Hospitality and Cold, Hard Data

Placing technology and faith at odds with one another has become something of a cottage industry in the world of faith. It’s not that we’re uncomfortable with technology; very few of us don’t interact with the internet, e-mail, or social media daily, if only at a cursory level.

But many faith communities remain suspicious, fearing that electronic communications can quickly de-humanize the faith experience. This is unfortunate, as in the congregational setting the information that electronic communications provide, courtesy of Google Analytics and the data that other communication tools provide, can be a real source of strength for building hospitality.

Before looking at how the data generated by technology can build hospitality, let’s look a bit closer at the tension between technology and faith.

Why Are Faith and Technology at Odds?

Many are unaware that electronic communications can teach as well as push information into the ether. On one level this is simply because understanding the information that electronic communications provide takes training and a certain amount of experience.

On a deeper level, many are still burdened by the faux tension that exists between technology and faith. The number of essays and articles that describe this abound, and examples are not hard to find.

Consider this very good commentary published in Religion News Service on July 8 by Tom Ehrich in which he argues that religion has succumbed to simple thinking. A big part of the reason?

We should be teaching the arts of subtlety — learned through literature, history, ethics and philosophy. Instead we teach how to make things work profitably through engineering and technology. Those are useful skills, but they shouldn’t be allowed to override a grasp of nuance and complexity.

Or this one that ran July 3 in Patheos by Paul Jesep.

[Technology] can empower, but also dehumanize and emotionally disconnect people renewing the purpose and relevance of spirituality often enhanced through religion. This is why religion is so important today.

There are many reasons for the faith/technology juxtaposition. The tension between science and faith runs deep in Western history (if you don’t know Wellhausen, you should—he is among the early flashpoints in this debate). Recent works by the likes of Richard Dawkins have understandably put people of faith on edge.

Add to this the the heeby-jeebies that so many of us have about math to begin with, and it’s easy to understand why we want to put the hard numbers behind electronic media (Google Analytics) at odds with the very human expression of faith and grace.

Can Data Be Hospitable?

The perceptions are unfortunate, as behind the cold, hard numbers generated by Analytics and other programs that track our every move on the web are real people.

Carefully read and interpreted, these numbers can provide insights into those who take the time to read the materials that we make available. To be fair, let’s admit up front that a cold side to this does exist. Anyone who has visited a website (say you click on page about Maine) then flipped to his or her Facebook page only to discover an ad screaming “Vacation in Maine” knows that the ad isn’t accidental.

In fact, so much of marketing today is about mining data and using that to “know” the people on the other side of the screen.

But there is a warmer, more hospitable way to approach this data. Especially in the confines of congregations. Unlike major corporations that can’t possibly know the real people behind the data, congregational leaders can, and do. Even within relatively large communities of faith.

That knowledge alone changes the dynamic. In congregations, analytics are not just numbers, they represent the people you minister to. And information gleaned through social networking channels and e-newsletters allows you to see exactly who is reading and reacting to your work and information. By clicking, liking, and following they are revealing a great deal about themselves to you and your ministry team. Information that can sensitize and strengthen your interactions with your members.

Data, in short, opens the door to hospitality—an ancient ideal in Christianity as well as many other world religious traditions—by allowing you to put yourself in the shoes of those you serve.

Individuals consistently clicking information about health care issues or mental health issues may well be signaling a great deal about their own situation that they may well have been hesitant to voice. Being aware of this can only improve your empathy, and your ability to create a hospitable environment for that individual.

Technology and hospitality are not disconnected—they are two sides of the human coin.