One Sunday afternoon, a teenager in my congregation woke up terribly depressed. She decided to end her life. She wrote a simple will, but it was not on a piece of paper. Instead, she e-mailed it to her friends. She then took an overdose of pills. One of the friends was at home that morning and online. She heard the tone signaling that her computer had just received a new message and opened it. When she read the message, she called 911. The paramedics arrived in time and the girl was saved. If that friend had not been online on Sunday morning, the girl would have died. When I want to flee from the new digital culture, I am reminded of this story.
Technology continues to transform American life. Some of the changes are conspicuous and some are subtle. Some changes appear as blessings, others seem more like curses. How can people of faith navigate through these strong currents of change to claim the blessings while avoiding the curses? What practices can help us find our way?
In 1999, I began five years of grant-funded study and pastoral reflection on this topic. The first grant allowed me to get a sense of the emerging global issues during a sabbatical leave from my California parish. This project included a national survey on the effects of technology on personal and family life and research trips to India and Silicon Valley.
In Silicon Valley, I spoke with Jan English-Lueck, a cultural anthropologist who is tracing the effects of digital culture on family life. Among her many stories, one in particular comes to my mind often. She was sitting down at a dining room table one evening to interview a family. This was, by most contemporary standards, a well-functioning, healthy family with solid relationships. As they gathered, the mother realized this was the first time in weeks that the family had been together face to face around the dinner table. Each family member had, in his or her bedroom or separate room in the house, his or her own computer with high-speed Internet access, cable television, and a personal phone. They had fallen prey to what English-Lueck dubbed “the centripetal effect”—the tendency of technology to draw people away from interpersonal time together in favor of digitally dependent time alone.
Following this first project, I wanted to explore the larger themes on a more personal scale. I received a second grant to support a study with groups of my own parishioners over a two-year period. I had previously found the 12 spiritual practices Dorothy Bass describes in her “Practicing Our Faith” project to be useful in my congregation’s life. In this study, I chose seven of the practices to use in an experiment in which people would see how technology might be affecting them as they seek to practice their faith. The seven practices I chose were “honoring the body,” “household economics,” “saying yes and no,” “keeping Sabbath,” “discernment,” “shaping communities,” and “healing.”
I also decided to focus primarily, though not exclusively, on some specific communication and information devices—personal computers, the Internet, and cell phones. From the writings of Albert Borgman, I had learned that a “device” is not just a tool. On the surface, it is a technological product that appears to simply give us what we want in a more effective way. But, in actual use, devices change our relationship to the natural world, our selves, and other people. So the question became: What effect are these new devices having on our lives, and what is the relationship between their increasing use and spiritual practice?
With these considerations as background, I formed four focus groups that involved 33 people. Three adult groups met over a nine-month period and one group of teens met over a three-month period. In each meeting, one of the seven practices was presented and discussed in relationship to the presence and use of technological devices. Each participant was given a menu of specific activities to try before the next meeting. From the list, they chose one or two of the activities. The next meeting began with a discussion of their experiences, followed by a presentation of the next practice. A survey was given at the end of the study to determine which, if any, practices were found to be helpful in making the use of technology more intentional.
Nine months later, I polled participants to see what long-term effects the project had had on them. I wanted the project to not only help us actively reflect on the role of technology in our lives, but also to see how our congregational life might be shaped in light of our findings.
This series of gatherings led to the following insights:
- Actions involved in “honoring the body”—savoring a bath or shower in quiet, taking walks without being “plugged in” to a device, taking time to wear a piece of clothing that had personal meaning—helped people move from the typical, distracted reality to a more vividly personal and physically grounded one.
- When asked, during the “household economics” session, to make an inventory of how many technological devices they had in their homes (including discarded items in the garage), many people were surprised at the length of their lists.
- We discussed the practical truth that saying “yes” to one activity (say, television watching or aimless computer use) often means saying “no” to something else (for instance, time with others). People discovered that devices do indeed lure us to retreat into private, technologically dependent worlds, particularly in the evening, minimizing face-to-face contact with one another. One husband said, “My wife and I used to talk in the evenings…now she comes home and spends time on the Net keeping up with all these ‘friends’ she’s never seen.” Saying “yes” to being constantly immersed in devices makes it difficult for children to learn to rely on their imaginations; one mother realized her younger daughter was virtually incapable of being alone. “I have to be entertained!” the daughter said. Saying “yes” to increasing reliance on technology at work or at home exposes us to fear and trembling when a computer crashes or e-mail fails.
- The Sabbath unit asked people to take a day or part of a day to intentionally be “off line” and avoid the use of devices. Many found this to be both challenging and rewarding. “I make more of a conscious effort to save Sunday as a day of rest, away from paying bills and TV,” said one participant. In my own family, one Sunday my youngest daughter sat down at the computer and began to play a game. I reminded her that we were going to keep the computer off that day as a Sabbath practice. She was not happy. I suggested she call one of her friends to play. She told me they were not getting along. My parental authority prevailed and she left the computer. A little while later, boredom led her to call her friend anyway, and they decided to get together. They ended up having an enjoyable afternoon playing improvised games.
- Technology was not judged particularly helpful in discernment. There is, of course, an extraordinary amount of information accessible through the Internet, and some information can be helpful. However, when we have to make significant decisions, there is no substitute for turning devices off and spending time in silence, journaling, and prayer. “Being quiet and finding the inner peace and stillness is where all the ‘answers’ have come from…not while I’m on the computer, my cell phone, the palm, etc.,” said one participant.
- While technology usually eliminates the face-to-face encounters that are essential to a deep sense of community, technology was found to be helpful in making connections that would not otherwise be possible. One person noted that e-mail has enabled him to create several mini-communities with people whom he could not see in person, such as regular contact
with members of his old high school car club and fellow practitioners of a particular form of meditation. At the same time, as someone who works professionally with computer technology, he is able to work at home and misses, occasionally, the face-to-face sense of community of his prior workplace.
- In terms of “healing,” many had stories of how useful the Internet is in medical situations. Information on the Web helped them understand diagnoses, find highly specific groups of people experiencing a particular illness, and sources of prayer support with people who were acquainted with the unique challenges they were facing. E-mail kept people in touch with loved ones during an illness or after a loss.
At the end of the initial nine-month period, participants gathered for dinner, discussion, and evaluation. The majority agreed that the experience had raised their awareness of the effect of technology on their lives. The practice of Sabbath and the mindfulness of “saying yes and no” received the best marks. “I have more awareness of how technology is not either good or bad, it is more how we choose to let it into our lives…. Having a faith to guide those choices is helpful,” said one participant. “I focus on using moderation with technology, just as I would with sugar, alcohol, or anything that can be addicting,” said another.
The teen group, of course, lives in another world. Those of us who are Baby Boomers or older were raised in a culture that did not have personal computers, the Internet, and cell phones. Like immigrants, we learn new practices and achieve some competency with them, but we will never be “native born.” Most American teens are totally immersed in digital culture, and my focus group was no exception. They are fluent “multi-taskers,” able to simultaneously follow five Instant Message conversations on a screen while doing homework, listening to downloaded music, answering a cell phone, and fending off adult questions about their ability to concentrate. Even so, they reported that the very act of raising the question of how technology affects their lives and faith was an important one. The most spiritually powerful times for them are the times at retreats away from so many screens—listening, reflecting on life, finding moments of silence, and singing with full hearts and no amplification. But their practice of community is marked by an extraordinary degree of digital communication. As a pastor in his fifties, I find I have an ongoing internal debate about their future. One voice tells me I am worrying too much—that they will thrive in the digital age. Another tells me they need to know more than ever the perils of digital saturation—the tendency to be constantly distracted and never find a sense of soul, the latent powers of natural imagination, and the importance of doing things slowly.
Nine months after the group dinner, I polled all of the participants to see which practices were still valuable. Awareness of the issue continued, but changes in behavior had diminished. Like a behavioral force field, technology seems to exert a steady, invisible pull on our behavior, decisions, and lifestyle. Respondents did note that the practice of “saying yes and no” was still one of the most helpful, and the experience had influenced their parenting. One mother, reflecting on how the study had helped her appreciate technology’s influence, said, “… though religion has become very global with technology, it can still be brought down to some very basic ideas and ways to learn, teach, and practice our faith.”
The project has influenced our congregational life. I now include references to our overdependence on technology in our liturgy. We regularly include periods for silent prayer and meditation in our services, consciously offering a “sanctuary from distraction.” While we make extensive use of e-mail, I often begin group prayers before a meeting with gratitude that we will be free from the intrusion of television or cell phones as we do God’s work face to face.
Two years ago, we moved into a new sanctuary that has a state-of-the-art computer projection system. We have been experimenting with how to best use it. We briefly tried using PowerPoint templates for sermons, employing the standard “bullet point” programs, but decided it was not for us. “It makes me feel like I’m back at work,” said one engineer. Another person said looking up at the screen interrupted her eye contact with the preacher, making the worship experience more impersonal. At the same time, I have been using the projection system to display artwork—both traditional and contemporary—as part of the sermon. In a culture where images are used primarily to market products and keep our minds busy, I believe learning to look steadily and carefully at a great work of visual imagination can be a kind of contemplative practice. We are increasingly using the screen to project lyrics to music we are singing, but we’re avoiding any clever effects. While some don’t like it, some older members find the screen easier to read, and some disabled members find it frees them from having to hold a hymnal.
In the first session of new member classes, I introduce the themes of “saying yes and no” and Sabbath, and ask people to use the exercises to practice living apart from technology. Once we begin to see how much our behavior, lifestyles, and stress levels are influenced by technology and culture, and begin to experience some ability to make choices about these influences, we are more ready to see worship, service, and fellowship activities as spiritual practices that require intentional focus.
The project has also influenced my role as a volunteer in the local public schools. In his book The Flickering Mind, Todd Oppenheimer demonstrates that school districts have spent extraordinary amounts of money on technology in the last decade. It may be impressive to see a row of shiny new computers at Back to School Night, and digital literacy is obviously a requirement of contemporary life. But much of that technology is unused, underused, or soon obsolete. At budget meetings, I advocate spending less on new hardware and more on what Oppenheimer calls “enlightened basics”—for example, part-time assistants to help English teachers grade essays.
Despite these concerns, I continue to hear stories that remind me of technology’s blessings. An eighth-grade girl in my congregation arrives home from school and enters her room. She has been deaf since birth. At school she experiences a degree of isolation due to her disability, but in her room life is different. She sits down at her computer and begins Instant Messaging with friends. Conversations using “IM” minimize her disability. In her room she has a smoke alarm that will shake her bed at night if a fire is detected, an alarm clock that flashes her bedside light in the morning, closed captioning on her television, and a battery charger for a recently developed, surgically installed cochlear implant. Technology has radically decreased the isolation she would have known a decade ago.
Technology’s influence is inescapable. The blessings it can bring are often causes for genuine gratitude. Digital culture and youth culture are almost interchangeable, and all of us who care for youth and families must understand it as best we can. At the same time, used uncritically, it can misshape our lives, keep us from knowing others and ourselves, and inhibit our ability to discern God’s living voice within us and in nature. Church leaders and congregations have an important role to play: to raise awareness about technology’s influence and to provide practices that help us find what being faithful means in a digital age.