A number of years ago I began to realize that my mind felt like it was starting to work differently than I was used to. I found myself sort of perpetually restless; mentally uncomfortable – kind of a mind-version of when you’re walking with a rock in your shoe and you keep shifting your foot around, trying to find a way to put your foot down without causing discomfort.
When I was in graduate school I got used to long periods of time of what author Cal Newport calls Deep Work: an experience of mental flow in work which he describes this way:
Professional activity performed in a state of distraction-free concentration that pushes your cognitive capabilities to their limit. These efforts create new value, improve your skill, and are hard to replicate.”
Deep work is not only fruitful, but it is mentally satisfying: we finish our time and feel like we really accomplished something of value and that our time and energy were well invested. Contrast this with what Cal calls “shallow work”:
Non-cognitively demanding, logistical-style tasks, often performed while distracted. These efforts tend to not create new value in the world and are easy to replicate.”
As I reflected on my mental discomfort, I realized that I was struggling not just in finding the opportunity to do deep work (something many pastors struggle with as we juggle many different facets within our jobs), but I was struggling to be able to at all. When I did have the chance and I wanted to sit down and lose myself in some fruitful productivity, I couldn’t find my way “into the zone”. I kept finding myself feeling nervous and fretfully bouncing back and forth mentally, unable to slow down and focus.
Once I became aware of it, I found myself troubled by this development. Was I experiencing too much anxiety? (Aren’t we all?) Was I juggling too much? (Again, aren’t we all?) What was it that was beginning to change the shape of my mental patterns?
Out of Control
I began to reflect more intentionally on my mental state and realized that part of what was happening was that I struggled to calm my mind down enough to get into the mental state needed for deep work. It felt like my mind was beginning to be trained to operate in the fight-or-flight mode as the default and that it took a lot of intentionality to shift out of that gear. I began to pay attention to my anxiety levels more intentionally. When did I begin to feel a wash of stress come over me and when did I feel fight-or-flight begin to engage?
What I discovered surprised me: much of my mental duress was linked to what felt like an avalanche of communication that I was struggling to keep up with. A constant slew of text messages, emails, Facebook notifications, and more than at any second could arrive in my life unannounced and work to demand my immediate attention. Each time they did, they would hijack whatever I was in the middle of right then and divert my mind to whatever was being asked of me in that blip of information.
I began to reflect on my current predicament. Was I being over-responsible? We all struggle with a flood of communication, right? Why was I freaking out? Eventually, I realized that it was because my current relationship with technology has rendered my attention as something that was largely out of my control. Every text, email, etc, immediately began to vie for focus, and having my focus hijacked dozens of times a day every day was bending my mindset into one in which I was constantly scanning the environment for the “next threat”. These words from proverbs described me perfectly:
A man without self-control is like a city broken into and left without walls. Proverbs 25:28
I had no walls: no barrier to prevent something from the outside from coming into my day and shoving my attention around. It was time to take control of my attention back.
Tech & Discipleship
I did take my attention back, and it was profoundly life-changing for me. (If you want to, you can read more about that journey in my article Tech, Attention, and the Holy Spirit). This whole episode not only taught me about how to have a much healthier relationship with my phone and inboxes, but it also highlighted something that I believe to be an important observation: at no point had anyone in the church given me any input as to what would be a healthy way for me to use technology while protecting my soul. Here I was using my computer and phone at least on-and-off almost every day and no one had even mentioned to me the thought that this much use of technology might be affecting my mind and spirituality.
Now that I look back on it, this seems crazy to me. This article published in 2020 says that recent studies suggest the average US adult will spend 44 years looking at screens over the course of their life. 44 years!! How could anything we’re doing for 44 years of our very limited lifespan not have the most profound impact on who we are and how we walk with God? In fact, is there anything else we do for that much of our time? (The average American spends 36 years in bed over the course of their life).
What is my takeaway from this? It is a simple conclusion, but one I want to be super clear about to anyone who is helping lead in any church:
A healthy relationship with technology is one of the most critical discipleship issues in our day, and we’re just about totally ignoring it.
How is it that we’re missing this so massively? I mean everyone pretty universally agrees on the importance of healthy marriages and marriage ministry in our churches, but the average American isn’t married for 44 years over the course of their life. No one is in kids or student ministry for 44 years. There is nothing else we spend this fraction of our life on, and the church has nothing to say?
Finding a Handle
I know one of the challenges of addressing this topic at all is finding the right way to approach it. The Church doesn’t stand on the basis of our opinions or history, we stand on the authority of the word of God. But how do the Bible and our inbox come together? In my opinion, this gap is one of the challenges that has prevented the Church from speaking into this critical issue. We need a handle on this to be able to speak to the issues of technology with credibility, and honestly, we need that to help us evaluate our own practices. How do we know when the use of technology is good and when it’s not? It’s a deeply subtle question.
As I’ve reflected on this question quite a bit over the last few years, I thought I would offer my current thoughts. Is this where things will land forever in my view? Probably not, but it is where I am today and feel free to take it for whatever it is worth.
My present perspective is that the boundary between which technology is good in the world has everything to do with how technology interacts with the world around it. When God created Adam and Eve and put them in the garden, he told them to tend and keep the garden and to extend its borders into the world around them. In this we see a pattern: God has created a good world, and our job as humans is to partner with God to bring the good world he’s made into further layers of richness and goodness.
Where technology adds value in our world, is when it facilitates good things in the real (good) world that God has made. I add both those qualifiers intentionally: technology can facilitate good things and evil things (I know no examples are needed there). This is the rather obvious facet: a website that raises money for the poor is a good thing, a pornography website is a bad thing. The trickier part is the second one, and that’s what quite a bit of our world is wrestling with deeply for the first time in these last decades. How do we understand the effect of technology when it has the potential to create a world all its own?
This is where I think it’s important we reflect on the fact that the world that God makes in Genesis 1, and the humans that dwell within it, are pronounced (very) good by God himself. This world has been made good and our place within it as human beings is also good. What is wrong in the biblical story is not that creation is lacking, it is that creation is infected by darkness. The biblical story says that God’s created order needs to be restored, not replaced.
I have found this as a helpful point of reflection when it comes to technology. The more technology partners with the real world and facilitates things in the real world, the more potential for good there is. When technology begins to create its own world that replaces some aspect of the created order, we have problems. Let me take this criteria and evaluate two technology platforms.
Uber is a technology platform that uses mobile networks to connect drivers and riders in a new way. Before Uber, people gave and received rides all the time, sometimes even as favors for one another with strangers. What Uber did wasn’t create something new that didn’t happen before, Uber just connected people together in a new pattern. It made it easy for potential riders and drivers to find each other, and it set up some safety guards so people could use the system with people they didn’t know and still expect to be safe. Uber is a technology that facilitates something in real life, potentially something good.
Instagram is a photo-oriented social network. On it, users create a profile and post, heart, and share photos with one another. Taking and sharing photos is also nothing new: people have been doing that since the earliest days of photography. What Instagram did was allow people to more easily and portably take and share photos of their lives, allowing people to share a kind of photo journal of their life with others.
Unlike the manifestly real-world application of Uber, Instagram has a lot more complicated set of uses. It can facilitate things in real life, but what is more frequent is to use it as a kind of window into your world. It’s a kind of digital-photo version of self-disclosure, but it’s not real self-disclosure. It’s self-disclosure of an online profile, showing the photos you want to show, often filtered the way you want them to be filtered. Put another way, it’s not an honest, objective look into your world, it’s a curated one. Instagram (and all social networks) are places where we have a digital identity that we create and use to relate to the digital world. And this is where things get sticky. I don’t relate to you on Instagram, my digital profile relates to your digital profile. This may seem like a small distinction, but theologically it’s not: I am created in the image of God, my Instagram profile is not. I have a created function that fits within God’s good world, my Instagram profile does not.
(Note: should someone from Instagram read this, I’m not trying to bash your platform. And if you’re open to the idea, I think it would be really cool if you could mix in elements that would prompt real-life activities. One thing that could be cool would be to create a feature called “get that photo” which posts a photo and links to a set of instructions for how to get to that particular place and get that photo for yourself. The photo is the trophy for the adventure. I think that could be very cool.)
Am I saying that all social media is evil? No, but I am pointing out that this is where the slippery slope lies. There is no inherent goodness about this insta-world because I’m not using technology to facilitate things in real life, I’m replacing real life and real relationships with digital proxies. This is not a substitution that is empty of theological weight.
Perhaps you agree with my assessment here, perhaps not. Either way, the point is this: wherever you land, would you please give this incredibly important topic thought and conversation this week? What may be the most important discipleship issue of our day is slipping underneath our fingertips and we are not even tracking with it.
This is an updated edition of a post originally published on Putty Putman