When I speak to pastors about emerging technology I often ask them to envision a single scenario. I suggest that they imagine that they are standing in their pulpit on Sunday morning, looking out on the faces of their congregants, only to discover that half of their congregation is suddenly unemployed. There is a single technological development on the horizon that threatens to make this imagined scenario a reality. The technology is automation.
In 2013 an Oxford Study indicated that up to one half of all jobs in the United States are at risk of being fully automated in the next 20 years. More recently, the McKinsey Global Institute posited a lesser number; that up to one-fifth of the global workforce will be affected by 2030. That study suggests that up to one-third of the workforce in richer nations like the United States and Germany will be replaced.
Even if the percentage only ends up being 12 percent to 22 percent in the US, as the McKinsey report suggests, such unemployment rates would be the greatest percentage of job loss in the United States since the Great Depression. In those years literally a quarter of all Americans were out of work. Remember, these most recent predictions are estimates for just 12 years away. So, in a very real way, the clock is ticking...
Of course, it should be noted that the societal and cultural situations that we face today are quite a bit different than those of the 1930's. But it is also worth noting that it was mass unemployment in Germany during the Great Depression that undergirded the events that led to the Second World War. Those who remember history will also remember that - once the Great Depression hit the United States - it lasted a decade and the unemployment rate in America didn't drop below 10 percent until after the US entered the Second World War and began mass military production which reinvigorated the economy.
Obviously, given the modern advances in warfare, a potential Third World War would devastate humanity. But assuming that global war can be avoided, a loss of jobs of this magnitude would likely still shake the foundations of society creating new levels of unimagined poverty, increased income inequality between the rich and the poor and heightened racial & ethnic divisions. What makes things worse is that global governments are wildly unprepared even if this type of scenario transpires in the mildest of ways.
The Coming Church-tastrophe
Not dissimilar to the pre-Great Depression church of the 1920's, the modern church has largely forsaken the Gospel for the institution of the church. Just like then, only 100 years in the future, we have constructed edifices far too large and expensive. We have not focused on enacting the teachings of Jesus.
Instead of being formationally discipled and helping people in need we have turned the church into glorified entertainment clubs to numb the self-inflicted pain of our pride and greed. Instead of helping people to develop a new hermeneutic of ultimate meaning, in the emerging technological world, we have perpetuated poor theology that leaves people feeling helpless and without hope. And yet still many wonder why the church is rapidly declining in the United States?
I think that it is possible and likely that a technological reckoning is coming for the institutional church. Somewhere along the way American Christianity became entitled. Somewhere along the way we became like spoiled rich kids just sitting around waiting to spend our Daddy's inheritance. As a result we've become fat and lazy.
The coming technological advancement of mass automation may be the institutional church's greatest chance since the Reformation to become socially relevant again. People will need practical help in mass. The people of the world will need self-sacrificial behavior modeled in order for humanity to flourish. Christianity provides a rich history of how to effectively do both.
In spite of all of the aforementioned challenges I still remain a techno-optimist. I think that humanity is called to be stewards of all matter, which is divine technology. The development of mass automation simply provides us an opportunity to reconsider what humanity ultimately exists to be and do. Personally, I do not think that humanity's ultimate vocation is to simply be laborers who unnecessarily toil. I believe that all people are called do our part to partake in the redemption of the world.
As a result, the present questions we face as a body are simple and direct. Do we want to participate in Christ's redemptive purposes in the world? Do we want to minimize suffering in the world? If so - then we need to immediately start considering the implications of automation as a larger Christian community. More than two years ago I proposed four ways that the church could begin its preparation in my article: Churches Need to Prepare For When Robots Take People's Jobs. Yet still, only a miniscule percentage of the church is even considering these issues at all.
Think of it this way... What is the worse that can happen if the church devotes a great deal of its time preparing for an automated future? What happens if we prepare and the automation and the unemployment doesn't come? What happens, if we get organized, and then none of scholars' predictions about poverty and disruption occur? At worst, the church universal will have spent a lot of time working to develop a plan for how Christians can actively engage in the emerging technological world to create a better version of humanity, the world and the future.
Isn't that reason enough to begin the work together right now?
The Rev. Dr. Christopher Benek is internationally recognized as an expert regarding emerging technology and theology. He is a Presbyterian pastor in South Florida, the 2018 Moderator of the 41 churches of the Presbytery of Tropical Florida, the world's leading clergy expert on AI and is notably the founding chair of the Christian Transhumanist Association. Learn more at christopherbenek.com.