Why the Church Must Think Deeply About Technology

The year 2007 is now thought to be one of the defining years in history. A moment where everything after was different.

Much like 1440, when Gutenberg’s printing press changed the world forever, 2007 left the world a different place because of the Internet.

The Internet wasn’t invented in 2007, but it was made highly accessible and personal on a mass scale through the release of Apple’s first iPhone and the rise of social media.

It seems difficult at times to remember the world before 2007. Think back to that time.

Before 2007

In 2006, there was no iPhone or Twitter. Facebook was in its infancy, confined to college campuses. Most people had what we now call dumbphones, meaning phones without full internet access.

Most of us were still texting on a number pad (remember T9?), though a few of us, mostly business professionals, had Blackberry’s with a full, physical keyboard.

We were just coming out of the dial-up Internet phase and had finally stopped receiving those AOL update CDs in the mail. The Internet was largely something you accessed at home or at work, not something that went with you when you left.

Can you believe that was just 12 years ago?

Rapid Change

The rate of technological change today makes it hard to keep up with all that’s happening, let alone reflect on how technology is shaping us. Change is nothing new, though. Even technological change. Since the beginning of time, life has continued to increase in complexity at a more rapid pace. But complexity requires wisdom.

Each societal, cultural, or technological change in our world requires wisdom to navigate the new, more complex world. We used to have decades or centuries to develop a base of wisdom through living and thinking deeply, but that world no longer exists.

Sociologist Zygmunt Bauman calls this phenomenon of rapid change “liquid modernity.” Bauman says we used to live in an age of “solid modernity”—a period of social change that was fairly predictable and manageable—but now we live in “liquid modernity”—in which change is so rapid that no social institutions have time to solidify.

Rod Dreher writes in The Benedict Option, which David Brooks of the New York Times has called the most discussed and important religious book of the decade,

The most radical, disruptive, and transformative technology ever created is the Internet. It is the ultimate facilitator of liquid modernity because it conditions the way we experience life and frames all our experiences.

Perhaps more dangerous than the speed of technological change is that we can become used to the rate of change and no longer wait to evaluate whether or not a new development actually delivers on its promises.

Andy Crouch writes in his book The Tech-Wise Family, “We are stuffing our lives with technology’s new promises, with no clear sense of whether technology will help us keep the promises we’ve already made.”

After 2007

There is no doubting that technology has changed the world since 2007, particularly through the digital revolution, which includes things like the mass adoption of smartphones and social media, along with the almost ubiquitous access to Wi-Fi.

And there is no doubting that technology has made our lives far easier in many ways. At the same time, there are many who are concerned with the effects of our increased reliance on technology.

I don’t know a single parent who isn’t asking questions about screen time or when to allow kids to have a smartphone. We’ve all heard the reports about the negative effects of too much time spent on social media or seen entire families out to eat in total silence because they are all glued to their phones.

But we haven’t all heard the church talking about technology in terms of discipleship, or how it changes (for better or worse) spiritual formation.

Technology in the Bible?

Since technology is always new and changing, many in the church don’t think the Bible has direct wisdom to offer in this area, but that’s not true. The Bible has some very interesting things to say about technology, as I’ll explain in a future post.

This assumption that the Bible doesn’t address technological concerns might be why most of the Christians I talk to have spent very little, if any, time thinking deeply about technology through a theological framework.

But we must.

Outside of God himself, there is nothing shaping our world more than technology right now.

To help us think about technology through a theological framework, some future posts will cover things like:

  • The Good, the bad, and the ugly of technology
  • Biblical considerations of technology
  • What should we do? (where I’ll suggest a framework for thinking through decisions about technology)

How Long Will You Hide Your Face from Me?

As I wrote in my last post, our world is more personal than ever but also more impersonal than ever, causing us to often feel like a nameless face among a sea of other nameless faces. And it’s making us lonely.

In fact, loneliness is now an epidemic in America.

A recent study on loneliness in the lives of Americans age 45 and older found that more than one-third of people in this demographic describe themselves as lonely, citing a “perceived lack of social support and a shrinking network of friends” as the primary causes.

The same study showed that lonely adults are twice as likely as those who are not lonely to feel they have deep connections through the Internet. In other words, those who believed they had meaningful connections online were actually lonelier.

Alone Together

Loneliness is more widespread among younger generations, particularly Gen Z, or iGen. Jean M. Twenge has been studying generational differences for 25 years, but she’s never seen anything like what’s happening with iGen: skyrocketing rates of teen depression and suicide that have put Gen Z on the brink of “the worst mental-health crisis in decades.”

What’s behind the meteoric rises in mental health issues and loneliness? “Much of this deterioration can be traced to their phones,” says Twenge. She goes on to say,

The twin rise of the smartphone and social media has caused an earthquake of a magnitude we’ve not seen in a very long time, if ever. There is compelling evidence that the devices we’ve placed in young people’s hands are having profound effects on their lives — and making them seriously unhappy.

Depressed. Unhappy. Lonely.

Perhaps one would expect this sort of dramatic language from a sociologist, but Twenge’s concerns are shared by physicians, including Vivek Murphy, who served as Surgeon General from 2014 to 2017. Murphy writes, “During my years caring for patients, the most common pathology I saw was not heart disease or diabetes; it was loneliness.”

The Cost of Loneliness

OK, we’re lonely. But what’s the big deal? Murphy explains the cost:

Loneliness and weak social connections are associated with a reduction in lifespan similar to that caused by smoking 15 cigarettes a day and even greater than that associated with obesity. Loneliness is also associated with a greater risk of cardiovascular disease, dementia, depression, and anxiety. At work, loneliness reduces task performance, limits creativity, and impairs other aspects of executive function such as reasoning and decision making.

Social isolation is the central challenge facing our era according to New York Times columnist David Brooks, who notes that “social isolation produces rising suicide rates, rising drug addiction, widening inequality, political polarization, depression, and alienation.”

There is a cost to the “personal” world we have created, and that cost is the person.

How Long Will You Hide Your Face from Me?

There is nothing more serious than losing the face of God. In Psalm 13:1 the psalmist moans,

How long, O Lord? Will you forget me forever? How long will you hide your face from me?

Psalm 27:9, 44:24, 51:9, 69:17, 88:14, and 102:2 all record psalmists begging God not to hide his face from them.

Adam and Eve used to enjoy walking with God in the cool of the Garden of Eden, but after succumbing to sin they were cast out, never to see God face to face again.

When Jesus was hanging on the cross, he cried out in agony, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” For the first time in eternity, the Father turned his face from his Son, and it almost killed Jesus.

Nothing is more devastating than losing our Father’s gaze.

The Devastation of Loneliness

Why is the turning of God’s face away from us so devastating? In a remarkable talk, Andy Crouch observes,

The moment we were born, we were looking for a face. Because until we see a face, until another sees us, we do not who we are. And we look for someone who would look at us. … But at some point in every human life, the gaze shifts, the face disappears — no one is looking for us. That’s loneliness.

So many of us feel like no one is looking for us.

It’s as if we don’t exist, a sentiment hauntingly captured in Arcade Fire’s song “We Exist”:

They’re walking around
Head full of sound
Acting like
We don’t exist
They walk in the room
And stare right through you
Talking like
We don’t exist
But we exist …

The great challenge for the church in an impersonal world is to see the people everyone else is staring through.

I’ll talk more about that, along with calling the church to rise to the occasion, in my next post.

Saving Face and the Personal Paradox

“We all are born into the world looking for someone looking for us, and we remain in this mode of searching for the rest of our lives.” —Curt Thompson, The Soul of Shame

You’ve likely experienced the awkward moment when you realize the guy next to you in the grocery store aisle, who greeted you unusually loudly, is not greeting you at all. Instead, he’s talking to a nameless, faceless entity on the other end of his Bluetooth-enabled phone call.

You feel embarrassed, of course. But more than embarrassment, you feel overlooked, forgotten.

So you try to save face. You blush and explain that you thought he was talking to you, but your efforts are only met with a head-nod and vacant smile before the man turns and is gone.

To him, at that moment, you are not a person to engage in conversation or a neighbor deserving of niceties. You are a person without a face. A non-person.

While that kind of interaction was once novel due to the high price of smartphones and Bluetooth headsets, the mass adoption of smartphones and earbuds (and now, AirPods) has formed a world where we expect facelessness.

Now we desire anonymity, and sometimes demand it; a reality our “personal” devices are more than ready to facilitate. Yet our “personal” devices are also impersonal.

The Personal Paradox

If you’ve paid a convenience store cashier, taken the subway, or hailed an Uber lately, you more than likely enjoyed exercising your power as a citizen of the digital age, while simultaneously sensing the hollowness that comes with being a nameless face in a sea of nameless faces.

This is the paradox of the modern world, that it is more personal than ever but also more impersonal than ever. Stephen Marche, writing in the Atlantic, notes,

We are living in an isolation that would have been unimaginable to our ancestors, and yet we have never been more accessible. Over the past three decades, technology has delivered to us a world in which we need not be out of contact for a fraction of a moment.

… Yet within this world of instant and absolute communication, unbounded by limits of time or space, we suffer from unprecedented alienation. We have never been more detached from one another, or lonelier.

In a world consumed by ever more novel modes of socializing, we have less and less actual society.

Most of us feel that societal void, at least those of us who have some memory of a pre-Internet world. We bemoan parts of what was lost — but only parts. Because, if we’re being honest, it’s kind of nice.

The Dream of Personal Computing

Booking a flight, boarding a plane, and laying your head on a hotel pillow later that same day, all without knowing the name of a single person you encountered, is a modern bliss. There is no friction, no awkward small talk with uncomfortable silence.

As Rod Dreher writes in The Benedict Option, “To go through the screen of your computer or smartphone is to enter a world where you don’t often have to deal with anything not chosen.”

It’s just you and your devices connecting you to the people and content of your choice. The dream of personal computing come true.

Churches often allow for that same level of impersonal anonymity. And many of us like that, too. You can watch services online or, if you go in person, sing along with the worship, enjoy a sermon, and leave without connecting with another person in any meaningful way.

If you do sign a card or give online, you become an entry in a database and receive “personalized” emails that rely on metadata instead of first-hand knowledge. And you can stay in this impersonal state of connection as long as you wish.

The Redefinition of “Personal”

Here we return to the paradox mentioned in the opening line, that our world is more personal than ever but also more impersonal than ever. It’s not entirely accurate to call our devices or our world “personal,” but that’s part of the problem.

We have allowed mass-market consumerism to redefine the word — which used to refer to one’s private life, relationships, and emotions — to mean something like, “you are the center of your own universe.”

The smartphone isn’t a “personal” device in the traditional sense of the word; it’s a device that makes “I” the center of my own universe, which caters to my unspoken desires for constant connection, endless knowledge, and relentless distraction, all perfectly curated according to my preferences.

What happens when everyone is the center of their own universe? We get lonely.

In my next post, I’ll tell you about the loneliness epidemic in America and why it’s ultimately a spiritual problem.

Where Persecution in America Comes From

“Where does persecution in America come from? Because I can’t figure it out.” The man, a lifelong missionary only recently driven home by health concerns, glared at the class, his eyes piercing students’ hearts.

He had just lamented the increasingly weak witness of the American church after recounting stories of persecuted believers — the ones being tortured, dragged from their homes, or thrown in prison — who can’t imagine giving up their witness.

The only answers he got were blank stares. I certainly didn’t have an answer.

Why is our witness so weak when we have easy access to reach our neighbors with the gospel? What stops us from walking across the street or going into the unreached parts of our towns and cities? If our brothers and sisters are risking their necks to do it around the world, why aren’t we doing it here?

These questions haunt me.

But I may have figured out the answer (or at least part of it) to where American persecution comes from.

Where Persecution in America Comes From

Where does persecution in America come from? Nowhere.

Let me explain by looking at the effects on believers of living with and without persecution.

Persecution causes would-be believers to count the cost before following Jesus. The knowledge that you’ll likely lose your home, family, and job because you were baptized into the Christian faith makes you think more than twice about pledging allegiance to the cross.

But when there don’t appear to be any real costs to following Jesus, as is the case in America, what’s the big deal in saying you believe? This is changing in America, to some extent, but the odds of a professing believer losing their job or family because of their belief are very slim compared to other parts of the world. Without counting the cost, the odds of being choked out by the cares and riches of the world (Matthew 13:22) are much, much greater. This is one big reason why American Christianity is filled with so-called Christians who no longer practice the faith.

Persecution results in suffering that can catalyze sanctification. This is why the church is called to rejoice in its suffering, because “suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us” (Romans 5:3-5). Christians are called to count it a joy when they meet trials of various kinds, because the testing of our faith produces steadfastness. And when steadfastness reaches its full effect, we will be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing (James 1:2-4).

But without persecution, the drive for sanctification has to come from inside believers. Sanctification requires self-control, or self-discipline. Without self-control, there will be little sanctification. There has never been a freer society than modern America. Yet for all our freedom, I doubt anyone would say Americans are among the most self-controlled people to have lived. In fact, we might say the opposite.

Persecution forces Christians to focus on what’s important and to band together to thrive. You’re not too concerned about your brother or sister’s views of the end times when you know you’ll be dragged off to prison if the wrong person stops by your house church. This leads to a great deal of unity, which was chief among Christ’s concerns for his church (see John 17).

Without persecution, the church is at peace. Every solider knows that in-fighting happens during times of peace, not times of war. Divisions can grow like wildfire when there is no common interest or sustaining cause. Christians in the U.S. are as divided as any group of believers has ever been.

America looks more like a country without persecution. We can incorrectly identify the pressures on American believers as persecution if we assume society is always persecuting Christians. But persecution is not the real problem in America. Assimilation is.

When Persecution Gives Way to Assimilation

Babylon, the great and terrible symbol of corrupt society in Scripture, didn’t burn Christians and throw them to the lions like Rome. Babylonians noticed that persecution of religious or ethnic minorities led to unrest and political instability, so they decided to try something new. Babylonian kings told those they conquered that they were welcome to keep their gods and customs — so long as they conformed to the Babylonian way of life. As long as they kept their culture and religion to themselves, they would be fine.

When persecution gives way to assimilation, the witness of the church dulls. It doesn’t have to, but it almost always does. Cultural assimilation, the particular brand of assimilation most effective at rendering the church impotent, allows worldly beliefs to seep into the heart, mind, and soul of the believer, slowly taking over until they don’t even know they’ve been overtaken.

J.D. Greear often says, “Distraction has sent more people to hell than doubt and disbelief ever have.” Assimilation is cooridnated cultural distraction. It is the coordinated, ongoing effort to so blend the beliefs of its subjects that they can no longer taste the individual ingredients.

How to Survive Assimilation

The Bible tells of four men who successfully resisted assimilation into the great Babylonian empire: Daniel, Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah. The latter three you’ll recognize by their Babylonian names, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego. Their pagan names were the first step in Babylon’s attempted assimilation of these men and their fellow Jews.

But time and time again, Daniel and his companions withstood the mounting pressure to be absorbed into the fray. How did they do it? I’ve written previously about three postures Daniel assumed to faithfully engage his culture so I won’t recount those here. Instead, it’s crucial to point out what quality these four Hebrews had in common that bolstered their spirits against assimilation: self-control.

Read through the first six chapters of Daniel and you’ll see the four men resist the Babylonian diet that would be unclean according to Jewish law (ch. 1); Daniel remain steadfast under threat of death (ch. 2); Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego resisting to bow down and worship a false God (ch. 3); and Daniel sticking to his regular practice of praying three times a day with his windows open towards Jerusalem (ch. 6).

How were they able to hold strong against all these pressures, most of which were life-threatening? Self-control, or perhaps more appropriately, self-discipline. They were disciplined not to lose their Jewishness despite their exile. They did not cede that which made them strong in the faith. Without formative practices like adhering to the food laws and practicing regular prayer, they would not have kept the faith.

When we lack the discipline to exercise our faith in the world and aren’t willing to endure suffering, we will never be all that God has in store for us. Persecution provides the means for sanctification and the impetus for mission. If there is no (real) persecution, you need disciplined, determined believers who understand that complacency isn’t an option.

Training for Godliness

Paul understood that complacency in the face of assimilation was a death sentence for a believer and for the gospel. That’s why he told young Timothy, who was facing cultural pressure to conform to Ephesian ways,

Have nothing to do with irreverent, silly myths. Rather train yourself for godliness; for while bodily training is of some value, godliness is of value in every way, as it holds promise for the present life and also for the life to come. —1 Timothy 4:7-8

It takes self-discipline to train one’s self. Without self-discipline, an athlete won’t achieve their desired prize. Without self-discipline, a believer won’t achieve their desired crown.

What does it mean to “train yourself for godliness”? It means to institute the use of spiritual disciplines in your life. For thousands of years, the church has identified and employed the use of certain practices which, when pursued with pure motives, are ideal for forming heart, mind, and soul into the image of Christ. These “spiritual” disciplines include fasting, reading Scripture, prayer, silence, solitude, and celebration, among other practices.

In his comments on fasting that can be applied to each of the disciplines or the disciplines taken together, C.S. Lewis wrote,

Fasting asserts the will against the appetite — the reward being self-mastery and the danger pride. … But the redemptive effect of suffering lies chiefly in its tendency to reduce the rebel will. Ascetic practices [or spiritual disciplines], which in themselves strengthen the will, are only useful in so far as they enable the will to put its own house (the passions) in order, as a preparation for offering the whole man to God.

The disciplines are necessary if a believer is going to assert his will against his desires, thereby reducing the power of his desires over time. This he is to do in preparation for offering himself up to God as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God (Romans 12:1).

The persecution in America comes from nowhere. Rather, persecution has given way to assimilation, a more formidable foe. The only way believers in America will be able to withstand assimilation is by dedicating themselves to the ancient spiritual disciplines that saw Daniel and his friends through the pressure to assimilate.

Will we in the American church train ourselves for godliness?

How to Study Culture

You can’t engage what you don’t understand.

That might seem obvious, but if we’re honest, many Christians don’t really understand the world around them. It’s easy to disappear into a Christian subculture with our own music, radio stations, books, and websites, to the point that we’re not really existing in the larger culture.

But we can’t leverage our culture’s stories to explain the gospel without knowing both the gospel and the stories. We’ll circle back to knowing the gospel shortly, but for now, let’s talk about knowing culture’s stories.

Get to Know Culture’s Stories

How do you get to know culture’s stories? You learn what’s out there and seek to understand it.

Does that mean you should watch all the movies and shows everyone’s talking about at work, or spend your money on all the same things? No.

You don’t have to watch Game of Thrones to know about it. You don’t have to listen to music that’s degrading to women to hear what they’re saying. Instead, you can learn about these things through cultural commentators whose job it is to know what’s going on in the world.

Become a student of the culture around you, especially those aspects of culture that may be of least interest you but of most interest to those around you.

Studying culture will look different for everyone. To give you an idea of what this is like in my life, here are some of the ways I learn about culture:

Online articles

I read and subscribe to lots of free online publications, both secular and Christian, like The Atlantic (a progressive, secular outlet), The Gospel Coalition (a conservative, Christian outlet), The New York Times (a liberal, secular outlet), Christianity Today (a moderate, Christian outlet), and ERLC (the Ethics & Religious Liberties Commission of the SBC; a conservative, Christian outlet). If I want to know what conservatives are thinking and talking about, I’ll check FOX News. If I want to know what liberals are thinking, I’ll check CNN.

Each of these provides a unique cultural view and help me understand how people who belong to those cultures see the world. But regardless of which outlets you choose to read, try and balance your intake to hear from multiple sides of culture.

Podcasts

This is probably my favorite form of media right now. Podcasts are basically radio-like programs that you download to your phone. There are all kinds of shows, but one of my favorites is The World and Everything In It from World Radio. It’s like NPR from a Christian worldview. It’s definitely conservative, but it helps you approach the day’s new with eyes of faith. Al Mohler’s The Briefing is another great daily overview of the headlines from a Christian perspective. If you want to know what the more liberal, culture makes of the news, there are daily news digests from The New York Times (The Daily), NPR (Up First), and others. Film and TV podcasts like the Slashfilmcast are great for listening to reviews and overviews of some of the most culture-shaping artforms.

Social media

Most major news outlets and reporters are active on social media. Your mileage may vary when it comes to the ease of use or enjoyment of these platforms, like Twitter and Facebook, but if leveraged the right way, they can be helpful sources of cultural study. For instance, I’ve used Twitter for several years as both a way to share information and to keep an eye on what’s going on in the broader American culture. Doing this well requires careful curation of who you follow. 

Books

Obviously, books can be very helpful sources of cultural study. But what may be less known is that book lists and book review outlets can help you get a quick understanding of what books are shaping the cultural conversation. This can be as easy as looking up the New York Times bestseller list or Amazon’s best sellers and reading the descriptions of several of the top sellers, or more involved, like reading the New York Times book reviews or New York Review of Books, the Gospel Coalition’s book reviews, or Kirkus Reviews

I know what you’re thinking: that sounds like a lot of work. And in some ways, it is.

But think about it like this. If you were to go overseas as a missionary in a country you had never visited that spoke a language you didn’t know, you would do lots of homework to learn how to communicate the gospel effectively to the people there.

So why don’t we do the same thing here? We are missionaries sent to a particular place in a particular country with plenty of people who don’t know the gospel. As Christ’s ambassadors, one of our jobs is to understand the culture we live in so we can effectively share the gospel with the people around us.

To that end, the most important way to engage culture and learn how to speak into it is to talk to people in it.

People

We can read all the books and watch all the movies we want, but nothing prepares us to speak into it like speaking into it.

Talk to your neighbors. Talk to your coworkers. Talk to your friends and family. Spend time understanding them so you can reach them for Christ.

Be hospitable. Invite your neighbors over for dinner. Take coworkers out to lunch. Meet people for coffee. Do something to reach out to and love on your neighbors. Hospitality lets people know you care about them, and it creates opportunities for conversations about faith, which ties into asking good questions.

When you’re talking to people, ask good questions that get them to go below the surface.

I don’t know about you, but when I’m around people I don’t know well, or even people I do, it’s easy to stay on the surface. It’s safer there. I don’t have to tell you what I believe or what I think. I don’t have to be vulnerable.

Do the heavy lifting

The thing about us is that we want to go deep, we just don’t want to make the first move.

We don’t want to do the heavy lifting in the conversation, but we want someone to ask us about something that really matters.

Do the heavy lifting. Ask good questions. When someone tells you they had a good weekend, ask them what they did. When they tell you what they did, ask them why they find those things fun.

When someone tells you they had a crazy day at work, ask them what they mean. When they tell you what they mean, ask them how the difficult moments made them feel.

Say things like “Tell me more about that,” or “What do you mean by that?” or “How did that make you feel?”

Proverbs 20:5 says, “Counsel in a person’s heart is deep water; but a person of understanding draws it out.” Draw out the counsel in a person’s heart, bit by bit. Most people have plenty to say if you take the time to listen and ask good questions.

Do Your Cultural Homework

God has you in your family, your neighborhood, your workplace, and your community because he wants you to speak the gospel to the people in those particular cultures.

But you can’t do that well if you don’t know the stories those people are living and breathing. 

So do some cultural homework. Read some stuff, listen to some things, but most importantly, talk to some people — for God’s glory and neighbor’s good.