Monday, February 11, 2013

Youth Workers, Digital Discernment, and Those Sneaky Isms. . . .

Last Thursday I blogged about the dangers of not paying attention to what life on the digital frontier is doing to us. . . and how getting sidetracked and losing focus can lead to some dangers. Let me propose that those of us in youth ministry who desire to live and minister on the emerging digital frontier in what Tim Challies calls that “sweet spot” of “disciplined discernment” (see my last blog post for more on that) should grapple with the fact that there are dangers, that we should point out those dangers, and that we should address those dangers from a biblical perspective. As I’ve looked more closely at how both we and our students are embracing and using technology, I’ve noticed that our unconscious love affair with some cultural “isms” can be clearly seen if we choose to carefully “wade” our way into the waters of this brave new world. When we dive in thoughtlessly, we indulge our pre-existent tendency toward these things. And, when we continue to swim, splashing around carelessly fosters the growth and expansion of these bad tendencies in our lives. Sadly, our tendency to “dive” in means that we are likely to miss what’s really happening. Here are four “isms” that demand our attention and a response of “disciplined discernment.”

First, there’s pragmatism. I’m not talking here about a well-thought-out philosophy. Rather, it’s a simple type of functional practicality that most of us have assimilated into our lives without even knowing it. It’s about living at the level of experience with a kind of cavalier “works for me!” attitude that leads us to blindly embrace everything that we assume will make our lives better. . . never thinking about whether those things or their use could have a dark side. No doubt, technology has improved our lives in countless ways. But to assume that “it’s good because it works” is really not a good thing. For example, a cell phone gives me the ability to stay in touch with anybody at just about any time. That’s a good thing! But if we lack the discipline to use a cell phone responsibly, our obsession with staying in touch might actually get in the way of our real-world flesh-and-blood relationships. Who among us hasn’t found ourselves present with our family, but so absorbed in communicating with others that we are actually distancing ourselves from the folks sitting with  us in the same room?

Second, there’s our love affair with emotionalism. Maybe it’s even an emotional connection to emotionalism. Hey, who doesn’t want to feel good? But we are so committed to avoiding pain and pursuing pleasure that the old 60’s hippie mantra – “If it feels good. . . do it!” – still applies. We don’t say it. We live it. Think about how the principle influences our eating habits. Our culture needs to be reminded that fast food and pizza aren’t better for us than fruits and vegetables. Still, we follow our culinary emotions even when we’re told it’s not good for us. Then, we wake up one day when it’s too late, asking, “What have I done to myself?!?” In a 1998 speech, media critic Neil Postman said, “The consequences of technological change are always vast, often unpredictable, and largely irreversible.” Without stopping to think carefully about the technology we use along with how we are going to use it, we cave to our emotions and dive right in. My guess is that a few years from now, we’ll regretfully be recognizing dangers that we should have recognized today.

Third, there’s our growing cultural love affair with ourselves. . . also known as narcissism. We live with ourselves placed at the center of the universe. For the person who knowingly or unknowingly worships the god of self, decisions are based on what will elevate and advance me. This idolatry even sneaks into our kids’ lives at the level of their service to others. A growing number of our youth group mission trip participants may not be so much driven by a desire to love and serve God by loving and serving others, as they are by a desire to elevate and serve themselves by building an impressive and well-rounded resume for a college recruiter. New advances in technology tend to cater to our narcissistic bent, allowing us to create an idealized self (or multiple selves!) that we post for the entire world to see. Then, we promote ourselves and “our brand” to “a following” that we endeavor to build. What results is a vicious cycle. The more we advance ourselves, the more self-consumed, self-promoting, and self-worshipping we become.

And fourth, there’s our leaning towards a type of contemporary Gnosticism, a faulty approach to life that has snuck into our understanding of what it means to be a follower of Jesus. Life is conveniently divided into the categories of the spiritual and everything else. While we recognize that God has something to do with the spiritual part of our lives, we conveniently eliminate God from having anything to do with any other part of our lives. The result is that we fool ourselves into believing that we can be a Christian. . . and then do whatever we want however we want. This reality is captured in Christian Smith’s descriptor of the type of faith embraced by today’s kids – moralistic, therapeutic, deism. In our contemporary world, young and old alike fail to understand that our calling is to integrate our faith into every nook and cranny of our lives. . . including how we choose to use and live with our technology. The fact is that our selves are integrated wholes rather than a collection of unrelated parts. If God is truly Lord of my life, then I will endeavor to understand what it means to allow God to be Lord of my technology. . . rather than inventing a separate “spiritual” realm where I tuck God away. . . keeping Him separate.

It’s been almost fifty years since media critic MarshallMcCluhan prophetically said this about media and technology: “We shape our tools and afterward our tools shape us.” History has proven that every technological advance presents us with moral issues and difficulties. The problem is, those moral issues and difficulties usually don’t show up until a few years down the road, long after we should have been “wading” rather than “diving.” This reality typifies who we are as Christians. When we’ve had and expressed concerns, it’s usually been over technology’s content (violence, sex, profanity) rather than technologies ability to indulge and expand things like our tendencies towards pragmatism, emotionalism, narcissism, and Gnosticism. The question for us as youth workers is this: “How is technology and our use of it affecting our relationships with God, with ourselves, with others, and with the world?” Our commitment to spiritual nurture and the life of discipleship demands that we ponder, keep pondering, and answer this question for ourselves and with our students. After all, it is the Gospel – and not our technological tools – that should shape us. Committing to this approach will bring glory to God and save a few “garage doors.”

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