I sat with the parents of ten teenagers for a seminar about teens and digital technology. I asked them what guidelines they give their children for their phones. The answers were all over the place. Some families had strict rules. Others put up small fences like no phones at dinner. A big surprise was the parents who shared their digital lives with their kids. They followed each other on Instagram and even gave them access (limited) to their online banking. This group of parents all ascribed to the same statement of faith, but held a wide range of convictions about how we ought to use digital technology.
Our relationship with technology is a complicated cocktail of harm and blessing. Depending on whose hand flicks the switch, nuclear power can destroy or sustain a population. It’s a complicated relationship, but similarly, we cannot walk away. Technology is part of our story. Our ability to create is a core part of being made in God’s image and fulfilling His creation mandate.
In Genesis 1:28, God says to our first parents, “Be fruitful, multiply, fill the earth, and subdue it. Rule the fish of the sea, the birds of the sky, and every creature that crawls on the earth.” We build tools “to shape God’s creation for practical purposes”. The existence of technology results from God’s creation. Tim Challies says, “God made us creative beings in his image and assigned to us a task that would require us to plumb the depths of that creativity.”
Using technology is a consequence of creation. Using it for destructive ends, however, is a consequence of sin. That is why the question we wrestled with around the circle of parents was a question of ethics: what is the right use of digital technology? Product labels give directions and warnings. I’ve found those two categories helpful in thinking through questions about how to use and how not to use digital technology. So let me first offer you a word of warning and then a word of encouragement (direction).
Warning: Technology Cannot Create Shortcuts to Maturity
Tony Reinke defines technology as “applied science and amplified power”. One way to apply this amplified power is to make things faster. By adding online courses, I can earn a degree one year sooner. Unlike former generations, we don’t have to wait for a letter in the mail. We communicate across the world in the blink of an eye. The power of digital technology speeds up many things. It’s tempting then to think we can do likewise with the speed of spiritual maturity.
Christians grow from infancy to maturity. Paul reminds the Ephesian church to build each other up “until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of God’s Son, growing into maturity with a stature measured by Christ’s fullness” (Ephesians 4:13). Christians will grow. This is a fact. The frustration, however, is that this growth is often slow and requires patience.
Here is one example. Part of growing in Christ is the formation of wisdom. How do we learn wisdom? The book of Proverbs is an education in learning and applying wisdom. It is written as a father teaching his son, and a central lesson is learning patience and slowness.
- “When there are many words, sin is unavoidable, but the one who controls his lips is prudent” (Proverbs 10:19).
- “There is one who speaks rashly, like a piercing sword; but the tongue of the wise brings healing” (Proverbs 12:18).
- “A patient person shows great understanding, but a quick-tempered one promotes foolishness” (Proverbs 14:29).
- “Do you see someone who speaks too soon? There is more hope for a fool than for him” (Proverbs 29:20).
A wise person controls his/her tongue. Despite all the advances in technology, there is no shortcut to cultivating wisdom. How we use digital technology, such as social media apps, often cuts across the grain of wisdom. The reactionary post motivated by impulse gets more comments and likes than a delayed, but thoughtfully crafted, insight. What should be kept in notebooks or processed through conversation is now public discourse. Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, and other platforms foster quick and constant scrolling, not slow and patient thinking. Cultivating wisdom, however, is not about speed. It requires a slowness that rows against the currents of social media.
Digital technology cannot shortcut the slowness of spiritual growth. We don’t need spiritual steroids to grow in Christ, we need what Eugene Peterson referred to as a long obedience in the same direction.
Alongside this temptation to speed up personal growth is the temptation to amplify the reach of our ministry. Streaming sermons and publishing blogs, for example, enable preachers to extend their reach across the globe. This opens up resources from all over the world to support discipleship, evangelism, missions, and leadership development in churches. That’s a treasure I am glad to use. But this amplification also has its curses.
The same technology used to broadcast a ministry around the world allows us to create a product (the message) divorced from the people in front of us—those to whom we’ve been called to deliver the message. We look over their heads to speak to the camera. Peter reminds fellow elders that their job is to “Shepherd God’s flock among you” (1st Peter 5:2). He wasn’t thinking of YouTube when he said this, but the primary temptation for Christian leaders in his time is the same as in ours. By enlarging our platform, we are tempted to look past our congregation. We dream about the people we want to serve instead of loving the people God has called us to serve.
This is the danger, and it’s a warning I need to hear. Pastor, the congregation you serve is not a launchpad to a worldwide platform. That congregation has been bought by the blood of Christ for the glory of God, and the Holy Spirit has placed you there as a steward to love them, equip them, and feed them. Jesus sacrificed Himself for them. Do not, in return, sacrifice them on the altar of your ambition!
As we think about the technology we use, remember the warning. Technology is not a shortcut to maturity or a springboard to success.
Encouragement: Use Digital Tools to Support What is Valuable
How can Christians use technology well? We often learn by following examples, so let’s look at the Apostle Paul for some guidance here.
Paul says to the Corinthians, ‘“Everything is permissible for me,’ but not everything is beneficial. ‘Everything is permissible for me,’ but I will not be mastered by anything” (1st Corinthians 6:12). Paul can do several things, but he commits only to those that are beneficial and will not master him. Whatever distracts or becomes an obstacle for Paul in pursuing what is most valuable, he learned to live without. He applies what the author of Hebrews writes:
“Let us lay aside every hindrance and the sin that so easily ensnares us. Let us run with endurance the race that lies before us, keeping our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of our faith” (Hebrews 12:1-2).
Applying Paul’s principle here places digital technology as tools we use to cultivate what we most value: to know Christ. You’ll find similar advice outside Christian circles. In his book Digital Minimalism, Cal Newport says people should “see new technologies as tools to be used to support things they deeply value—not as sources of value themselves”.
Biblical wisdom shares a lane with common sense. Being wise about technology use begins with understanding what is most valuable and then using these tools to support our deepest values. For Christians, that is knowing and being known by Christ (Philippians 3:7-8). If we simply assimilate a new piece of tech into our lives without considering how to use it strategically in support of what we value, the tech takes over.
So, before jumping into a new app, service, or product, ask a few questions.
- What is the intended purpose of this app, service, product, etc.?
- Why would I need this?
- How might this help my walk with Christ?
- How might I misuse this?
- What are potential dangers?
- What fences should I build to protect me from misuse and danger?
The tools we use and how we use them will differ from person to person. To use the tools well, though, we must be thoughtful and intentional about how they will serve the purpose of helping us know Christ.
As a personal example, I recently deleted the Facebook app from my phone. I wanted to use the app to share articles and connect with people. In reality, however, I spent most of my time on the app scrolling and watching videos, all while tuning out my family. It’s always a gut punch when your son asks you to put your phone down so he can talk to you. My problem is not primarily my phone or Facebook’s app, but how I use both tools. I wasn’t purposeful and so I got sucked into the maelstrom of constant scrolling. This affected my attentiveness to my family and also how I used and misused much of my time.
Nothing is more valuable than knowing Christ and being known by Him. Digital tools are a great asset, helping us grow deeper in Christ, but without thought and purpose, they will distract and draw us away from growing in Christ.
As a final word, let me encourage you to lean on others. Do not trust your heart or your instincts. Proverbs reminds us to “be not wise in your own eyes; fear the Lord and turn away from evil” (Proverbs 3:7).
Allow the people closest to you to give honest feedback about your use of tools like your phone and social media. “Without guidance, a people will fall, but with many counselors there is deliverance” (Proverbs 11:14). God, in His wisdom, has put certain people around you. Trust His wisdom and lean on their counsel.
- Tim Challies, The Next Story: Faith, Friends, Family and the Digital World(2nd Edition, Grand Rapids, Michigan, Zondervan, 2015) 23.
- Ibid, 23.
- Tony Reinke, God, Technology, and the Christian Life (Wheaton, Illinois, Crossway, 2022) 14.
- Cal Newport, Digital Minimalism, Choosing a Focused Life in a Noisy World, (New York, Portfolio/Penguin, 2019) 252.