Charting the new digital engagement: the gospel and your iPhone
We have all seen it. The father, surrounded by t-shirted kids clamoring for his attention, lost in the alternate universe of his iPhone. “Daddy! Daddy! Daddy! Daddy!” they shout, little arms straight up in the air, as if they can physically pull his attention back to them. It’s enough to make a casual bystander want to jab the guy in the ribs.
The jabbing of ribs is like the casting of stones, though: it’s easy for us to do it to other people, but hard for us to apply the same rules to ourselves. We see how people around us are tuning their families out, and we shake our heads. But then — bing! — we get a new email or text message, and suddenly we’re swimming in the vortex, feverishly pounding out an instantaneous response to a minor matter. All the while, our wife, our kids, our friends are waiting. “There he goes again.” “I remember what life used to be like before smartphones.” “Maybe if I jabbed him in the ribs?”
But we can’t turn back the clock. Though it’s worth thinking about, it’s not feasible to expect busy people who are now accustomed to a new technological culture — who live and move and have their beings within it — simply to opt out of it. For many of us, including many pastors and Christian leaders, doing so would involve failing to participate in many important matters. We can bemoan this situation, yes, and it does have some negative consequences. But that’s not the full story. To an unprecedented degree, we are able today to communicate, decide, bear burdens, encourage and lead in a minute-by-minute way. Our challenge is our opportunity, in other words.
We see that the new digital engagement presents us with an age-old question, accelerated since the Industrial Revolution of the 19th century. In a technologically fluid society, how do we honor God by loving our families even as we do ministry in an increasingly connective world? Our lives have gotten faster; even as we accept this reality, how do we maintain personal presence with those we love?
Here are five principles by which we can chart a new form of digital engagement.
First, remember what is of the utmost importance. We already may be aware of this truth, but we will need regularly to remind ourselves that our relationship with God, our spouses and our children matter more than anything else in the world. The potentially addictive nature of smartphones and tablets and laptops makes such daily reminders necessary. Let’s be honest: it’s fun to use this new technology, much of which is like toys for adults. Important as work-based communication may be, though, our marriages come first. Our kids aren’t being annoying much of the time when they protest our lack of presence with them. They’re getting it exactly right.
Second, set rules for digital engagement. The gospel, we remember, is not opposed to wise living. Loving God through his gospel means fearing God. Fearing God is the beginning of wisdom (Prov 9:10). Knowing Christ, then, means living an ordered, sensible, balanced life. Because we are tempted by our sinful natures to live disordered and foolish lives, we will of necessity discipline ourselves in godliness (1 Tim 4:7). This will mean limiting our use of our smartphones and tablets at home, for example. If you use technology in personal devotions, don’t let yourself get distracted and surf the Web. After work, I would suggest taking a hiatus from technology from dinnertime until the kids’ bedtime. Even after the kids go to bed, husbands should be careful about digital engagement. Spend time with your wife. If you need to check your email, fine. But give effort to invest in your marriage. So you won’t have Justin Bieber’s Twitter legions. It’s okay. God’s kingdom continues to advance, right?
Third, invite accountability from loved ones and friends. If we’re not careful, we can get into habits and not even know it. This will happen with fast-paced technology that is fun to use. Accordingly, we should invite accountability from those close to us. Give your spouse the green light to talk with you about your digital engagement. Ask friends if you’re “that guy” or “that girl,” who treats the smartphone like “the precious,” to quote Middle Earth’s famous obsessive, Gollum. Actually, calling Gollum to mind just might be what we need to avoid unhealthy patterns. Picture yourself like him. Then put your phone down.
Fourth, accept limitations when it comes to email and communication. We have all despaired upon opening our inbox. I recently saw a ministry leader exult on Twitter when he deleted all his emails. It’s a common dream of many pastors. Yet this will be difficult for many of us to pull off. Where does that leave us? It leaves us needing to give grace to others and to accept limitations for ourselves. I suspect the demands of email won’t go away, but I do think that accepting our God-given fragility can relieve us of unnecessary guilt and help free us to love our families. I also think that systems like “Get Things Done” — described helpfully by Matt Perman and others — can help in this area.
PROMOTE THE GOSPEL
Fifth, use technology to promote the gospel and enhance personal ministry. The crucial challenge for us is not to allow technology to master us, which all of creation — trees, wind, phones, images — tries to do in a post-fall world (Gen 3:17-19). We must instead master it. Once healthy patterns are established and accountability is in place, Christians should feel free to use technology and new media to promote actively and enthusiastically the gospel. We can be tempted to be modern Luddites, but gospel concern and church history won’t let us. The Reformation that birthed the Protestant and evangelical movements was driven by the printing press, a revolution in itself. Even as Luther and Calvin and the early Baptists spread their ideas like wildfire through printing, so we spread the gospel through Facebook, Twitter and whatever else is coming down the pike.
In summary, we need to be careful in handling technology. But we should not fear the new digital engagement. Prayerfully, wisely and out of love for God and his gospel of grace, we should practice it. We may need a few jabs in the ribs as we go; technology must not master us. Provided we establish godly rhythms, we can, in fact, master it, and turn the digital world upside down for Christ.