Local missions organization wrestles with technology

 

By RYAN BASDEN

GAINESVILLE, Ga. – Seth Barnes, founder and CEO of Adventures in Missions, initiated a controversial dialog about smartphone technology last June.

Barnes posted a blog titled, “Should We Ban Smart Phones on the World Race?” that garnered over 200 comments from members of the organization as well as the general public.

The purpose of the blog was to reiterate a familiar question in an unfamiliar context: Are we as a society so reliant on technology that we miss out on valuable experiences? In this case, the question was targeted at mission trip participants specific to one of Adventures in Missions’ flagship programs, “The World Race,” an 11-month trip to 11 different countries around the world.

A mix of reactions included some opinions in favor of a complete ban of smartphones from the mission field, some in opposition and some in between. The passion shown from both sides of the spectrum made society’s connection to technology very apparent.

Those who responded in support for a ban on all smartphones from the mission field did so from a place of knowing the original purpose of programs like the World Race, as well as witnessing firsthand the negative effects they have on participants.

Barnes said in his June 6 post that smartphones have become a “little electronic security blanket.”

Many others stood in defense of leaving smartphones alone or finding a healthy middle ground so as to not shirk the benefits of having them in other countries.

Austin Ulsh, an admissions representative at Adventures in Missions, said, “Lots of people use them as cameras … with social media being such a big deal, it’s good exposure for the World Race and Adventures [in Missions] in general.”

The debate ultimately rises from tensions between an evolution in technology’s presence in modern life and the original purposes set by the pioneers of 20th and 21st century missions.

The World Race, at its outset, was designed to lead people through a process of discipleship and, in turn, put them in a place to disciple those they came in contact with. As they’ve become more prevalent, those on the field have spent less time engaging with the people they came to meet and more time with the people they’ve already met – and they’ve been doing it virtually.

Ministry hosts in the countries involved in the trips have become frustrated with participants not being fully invested due to their smartphone usage.

“When I led a squad last year, a lot of the first questions that my participants would ask hosts had something to do with the Wi-Fi password,” Ulsh said. “That was kind of frustrating.”

In many countries outside of the United States, Internet isn’t as common and can incur costs if used over the service terms. These are costs that many ministry hosts don’t have the financial means to absorb.

Even nearly a year later, the discussion persists and the solution remains elusive. Adventures in Missions desires to provide the best mission trip experience it can, without stepping on the toes and modern culture of those wanting to minister.

“Ideally, you have to start with the heart,” Ulsh said. “And teach self-governance. If you respond to excessive smartphone use with punishment, you won’t get anywhere. You have to establish the ‘why’.” In the end, sending people out into the world to minister to the unreached is still a ministry in itself. And establishing a culture of rules and regulation is a tough place to do that from.”

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