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 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 describe the loneliness epidemic in America and why it’s ultimately a spiritual problem.

The Biggest Threat to Discipleship Today

The biggest threat to discipleship in the church today is in your hand right now. If not in your hand, it may be in your pocket or somewhere near you. At the very least, you know where it is.

It craves your attention and promises satisfaction. Its sleek lines and subtle curves lure your heart. You gaze into its glowing portal hundreds of times a day — swiping, tapping, thumbing your way down an infinite spiral of information and entertainment.

Yes, your phone is the biggest threat to discipleship today.

What Your Phone Knows About You

Think I’m overplaying the threat, making too much of too little a thing as an iPhone? Consider that your phone is in many ways your most intimate companion. It knows what you think, when you sleep, where you go, and what you long for.

Your search history reveals your innermost thoughts. Your Amazon orders reveal your idols. Your social media posts reveal your heart.

Like most adults, you’re probably waking your phone an average of 150 times a day. Smartphones have become seemingly essential to modern life, which is why many of us spend two or more hours per day on them.

The Technological Discipleship Gap

While people in churches have joined the broader culture in rapidly adopting new technology, churches themselves have been slow to address our new digital reality.

“There is a technology discipleship gap between the importance of technology in our daily lives and how effective Christian leaders are at discipling their people in proper technology usage,” says Ed Stetzer. Teasing out this theme, Stetzer writes in his new book,

Christians often have the same bad habits as everyone else, practices that damage not only their well-being and relationships, but also their spiritual vitality and witness. Despite these dangers, when was the last time your church taught on social media or proper media consumption? Substantive, disciple-making teaching on how Christians can develop godly technology habits? Aside from youth pastors warning of cyberbullying, when have messages touched on the way technology is shaping our lives or how our online behavior relates to our faith? I have heard plenty of sermons that address the problem of pornography, but I can count on one hand the number of times a pastor or Sunday school teacher discussed a more comprehensive online discipleship.

Technology seems to move at such a rapid pace that we barely have time to keep up with it all, let alone determine how best to use it. But instead of trying to develop wisdom around the topic, many Christians and churches have been too distracted to notice or, unwilling to make “blanket statements” about technology use, have decided to say nothing (I’m grateful that my church asked me and others to teach on the topic during one of our classes).

But our technological culture isn’t silent, which is why so many believers are being discipled by Apple and Google instead of pastors and elders.

The Need for Technological Discipleship

Unsurprisingly, our churches are filled with people whose tech habits largely mirror those of their unbelieving neighbors. Stetzer writes,

We found that technology and online habits of evangelicals largely mirror those of the general public, if not slightly exceeding them.

Your Facebook newsfeed probably attests to the fact that evangelicals like their social media, maybe a little much. Social media and technology are not all bad, however. “Our new digital technologies and social media platforms have untold potential to advance the gospel of Jesus Christ,” Stetzer reminds us. But

At the same time, they can utterly lay waste to people, churches, and communities.

This is where discipleship is needed. With the rapid and almost unflinching adoption of smartphones and other technologies, Christians are in desperate need of shepherding, whether they know it or not. How can we not address the one thing that consumes slightly less of Christians’ waking hours than their jobs?

Effective Technological Discipleship

Technology is a discipleship issue. So what does effective technological discipleship look like? Stetzer:

Effective discipleship helps Christians to bend these tools in service to Christ rather than to become slaves to their destructive power. … At the same time, I encourage Christians to view local ministry within your community and through your church as the primary mission field of the believer. At a time where technology is making communication more isolating and distant, engaging our neighbors with the gospel has become counter-cultural.

What Stetzer outlines above is a thin outline of what effective technological discipleship might look like (he says he gives fuller suggestions in his book). But much more is needed.

I’ll be outlining a fuller approach in the days ahead here, along with explaining more about technology and its effects. Because, as Stetzer writes,

It’s a new world, one fraught with division and anger with the unforeseen capacity to bring them into our living rooms and church pews. Christians need to think carefully on how they can live and engage in this new world to the glory of Christ and the furtherance of his Kingdom.

How to Put Out a Dumpster Fire

A dumpster fire is like porn: it’s hard to define but you know it when you see it.

Fortunately, Merriam-Webster is here to help. Its lexicographers added the term to the dictionary this year:

Dumpster fire (noun, US informal): “an utterly calamitous or mismanaged situation or occurrence: disaster.”

Depending on who you follow on Twitter, you may not have needed anyone to define it for you. Dumpster fires spread like wildfire through social networks. Whether it’s your beloved sports team’s abysmal season, another campaign nightmare, or a public official’s latest gaffe, you’ve surely witnessed a dumpster fire burning across your social media feeds. This is true even of “Christian Twitter,” where it’s not uncommon to see prominent figures sparring over a blog post or deleted tweet.

If Christians want to present a winsome gospel in this cultural moment (and I hope we do), we can’t get bogged down in the muck and mire. We have to find another way to engage the public square and bring the love of Christ to our neighbors. Fortunately, the book of Proverbs is full of countercultural wisdom for putting out dumpster fires.

Stop Heaping Trash

Everyone’s first reaction to hearing about a dumpster fire is to add their take. Fires need fuel to burn, and all too often, we’re happy to provide the fuel. Our negative reactions and hot-takes might seem clever, but all they’re really doing is heaping trash on already flaming dumpsters. Is this not what social media and infotainment sound like today?

The only way out of a world of dumpster fires is to stop fueling them. Proverbs 26:20 says, “For lack of wood the fire goes out, and where there is no whisperer, quarreling ceases.”

John Stonestreet, when asked about the negative tone of public discourse in a recent Q&A, said, “Our ability to not escalate our emotions even when our opponents are is going to be the only way we can really obey Jesus in a cultural moment where our views have gone from being considered wrong or outdated to being considered wrong and evil” (emphasis mine).

If Christians choose not to add opinions and retweets to arguments that are clearly going nowhere, the quarreling would cease, at least in our spheres of influence. But as it is now, we are too often drawn into dumpster fires and come out looking just as foolish as everyone else. Proverbs 26:4 tells us, “Answer not a fool according to his folly, lest you be like him yourself.” The more we answer a fool (especially online), the more foolish we become, and the more foolish we make the Church look.

The best way to extinguish a dumpster fire is to stop feeding it. After all, “If a wise man has an argument with a fool, the fool only rages and laughs, and there is no quiet” (Prov. 29:9). And it’s only in the quiet that we can learn to read the signs of the times. It might feel good at the moment to vent your anger, but as millions of deleted tweets testify, you’ll regret broadcasting those unguarded thoughts soon enough. “A fool gives full vent to his spirit, but a wise man quietly holds it back” (Prov. 29:11).

The reality is, the more we talk or type, the more we sin. There’s wisdom in keeping quiet at the right times. “When words are many, transgression is not lacking, but whoever restrains his lips is prudent”  (Prov. 10:19). Stop heaping trash on dumpster fires. Quietly hold back whatever you feel compelled to say. Wait 24 hours and ask yourself if it’s still worth it.

Be Slow to Anger

It would be great if we learned to stop stoking dumpster fires, but the real issue is in our quick-to-anger hearts. James writes, “Let every person be quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to anger; for the anger of man does not produce the righteousness of God” (Jas. 1:19-20). The calamity of a situation dubbed a dumpster fire beckons us to be quick to anger, quick to speak, and slow to listen—the opposite of James’ command.

Christians’ refusal to heed the Holy Spirit’s instruction in James puts our folly on display. Proverbs 14:29 says, “Whoever is slow to anger has great understanding, but he who has a hasty temper exalts folly.” When we jump into a dumpster fire, we show a lack of understanding.

But when we control our emotions and exercise self-control, we demonstrate good sense. “Good sense makes one slow to anger, and it is his glory to overlook an offense” (Prov. 19:11). It’s good sense to be slow to anger. Those who are slow to anger guard themselves from saying something they’ll regret, and, for Christians, they guard the witness and integrity of the church they represent.

Believer, be slow to anger. Not only does this reflect the character of God (see Ex. 34:6), but it makes good sense. What a witness it would be to have churches filled with men and women who gave measured responses and weren’t driven and tossed by the cultural winds.

Give a Soft Answer

There are times when a response to a dumpster fire is called for, times where conscience or faith compels a reply. In these times, believers can dampen the flames with a gracious word. Proverbs 15:1 counsels, “A soft answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger.”

Before Gideon led Israel into battle with Midian, God whittled down Israel’s army to just 300 men so it would be clear that God won the battle. The men of Ephraim confronted Gideon afterwards, demanding he explain why he hadn’t called them into battle. Gideon thought quickly and gave a soft reply: “What have I accomplished compared to you? Aren’t even the leftover grapes of Ephraim’s harvest better than the entire crop of my little clan … ? God gave you victory over Oreb and Zeeb, the commanders of the Midianite army. What have I accomplished compared to that?” (Judg. 8:2-3). The Ephraimites’ response? “Then their anger against [Gideon] subsided when he said this” (Judg. 8:3).

Our words can bring peace or pain. This was highlighted by a recent Washington Post article on Kristen Waggoner, the public face of Alliance Defending Freedom, the nonprofit behind high-profile religious liberty cases like Masterpiece Cakeshop. The author doesn’t appear to share Waggoner’s views, but she can’t help but be taken by Waggoner’s joy:

“Waggoner answers all questions about her work, even on the most contentious of issues, with a smile. Her colleagues say she is always, always smiling. Her incessant pleasantness can come off as strategic, a way of dismantling those trying to paint her as cruel or intolerant. She says joy is just the mark of a person of faith.”

Wouldn’t it be great if Christians—if you—were marked by “incessant pleasantness” instead of backbiting and infighting?

Standing Out in a World Gone Mad

In a world gone mad, Christians have an opportunity to stand out in a good way. Instead of adding fuel to the dumpster fires around us, we can douse the flames with the grace of Christ.

There will never be a shortage of calamities and mismanaged situations. But if we stop heaping trash on dumpster fires, start being slow to anger, and learn to give a soft answer, we can put the grace of Jesus on display and show the world that there’s a better way to have a conversation—one that doesn’t involve shouting louder and louder.