In the last few years, you might have noticed a new phrase popping up that goes something like this, “Now, I’m not a Luddite, but …”
Most of us probably guessed that the term “Luddite” means someone who’s not a huge fan of technology, but it turns out that the original Luddites (who lived about 200 years ago) have a pretty interesting story. In fact, what happened to them and what they did in response offers some helpful lessons for how to handle technological change today.
Who Was Ned Ludd?
The Luddites are famous for clandestine night raids in which groups of masked men broke into factories and smashed thousands of dollars’ worth of textile making machines. So who were these masked crusaders and what were they doing destroying sewing machines?
As the story is told, during the Industrial Revolution all kinds of new machines were invented that could perform tasks more efficiently than individual workers. Business owners could earn a ton of money by replacing 10 laborers with a single person who pushed a button on a machine. The problem was that the other nine men lost their jobs.
With no way to earn money for their families, many fell into poverty and despair. According to legend, in 1779 a man named Ned Ludd was fed up with the takeover of the machines and went all Sarah Connor on two knitting frames. The news of Ned’s rage against the machine spread quickly, and groups of masked men started breaking into factories all over England. Whenever a machine was found destroyed, people would say in spooky voice, “Ned Ludd did it.” But did the masked men hate technology or were they targeting something else?
The writings the Luddites left behind indicate that they didn’t really care that much about technology itself. To them the villains were the business owners who were favoring technology over people and leaving employees out to dry. The Luddites saw themselves as little bands of Robin Hoods setting out to take from the rich and give to the poor. While destroying property is clearly wrong, their sentiment is at least understandable.
Luddites in the Church
What does this little history lesson have to do with people in our ministries and churches? First, we need to remember that the kind of technological change that happened to the Luddites is still happening today. While technology often brings us lots of cool stuff, people in our churches and communities continue to lose jobs and have their lives disrupted by technological change. Whether it’s people in construction who still can’t find work after the 2008 economic bust or Louisiana fisherman whose seawaters were destroyed by BP’s recent oil spill, technological change can be difficult and painful for individuals and families.
We also need to be aware that technological change always affects people in ways we might not guess. Eugene Peterson tells the story of when his church implemented a bulletin folding machine. For decades, a group of women met on Saturdays to do the time-consuming work of folding the Sunday bulletins. Peterson thought the ladies would appreciate how the machine freed up their Saturdays, but they were actually saddened that the machine eliminated the need for them to meet together regularly.
Like the Luddites of the 1800s, today’s Luddites aren’t really afraid of new technology; they’re afraid of the change it will bring. As leaders, we can’t afford to be constantly worried about what people will think about our decisions and their consequences, but we must be sensitive to how people react to change and adjust our strategy accordingly.
Gracefully Handling Technological Change
I currently work as a web developer at a great institution, but one that is sometimes resistant to change. Several years I ago, I pitched a big idea that was immediately shot down by my bosses. They didn’t smash my computer or anything, but I was still surprised that they didn’t go for it because it was obviously an awesome idea.
After thinking about it for a while, I realized that I presented completely new concepts to my superiors without taking the time to really explain those new concepts to them. People tend to be somewhat afraid of what they don’t understand, and I realized that I had expected them to just “get it.”
Rather than abandon the project, I went ahead and secretly built it. But as I built it, I also created a five-minute screen capture of the system, showing how it would work and explaining each click. When I showed them the video, it answered all of their previous questions. In fact, they loved the entire system and we launched it a few weeks later.
Since that experience, I’ve developed a strategy of introducing slow, gradual adjustments and taking the time to clearly explain how something new will work. I’d recommend that the next time you want to introduce a new technology in your ministry, resist the urge to be like the bosses of the Luddites who valued technology more than people. And rather than just labeling those who are resistant to change as Luddites, take the time to think through how the change will affect each person and how you can help them in the transition.
John Dyer is a web developer in Dallas, Texas, and he writes about issues related to faith and technology at www.donteatthefruit.com.