October 27, 2015

By Eddie Pipkin

In an expansive essay in a recent New York Times Sunday Review, “Stop Googling and Let’s Talk,” (a preview of her new book, Reclaiming Conversation: The Power of Talk in a Digital Age), professor and author Sherry Turkle shares her research and conclusions in the field of online connectivity and how it affects human relationships.  Specifically, she writes about the impact that smartphones have on face-to-face conversations. As you might expect, the news is not good.

She begins the essay with this observation:

College students tell me they know how to look someone in the eye and type on their phones at the same time, their split attention undetected. They say it’s a skill they mastered in middle school when they wanted to text in class without getting caught. Now they use it when they want to be both with their friends and, as some put it, “elsewhere.’

The advent of the smartphone and 24-hour connectivity has impacted ministry in hundreds of ways.  It is changing the ways we connect to congregations; it is changing the expectations of parishioners; it is changing the way we relate to one another.  A friend and I recently shared a conversation about the way ubiquitous smartphones have changed youth ministry and increasingly even children’s ministry.  Way back in the 90s, if you had a bus breakdown, you had plenty of time to manage the story (and attendant drama) before it got back to parents, but these days there are Instagram photos of the youth group stranded on the side of the interstate before you’ve even diagnosed the problem.

In society at large, Professor Turkle argues that nowhere have smartphones had a greater impact on human interaction than on face-to-face conversation.  She is among many authors to write recently about our nearly pathological need to keep checking our phones, even when at dinner with friends or even one-on-one.  She writes, “The effect is what you would expect: Conversation is kept relatively light, on topics where people feel they can drop in and out.”

Ministry and discipleship, however, are based on a fundamental goal to “go deeper.”  Our business is relationships, grounded in empathy and built on taking the time to get to know people’s deepest needs and aspirations.  We are facing a challenge to leverage the tools and opportunities of technology to broaden community connections and empower people to be part of ministry, while at the same guarding against the ways in which technology can actually distract us from vital work and distance from one another.

There are pros and cons:

  • Pro: Technology makes us more mobile.  We can access useful tools for work wherever and whenever.  Con: We can become just like everybody else, working 24/7 without honoring the healthy mandate for Sabbath.  (This is perhaps particularly a danger in ministry work, where there is a powerful pull to be “on” all the time.)
  • Pro: Technology is lively and fun.  With all sorts of creative apps, we can tweet and Instagram our way into people’s lives in ways that really connect them to our ministries.  Con: We can become so enamored of the quick-fix of the moment that we are impatient with the work of “going deeper” that is the pathway to spiritual maturity.
  • Pro: It’s easy, through the use of email and texts, to have short conversations with people that simplify the logistics of our ministry together.  Con: We can confuse an exchange of texts with an actual conversation.  We miss out on the deeper nuances of face-to-face interaction.
  • Pro: Resources are always at our fingertips (and the fingertips of those in our congregations).  It is easy to direct them to the wisdom of the ages, powerful preaching, and inspirational media.  Con: So, what do they need us for?  They have instant, customizable access to the best of the best.  If we forget our purpose as a local church—to establish intimate connections and offer hands-on opportunities for meaningful service and growth—we are no longer a fundamentally necessary community.   (That is, they don’t need us to tell them what the Bible means anymore, so much as they need us as a place to live out what the Bible means in community together.)

This technology is not inherently good or evil—it is like money in this respect.  It is a tool, which can be used to make us stronger and draw us closer to God and to each other, or to weaken our connections and push us further apart.  Its use reflects our priorities as individuals and organizations.  And, as in the use of other tools like money, we should be thoughtful about its use, not accidental.

The church is uniquely positioned to help drive this discussion of how communications technology will advance human relations.  It is an inherently spiritual question, and one of the church’s most sacred roles within the context of greater society has always been to establish safe pathways across unfamiliar relational and spiritual terrain.  Maybe one of our most powerful opportunities as leaders reaching out to people in a chaotic age is to help them explore the soul empowering use of these tools in their lives.

Over the next several weeks, I want to take some of this blog space to explore in more detail the ideas in Professor Turkle’s book and how they can help us think purposefully about how we interact with each other and the people to whom we are called to minister.  What are questions that come to mind for you?  What are challenges you are already seeing in this balance between technology and face-time?  What successes in leveraging communications technology have you enjoyed?  And what pitfalls have you already endured?

I’d love for your questions and experiences to drive this discussion.  Please share them in the comments section.