How to Put Work in Its Proper Place

Many of us work far too much and enjoy it far too little.

We determine a person’s value by what kind of work they do. We let vacation time go unused. When we do take vacations, we bring our email with us. We put in 50 or more hours and sometimes add a side-hustle or two.

This is the ceaseless American work ethic, or what some are calling workism: “the belief that work is not only necessary to economic production, but also the centerpiece of one’s identity and life’s purpose; and the belief that any policy to promote human welfare must always encourage more work.”

How did we get here?

The Religion of Workism

In a recent article in The Atlantic, Derek Thompson explains that the decline in traditional faith in American society has led to the worship of a pantheon of gods: “Some people worship beauty, some worship political identities, and others worship their children. But everybody worships something. And workism is among the most potent of the new religions competing for congregants.”

Thompson points to two recent studies to prove Americans’ growing religious devotion to work. The first was a 2018 paper on women at elite universities showing their primary reason for attending a prestigious college is not higher pay, but more hours at work. The second was a Pew Research report on anxiety among our youth that revealed 95 percent of them value having a job they enjoy over loving their neighbor or getting married. “Finding meaning at work beats family and kindness as the top ambition of today’s young people,” writes Thompson.

Predictably, turning work into a god goes as poorly as deifying anything else. Today, work promises identity, community, even transcendence, but fails to deliver. The problem with the god of work is that it always disappoints: “a culture that funnels its dreams of self-actualization into salaried jobs is setting itself up for collective anxiety, mass disappointment, and inevitable burnout,” says Thompson. He goes on to say, “Our jobs were never meant to shoulder the burdens of a faith, and they are buckling under the weight.”

Why are we burning ourselves out? Because our hard work pays off. Or at least, it appears to. Hard work and obsessive dedication will often produce favorable results, or “goods” — affirmation from a boss, the satisfaction of a job well done, higher pay, a sense of making a difference.

But these goods come at a cost.

What Monks Can Teach Us About Work

After researching a story involving a monastery in New Mexico, Jonathan Malesic decided to visit. To enter a monastery is to step out of the rhythms of one’s daily life, particularly the demands of work. As Malesic left his daily tasks behind, he pondered the American work ethic (including his own). He began to identify it as a demon that is “chasing us over a cliff.” But the monks surrounding him — all of whom have their own work of some form — didn’t appear to be haunted by the same demon of workism, though they surely have their own.

Why weren’t these monks slaves to their careers? They had learned to put work in its proper place. Though they experience the same temptations to perform for those “goods” mentioned above just like those outside the monastery, they don’t let the pursuit of work or its goods supplant their primary objective: a life of prayer in service to God. Malesic writes, “For monks, these goods compete with their spiritual ideals and relationship to God.”

If they sense their work is pushing God too far to the margins, they begin to limit it in order to stave off the negative effects. If this isn’t possible and they can no longer keep up their way of life and the work at the same time, they walk away from the work and find something else to do.

If Monks aren’t keeping a close eye on their work life, it can eclipse their devotion to God through prayer. If we’re not careful to keep ourselves from burnout, we become unable to sustain our relationship with God.

How can we, who are not monks, keep ourselves from burnout and put work in its proper place?

A Personal Solution to Workism

Thompson suggests that one solution to workism is to take some of the misery out of work. “But maybe the better prescription,” he writes, “is to make work less central.” While that’s not a bad place to begin (it’s a major part of the solution, as I’ll explain below), a better answer to workism is to make God preeminent in our lives, thus putting work in its proper place.

Monks tame the demon of work by limiting it, Malesic explains. This limitation frees them up to pursue higher goods (a life of prayer and study). He suggests that for us non-monks, “the monastic principles of constraining work and subordinating it to moral and spiritual well-being might help us keep our demons at bay and recover the dignity in our labor and in ourselves.” That means we would limit our work to healthy amounts and view our work as one means to help us live a life devoted to God and serving others (which I assume is the goal of life for evangelical followers of Christ).

Intentionally limiting work sounds like a good way to get fired though, doesn’t it? Not necessarily. Studies continually show that burned out workers are far less productive than those who limit their work to a healthy amount and take regular days off. If you work hard and rest hard, you’re likely to be more productive than if you work hard all the time. As Malesic writes, “Your pride in a job well done, or your anxiety, or your ego: none of those are worth as much as your dignity as a person.” To work all the time is to view ourselves as undignified because it limits our value to our productivity.

This is why the solution to workism starts with individuals. We have to decide to constrain our work and relegate it to its proper place as we first pursue a life of devotion to God and service to others. I’ve worked hard over the last seven years to limit my work so I can sustain the family and spiritual life the Lord has called me to. Life is more enjoyable (and I’m more productive) when I work hard during work hours, then “turn it off” until the next day or week.

Based on what I’ve learned, here are some ways you can put your work in its proper place:

  • Pause before lunch each day for a time of prayer, asking God to keep you focused on him throughout your day.
  • As much as possible, do not check or respond to work email after hours.
  • If possible, do not add your work email account to your phone.
  • Review your calendar weekly and make sure you know when your work hours are, and ask yourself if you are able to stay devoted to God and others with that schedule.
  • Before ending your work day, review your calendar for the next day so you know what to expect.
  • At the end of your workday, spend five minutes in prayer and silence, asking God to prepare you to leave work behind and to focus on what or who will soon be in front of you.

While each of us can limit the effects of workism in our lives, it takes organizations partnering with individuals to really make put work in its proper place.

A Corporate Solution to Workism

An organization’s work ethic is a matter of dignity just like your personal work ethic. Malesic writes,

Pope John Paul II wrote in his 1981 encyclical on work, Laborem exercens: “human work has an ethical value of its own, which clearly and directly remains linked to the fact that the one who carries it out is a person, a conscious and free subject.” We need to acknowledge this value, in others and ourselves, if we’re going to keep the desire for productivity from turning demonic. A quarterly profit goal isn’t worth as much as the person who labors, at the cost of her health, to meet it. No reputation for customer satisfaction is worth as much as the person who fills orders and endures complaints. Your pride in a job well done, or your anxiety, or your ego: none of those is worth as much as your dignity as a person.

An organization — even a religious one — that demands more of you than is healthy is one that does not respect your dignity. By expecting or requiring over-production of its employees, an organization is saying its margins, services, or goods are more valuable than the people producing them. This is, unfortunately, exactly how most workers feel.

But this means the inverse is also true: An organization that does not demand more work of you than is healthy is one that respects your dignity. An organization that truly values its people as people is one that will allow its employees to have needed time off and not expect that they check in after hours and put in regular 60-hour weeks.

Employers have a responsibility to help their employees live a more balanced life because they’re working with people, and people have dignity. Here are some ways employers can treat employees with dignity:

  • Instruct managers to send emails during regular business hours, reserving after-hours emails for true emergencies (they can use services like Boomerang to schedule emails to arrive in inboxes at the beginning of the next business day).
  • Monitor employees’ workloads and shift things around teams as necessary to lighten individuals’ loads.
  • Require employees to “cash in” at least some of their vacation days each year, or limit the number of carry-over days to encourage employees to use them each year.
  • Be careful not to praise someone for putting in obscene hours on a project; thank for a job well done, not how the job was done.

Putting Work in Its Proper Place

Let’s start treating ourselves, our coworkers, and our employees with dignity. Let’s choose to prioritize people over products, sons and daughters over services, men and women over margins. Let’s tame the demon of workism.

Let’s put work in its proper place.

Spurgeon Brings Us to the Cross

I was listening to an audio performance of a Charles Spurgeon’s sermon on Hebrews 9:22 (“Without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness of sins.”) and was blown away at his ability to put his audience in the story. Here’s how he takes us to the cross:

First, let me show you the blood-shedding, before I begin to dwell upon the text. Is there not a special blood-shedding meant? Yes, there was a shedding of most precious blood to which I must refer you. I shall not now tell you of massacres and murders, nor of rivers of blood of goats and rams.

There was a blood-shedding, once, which did outrival all other shedding of blood by far. It was a man—a God—that shed His blood at that memorable season! Come and see it.

Here is a dark and gloomy garden. The ground is crisp with the cold frost of midnight. Between those gloomy olive trees I see a man, I hear Him groan out His life in prayer! Listen, angels! Listen, men, and wonder! It is the Savior groaning out His soul! Come and see Him. Behold His brow! O heavens! Drops of blood are streaming down His face and from His body.

Every pore is open and it sweats; but not the sweat of men that toil for bread. It is the sweat of one that toils for heaven—He “sweats great drops of blood”! That is the blood-shedding, without which there is no remission!

Follow that man further. They have dragged Him with sacrilegious hands from the place of His prayer and His agony and they have taken Him to the hall of Pilate. They seat Him in a chair and mock Him. A robe of purple is put on His shoulders in mockery. And mark His brow—they have put about it a crown of thorns and the crimson drops of gore are rushing down His cheeks! Angels! The drops of blood are running down His cheeks!

But turn aside that purple robe for a moment. His back is bleeding. Tell me demons did this! They lift up the whips, still dripping clots of gore. They scourge and tear His flesh and make a river of blood to run down His shoulders! That is the shedding of blood without which there is no remission!

Not yet have I done—they hurry Him through the streets. They fling Him on the ground. They nail His hands and feet to the transverse wood! They hoist it in the air. They dash it into its socket. It is fixed, and there He hangs—the Christ of God! Blood from His head; blood from His hands; blood from His feet! In agony unknown He bleeds away His life!

In terrible throes He exhausts His soul. “Eloi, Eloi, lama sabachthani.” And then look! They pierce His side and forthwith runs out blood and water!

This is the shedding of blood, sinners and saints. This is the awful shedding of blood, the terrible pouring out of blood without which for you and for the whole human race, there is no remission!

Read the full sermon or listen to the audio performance.

Values-Based Digital Discretion

Andy Crouch likes to say that if you want to have a healthy relationship with technology, you don’t have to become Amish, but you might have to come closer than you think.

He’s right.

Before I get to why I think we need to be more Amish when it comes to technology, it helps to dispel a common myth: The Amish are not anti-technology.

The Amish Aren’t Luddites

Cal Newport, the author of Digital Minimalism, summarizes Kevin Kelly’s experience with the Amish:

“The simple notion of the Amish as Luddites vanishes as soon as you approach a standard Amish farm. ‘Cruising down the road you may see an Amish kid in a straw hat and suspenders zipping by on Rollerblades.’

Some Amish communities use tractors, but only with metal wheels so they cannot drive on roads like cars. Some allow a gas-powered wheat thresher but require horses to pull the ‘smoking contraption.’ Personal phones (cellular or household) are almost always prohibited, but many communities maintain a community phone booth.

Almost no Amish communities allow automobile ownership, but it’s common for Amish to travel in cars driven by others.

Kelly reports that both solar panels and diesel electric generators are common, but it’s usually forbidden to connect to the larger municipal power grid.

In one memorable passage, Kelly talks about visiting a family that uses a $400,000 computer-controlled precision milling machine to produce pneumatic parts needed by the community. The machine is run by the family’s bonnet-wearing, 10-year old daughter. It’s housed behind their horse stable.”

It turns out the Amish only reject some — not all — technology. Newport calls them the “original digital minimalists.” Why? “They start with the things they value most, then work backwards to ask whether a given technology performs more harm than good with respect to these values.”

Values-Based Digital Discretion

This is one of the big takeaways from Newport’s Digital Minimalism: that values are crucial for living a healthy digital life. In the various podcast interviews with Newport I’ve listened to (I’ve yet to read the book), he explains that we should let our values determine and guide our digital lives.

He’s not the only one to draw this conclusion. Jameson Wetmore is a social researcher at the Arizona State University’s School for the Future of Innovation in Society who has studied the Amish doggedly. As one Quartz article put it, Wetmore “suggests that contemporary society needs to take a new approach to technology — one that weighs the value of our new tools before welcoming them into our lives.”

In Technology and the Contemporary Life, Albert Borgmann, one of the go-to scholars for everyone reading and writing about technology, suggests that instead of living our lives according to the values of new technology, we should determine our values first and attempt to use our tools in service of those values.

Christian thinkers have reached the same conclusion and started to lay out what this values-based digital discretion might look like. Two books that come to mind are John Dyer’s From the Garden to the City and Networked Theology, an interesting book I’ve not seen many people cite.

From the Garden to the City

From the Garden to the City, as I’ve written before, is helpful for both understanding technology’s history and applications, as well as its interplay with theology. Unless a better book comes along, I would say that if a Christian could only read one book on theology and technology, this is it. John Dyer is employed by Dallas Theological Seminary but has degrees and a background in both computer science and theology. He has built useful tools for the Internet and thought deeply about how technology affects humans and society.

In his book, Dyer helps you understand technology along the spectrum of reflection (think “creation”), rebellion (think “the fall”), redemption, and restoration. This allows him to cover a range of biblical texts as he traces the theme of technology throughout Scripture and history. He summarizes thought leaders in the area of technology — Albert Borgmann, Jacques Ellul (whom Newport recommends reading) — while providing helpful analysis of their work. He then brings the truths of Scripture to bear on that analysis, helping you see past the limited views of the technological optimist or pessimist, as well as the shortsighted view of the instrumentalist, and gives a more nuanced approach of making decisions based on understanding your values and technology’s values.

After the closing section of the book, he suggests five steps for making these kinds of decisions:

  1. Valuation – Continually returning to the Scriptures to find our Christian identities and values
  2. Experimentation – Discerning the effects of technology through actual use
  3. Limitation – See what happens when boundaries are places on the technology you now understand
  4. Togetherness – Use the technology together with other believers as you discern the positive and negative contributions in community
  5. Cultivation – Participating in the creation and shaping of technology and its values.[1]

Like Newport et al, Dyer is telling us to begin with values so our devices don’t become the tail that wags the dog.

Networked Theology

Networked Theology, written by Heidi Campbell and Stephen Garner, comes from a mostly substantive (or technologically optimistic) point of view but tries to chart new territory in the theological discussion. More than any other books I’ve surveyed, this one cultivates a new paradigm from which to have a theological discussion.

Its title refers to a new approach to theology which understands persons and religions as forming their identities and values from networks. This understanding differs from historical ones that saw churches and people forming their identities based on familial, institutional, or other tightly controlled forces. Their work charts the way for a discussion of technology that’s not overly optimistic or pessimistic, yet also doesn’t fall into the trap of evaluating technology based solely on its uses (instrumentalism).

The authors do this by tracing the biblical theme of neighbor, and ask, in the digital age, “Who is my neighbor, where is my neighbor, and how should I treat my neighbor?” Through their answers, the authors lay a theological foundation for accepting both online and offline Christian community, but in ways that differ depending on the values of the individuals and the technological forms they seek to employ. This discussion leads to a four-stage framework for evaluating technology and deciding how to use it in one’s life:

  1. History – The history and tradition of the community that shapes who they are and what they stand for;
  2. Core Beliefs – Core beliefs of the group that relate to their general beliefs and choices related to media;
  3. Media Negotiation – The negotiation and decision-making processes they undergo, as it relates to a new technology grounded in the first two areas; and finally
  4. Community Discourse about Technology – The communal framing and discourses created by a group to justify their technology use in light of their values and identity.[2]

This model is very similar to the Amish one, where they carefully think through how each technological innovation will change their community if adopted. This is a strong decision-making framework, but it makes an assumption that may not be true of many. Campbell and Garner say their model “emphasizes the fact that, when deciding how they will engage technology, religious groups often prioritize communal and spiritual values above technological affordances or advantages.”[3]

While that would certainly be nice, I am not sure that is the case for many Christians, at least in America, though it does seem to be true of the Amish. Perhaps that’s why the Amish way of life has remained largely unchanged while American Christianity has eroded so precipitously.

LEDERs

My contribution to this discussion is what I call the LEDER framework, meaning that Christians consider the use of any technology, they should be LEDERs. They should:

  1. Learn broadly
  2. Evaluate biblically
  3. Discuss communally
  4. Engage skeptically
  5. Revisit regularly

You can read more about the LEDER framework here.

Will We Become More Amish?

You need to become more Amish than you might think if you want to have a healthy relationship with your devices. That doesn’t mean you have to give up technology, just like the Amish haven’t abandoned it entirely. It means you’ll have to consider technology’s impact on your values, including your family and community.

What’s unclear is whether we will look up from our phones long enough to realize our values, then ask ourselves whether our technological tools are congruous with them.

Will we consider technology’s impact on our communities, or will we adopt them sight unseen? Will we become a little more Amish in our technological thinking, or will allow technological change to set the course?


[1] Dyer, From the Garden to the City, 176 – 179.

[2] Campbell and Garner, Networked Theology, 103 – 104.

[3] Ibid., 97.

How to Have a Healthy Relationship with Stuff

It’s Wednesday, recycling day. The day in my neighborhood where red bins overstuffed with Amazon boxes line the curb. I should know — my bin looks the same. It seems none of us can resist two-day shipping.

I’ve read enough about minimalism, tidying up, and the Christian discipline of simplicity to know this should make me guilty. And it does. Sometimes. But I don’t want a white-walled home with no comfortable seating. I want piles of books laying around and old cross-stitches from my family on my walls and too many photos of my kids.

In a world where we hear conflicting messages that we are defined by our stuff (consumerism) and that our stuff doesn’t define us (minimalism), what does a healthy relationship with stuff look like? Why do we care so much about our stuff? Why does stuff matter? Should stuff matter?

I don’t know about you, but I need some help here — like a theology of stuff to help guide my thinking and decision-making. Fortunately, Albert Mohler laid out this very thing in a recent episode of The Briefing podcast. Below are my extrapolations on his thoughts and some rules to help you develop a healthy relationship with stuff.

The Value of Stuff

Christians understand that the most important reality is spiritual. Our battles are not against “against flesh and blood, but … against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places” (Eph. 6:12). The Bible teaches that we should value the life of the spirit over the life of the flesh (John 6:63). Believers understand that everything we see in the material world is eventually going to disappear or be forgotten.

The Old and New Testaments explain why we value stuff. It’s because stuff carries with it meaning. We accumulate stuff because we might make that stuff, or someone gave us that stuff, or we know a need for that stuff. In short, we accumulate stuff because it means something to us.

Our things trigger memories. We remember exactly when that family heirloom came into our lives, who gave it to us, and why it matters. This is why we collect stuff that once belonged to our parents, grandparents, or great-grandparents. That kind of stuff is more than just stuff. It’s important to us because it represents human beings whom we love, cherish, and value.

Sometimes we value stuff not because it is meaningful but because it is useful. We create, design, invent, purchase, and sell stuff that makes life possible or that makes life easier. Think of something as simple as a shovel or as complex as an X-RAY machine. This kind of stuff makes possible things we value, and therefore the stuff itself becomes valuable.

Now, the Bible doesn’t allow the worship of stuff, no matter how meaningful or how useful. It doesn’t allow us to cling too tightly to our belongings. But the Bible does explain why we as human beings tend to surround ourselves with stuff and why that stuff matters to us.

Stuff in the Bible

Scripture gives grave warnings against materialism, against valuing stuff too much (Matthew 6:19-21; 1 Timothy 6:7-10; Hebrews 13:5; Luke 12:15, 33). But Scripture also validates stuff, including and owning, giving, and receiving stuff. Think of how the wise men honored Jesus at his birth. They brought stuff in the form of gifts. 

When Jesus sent his disciples out on their first evangelistic mission, he told them to carry very little stuff. Stuff can weight you down. The stuff you own can end up owning you. Christians are not to be hindered by stuff.

While the Bible validates stuff in some ways, it warns us against allowing our stuff to have an outsize influence in our lives and desires. Stuff can tempt us to give in to materialism, consumerism, greed, and coveting. The Bible is clear that these are sins. It’s also clear that stealing someone’s stuff is a sin.

Early Christians demonstrated their love for one another by sharing their stuff. Their stuff became an avenue for blessing instead of sin because of how they used it and refused to hold on to it. 

How to Have a Healthy Relationship with Stuff

I do not have a healthy relationship with stuff. I want things, buy too many things, covet things, chase things. I pray almost daily that God would make me not love the world or the things of the world (1 John 2:15). 

As I’ve tried to rid myself of materialism, I’ve found Richard Foster’s 10 rules for simplicity to be helpful. Your mileage may vary, but if you want to crucify your desire for stuff, you have to have a plan. Without a plan, you’ll be discipled by the marketers who know how your brain and heart work far better than you do.

Here are Foster’s 10 rules for simplicity:

  1. Buy things for their usefulness rather than their status.
  2. Reject anything that is producing an addiction in you.
  3. Develop a habit of giving things away.
  4. Refuse to be propagandized by the custodians of modern gadgetry.
  5. Learn to enjoy things without owning them.
  6. Develop a deeper appreciation for the creation.
  7. Look with a healthy skepticism at all “buy now, pay later” schemes.
  8. Obey Jesus’ instructions about plain, honest speech (Matt. 5:37).
  9. Reject anything that breeds the oppression of others.
  10. Shun anything that distracts you from seeking first the kingdom of God.

If you want to read more about these rules, read the chapter on simplicty in Foster’s book The Celebration of the Disciplines or the shorter article on which the chapter was based. For a deep dive, read Foster’s book devoted to the subject called Freedom of Simplicity

Technology, Place, and Incarnational Life

I’ve always thought it must have been a drag for Jesus to go from omnipresence (being present everywhere at the same time) to unipresence (present in just one place at one time). But Jesus didn’t seem to mind.

One of the most moving scenes of Jesus’ life in Sally Lloyd-Jones’ The Jesus Storybook Bible is when Jesus is on his way to heal Jairus’ daughter, who is about to die. Jesus had agreed to visit and heal the girl, so Jairus, Jesus, and his disciples were moving as quickly as they could through the thick crowd that had formed around Jesus.

Suddenly, Jesus stopped and said, “Who touched me?” It turned out to be a frail, old lady who had been bleeding uncontrollably for 12 years. Frustrated by this distraction, Peter tried to hurry Jesus along. Lloyd-Jones imagines the disciples saying, “We don’t have time!” But Jesus always had time, she writes.

“He reached out his hands and gently lifted her head. He looked into her eyes and smiled. ‘You believed,’ he said, wiping a tear from her eye, ‘and now you are well.'”

Jesus could not have loved that woman like that if he had not been incarnate among her, or present with her.

The 3 Essential Elements of Incarnational Life

One of the primary areas of theological discussion regarding technology is a theology of incarnation, which in Christianity refers to the embodiment of God the Son in human flesh as Jesus Christ. You can’t talk about incarnation without speaking into the topics of place and embodiment.

To be incarnate is to be embodied in human form in a particular time and place, as the Son of God was incarnate over 2,000 years ago in the person of Jesus around the Sea of Galilee. Jesus, though fully God, was limited to being physically present in one place just like any human. His ministry was carried out in an area of only about 30 miles.

To be incarnate like Jesus, to love and live like Jesus, takes focus, attention, and order. These are the three essential elements, if focused in the right direction, of an unhurried, incarnational life like the one lived by Jesus of Nazareth. Jesus always had time because his life had focus — preaching the gospel to the lost sheep of Israel and sacrificing himself on the cross for the sins of the world. That focus allowed him to give his attention to the right things at the right time — like with the frail lady. And his attention was possible because his life was ordered around the right things — prayer, solitude, fasting, and other spiritual disciplines.

Technology and Incarnational Life

If we want to love like Jesus, we must have focus, attention, and order in our lives. But the modern, technological world values none of these things. Sarah Clarkson notes,

“The habits of modern life draw us out of fellowship, away from connection, and toward distraction, absence, and autonomy. While there are certainly benefits to the world or technology, and while social media has in many ways increased connectedness, there are also profound ways in which the overuse of virtual reality and technological media is causing us to become mentally and emotionally absent from the present world of incarnational action.”[1]

This should give Christians pause as they think through how best to incarnate, or bear the image of, Christ in the world around them. The imagination gives birth to creation. And one can only reflect Christ if one has taken the time to internalize His truth and teachings, and tasted His goodness.[2]

“When you understand the reality of incarnation, the way that the physical trappings of our lives and our use of time and space are places where God either comes in His creative presence or remains at bay, you understand that nothing is neutral. Nothing. You can’t just waste an hour on the Internet. You can’t just miss one sunrise in its beauty. No room is just space. No hour is meaningless. No meal is mere sustenance. Every rhythm and atom of existence are spaces in which the Kingdom can come, in which the story of God’s love can be told anew, in which the stuff of life can be turned marvelously into love. We cannot change the world if we cannot incarnate God’s love in our own most ordinary spaces and hours.”[3]

Humans were made to pay attention to the world and people around them. And not just to pay attention, but to bring the love and creativity of God to bear on the world and people around them. The inherent values of the modern technological landscape — autonomy, distraction, interruption, chaos — all work against that purpose. That is not to say technology is all bad, only that Christians must be aware of a technology’s values when thinking through their engagement.

If Christians are not careful, they will find they waste a large portion of their time and life by giving their attention to the consumption of media and products instead of cultivating the kinds of relationships God intended. Aside from technology’s ability to distract away from incarnational life, the consumption of media and products is potentially troublesome in another way.

The Importance of Place

When people are immersed in social networks (not just social media, but networks of people distributed across the Internet), they begin to lose their concept and the value of physical place and what it means to dwell where they are. Bill Gates notes this concern in his book The Road Ahead, speculating that

“the internet would change our patterns of socialization and systems of education, forcing us to rethink the nature of our relationships. The network will draw us together, if that’s what we choose, or let us scatter ourselves into a million mediated communities.’”[4]

For many people today, the latter has become reality.

There have historically been three main understandings of the importance of physicality and place in the church. First, human beings were intentionally created by God to be physical beings, not just spiritual, so any rejection of humans’ physicality is to be resisted (such as with Gnosticism). Second, since humans were created in the image of the triune God, Christians understand humans to be created for community. Last, and most importantly, “God became flesh and blood in the form of Jesus so as to provide a fuller revelation of God.”[5]

Simon Carey Holt sees the call of God to be a call to place:

“The Christian story is a story of places — the most tangible places — from beginning to end. We are made to inhabit. … The story of the incarnation is the story of God en-fleshed in a particular place at a particular time and within a very specific community. So too for us, the call of God is to be in a particular place and there to embody the presence and grace of God. It’s a call to locality. Quite simply, it’s a call to the neighborhood.”[6]

Beauty in Our Own Backyards

Christians are called to neighborhoods. We are to imitate our Master who “became flesh and blood and moved into the neighborhood,” as Eugene Peterson wonderfully paraphrased John 1:14. When we see our place as a stage where the grand redemptive narrative is still playing out, we see that the great things we desire are not elsewhere for us to chase, but that God is making beauty from ashes in our own backyards.


[1] Sally and Sarah Clarkson, The Life-Giving Home: Creating a Place of Belonging and Becoming (Carol Stream: Tyndale, 2016), 36–37.

[2] Ibid., 37.

[3] Ibid., 38.

[4] Campbell and Garner, Networked Theology, p. 5.

[5] Ibid., 84.

[6] Simon Carey Holt, God Next Door: Spirituality and Mission in Neighbourhood, (Brunswick East, Australia: Acorn Press, 2007), 77.