IT, the internet and social media: implications for spirituality and the church

On the 3rd Sunday of each month, Holy Trinity Church Exmouth runs a Hard Questions Café. It aims to be a welcoming & informal café-style setting where tough life questions can be explored in a frank and non-judgemental way.

I told a couple of stories to illustrate two aspects of my title. Then I gave each table some questions to ponder and discuss as a group. At the end we shared our insights to the wider group.

I thought it worth providing the stories and questions, if others would like to use them.

Story 1 – Congo Calling, the paradox of modern technology

At the beginning, I asked everyone who had one to get out their phones.

In order to make the tiny components in these phones, manufacturers need tantalum, which can be found in a number of countries as coltan, not least in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

The Congo is a beautiful country. It has an abundance of minerals, but despite this, it has the second lowest GDP per capita in the world. Bandi Mbubi was born in the Congo, but 22 years ago his life as a student activist placed him in danger, and he had to become a political refugee in England. He now manages one of the larger homeless hostels in London, and fronts the Congo Calling campaign. His vision is of technology manufactured with ethically-sourced, conflict-free minerals from his homeland.

Mining coltan ore is a nasty, dangerous job, and in the Congo miners have often been forced into slavery, or are on the smallest of wages. The mines are often controlled by the armed groups involved in the fighting. The coltan is then often smuggled into Rwanda or other adjoining countries, where its origins can be obscured.

Since 1998, the Congo has been scarred by war: a war that has left almost 6 million people dead; in which children are forced to fight, to kill, and to be killed; in which more than 500,000 men, women and children have been raped, and where problems of sexual violence are so terrible that the United Nations has called the Eastern region of the Congo the ‘rape capital of the world’. You may have seen the unlikely couple of William Hague and Angelina Jolie on the news, urging action on sexual violence in war zones. Here is one of those war zones. The competition over the lucrative mines and trading routes is an incentive for warring parties to continue the fighting.

So the phones we have in our pockets may well be connected to violence and human rights abuses on the other side of the world. Yet paradoxically, the same phones have brought benefits to the Congo. Bandi can now communicate easily with his family where an exchange of letters used to take weeks. Technology gives us a wonderful immediacy of connection, and it is a lifeline for many people.

Bandi Mbubi and his colleagues are working to: a) inspire consumers to demand that technology companies develop conflict-mineral free products, and to commit to buying them once they are available; b) influence technology companies to abide by international Due Diligence Guidance on their supply chains; c) lobby national governments and international organisations to adopt and implement commercial, political and legal frameworks to promote ethical mining practices; and d) link all of these groups with the Congolese people both in the Congo and the diaspora.

It is not enough for companies wishing to be conflict-free to avoid buying from the Congo or surrounding countries. Companies must instead use their purchasing power to support the formal Congolese economy. A market for conflict-free minerals has begun to develop, and commercial organizations such as Apple, HP, and Intel have begun to find ways to buy the minerals they need from conflict-free sources. My phone is by Samsung. Two years ago policy used to be to source minerals from other countries. Its website is much fuller on the issue now. The Dutch company Fairphone has launched a products aiming to be the first entirely ethical smartphone.

It is working. This Wednesday, the Enough Project, an anti-genocide campaign group, reported on its investigation into conflict minerals, saying that Congolese warlords have lost control of more than two-thirds of mines in the past four years.

But the pressure needs to be kept on, and governments, companies and consumers can always be encouraged to do better. So take a look at and find out more about what actions you could take to help. And if you are also concerned about factory working practices and the environmental impacts of manufacturing IT, take a look at Greenpeace’s Guide to Greener Electronics.

Story 2 – Acts 4:35, social media and the church

On a Friday evening back in February, Anna Norman-Walker heard from a helper at the Cathedral’s homeless Café about a teenage mother who had just had a still-born child. The council had covered the child’s funeral costs, but the financial help didn’t extend to a headstone which comes in at about £500.

The helper asked Anna for any ideas about grants. She had none, so she got onto her Twitter account on Saturday morning to ask if anyone else could help. Straight away, an organisation called Acts 4:35 tweeted back and suggested she did an online whip round, asking folk to give say a tenner. So she set up the appeal on the Acts435 website, and went back to Twitter, alerting the popular Twitter feed @thechurchmouse, who has 18,000 followers and religious commentator and theologian Vicky Beeching, who has 38,000 followers.

On Sunday, within a couple of hours via people tweeting the message, the world of social media had whipped up the cash. So through the mechanism of the world-wide web, some 50 people gave money to help and bless someone they had never met.

Acts 4:35 of course reads…

34There was not a needy person among them, for as many as owned lands or houses sold them and brought the proceeds of what was sold. 35They laid it at the apostles’ feet, and it was distributed to each as any had need.” [my emphasis]

Through the world-wide web, I can donate directly to any number of good causes, I can sponsor people to do amazing things, or raise money myself for good causes, I can lend money to a woman in Togo, so she can expand her food-selling business a little and educate her children.

On the Avaaz website, I can sign a petition to India’s Prime Minister Modi to “Stop the rape epidemic”, or to Members of the UN Security Council and concerned regional countries to take measures to stop the genocide and spiral of hatred and violence in South Sudan. More than 1.5 million have signed the former, and nearly 1 million the latter.

Or I can download an application to my phone to help me with meditative prayer, or get access to some amazing Bible study resources on the web.

Yes, there are problems with the world-wide web, which was 25 years old this February. (The internet is 45 years old in October.) It is also used by terrorist groups and to spread hate. It is full of porn and… shudder… cat videos. Many people hide behind a pseudonym and use it to spout garbage they would never say face-to-face. There are issues over security, data protection, civil liberties. It makes hidden things more visible, and everything leaves an electronic trace.

But that’s the thing. The human nature hasn’t changed. It is just more ‘out there’. We see scare stories in the news about children being cyber-bullied, or meeting strangers online, or being blackmailed online. But there have been no changes in the problems; the web makes them more visible.

So how do we react? Life is about risks and opportunities. We need to find a balance, and not necessarily impose more restrictions on children’s access to the web, but design the web to serve them better, and create more opportunities.

Societies have been worried about the invention of every new technology. Socrates worried that reliance on writing would erode memory (it has!), but also, and maybe more importantly, that reading would mislead students to think that they had knowledge, when they only had data.

Now we have the world of information at our fingertips. Our memories are worsening again, as all we need is access to Google. Attention spans are worsening too; we are reading an article when a text message or email pings in, and we switch over and lose our train of thought. There is a risk of always being on.

The internet and its technologies are not neutral; they will affect us whether we choose to use them for good or ill. So, again, how do we react? Yes, there are risks, but there are also opportunities.

The story of Anna and the gravestone was picked up by the local newspapers and turned into a story of how the church uses the web and social media.

Most churches now have a website – Holy Trinity has a good one. It has got to the point where you are invisible if you don’t have a website. How will you attract people to the church if you don’t go out to them where they are and tell them when your services are, how to get to you, or how to contact you re weddings and funerals? If people are on

Social media, like Twitter and Facebook, have immense power to connect and help people. It must be used “wisely”, and it takes some time and resources, but it is a great communication opportunity. Would Jesus tweet?


Set 1
Canon Mark Oakley wrote: “A Googlesque world of quick information has forgotten that it should be difficult, even dangerous to talk about God.”
Has the church got the dynamic between the hidden and the visible right? Between communicating the Kingdom of God, and working on our relationship with God in the hiddenness of our own hearts? What could it do more of, better, or differently?

Set 2
How have IT and the internet affected relationships with God, neighbour, rest of creation, within myself?
For example, how have they changed the answer to the question “Who is my neighbour?” ?

Set 3
Do you think you use IT/internet too much?
If yes, what could you ‘fast’ from, and what would you do instead?
If no, how can IT/internet be used in your own Christian life? Praying over news, meditation app on your phone, building relationships, Bible study, etc.

Set 4
Nowadays we’re not good at letting children outdoors or even walk to school alone. So children tend to take their acting out online. The internet is here to stay, but can we make it a place where children can explore and create, where they meet opportunities rather than risks?
As a species, we are incredibly adaptable and creative. It takes a lot of bravery to let the next generation explore new technologies, let alone follow them. Are we willing?