The following text is part of a series exploring the topic of digital justice. The full series is being published in the days leading up to the International Symposium for Communication for Social Justice in the Digital Age which will be held 13-15 September. These interviews are intended to offer intergenerational—and honest—views of how we are living in a digital world, if churches are helping us, and how we can work together to define and pursue digital justice.
He believes we’re in the mist of what is called a “digital revolution” by some, a “fourth revolution” by others. Regardless of what you call it, the new era will bring changes so profound that Sterling likens it to a combination of the Renaissance and the Reformation.
“That’s how I would begin to define it,” he said. “I suppose I don’t even fully understand what the implications of it are—I don’t think anybody does, actually.”
He believes that, even as we grapple with definitions, we have already set out on a journey in which the worlds of work, relationships and social engagement have already changed. And churches would do well to change, too.
“If you look at churches, the church has never been very adequately involved,” he said. “In fact, from he time of the Renaissance and Reformation, the churches’ engagement with the world has actually, almost certainly, decreased—increasingly.”
Churches can no longer reject change if they are going to work for justice in a digital age, said Sterling.
“We have to approach this new world as church—with a loving attitude, that is to say, a profoundly demonstrated concern for the welfare of that world, for the goodness of the world and an equally pro-foundly demonstrated concern for all things in that world which may dehumanize the human family—and there is great potential for that to happen,” he said. “It is paramount that we should love the world.”
For churches, what does it mean to love the world in a digital context? “That will mean readjusting all theological education, whether it be the secular theological education of the university, or the religious theological education of the seminary, whether it be in-house education at the church level, or national or international education,” he said. “The church, if it is to fulfill the intention God has for the church, has to understand what this digital revolution is about, and that means educating those who are going to be leaders, in one form or another, of the church.”
Sterling is careful to delineate between the kind of communication that happens digitally—via social media or Zoom calls, for example—and the sacred kind of communication that happens in churches: communion.
That doesn’t mean digital communication can’t be enormously helpful, he insisted. “Those of us who lived through COVID-19 know how much we have been able to enjoy meeting by Zoom or whatever—but it isn’t the real thing and we must never allow it to be thought of as the real thing,” he said.
As sophisticated as the technology is, it’s a crude way of communicating, he pointed out. “The capacity to involve body language with words is limited,” he said. “Human nature doesn’t change just because we have a digital revolution.”
Where’s the hope for churches in the midst of nearly indescribable change? It’s in their courage, Sterling believes. “The church has a courage which isn’t necessarily given to the world because we stand as church in the context of eternity—not tomorrow, not next year, but God’s time,” he said. “And that sense is both the giver of hope and the giver of courage.”