Subway cars in Beijing constantly erupt in a “symphony” of ring tones. The majority of the travelers on any given train have a “phone out or earphones in” on their daily commute.
Facebook has more than 1.7 billion users worldwide, generating 4.5 billion likes every day, and 1.03 billion of those users actively employ the mobile app on a daily basis. Every second five new profiles are created.
The Weibo user base—600 million people deep—amazingly united an American man with his stolen phone. The resulting friendship between the American man and the Chinese man who unwittingly bought his stolen phone made the American an overnight celebrity on Chinese social media.
The same Chinese social media users also helped unite an Australian runner with a dog that ran a marathon through the Gobi Desert with him.
According to this Pew Study, 15 percent of American adults have used an online dating service or mobile app, up from 11 percent in 2015. Instead of turning to friends and family to “set them up” on dates, those people have chosen to go online. It’s not only dating, but in a much greater way, education, work, and even worship are happening online.
The point of all of this information is that there are a lot of active, engaged users on social media, and the numbers continue to grow. They see great value in online interaction. The proliferation of Internet access, social media outlets, and other forms of online interaction are leading to new ways of thinking about relationships. In some cases, people seem to be abandoning tangible, local connections for those they find online.
Like it or not, this is a developing cultural reality—one our churches need to understand. People interacting in this way will necessarily change the way we are able to connect with them for the gospel. To be sure, increasing Internet access around the world will have a growing effect on how we engage in missions.
In some ways, that growth is positive. Because of the burgeoning connectedness of our world, we have access to the nations literally at our fingertips. We can build relationships with people from all over the world without leaving home.
On the other hand, that growth presents challenges. We must really work strategically to understand how people use online tools and engage them meaningfully. We can’t make half-hearted attempts at engaging a rapidly growing, online-native generation and expect them to whole-heartedly respond.
In the coming days, how will you address the reality that right now, you can connect with more than 40 percent of the world’s population online? And it’s only growing.
The digitally connected world has given us access to more information and, ironically, less understanding. It puts me in contact with more people but provides less relationally with them. Technology allows me to see everywhere but not visit. It is as if the Disney movie Wall-e is beginning to happen.
As I’ve done a great deal of thinking, teaching, and writing about spiritual disciplines, I feel a certain pressure to ask people to go analog for a while so they can more deeply connect spiritually to God and others. Particularly, as it pertains to joining God on his mission, a deep connection to God and those around you is of utmost importance.
But, what if the tools of the digital age can be helpful? I think that they can, and I’d offer a few ways to leverage digital tools for “building” missional disciplines and “practices” that develop our engagement in missional living.
Each generation believes that it is busier than the last. Correct or not, many of us would admit that there is less Bible reading now than in generations before. Through Bible apps on smart phones and online Bible study platforms, we can now access the Scriptures without carrying a leather-bound copy with us everywhere. Additionally, the digital age gives us immediate access to numerous Bible reading plans. Leverage these assets to make your personal Bible reading more consistent.
I have numerous physical notebooks on my desk and shelves in which, in the past, I’ve written Bible studies and sermons, outlined passages, and recorded lessons I’ve learned from the Scriptures. Now, I can record them digitally and sync these lessons across every digital device I own. Platforms such as Google Docs and Evernote allow me to find them with a simple search rather than scouring through the pages of several notebooks. Even though I still carry a notebook everywhere–because writing helps me think, recording these lessons digitally allows me to revisit them more easily in times of need, reflection, and thankfulness.
Digital resources also offer an instant way to record what we’re experiencing, learning, and discerning from God in the moment. With a smart phone or a laptop, we are able to immediately journal so that lessons are not lost on inconsistent memory. Instead, we can jot it down and expand on it over time. Physical notebooks have done the same for a long time, and now we have new tools to help us.
I often grow weary of the dings and buzzes from my smart phone, but we can use them to our advantage rather than be abused by them. Set up your calendar with a daily or weekly reminder about a study to accomplish or person to encourage. If you’re seeking to memorize a passage of Scripture, your devices can alert you to the verse(s) multiple times a week or a day. Use your devices to remind you of what is most important rather than just allowing it to push random news alerts to you.
Social media platforms can make you either incredibly sympathetic or a huge jerk. They can help you be active for the sake of others or a hacktivist who just posts the latest hashtags related to a tragedy. Technology like Twitter, Facebook, and blogs like the one you are reading helps to magnify your voice. It helps you not cloister your spiritual journey, but share it with others. Make the decision that technology will be leveraged to benefit others rather than just a megaphone to shout at others.
The world is spiritual. We too often lose that truth. It becomes easy to segregate our spiritual growth into categories that really do not include work, recreation, entertainment, politics, and a myriad of other issues. But, we are spiritual beings in a world created by God for the purposes of serving His spiritual kingdom. Technology should link everything together, because everything has a spiritual implication.
For instance, as you see news alerts, it should drive you to prayer. As you encounter worldviews, it should help you to think about culture in a biblical manner. Facebook posts of a person’s bad news should drive you to serve the one in need. And on the list can go. We should be reminded that people are more than the avatars they use and the pixels of their posts.
In the end, use technology to connect in the real world. Share your stories of growth in such a way that it leads to face-to-face meetings to share burdens. As you encounter disagreements with people online, seek to know their stories and share your hope. As you discover needs and the biblical truth that meets the need, get out from behind the screen and do something.
The use of technology in the digital age holds the same temptations as those who write in notebooks and sit in their personal libraries. We can hide behind the screen or the page.
Don’t do it. Instead, recognize that your spiritual life is for the benefit of others.
Go and live it out in the real world.