Andrew Sullivan confesses that he “used to be a human being.” In a provocative essay in New York magazine, Sullivan writes about the ways smartphone technology and its constant connectedness have disconnected us from our sense of our humanity and from one another.
I was most intrigued by Sullivan’s proposals for the church to be a haven in a digitally exhausted world.
“If the churches came to understand that the greatest threat to faith today is not hedonism but distraction, perhaps they might begin to appeal anew to a frazzled digital generation,” Sullivan writes. “’Christian leaders seem to think that they need more distraction to counter the distraction. Their services have degenerated into emotional spasm, their spaces drowned with light and noise and locked shut throughout the day, when their darkness and silence might actually draw those whose minds and souls have grown web-weary.”
He is exactly right.
Sullivan, a Roman Catholic, calls for the rediscovery of the monastic traditions, of contemplative prayer in the Catholic tradition. But I think the problem he identifies must be addressed more broadly within the Christian ecosystem, including within the sectors of evangelical Protestantism.
The digital revolution has made visible a spiritual problem that has rocked our churches for a very long time — the idea that identity is found in frenzied activity.
Years ago, one would sometimes see a sign advertising a church — usually an evangelical or Protestant congregation — with the words, “The Church Alive Is Worth the Drive.” Apart from the commodification of the worship of God implied in such advertising, there’s an even deeper problem: the definition of what it means to be “alive.” In most contexts, the “alive” church is one with bustling ministries, a cornucopia of activities, and a worship service choreographed so that there is no “dead space” — no silence — between singing and talking, talking and singing.
The church justifies its existence, in this way, by the bustle of its business, the obviousness of its “aliveness.”
Perhaps this is one reason why — one after the other — young pastors in the fastest-growing segments of evangelical Christianity seem to be falling apart at midlife. Pastors and leaders who soared through their twenties and thirties are hitting their forties, and spiraling often into burnout, depression and even the self-sabotage of addiction. Some of this, of course, is the sort of human weakness that is always with us. But some of it, no doubt, is the sort of entrepreneurial vision of Christian ministry that causes leaders to “justify” their existence by ceaseless activity.
We have learned to find our identity in our velocity. And that’s not just physically dangerous, but spiritually devastating.
This peril exists now not only for Christian leaders, but for everyone, religious or not. Even for those who are not workaholics, the smartphone gives us an illusion of always being “active.” We don’t just eat; we must post pictures of our meals to Instagram. We don’t just have to care about where our children are; we must respond to some thread on Facebook.
We don’t just have people who are grumpy in line at the supermarket; we have to respond to anonymous critics — or even cyber-bullies — on social media. And we are always just a text message away from the words “I just want to give you a heads-up” upending an entire day or night — no matter if it’s a Sabbath or a vacation or a family dinner.
This can be exhausting.
Churches cannot undo technology, or the cultural moves behind it. Churches can, though, reclaim the distinctiveness as the institution that sees the human being as a creature, not a machine.
Churches can teach that our identity is found in Christ, and Jesus doesn’t care how many Twitter followers we have.
Our churches can rekindle times of silent prayer, of guided confession of sin, of quiet before God. That is not merely for the most liturgically structured “high church” communions. If “low church” evangelicals would merely restart the practice of inviting people to kneel together in the church sanctuary, to quietly pray together, that would be a start.
In our wired world, times of silence and inactivity will feel “awkward.” Such times will disorient us, just as we find ourselves nervous when on a long plane ride with no Internet connection. We will wonder what we’re missing out on. But that’s just the point. Churches should be places to remind us that what we’re in danger of missing isn’t really communicated by devices.
Churches can see what our smartphones are doing to us, and say to an exhausted world what Jesus once told us: “Come to me, all you who are weary and heavy-laden, and I will give you rest.” That’s a good word for a web-weary world.