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Pastoring in light of technology: Shepherding souls shaped by screens

“The glory of God is a human being fully alive. Moreover, the life of man consists in beholding God.” -St. Irenaeus

Our social media use, smartphone addictions, and television-binging sessions are changing us—and not for the better. In fact, we can find plenty of blog posts, articles, statistics, and news reports through those same devices that testify to the reality that we are losing basic relational skills, like empathy and communication.

Human relationship in the context of community is central to what it means to “love one another” and display the image of God. When we lose this, we lose a primary way of beholding God himself. Using Irenaeus’ logic, therefore, we lose “the life of man”—we are no longer “fully alive.”

If we take our calling as pastors seriously, we ought to think deeply about leading people to engage faithfully with technology without losing the necessary and loving engagement with other human beings we were made for. So, here are three things that pastors can teach and practice that will help our churches use technology, rather than be used by technology, and ultimately, behold God more than our devices.

Teach and practice hospitality

Our God is serious about hospitality. The Old Testament displays God’s heart to provide a home for the sojourner. In Psalm 23, God as the Good Shepherd “prepares a table for us in the presence of our enemies.” And the New Testament is replete with commands to “practice hospitality.”

Of the eight people that live in my house, three of them don’t share my last name. They are young adults who come from non-believing or divorced homes, and they all spent too much time in front of screens. Most nights, my wife, my three kids, and the three of them sit around the dinner table and talk. We break up fights between our kids, tell funny stories, ask hard questions, and say things we have to apologize for. But, there is never a TV on or a phone at the table.

Breaking bread together without the manufactured distraction of a screen is one of the most human things we can do. It's a daily break in the ever-present call from technology. It slows the day down and makes everyone practice listening, talking, and responding to each other. Hospitality humanizes us by pushing us into community, not for entertaining guests, but to turn our homes from being fortresses of isolation, to hostels of discipleship.

Teach and practice the Sabbath 

With technology, we barely have to stop working. We can send a message at any time to anyone we know. And we can seemingly be anywhere and know anything we want with just a few taps. Technology makes an insidious promise of being “god,” much like the serpent in Genesis 3. When he tempted the woman, he awoke the craving for the incommunicable, or unshared, attributes of God while conveniently ignoring the image of God already displayed in humans.

The same story plays out in our lives today. We reject those good, hard things that display the image of God in us—love, compassion, and empathy—which are the ways he intends for us to imitate him. Instead, we chase after omniscience, omnipresence, and unimpeded power—all of which distort his image in us and cause us to distort his image in others.

This is why the Sabbath is such a beautiful gift from God. It forces us to stop and admit we aren’t God while we practice all the ways we are supposed to be like him. The Sabbath reminds us that the world won’t stop if we don’t respond to an email or a text in the next 15 minutes. It reminds us that we need God more than we need anyone or anything. Practicing the Sabbath is an act of humility and trust.

Keep the deep stuff face to face 

A few years ago, I noticed that I was revealing more to my wife about my thoughts and feelings through text than I was face to face. It was almost like the people we were in our phones were different than the people we were in person. Neil Postman, in his book Amusing Ourselves to Death, warned that the medium we use to communicate changes the message. When I was communicating deeply with my wife through text, the “me” in the phone started to become more connected to her than the “me” in the flesh.

Social media allows us to develop connections that aren’t real. We can say things into echo chambers without looking another person in the eye. It produces a false sense of security; safe behind a screen, we get to choose whether we want to face the consequences of our political rants, dogmatic parenting “advice,” or condemning theological positions. We don’t have to see the hurt or humanity in another person’s eyes. We lose empathy, understanding, and a sense of risk.

So, the deepest truths, as much as possible, should be communicated in the flesh. For example, our pastoral leadership does not counsel through text or email. Like our Savior, who is the Word made flesh, we want to be an embodiment of his glory to the families, church, and communities he has entrusted to us.

Technology isn’t evil. Yet, as with all that we create, there is an evil twist that beckons us to “be like a god” and reject the Imago Dei. As humans, and even more so as Christians, our diagnostic question regarding all technology should echo Ireneaus: “Am I beholding God with this device? And will it help me to be fully alive?”   

Read the latest edition of Light Magazine here.

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