Missions and Smartphones
America used to be on a honeymoon with e-tech. People loved the social connectivity that Facebook brings, the efficiency of mobile calendars and email, and instant access to information with Google. But the tide is going out. Not that people are leaving newer technology or apps for the old way of doing life, but that a widespread conversation has started over its ill effects on society.
Most people have probably noticed how awkward youth have gotten in face-to-face social situations. If one can pull out their smartphone and get distracted at the slightest hint of insecurity, then the urge is gone to push through and make a tough conversation work.
With the age of Google, memory retention is going down as people rely more on external sources of information. A Columbia University research project showed that if information is stored somewhere, whether on the web or in hard drives, people forget the information to a much greater degree than those who don’t know it is being stored.¹
Predictably, as the global conversation on this topic continues, various Christian reactions are emerging. Of course, some always come out pushing against innovation. And others seem to think that anything new must necessarily be better. Both extremes are not Christian by nature. I worked on a non-Christian’s house last year who hadn’t gotten, and never intended to get, an email or a smartphone. That surprised me. But it shouldn’t have. Conservatism is just one of the basic human responses, as is liberalism. What was meaningful to me was how interesting the guy was to converse with. He was a brilliant conversationalist. Although there are plenty of people who are anti-technology and can’t hold a basic conversation, I don’t think that it was an accident that this man knew how to be engaging and made conversations with him worth having.
Most Christians are adapting to the changing environment. They’re not against technological innovation, as long as it is helpful and doesn’t do more damage than good. But they want to know what questions to ask. What matters most? Is the ability to instantly connect with business, school, and ministry relationships giving us more than the old exclusive family-times-in-the-living-room gave us?
I suppose my family is a traditional family. But even so, we have experienced changes in the last couple of years that have made us all uncomfortable. For the majority of my life, the Lloyd family gathered in the family room nearly every evening and talked, read books together, and sang together. In the last couple of years, more than ever before, we sit and read emails, respond to texts, glance through Instagram stories and WhatsApp statuses, and watch YouTube tutorials. I have a lurking feeling of dissatisfaction with that; yet, I’m not sure I’d want to give up the connectivity that my smartphone and laptop give me with the rest of my social sphere.
We started making positive choices to manage our technology and set aside time for family relationships. But before I talk about those decisions, we need to recognize the big-picture question: How do our various technologies help or hinder our ultimate purpose as Christians?
We would all agree that our meaning for existence is found in our relationship to God, and that our central purpose is nothing less than showing Him to be supreme, through everything we engage in.
I have become fully convinced over the past few years that God has uniquely chosen missions as His primary way of displaying His supremacy through the church. (When I use the term “missions,” I’m referring to the spreading of the gospel through our words and our love everywhere we go.)
I could quote many verses to support this proposition, but one of my favorite ones is John 20:21:
Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, even so I am sending you.”
Jesus sent the disciples into the world as truth-bearers, just as His Father had sent Him. Since Jesus was a Spirit-filled messenger of good news from God, so we are sent into the world with the same Spirit and message. Outside of missions, there is no reason for the church or Christians to remain on the earth.
What my family (and we as Christians) need to discover is how our mission relates to our devices. None of us know either the long-term effects or the full utility of electronic communication technology. But we all need to be asking these questions of how we as missional believers should use (or not use) our technology. Here are some of the subjective ideas that my family has been implementing.
- Don’t let your smartphone/_____ technology kill your relationship opportunities.
It’s easy to let face-to-face communication get continually interrupted by texts or WhatsApp messages. Read more about the problem, and Sherry Turkle’s advice, in this short Berkeley interview with her: https://greatergood.berkeley.edu/article/item/how_smartphones_are_killing_conversation
Texting one person while trying to hold an intelligent and meaningful conversation with another is virtually impossible. That’s true regardless of whether or not you are a gifted multi-tasker. Consistently choosing to put aside your phone when chatting with friends and focus on the conversation goes a long way in improving your talk-times.
- Set aside special times, regularly, when tech stays away.
Our family has experimented with tech-free vacations and even mealtimes. It’s meaningful, even fun if you purposefully replace it with great conversations and games. Remember that this is not just about you. It’s about the gospel. People who learn to be fun conversation partners have an opening for the gospel totally unlike those who hate or don’t do well at social interactions.
- Work on learning conversation skills.
I know. I know. You’re probably complaining that some people are naturally better at this than others. But that doesn’t mean you can’t improve your conversation skills. Here are some quick resources to get you started:
The Great Courses gives a wonderful video course (also available on Audible for $9.99) that our family watched, called:
How Conversation Works: 6 Lessons for Better Communication.
Resources like these are helpful in shaping conversation skills. Those who can hold powerful conversations shape their world. Use conversation as a way to influence others with the gospel way-of-life.
Much more should be said on this topic. Gary Miller just published a book that many have recommended (it’s on my to-read list): Surviving the Tech Tsunami.
Whatever you do as you adapt to the changing world, don’t mindlessly suppose every new thing will be positive. Stay in tune with its effects on you and your family. And don’t forget what we are here for. Tie every varied line of your life, including your relationship to new technology, back to the anchor point of the glory of God in missions.