Digital Discipleship

Can you fall asleep at night without listening to a podcast or having a TV playing in the background?
Do you get anxious if you can’t find your phone?
When is the last time you forgot to check your phone for 3 or more hours?
Can you have a coffee with a friend without your phone on the table?
Can you share a meal with friends without checking your phone?
Are you able to read a book or sit quietly without feeling anxious or a having a constant distracted mind?
Can you post something on social media and not check the response until six or more hours later?
When is the last time you woke up and didn’t look at your phone until one or two hours later?

If you are like me… one or more of those questions might have caused a small cringe moment.

I believe one of the greatest needs amongst Christians today is digital discipleship. I do not mean people discipled through digital outlets. Digital discipleship is followers of Jesus who are purposeful and intentional in their relationship with the digital world. People who have gone through a serious and strenuous re-orientation when needed. People who have brutally faced how their phone and social media have shaped their inner world and dehumanized their outer world.

Basically asking question, how would Jesus use a cell phone?

The only serious discussion happening in the church is regarding porn. It is no secret that I think porn ruins our sexual, relational and spiritual lives. But let’s set that aside.

Where are intentional discussions happening around every other aspect of this digital world we swim in? Where and how are Christians being challenged to think about what how a Jesus follower interacts with their phone, Netflix or podcasts?

The reality is, we are affected deeply by the invasive presence of text messages, social media, web browsing, on-demand television, and podcasts.

We often feel a nagging discomfort about this area of our lives. But there are hard realities we rarely face.

Daily digital presence predicts, with scary accuracy, a persons’ levels of anxiety and depression. Do you constantly check social media and binge on Netflix regularly? The statistics tell us you likely also struggle with regular anxiety and/or bouts of depression.

Did you know that silence is actually needed to regenerate brain cells in your hippocampus? This is the area of the brain associated with learning, memory and emotion. The average person now has almost zero minutes of silence each day. Our brains are like toddlers who ate Twinkies all day, skipped both naps and who has stayed at a party way to long.

Of course we all see daily parents who talk to their kids while staring at a screen. Friends who sit in a restaurant, speaking out snippets of thoughts here or there, never engaging in deep meaningful conversation.

I’m not saying all this to point a finger or induce false guilt. But, truly, this is us.

Here’s where some of those questions are leading. Would you (or me!) describe your relationship with the digital world as compulsive, invasive or controlling?

I’ll be brutally honest. In Christian circles, I hear a lot of people declaring that depression and anxiety have no hold on them.

We want less anxiety but we can’t be alone with our own thoughts. Our lives set-up our brains to produce more and more stress hormones with hour after hour of digital engagement. Whether scrolling Instagram for an hour each night or watching hours of Netflix instead of being bored. The enemy is in the camp. We need to admit that.

I believe in God’s power to heal but God is not going to magically heal anxiety in a life we can’t face. Anxiety will not decrease while our escapism increases.

I also hear Christians say with conviction that loving people is their life purpose.

I don’t know who we plan on loving when we spend more time with pictures of people than actual people. “Loving people” will be a nice saying painted on our wall but not a reality in our lives.

We need to get serious about digital discipleship. Being people who are intentionally and painfully re-orientating our lives in this digital age.

He longs for us to serve a more generous and life-giving Master.

We can embrace the benefits of this digital world (there are many). We can also reject the burden it has become on our lives.

In my next post I will share some thoughts on practical ways we can slowly start to re-orientate our lives. Away from a life filled with noise, anxiety and non-human relationships. Towards living with more peace, life and God intended relational wholeness.

Until then, take some time to think, “Am I content with my relationship to the digital world? Is it bringing me peace, life and relational wholeness?”

** I am not suggesting that all anxiety and depression is solely caused by our levels of digital engagement. These issues are unique and multi-layered for each person. Increasingly, though, studies do suggest that re-calibrating our digital engagement would, at the minimum, be extremely helpful in our journey with these issues.

The Temporary Break-Up

When crisis hits, we cry out. ┬áBad times come, religious fervor┬ástrikes. We cry out, “God, come to the rescue!” It’s kind of human nature. The amazing thing is not that we do this. The amazing thing is that God actually responds to such shallow cries of desperation.

The book of Judges cycles over this sort of situation, ad naseum, within the nation of Israel.

The people of Israel said to the Lord, “We have sinned; do to us whatever seems good to you. Only please deliver us this day. So they put away the foreign gods from among them and served the Lord” (Judges 10:15-16)

God is merciful, so he did rescue them. They put away their idols as a show of good faith. In order to secure a rescue from very bad circumstances.

This is human nature: we change actions or habits in order to gain a temporary reprieve or rescue.

We change because we can no longer manage the consequences of our actions, habits and true heart desires.

We do not throw away our idols because we relise they are false. We throw them away because the consequences of serving them is temporarily too great. Once the consequence becomes bearable again, we quickly rush out to the dustbin, brush off the idols and welcome them back with open arms. We never threw them out because we hated them. We just couldn’t live with the reality of loving them as much as we did. So, we took a little holiday.

The classic picture is of an alcoholic. The drinking goes from bad to worse. Family threatens to walk out. Law enforcement threatens to lock up. Employers threatens no more grace. So, the alcoholic says, “I’m done! No more drinks!” Of course, this won’t last. He doesn’t truly hate the alcohol. The consequences simply got to be more than he could bare. At least for now.

It is winter here in South Africa. That means my boys need to wake up in the cold and dark for school. The desire just isn’t there. I found myself coaxing, cajoling, coaching, outright threatening. The whole circus was employed to get the oldest out the door on time.

I finally said, “Enough!”.

Now, my boys get to play a video games for 30 minutes a day on a Saturday and Sunday of each weekend. That’s all they get, so weekend video game access is highly anticipated.

On the way to school I said, “No more! If you don’t wake up, get ready, do the whole shebang without a word from me, then no video games. No warnings. No threats. Poof, it will be gone. I can’t do this anymore, it ruins my mornings. You know what to do and I need you to do it.”

The next morning was a picture of military precision. The day after that was the same. Up early, dressed, packed, teeth brushed, not a hair out of place. I hadn’t seen such a turn-around in a while.

This morning I pulled my son aside and thanked him. “I just so appreciate that you listened to what I said. Thank you for respecting me. Thank you for stepping up and making the changes.”

What a son I had, listening to his mother!

Without missing a beat, he looked at me and said, “Oh Mom, I live for video games. If I loose that I couldn’t survive!”

Just like the Israelites. Just like me. My son was the same. He didn’t change behaviour out of true heart transformation. He changed because the consequences had temporarily gotten too great.

What about you? What issue do you keep coming back to? What idols do you keep digging out of the dustbin after you swore you were done with them?

Perhaps the truth is, you simply threw them away because the consequences of serving them had gotten too great.

We all do it. “That’s it! I will never over-eat again! I’m done!” Perhaps our blood pressure was dangerously high or the doctor was giving us dire warnings. The current consequences caused us to declare a holiday with our idol of food. But, once the storm passed, life returned as normal.

When change in our life is not precipitated by deep heart work we can be sure the idol will return as quickly as it departed.

These are the questions I’m asking:
How could I journey with God this?
How can I move towards truly choosing God over idols? Choosing because He truly is more beautiful and merciful and my heart knows that and chooses that and truly rejects the idol.
In what areas am I only “returning to God” because I need a break from a toxic relationship with something that will never truly save?

Photo Credit: Cory Schmitz