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Articles | Culture
Rick Lawrence

Rick (rlawrence@group.com and @RickSkip on Twitter) has been editor of GROUP Magazine for 26 years. He’s author of the just-released book Jesus-Centered Youth Ministry (simplyyouthministry.com). He wrote the books Sifted (www.siftedbook.com) and Shrewd (www.shrewdbook.com) and the upcoming Skin In the Game (2015) as an excuse to immerse himself in the presence of Jesus.

Full Disclosure: Because today’s technologies have a forming influence on our spiritual, emotional, and psychological “shape,” I’ve stubbornly resisted getting a smartphone, preferring instead my now-ancient flip phone. We’ve decided to not have cable TV in our home, “screen time” in general is limited, and I have a teenage daughter who saw such profound impact on her friendships when cell phones entered the picture that she refuses to use one. For years my younger daughter (11-years-old) has begged us to get her a phone or an iPod Touch or an iPad or a Kindle Fire—anything that would give her the connectivity that all her friends have—but we’ve said no (for now). I’m very aware that some parents in my neighborhood suspect we’re closet Amish—or that there’s a very good chance we’ve chosen to communicate by smoke signal.

But we’ve quickly become an over-connected culture, and it’s having profound leveraging impact on our ability to “be still and know that I am God.” Knowing Jesus intimately is the linchpin for everything we are and everything we do in life. It’s the 4/5 of the iceberg that’s under water—the foundation for our impact in relationships and for our role in advancing the Kingdom of God on earth. And our addiction to our technologies—our inability to master them, but instead be mastered by them—is a diabolical wrecking ball that has already had a more far-reaching impact on our culture’s healthy future than global warming has had.

The term “over-connected” is not, of course, a neutral statement. We haven’t yet eradicated AIDS or cancer or even leprosy, but the “smartphone generation” is well on its way to eradicating boredom, perhaps the chief complaint of childhood. Today’s kids use technology to self-medicate their boredom, as a powerful identity-building “crutch,” and as a kind of “sonar” for moving through the uncertain landscape of adolescence. What’s certain is they’re changing the nature of our relationships—for good and for bad. We’ve never met an unplanned moment that our smartphone can’t conquer.

My starting place for engaging these realities is simple: “The truth will set you free.” But you have to be willing to look at the truth full-faced. Let’s look at the truth for a bit, without worrying about the ramifications…

Neil Postman, the great media thinker and author, says: “Technological change is ecological, not additive or subtractive.” Our “ecology” forms us…So what are we (and our kids) being formed into by our technological/ecological environment?

Our role is to reject passivity at every corner. We are to be “in the world, but not of the world.” When we live in the spirit of Jesus, we are active participants in our cultural ecology, but moving with a Kingdom of God mindset—as sojourners, not natives…Knowledge is power, so our goal is to know the truth, then act out of it.

Multi-tasking is a myth—it’s not possible for the brain to “multi-task,” in the way we commonly think of that term. Instead, we “rapid task-switch.” The result is something researchers call “dual-task interference”—our brain bottlenecks, and the efficiency and quality of our brain’s performance deteriorates. Over-connectedness to technology continuously and persistently scatters our attention—we pay partial attention, continuously.

• Over-connectedness to technology changes the way we relate. It’s a powerful intrusion into, and filter for, our relationships. We have become a culture that has far more “surface” connections than at any time in history, but have simultaneously become the most disconnected and isolated culture in history.

• All technologies are powerful tools, so our challenge is to treat them like the chainsaws they are. Would you give children a chainsaw to use, then tell them to just figure out how to use it without harming themselves? Once we recognize the power of the tool, and what it can do, our response to our kids using that tool should equate with what we know.

• Technology is changing our ecological environment in sweeping ways. Researchers are discovering that our new technologies help us with efficiency, speed, creativity, and connectivity. But they are also making us shallow people. Dr. David Meyer (of the University of Michigan’s Cognition and Perception Program) says this: “We’re facing a crisis of attention that is only going to get worse.” He compares our lack of understanding the impact of technology to our lack of understanding the impact of smoking years ago.

“It was for freedom that Christ set us free; therefore keep standing firm and do not be subject again to a yoke of slavery” (Galatians 5:1). We’re called to live in freedom, for the sake of the Kingdom, and that means we must be aware of what enslaves us and resist it, by all means.

- Rick

10 COMMENTS

  • Zach Hummer says:

    I find myself slightly tense after reading this post. The part I LOVE is your explanation of Tech as a powerful tool. The analogy of a chainsaw is brilliant, and, from what I can tell, it is the only part of your post that offers a solution to the proposed problem. The tension occurs because, just like smoking cigarettes in the 50′s, no one is going to stop using technology. The change has already happened. How do we, as youth pastors, embrace it? Use it? How do we, as parents navigate it? I currently work in a school district, and in a recent conversation with the high school principal he told me that he would not feel comfortable graduating a student who could not use, research, and navigate a smartphone or tablet. My oldest child is 2 years old, and, based on the trends in my area of the US, she will likely be given an iPad or other tablet to use full time at school by the time she is 9 or 10. The option to disallow our kids use of these devices is coming to an end. What’s the next step?

    • Rick Lawrence Rick Lawrence says:

      Zach, thanks for your passionate and thoughtful response. It’s not possible to go backwards in time, but it is possible to do two things: 1) Cut back. 2) Cut out. Like any other addictive behavior, if it’s possible to cut back on frequency of use (by setting boundaries on when/where/how often technology can be used) then we should be a catalyst for helping that happen. If “moderation” is impossible with a kind of technology, then cutting it out completely is the only viable option. For example, I think Snapchat should not be an available app for kids to use, and that boundary would need to come from their parents. Anyway, there’s no silver bullet, of course, but to do nothing is to capitulate to a harmful behavior. Cigarette smoking still exists, but today’s kids smoke far less than previous generations because years of education and boundaries have “worked…”

      • Zach Hummer says:

        Rick, I think you misunderstood what I was asking. Over-connectedness, to me, is both a problem and an opportunity for Youth Pastors. Being over connected has a very interesting benefit for those seeking to bring students to a saving knowledge of Christ: false intimacy. The authentic intimate relationship that Christ offers is massively impactful for, as you put it, the “smartphone” generation. Technology is only as good or bad as those who use it. Otherwise it is just a chainsaw with no gas. Useless. We need to start using it to our advantage. Also, thanks for a great topic to discuss in my podcast, and for being open to my comments.

        • Rick Lawrence Rick Lawrence says:

          Zach, thanks for clarifying the point you were trying to make. If a “next step” doesn’t involve a change in the way kids are using (and abusing) their technology, it means the idea that “everyone smokes, and it’s only going to get more widespread,” then it’s a tacit verdict that there’s nothing damaging about this “vice.” I think everything starts with a truthful assessment of the impact of our connection to technology. I think it’s clear from the current research that use of technologies has strengthened some brain functions and weakened others. And its clear that use of technologies is having a rapid and deepening impact on relationships. If you’re suggesting we have an opportunity to give kids experiences that their technologies have left them hungry for, I totally agree…

  • Jodi says:

    Great article… I’m a student pastor and think we are doing a good job til we see our students Twittter feed, ha!

  • Christian says:

    I think as well as being thoughtful about how much we use our phones and other technology, we should be thoughtful about positively planning time with God, our family, friends as well as teens and their families.

    • Rick Lawrence Rick Lawrence says:

      I know the New Age movement has co-opted the term “mindfulness,” but I love it. I think it applies to every aspect of our life with Jesus…

  • Kyle says:

    This seems, to me, to be more of a conversation in how to engage, appropriately, with our culture. There are a number of benefits to technology (and I think this is where it differs from smoking) in a number of different fields. So where as with years education and boundaries, etc. we were able to move away from smoking, technology is not going anywhere because of it’s clear value to our culture and society. The problem is with the over-connectedness and our inability to be present in a conversation or connect with folks in real time that is really having an affect on our relationships and on our grasp of biblical fellowship. As a youth pastor, then, my response to this issue is one of appropriately engaging culture. The way we approach these conversations in youth ministry today is dramatically different than even a 10 years ago. These types of conversations used to focus on things like peer pressure and media consumption(music, tv shows, movies, etc.) and today when we talk about engaging culture, those things are still a part of the conversation, but they also include issues or doubt and fear, and sexual identity, as well as over-connectedness and our inability to relate to one another in the way that God calls us to. And so your analogy of the chainsaw, I think, is spot on. We need to include these kinds of boundaries when we talk with students about navigating life while still being faithful followers of Jesus Christ in our world today. Thanks for this post, Rick.

    • Rick Lawrence Rick Lawrence says:

      Love this response from you, Kyle… BTW, I think cigarettes will never be “wiped out” either, because many people would say they perform a very useful purpose in their life—similar to technology arguments. My point is not to go back in time to fix something we don’t like today, ala the X-Men fantasy—it’s to treat the addictive, brain-altering impact of over-connectedness with the legitimate attention it deserves…

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