Just a few years after the iPhone's appearance on the market, there is almost no segment of life that can't be shared, enhanced or managed by the ubiquitous device. To the list of activities you can now perform on your handheld device - a list that includes everything from zombie hunting to recipe management - you can add “obtain forgiveness for sin.”
That's an exaggeration, but it's not hard to see why many people jumped to that conclusion earlier this year upon learning of Confession: A Roman Catholic App, an iPhone/Pad/Pod application that walks you step-by-step through the Roman Catholic Rite of Penance. The app aims merely to help Catholics prepare for confession to a real-live priest, and Catholic authorities were quick to clarify that the app doesn't actually replace “real” confession. (I hope I wasn't the only one to imagine penitent sinners tearfully exposing their souls to an Eliza-like chatbot.)
It's hard to object to the idea behind the Confession app. It combines elements of religious education and personal journaling, neither of which is especially controversial. So why did an innocuous iPhone app generate such a nervous reaction?
I don't believe anybody really thinks that an app on your mobile device can take the place of God. I think it makes us nervous because it reminds us how much of what we consider the “Christian life” could, in theory, be carried out through technology, with almost no face-to-face fellowship at all.
There's a very delicate line between using technology in the service of your Christian life and letting it become a buffer between you and the people you're engaging. Consider my own behaviors: I do most of my Scripture reading online, solitaire; I do most of my interaction with fellow churchgoers over social networks; I make credit-card donations to ministry websites; I read and share prayer requests over e-mail. I go online to read classic sermons by the great preachers of yesteryear and watch video sermons by today's prominent Christian pastors.
The gadgets and technology I use to do these things are unquestionably useful. But I'm also aware that even just a decade ago, most of these activities would have required face-to-face interaction with other believers or my physical presence at a worship service. Helpful as they are, these tools add a layer between me and my fellow believers. And a “confession” app suggests something even further: a technological middleman between us and our God.
After a week of immersion in such things, a Sunday morning worship service - with its communal prayer, singing and listening - feels like a much-needed blast of fresh air, a reminder of the value of Christian community. To be clear, I love these tools. Without them, I wouldn't be doing half of the things I do in the church and I wouldn't be doing them half as well. But part of keeping these tools effective is a periodic face-to-face check-in with the people to whom they connect me. In the same way, a tool like this confession app is most helpful when it ultimately prepares and encourages me to make “face-to-face” contact with God.
There's never been a binary choice between using technology and practicing worship. The technology that powers our everyday lives - whether it's the printing press or the iPhone - will inevitably be put to work in the church. Today there's an iPhone app that helps you organize your private confession of sin. Tomorrow there will be (if they're not here already) apps to manage your tithing, identify your spiritual gifts, compose a more meaningful prayer and resist temptation. Does a given technology enable us to live as Christians in a way that isn't possible without it? Is the cost of a technology - in money, face-to-face interaction, time or anything else - outweighed by the things it makes easier or more effective?
We're several years into the iPhone age and I'm certain that many of you have wrestled with these questions. Which apps and tools have helped you? Which have you set aside? Is there a basic set of Christian behaviors that simply cannot be replicated or enhanced by the current generation of gadgets?