I recently read a fascinating book by sociologist Jean Twenge called iGen: Why Today’s Super-Connected Kids Are Growing Up Less Rebellious, More Tolerant, Less Happy—and Completely Unprepared for Adulthood—and What That Means for the Rest of Us. In this book, Twenge studies the latest research on the behavior of the youngest generation, a generation she labels “iGen,” sometimes called “Generation Z.” What is significant about this work is that it studies the first generation to be fully immersed in a connected world that features smartphones, social media, and cheap Internet access.
In some ways, the findings are positive. By wide margins, iGens are less likely to be afflicted with substance abuse, less likely to engage in reckless sexual activity, and less likely to commit violent crimes. However, this generation is also more likely to suffer from depression and anxiety and to admit to deep loneliness.
What seems to drive this is a massive shift in the way iGens interact with other people. Today’s teens spend, on average, six to eight hours a day in front of a screen, engaging some kind of digital media. Compared to the previous generation, the Millennials, they are less likely to hang out with friends (by an hour a week), they attend movie theaters with less frequency, and they are less likely to drive. To put it bluntly, today’s teens are more connected but less social.
The easiest thing for Christians to do in this digital age is to join the chorus of people warning about the dangers of encroaching technology and especially to wag our finger at the next generation. But we shouldn’t.
The Gospel and Technology
Technology is not inherently at odds with the gospel and is, at its best, a fulfillment of the creation mandate in Genesis. To innovate and create is to imitate our innovating and creating God, in whose image we are created. There is not a less technologically advanced golden age to which we should desire to return. We are, after all, the people who are always looking forward to that city whose builder and maker is God (Heb. 11:10).
And yet, we must recognize that our creative purposes can be corrupted in a fallen world. Technology cannot be used only for good ends; if we are not careful, we can allow it also to chip away at our humanity. We should not be asking only what we are doing with technology but what technology is doing with us.
This is where the Bible’s rich vision of human dignity serves us well. Christianity gives the world the most robust vision of what it means to be human.
Humanity, Technology, and Worship
For instance, we should ask, In what ways can we leverage technology to bring us together rather than tearing us apart? In what ways can digital tools make us more human than less? These are not binary questions. It’s not as simple as old guys who prefer church bulletins versus young guys who know how to run PowerPoint. It’s not as simple as finding the appropriate age for your teen to have an iPhone.
It is about pressing in on the Bible’s unique vision of humanity in a way that helps us hold our devices loosely and wrestle honestly with technology, both with our mandate to innovate and the ways in which we are tempted to turn inward in self-worship.
This means that in some ways we will need to escalate our innovation and in some ways we will need to deescalate our innovation. This is especially important in the ways we choose to worship. We should not uncritically embrace what theologian Kevin Vanhoozer calls a “culture of spectacle”:
The church’s imagination is in danger of being captured by spectacular images that owe more to contemporary culture than to Christian faith. . . . I believe Scripture sets our imaginations free from the culture of spectacle so that we can see the world as it truly is: a good but fallen creation in which God’s kingdom is advancing in mysterious and often quite unspectacular ways.1
This is why the ancient rhythms of church life are just what a digitally exhausted world needs. Sunday worship may be the most analog experience our people have all week. What seems like an old-fashioned relic—the embodied experience of corporate worship—offers respite and rest, and it prepares our hearts for God’s work.
The Embodied Presence of the Gathered People
Jesus told us that His presence is most pronounced “when two or three are gathered” in person, together as His body (Matt. 18:20). In an individualistic society so easily disembodied by media, we possess in the church the life-giving call of biblical community. In the church, we can work out our salvation in fear and trembling, not in isolation, but in real community, shoulder to shoulder and not over FaceTime or Skype. There, we can be known as we really are, challenged when we need it, forgiven, and spurred on to good works. There, we don’t need to put on a front or pretend. There, in place of a virtual community of performance and perfection that exhausts the soul, we find a community of grace that we can rely on and contribute to.
The church as the gathered and embodied physical presence of God’s people has something to offer a world increasingly isolated into digital tribes. This is where we celebrate a meal together, physically raising the bread and the cup to our lips in celebration of our status as God’s redeemed image bearers. It is where we kneel together, across generations, in humble prayer. It is where we gather in groups and read the Word and share our most difficult struggles. It is where we literally stand and sing, declaring that Christ is King above all others. Think, for a moment, about the stunning simplicity of it all: the cure for our digital identity crisis and dehumanizing self-worship might be to do the simple and analog act of going to church.
This ethos on Sundays can then flow into the rest of our weeks, helping us form the spiritual habits we need to inform the rest of our weeks and to give us a healthy grid through which we both employ our devices and separate from our devices.
We rediscover our dignity then, not in affirmation from avatars on a screen but in our identity as the people of God gathering in local congregations. This is where, every Sunday, we reconnect with our humanity because we worship the God who formed us in His image. It’s where the repeated rhythms of prayer, communion, sacrament, and song form us for life in the world. The local church may not appear in the news cycle, but it is where we learn to live as real people who produce, enjoy, and use technology without being dominated or shaped by it.
So, church shouldn’t resist technology that assists our worship, but it shouldn’t uncritically embrace it either. And we should ask ourselves, How we are ministering to a world increasingly dehumanized by our creations?
- Kevin Vanhoozer, “Discipleship in the Age of the Spectacle,” Desiring God, April 2, 2016, http://www.desiringgod.org/articles/discipleship-in-the-age-of-the-spectacle. ↩︎