and teaching them everything I have commanded you.” (Matthew 28:19-20a) This has been the assumption of the church from the very beginning. The church has used any tools at its disposal to try and carry out this mission. The church has even gone so far as to translate the scripture and transform the worship of the church in order to help new groups of people understand the gospel.

    Today children are brought up speaking the language of technology. Tools like video, social media, and google make more sense to young people than do the more traditional bulletin and hymnal. In order to be a welcoming place to this new generation of churchgoers the church needs to look at the new tools at its disposal and pick the ones that best fit the group of people the church is trying to reach. The last 25 years have seen the mainline denominations instinctively begin to understand this and try to do this by mimicking what they thought was working in Mega Churches. The church needs to reassess how it is trying to reach out to young people. Theological Design seeks to help churches focus on their mission and their identity as the starting point for this work rather than starting with a specific tool. In other words, the worship and mission should dictate what tool is used rather than the other way around.

    This traditional system that the church has used to incorporate technology has worked well for centuries but has begun to fail with the advent of the computer age. The main thing that has changed in the modern technological landscape is the speed at which technology is advancing and changing. The old adage that a gadget is obsolete by the time you get it home is a bit of an exaggeration, but it is not completely false. Not only is technology changing at an incredibly fast rate, but the technology that churches have started to incorporate in worship is so highly varied and specialized that churches don’t even know where to start when they want to add technology into their worship. As such, churches generally fall into one of two categories with technology. They either have volunteers or staff who know church well but are not experts on technology or they hire experts on the technology they are using but those people don’t have a feel for the service. This dichotomy leaves the field open for a new type of church technology professional. In this day and age the church needs a professional that knows both the technology that churches are using and the theology and worship of the church. This professional would be someone who would be able to walk with churches through the entire process of incorporating technology into their worship. This person would help churches assess their needs, put them in touch with contractors to install the technology, help train volunteers and staff on how to use the technology, and be a resource for the church as they have issues with the technology in the future. Theological Design provides a framework to help churches incorporate technology in a theologically and liturgically sound way.