Paul’s questions to the church in Rome arrested my attention in a way they never had:
“How, then, can they call on the one they have not believed in? And how can they believe in the one of whom they have not heard? And how can they hear without someone preaching to them? And how can anyone preach unless they are sent? As it is written: ‘How beautiful are the feet of those who bring good news!’” (Romans 10:14-15).
How would they answer? How were they preaching the gospel in the heart of Rome?
At the time, I was leading a small group ministry for people in their twenties. I knew that there were tens of thousands of young people in my city who had never heard the gospel or encountered the good, beautiful, just and true King Jesus. If Paul asked me those questions, I would’ve blushed because I lacked a sufficient answer.
So I unsheathed my dry-erase marker and began to brainstorm strategies on my whiteboard. Most of them were bad. But one rather prosaic idea stuck out: use the internet.
At the time, I didn’t even know what that meant, but it seemed like something. Paul had gone to the Areopagus to reach Greeks and into synagogues to reach young people. What if we went where every millennial and Gen Z lived: online?
Thus began an experiment that changed my vocational trajectory. It started with targeted small-group invitation ads, short email workflows, and a devotional podcast. What began as a trickle became a flood. Hundreds and then thousands of unchurched and dechurched people began to show up in church—all because we reached them online.
That daily devotional podcast—we hoped to get 1,000 downloads in a year—grew to over 3 million downloads per year. While the numbers were exciting, what really mattered were the stories: people who had never attended church or who had left church years before were finding Jesus, and we were helping them find a place to worship.
The Dark Side of Digital Technology
That’s not to say that I have a cheery disposition toward the internet. Quite the opposite. Even as we were using digital technology to reach people far from God, I was grieved by a different set of stories that made their way into my office: people were losing loved ones to Facebook conspiracy theories, social media was causing teenagers to develop eating disorders, and pornography was destroying marriages.
David Kinnaman helpfully calls our online milieu a “digital Babylon.” He’s drawing on the Bible’s most frequent metonymy (a figure of speech that uses a part of a thing to describe the whole, like saying "the crown" in place of "the entire British royal institution") for manmade systems and structures that inculcate hatred, normalize idolatry, and reinforce injustice. Babylon’s debut comes in Genesis 11 when Nimrod gathers humans to use a brand-spanking-new technology—the mud-brick—to construct a ziggurat.
They want to invade heaven, or, at the very least, usurp God’s throne. They coronate human pride, autonomy, and technological mastery. Babel (which is actually Hebrew for “Babylon” and a near homonym of the word “confusion”) is a shadow-Eden. It promises much of what Eden offered, though with a man-centered spin: security, purpose, meaning, knowledge, beauty, social order, and creativity.
If J. Richard Middleton is correct, the earliest Israelite readers of the Babel/Babylon story would have seen the lie immediately. Just like the Babylon of their day, Babel/Babylon was designed to coerce humans into an imperial monoculture: one language, one worldview, one nation, one power. The mud-bricks hyperlink to the story of the Exodus, when their Israelite ancestors constructed monumental structures for the Egyptians as slaves.
The point is clear: outside of Eden, humans use technique and technology to build their own Babylons. Mark Sayers calls the Babylons “strongholds” and writes,
“Safe in the walls of the stronghold, the human finds respite from their fears. … When we are anxious, we seek out strongholds. When we cannot find a stronghold, we build one. … Once a stronghold is established, it will become attractive to those who find themselves in uncertain, in-between spaces. A stronghold becomes magnetic, a vision of hope and home for the worried and lost. Strongholds that appear adequate and sturdy will become beacons to those who find themselves filled with the anxiety of living in the in-between spaces. They grow in size and power, taking on lives of their own.”
Throughout the course of history, these strongholds have typically been social orders: city-kingdoms, empires, and nations. Of course, that’s still the case today, but in the West (and, increasingly, globally), there is a new disembodied Babylon, whose electric energy courses through servers, across airwaves, and in the pockets of just about everyone. It collects data on every user, constructs models of everyone using complex AI, and sells it to advertisers. Like all Babylons, it usurps the nature of God, knowing every user, searching their anxious thoughts, and training them to walk in a new way. It offers them an individualistic, self-expressive vision of the good life that puts personal preferences and desires at the center of reality.
Secular thinkers call this consumeristic system of buying, selling, quantifying, computing, and content-creating many things. Shoshana Zubhoff calls its economy “surveillance capitalism.” Nicholas Carr calls its social effect “the shallows.” Jacques Ellul called its methodologies “technique.”
But the Bible’s ancient metonymy sums up this complex man-made tower of vanity, knowledge, and consumption just as well: it is Babylon. This is what we mean when we say “the digital Babylon.” It is an imperial system, through which the powers and principalities of darkness are able to habituate humans to practices and modes of thinking that militate against the kingdom of God.
Living in the Digital Paradox
It’s easy to see the predicament we’re in. An obvious either/or. To put it more prophetically, which piece of wisdom will you follow:
“Come out of Babylon, my people! Run for your lives! Run from the fierce anger of the LORD”
“Build houses and settle down; plant gardens and eat what they produce. … Seek the peace and prosperity of the city to which I have carried you into exile. Pray to the LORD for Babylon, because if it prospers, you too will prosper”
The former recalls the Babel story. The latter recalls the Edenic call to be fruitful and multiply, to care for the garden and protect. Flee or flourish? This question—at least with regard to digital technology—divides sincere Christians who share confessional statements and missional commitments. Personally, I have no trouble understanding the strength of both perspectives, because I’ve seen lives wrecked and remade in the digital Babylon.
Which makes me ask: Is the either/or framingof this question helpful? After all, the same prophet wrote both of those commands: Jeremiah. Somehow, he held together the reality that Babylon is a power we must reject and reform, a place we must flee from and help flourish, and an influence we must resist and show respect. In more Biblical language, Babylon is a tower destined for destruction and fertile ground for a new garden of Eden.
Our Endeavor: Living in Tension
We endeavor to live in the flee/flourish tension online. On the one hand, Endeavor soberly explores the malformative power of digital technology on communities and individuals. On the other hand, Endeavor subversively imagines how to build gardens in the digital Babylon, retooling digital technology and techniques for kingdom ends—to disciple Christians and reach the unchurched and dechurched.
Living in this paradox means constantly risking self-contradiction, but we believe this risk is better than the risk of a monochromatic approach to life online. Holding both notes—flee and flourish—in tension doesn’t create a discordant muddle but instead an interesting harmony in a melody progressing toward final resolution: the parousia of Jesus.
So whether you tend toward one side or the other, this newsletter is for you. You’ll be stretched to embrace the both/and of flee/flourish, enabling an online Christian witness that is sober, subversive, and beautiful. Apart from the grace of our heavenly father, this would be impossible. But in the power of the spirit, we can disciple the internet. The question is whether we will follow our king, and not only pray “Your kingdom come on earth as in heaven” but work to make “online as in heaven” as much a reality as we can—given all its Babylonian predilections—until his return.
Patrick Miller (MDiv, Covenant Theological Seminary) is a pastor at The Crossing. He offers cultural commentary and interviews with leading Christian thinkers on the podcast Truth Over Tribe, and is the coauthor of the forthcoming book Truth Over Tribe: Pledging Allegiance to the Lamb, Not the Donkey or the Elephant. He is married to Emily and they have two kids.