How The Greek Orthodox Church Approaches Technology feat. Septuagint.Bible | Episode 017
In today’s episode, Theo Nicolakis, the chief information officer of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America, will share their what they do with technology as Christians. He suggests that, since we are in the time where technology is used on a daily basis, then we might as well put Christianity on to it. For instance, utilizing apps with scriptures and so on. He will also mention that hopefully, salvation will be brought to people through the tools, God has given us which is technology.
DJ Chuang: Welcome to the podcast today. This is the place where Kenny Jahng and get advanced to interview leaders, innovators and entrepreneurs at the intersection of Bible and technology. And looking ahead, we want to see what is happening right now in that space today. We have Theo Nikolakis with us. Welcome to the show, Theo.
Theo Nikolakis: Thank you. It’s great to be here. Real honor.
DJ Chuang: And you are the chief information officer of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America. What do you get to do there?
Theo Nikolakis: Well, first of all, it’s really a dream come true because it’s a position where I have the opportunity to bring both my theological background and my technical background together and you know, we talk about scriptural engagement and one of the things that I love about what I do is being able to envision that in the digital world. In practical sense, you know, the Greek Orthodox archdiocese headquartered in New York City were the headquarters of the Greek Orthodox Church in America and FRQ of the ecumenical patriarchy, we have about 500 parishes nationally and a eight regional offices called Metropolis. So I’m responsible basically for all the technology for that infrastructure.
Kenny Jahng: Wow. That’s a big organization to support. And so do you have a team based in New York or is it distributed across a different sections of the country?
Theo Nikolakis: We have a, our core it team out of New York, and then we have our intranet ministries program out of Boston, located at our seminary, a Holy Cross Greek Orthodox School of Theology.
Kenny Jahng: That’s pretty cool. Can you share with us, I guess just giving everyone a sense of, because a lot of people don’t think church has an IT department or that they actually have someone looking over strategically how to use technology for faith. What’s one of the, I guess one or two big picture things that churches need today from technology? What are some of the things that you’re trying to equip? Is it is a data, is it just information, databases, profile information? What are some of the things that you know is possible today for the church?
Theo Nikolakis: Well, the first thing when we’re posed with that sort of question is, comes with I think that my primary job is orientation and I think that as a technology leader in both the tech and religious space, it’s to really orient the church into what the appropriate use of technology is and what that means. And one of the fun things over the years has been sort of taking emerging technologies and figuring out what that application means. What is its morphology, what are we going to choose to leverage a partner with? So in a more practical sense, I think that from a Greek Orthodox perspective and Orthodox Christian perspective, it’s been the question of how do we engage our faithful, how do we engage Christians into living scripture on a daily basis? And one of the first projects that we started we started envisioning it back in ’94 ’95 and then brought it to fruition around ’96.
Theo Nikolakis: I was really synthesizing our worship life with technology and what we did at that time was the Orthodox church functions on electionary. So we have daily scripture readings that are organized. And what we did is we developed an algorithm at that time that computerized the generation of the appropriate scripture readings for scripture engagement at that time. We’ve since brought that to a website back in 1996. We brought it to a mobile app and now we’re bringing it to a streaming devices with an Apple TV and Roku and some of the modern platforms. So from a leadership perspective, I think that’s really what it is, is how do we stray not too far to the right, not too far to the left and keep the right way that’s ultimately going to lead to people’s salvation through scriptural engagement.
DJ Chuang: That’s amazing. When you mentioned 1995, I think of the year that I got married and year after I graduated from seminary and that was pre internet, pre smartphone and my how fast the world has changed and it’s encouraging to hear how your denomination, your network of churches have kept up with some of those changes. And I’m giving it good thoughts about how to use technology appropriately. That’s one of the things I appreciate as a plain vanilla evangelical that Greek, our brothers and sisters in the Greek Orthodox Church and the Catholic Church are very thoughtful about technology rather than just being pragmatic to use it as a broadcast tool or something like that.
Theo Nikolakis: Yes, absolutely. And the one thing that I would even say is to try to take a holistic approach because for us it’s not just doing one thing, but the holistic approach of the human person and their relationship with God. So when we look at the notion of scriptural engagement, let’s say through daily pericope appease or segments of scripture, it’s, well, how do you supplement that also with the prayer life of the, how do you supplement that with devotional elements and aspects? So it’s really trying to look at from our vantage point, what the church has delivered to us over a 2000 year period. And then what do you translate to the digital world? How do you do it? And then what is the relationship between digital and offline? So I think it’s been a lot of fun. It’s been a real blessing to be able to engage in this ministry.
DJ Chuang: The big question that people have is what does that look like? Now that you’ve given it a lot of thought. What does a mobile app experience in a Greek Orthodox context look like beyond the law? In terms of prayer in terms of education? Yeah, beyond lectionary or are you working on that on the drawing portion?
Theo Nikolakis: Sure. There’s multiple elements. The first thing that I think is important for both in an Orthodox Christian and non Orthodox Christian audience to understand is that there’s a prayer cycle in our church and that cycle begins really with the dawn of the new day, so a mobile app and that experience I think needs to mimic that because not everyone can find themselves in your church. Not everyone can find themselves near a place where that prayer cycle resides. So when you log into the app, it should notice, for example, what the day is, what are the fasting regulations? Because in the Orthodox church, Wednesday and Friday are typically fast days. Sometimes you have fast free days are different regulations, so I think announcing the day and what that is is one thing.
Theo Nikolakis: Secondly is the time of day, the prayers change in the Orthodox Church, so having a prayer for that particular hour complemented by the saints and fees that might be commemorated, complemented as we said by the prick of bees and then a prayers for different tasks. So a prayer before I start my work day. You know, a prayer of Thanksgiving and prayer for someone who might be suffering and it’s always a blessing to do extemporaneous prayers. But sometimes when we’re in these contexts, it helps to have prayers that have come down to us over the centuries. So we also have complemented that with live broadcasts. So people who can physically go to services can do that all through a unified experience. And I think that what’s important that we always convey is we never see the digital as a full and complete substitute for the community. And one of the things that has made an impression on me in the early Christian texts in the second century is we know that when Christians couldn’t participate in the Eucharist, the deacons would bring it to them if they were sick or what happened. You. So participating in the community in that experience was fundamental and I think we need to keep that and that’s part of what the balance is between, how we measure what technologies to adopt and how to interpret them.
Kenny Jahng: Both Dj and I have been involved to varying degrees in different church online communities. Has there been any pushback or concern because I think that is typical where people feel like if you’re start to stream and experience like a worship service and all of a sudden everyone feels like what you’re trying to advocate is that we get rid of all our buildings and everyone is just going to sit at home and watch Netflix and church and that’s it. Right? It’s always the extreme, but I’m sure that you’ve felt some pushback or, or, or maybe not. Has, has the community embraced that type of, you know, seeing into the worship experience and that interactivity that social and the net itself is inviting people to do. Right? As we continue to evolve, you know, now we have multiple screens going on in their homes and things like that. What has that experience been internally?
Theo Nikolakis: So I think anytime you have an emerging technology, what I always find out as you have a group of early adopters and you have a group of naysayers that this is evil. And I’ve had conversations with a church leaders, one of whom, a group who I know very well and greeted me one day and said, Mr. Nikolakis the internet is evil. It is the spawn of Satan. And then greeted me warmly and said, what can I do for you? It’s good to hear your voice. And when I look back historically at some of the same arguments that were used to the printing press to the television. So, the way again that I tend to look at it is within the church. My job is to have the gift of discernment and the team to have the gift of discernment and to choose what is the appropriate thing to adopt, how far to take it. And to realize you’re always going to have critics and to prayerfully reflect and believe that what you’re doing is the right thing, that it’s God inspired. And ultimately it’s something to help bring people to salvation and you know, fortunately unfortunately I can look back now over 24 some odd years of experience of doing this and I’d say more often than not, thankfully our instincts have been pretty spot on and when you’re grounded in in a scriptural perspective, when you’re grounded in the life of the church, there is no better measure for giving you the guidelines to do that. So we feel incredibly blessed with the support that we’ve had. You’ll always have critics. Christ himself had his critics, so I think that makes us feel like we’re in good company to just persevere. And the Greek word is to have equal money. Patient endurance, which we’re always happy to do.
Kenny Jahng: One of the things, I guess things are changing and we’ve been to conferences recently where we noticed more and more the people in the room for any experience, whether it’s a conference, whether it’s a church service, whether whatever it is that’s being streamed online almost, we’re at the tipping point where the majority of those things reach more people online than the ones in the room. And so I think that’s one of the things contextually, experientially from facilitation, moderation, host point of view. Who o you privilege? Who are you talking to? I mean there’s no right or wrong answer, but what’s your sense? Do you privilege? Are you talking to the people in the room where you might have anywhere from 50, a hundred, 200, 300 people in the room for worship service for the average church in America, yet if you put stuff online that you actually might hit some, you know, exponential version of that, a thousand people, 2000 people live and then even on demand further, are you talking to the camera or are you talking to the people in the room?
Theo Nikolakis: I think that the way that I would answer that question is it requires a new found skill set because ultimately what we’re doing is we have a hybrid. It’s really Marshall McLuhan where the medium is the message. So the way that I would answer that specific question is your neat, anybody who speaking even what we’re doing here, we always need to be multi medium interdisciplinary approach. So yes, I may be talking and we might be having a great interview here, but at the same time we have to think about an audience that’s listened to it on demand. Is there a transcription of something? Is there a reprint of something? So I think that we need to look at audio video in person. We have to look at a print because even Christ’s from parable to sermon likewise sets the same example for us is we need to be multi medium interdisciplinary in our approach. And just because you have a new technology doesn’t mean that things were different 2000 years ago. It’s just that the mediums have evolved and changed and we need to be cognizant about.
DJ Chuang: Well spoken with much wisdom and reflection and I really appreciate that. I have a big question and I’ll just let you talk. So I know the Greek Orthodox church is really big and values incarnation, which you’ve mentioned and iconography and so you can speak a little bit to that, but one last thought I have is you are also a great partner for us here at .bible, a top level domain, and you have two domain names with websites there at greekorthotdox.bible and septuagint.bible. So, that’s not a historical look. That’s actually a future oriented look. We’d love to hear a bit of how you are incorporating that into the church life.
Theo Nikolakis: Absolutely. First of all, and I think I’ve said this before in private conversations, to me, the advent of .bible Is one of the most exciting things that I have seen over the past decade.
Theo Nikolakis: And the reason why I say that is the way we are engaging in scripture online is changing and it’s changing in ways that I think that we can both predict and not predict. And in order to be able to anticipate and have a space where we can create that next gen experience, carving out a space in the domain area was absolutely brilliant. I remember when I first heard about the idea several years before it actually went to ICANN and became a reality, that was just my first gut reaction was brilliant. As you said, we have been early adopters and a vocal early adopters at that. I’m at the very outset, I think that what we faced with challenges internally, uh, which any organization is going to face is what’s Dot Bible. And I think we’ve become so ingrained with the typical domains of .org .com that we’re going to be in a period of maybe two to three years. We’re until these new top level domains gained some traction and people are used to seeing different ones. We’re going to be in a group of early adopters, but that’s exciting. That’s so exciting because it’s going to be the crucible through which the creativity and the skill sets of scriptural engagement are really going to come to fruition. At from a tech point of view, I think we all know that top level domains are key to branding. They’re key to search engine optimization, SEO , so at that very level, I think that churches and organizations need to think about adopting a .bible strategy as part of the core of what they’re doing every day. So it’s not good we do it, but it’s going to be what is going to be the result if we don’t do it, it’s going to be a mandate in a similar way to add back in the day, well, do we need a website or yellow pages ad?
Theo Nikolakis: So that to me is the most obvious question and answer and maybe it’ll take a few years for the average organization, but I’m here to tell you right here and now as it’s not an if it’s when and it has to happen. What we’re doing today is we’re using our .bible domains first and foremost as a way to centralize all of our scriptural tools. So what I alluded to earlier in some of the conversations we have, well all of these into what we call the online chapel, so it sort of our our digital arena where someone can engage scripture and devotional material. It’s a place where someone can download the apps, have a central area for scriptural surge and some of these other tools. So at the very basic level, it’s a way for Christian organizations to assemble all of their scripture engagement in one logical place. There’s incredible value as we know in that in and of itself.
Theo Nikolakis: The second thing they were doing is we want our septuagint.bible, a space to be the go to place for the Septuagint, both for the text itself and the Septuagint, the Greek translation of the Old Testament that was done, you know, by the Hellenistic Jews, you know, prior to the time of Christ. So that’s a key element for us is to have the text available online. It’s the official Old Testament that’s used within the Greek Orthodox tradition and to be able to have that available for the churches for devotional use and for scholarly purposes as well, so these are two critical areas that we’re giving some initial focus too.
Kenny Jahng: I just love how thoughtful or intentional strategic that is and you can imagine that if you’re doing that approach with just these two website resources from a technology standpoint, the intentionality across the board must be quite dynamic. I really appreciate you spending the time with us and sharing some of those insights. I’d love for you to come back on the show at some point and share with us some other things that you guys are doing in terms of the innovation space with your church. If we may please have you back in the future.
Theo Nikolakis: I’d be honored, anytime.
Kenny Jahng: Now people are going to be listening to this podcast, sharing with others. They’re going to be some people who might want to reach out to you directly. What is the best way for someone to actually get connected with you directly? Is it LinkedIn? Is it the carrier pigeon? Is it an email? Just tell us how someone can get in touch with you.
Theo Nikolakis: Sure. Someone can always drop me an email at T-H-E-O @goarch.org, G-O-A-R-C-H.org. I’m on Linkedin. I’m on twitter and typically @tnicokalis, T-N-I-C-O-L-A-K-I-S. I’m very happy to engage. It’s an honor to be here on the podcast and really just applauding everything that’s happening because we can learn from one another and all of our brethren, you know, ultimately the goal of salvation and these are God given tools and hopefully we can all have the right orientation and apply them appropriately.
Kenny Jahng: Well, thank you again. Love the team approach. And again, you’ve always been collaborative and open handed, so appreciate you sharing your little bit of the secret sauce inside of groach you guys are doing. Thank you so much for being with us today.
Kenny Jahng: For those of you listening, thank you for listening to the future.bible Podcast. Please let us know your thoughts on today’s interviews and suggestions for future shows. We continue to ask for your input because we want to be the number one show where you’ll meet innovators ready to talk and really discuss all the different ways the world is evolving about technology and the never changing message found in the Bible all for deeper engagement with scripture. Theo and DJ. Thank you for amazing conversation today. And remember, last call out. As always, please visit our website at www.future.bible. We’ve got the videos, transcripts, and other resources for you to dive into and connect with us further. In the meantime, be blessed. I remember to be a blessing.
03:02 orient the church into what the appropriate use of technology is and what that means. And one of the fun things over the years has been sort of taking emerging technologies and figuring out what that application means. What is its morphology, what are we going to choose to leverage a partner with? So in a more practical sense, I think that from a Greek Orthodox perspective and Orthodox Christian perspective, it’s been the question of how do we engage our faithful, how do we engage Christians into living scripture on a daily basis?
04:01 daily scripture readings that are organized. And what we did is we developed an algorithm at that time that computerized the generation of the appropriate scripture readings for scripture engagement at that time. We’ve since brought that to a website back in 1996. We brought it to a mobile app and now we’re bringing it to a streaming devices with an Apple TV and Roku and some of the modern platforms. So from a leadership perspective, I think that’s really what it is, is how do we stray not too far to the right, not too far to the left and keep the right way that’s ultimately going to lead to people’s salvation through scriptural engagement.
07:06 so a mobile app and that experience I think needs to mimic that because not everyone can find themselves in your church. Not everyone can find themselves near a place where that prayer cycle resides. So when you log into the app, it should notice, for example, what the day is, what are the fasting regulations? Because in the Orthodox church, Wednesday and Friday are typically fast days. Sometimes you have fast free days are different regulations, so I think announcing the day and what that is is one thing.
07:39 Secondly is the time of day, the prayers change in the Orthodox Church, so having a prayer for that particular hour complemented by the saints and fees that might be commemorated, complimented as we said by the prick of bees and then a prayers for different tasks.
08:26 what’s important that we always convey is we never see the digital as a full and complete substitute for the community. And one of the things that has made an impression on me in the early Christian texts in the second century is we know that when Christians couldn’t participate in the Eucharist, the deacons would bring it to them if they were sick or what happened. You. So participating in the community in that experience was fundamental and I think we need to keep that and that’s part of what the balance is between, how we measure what technologies to adopt and how to interpret them.
17:07 So it’s not good we do it, but it’s going to be what is going to be the result if we don’t do it, it’s going to be a mandate in a similar way to add back in the day, well, do we need a website or yellow pages ad?