[Interview] Missions in the digital age: cyber missionaries, attachment theology and why AI does not bring life

By CDI Staff |
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Christian Daily International interviewed Dr. Jay Mātenga, Māori theologian of missions practice and head of the World Evangelical Alliance’s Mission Commission, about his recently published annual “Leader’s Forecast: Reflections on the State of Global Missions.” The interview has been edited for length and clarity, and arranged into a three-part series touching on different topics.

The following is part three that speaks about missions in the digital world and how the Church should respond to artificial intelligence by articulating relevant missiology and theology for today’s day and age.

CDI: In the earlier part of our conversations, we talked a lot about the centrality of relationships and interpersonal interaction. We live in a world today that is increasingly digital, which is something you touch on in your report. Here is a quote that says, “Some argue that the virtual world is a great space to make and develop globally diverse communities of faith while leveraging common interests, but the development of Christian maturity in these excarnational (out of body) encounters remains unproven, certainly not to the degree that incarnational (embodied) interpersonal relationships can and do transform us. Yet, the virtual world is a realm that we must urgently dare to enter with the hope of the gospel and practical demonstrations of the love of Christ, insofar as cyber-reality allows.”

What does mission look like in the virtual world, and how would you imagine that to evolve over the next five to ten years?

Jay Mātenga: This is why I love a relational perspective of Scripture, rather than a sort of “project-oriented” perspective of Scripture. If you look at Scripture from a relational perspective, it's much easier to contextualize the purposes of God in a different context, whether that be a different physical context, cultural context, or a different lived experience such as the virtual world. So, the missions approach doesn't change.

What if we were to come as a group, as a cluster, as a community online, and create a space within spaces rather than trying to create our own space external to these spaces.

We are there to build relationships. An issue is that so much of what is taking place online tends to be individualist: individual speakers or presenters as representatives of Christianity. But what if we were to come as a group, as a cluster, as a community online, and create a space within spaces rather than trying to create our own space external to these spaces.

CDI: How would you illustrate this with a practical example?

Jay Mātenga: Yes, let’s talk about the world of online gaming. Within a gaming space, you've got these different communities that exist there. So, you could have a network of Christians within a certain gaming space that are fellowshipping together, that are supporting one another, that are encouraging one another's innovations in terms of how they express the gospel. And then as individuals, they go out, meet different people as evangelists, ostensibly, but caring, genuinely caring for the needs of those people online.

And those needs will be quite specific to the online experience. A lot of it has to do with loneliness and companionship, and there are plenty of people preying on that. In the article, I talk quite a bit about how Artificial Intelligence (AI) is positioning itself, according to some commentators, as the ultimate companion and wanting to meet us and create intimacy in this lonely space and capitalize on loneliness.

I think it's a big strategy of the enemy to separate, to isolate, to create this deep sense of existential loneliness. That is where the missions opportunity lies for us all who are competent enough to step into that space.

I think it's a big strategy of the enemy to separate, to isolate, to create this deep sense of existential loneliness. That is where the missions opportunity lies for us all who are competent enough to step into that space. And I believe we have a whole generation, largely untapped from a missions perspective, to be cyber missionaries, to be those who are out there not to manipulate people but genuinely meeting people in their need: offering hope, a very real offline hope, an eternal hope, and encouraging them into real world communities, even as they relate to a community of like-minded people within that space.

So, the individual goes out, finds these people, invites them to meet their friends who are part of their online church, if you will, the cluster within that group. They find community there and they're invited in.

And the principle is no different than in the real world, where you go and find somebody, you invite them back for a meal, introduce them to friends, start reading the Bible together, their questions start flowing about who God is and about a much larger universe than they ever thought. Their spiritual questions are actually met in Christ and the reality of the Holy Spirit.

The existential answers, the great worldview questions of reality, are sufficiently addressed, even though there are a lot of questions that may remain in following Christ. and voila, you've got this snowball that can just happen there as people go out like Andrew who came to Peter: “Come, I've met the Messiah, come and see this person.”

We don't do well at harnessing that freshness. I still remember the freshness of my encounter with Jesus and the excitement of just having the universe open to me in a way that nobody around me at the time could articulate. And it's just a wonderful thing. And I think that can happen online as easily as it can happen offline with people who are concerned about developing genuine, deep, mutual relationships.

CDI: That sounds like an area where the global Church should step forward to empower younger people to go out there! Thank you. Let’s just talk a little bit more about AI. Another quote from your report: “As AI matures it would not be unreasonable to consider that whatever emerges will be the highest form of a false god that humanity has ever encountered. The Church is woefully unprepared, but the missions community has the ability to swiftly engage, if we have the will to do so. What is the virtual realm but just another context in which to participate in the mission of God?”

And then a little further down, you write: “We cannot afford to lose the attachment game. AI may be developing new tactics, but the rules remain the same. Humans beings have a deep desire to meaningfully belong. Like other addictions, artificial comforters might create a form of satisfaction for a while, but only the Holy Spirit can satiate our deep existential thirst—and only Christ followers can help them find such living water.”

There is a lot of hesitation and uncertainty and even fear about AI. Yet, how can the Church respond to this not as doom and gloom but as an opportunity for the gospel?

Jay Mātenga:Yeah, I grew up in a context like the ‘80s prophet Barry Smith who was talking about the mark of the beast, and there were other similar things being said that led to the Left Behind series, and so on. All this reflected a very particular perspective of end times theology that was promoted. So, I grew up in this context of looking at the end times and trying to figure out what was going to happen. And I remember distinctly working in a bank when EFTOS and electronic cards and ATMs first came in and then there were those who claimed that our PIN number was going to be the entranceway to the mark of the beast.

We've seen these things come and go. New conspiracy theories are arising. I get a little bit into this conspiracy theorizing in my comment about AI only because there is a dimensional difference to this technology that we haven't experienced before.

My emphasis would always be concerned, but not afraid.

This is not the same as the Gutenberg press. This is not electric light. This is something that has the potential to be quite sentient, and this is something we can be genuinely concerned about. But my emphasis would always be concerned, but not afraid.

What would it mean if this indeed was a new expression of what we see in revelation, by these images of beast, dragon, whore, etc. – what theologian NT Wright calls the parody of the kingdom of God? What if we've got something artificial that is trying to stroke our ego, create this intimacy and get attachment?

Nowadays, psychology is quite aware of attachment theory and the issues we have psychologically with either lack of attachment or inappropriate attachment. And theologically, there's a lot being developed now – particularly out of the school of Dallas Willard – on attachment theory and how attachment affects our brains. It then goes on to create a theology around salvation being our reattachment with our Creator. It gives us deep meaning and it brings us peace when we have that existential assurance that Christ creates through his suffering, death and resurrection, and the giving of the Holy Spirit.

But however you view it theologically, Scripture is quite clear that the Holy Spirit is given and that creates that attachment to God, the Three in One. And this is the relationship that we are created for.

And we can say the same thing for AI. It will not bring life.

Therefore, any other attachment, whether it be to drugs, to pornography, to inappropriate relationship or even to AI, will never satisfy that human attachment. So, there's a great opportunity for us to rearticulate our faith in saying that these things will not satisfy. We've been saying it for eons, whether it was drugs or whether it would be another religious practice, idolatry, witchcraft and manipulating of the spiritual realm: these things ultimately do not bring life.

And we can say the same thing for AI. It will not bring life.

It will help us with life, and we can use the tool as far as we are able to. We don't need to be Luddites. There is a large degree where it can be hugely helpful, and it can be like the Roman roads that were used for torture and domination but then they were used to spread the gospel as well. And the gospel can flow much more easily through this technology. Scriptures can be translated much more rapidly than ever before. They can be articulated in a language audibly before it's translated in places where there is low literacy, etc.

So, we need to very quickly reframe our missiology – our understanding of missions – and our theology in such a way that it's understandable by this new generation. And we should embrace people who are already rearticulating it. Personally, I'd like to think I'm one of those people reframing deep, ancient truths in different ways that are biblically faithful and true.

Also read part 1 of the interview: “Harmony isn’t the absence of tension,” says global mission leader commenting on major trends today

And part 2 of the interview: [Interview] Shifting paradigms: the Great Commission as a promise God will fulfill, not a task we need to achieve

Dr. Jay Mātenga is a Māori theologian of missions practice. He leads Missions Interlink NZ, the missionary alliance of Aotearoa New Zealand, from which he is seconded for half his time to lead the World Evangelical Alliance’s Mission Commission. Prior to his 2015 appointment with Missions Interlink, Jay served for 15 years as the Director of Pioneers and 5 years before that with WEC International, sending and caring for missionaries from New Zealand. His MA studies (All Nations Christian College) investigated relationships of power within missions structures and his doctoral research (Fuller Seminary) led to his development of an Industrial and Indigenous values spectrum as a way of understanding intercultural interactions, which can provide a pathway to maturity through transformative tensions.