Discipleship in the Digital World by Rick Lawrence


Here’s a shot across our bow: “Today’s students are ‘harassed and helpless’ in the face of their technology—they are like ‘sheep without a shepherd.’ They feel that electronics are out of control in their life, but they have no idea what to do about it.”

I heard Dr. Craig Detweiler offer this stinging diagnosis, a paraphrase of Matthew 9:36, a couple of weekends ago during my annual pilgrimage to the AYME Forum, a conference for youth ministry professors. Detweiler is a professor of communication at Pepperdine University, and director of its Center for Entertainment, Media, and Culture. He’s also a filmmaker, screenwriter, and author of iGods: How Technology Shapes Our Spiritual and Social Lives, among other groundbreaking books on the intersection of faith and culture.

Detweiler followed his sheep/shepherd zinger with an indictment I haven’t been able to shake: “Nobody knows what digital discipleship looks like.” I think that’s true—the rapid advances in personal digital technologies have far outpaced our theology and our pragmatic ministry responses. And that’s a dart to the heart, because these sheep are grazing in our pasture—Jesus has chosen us to serve them as shepherds.

The Good Shepherd trusts us to care for his sheep, guiding them to the nourishment they need, protecting them from enemies, and rescuing them from calamity. Because we have the Spirit of Jesus living in us, we fight for them with our rod and our staff, and we will lie across the sheep-gate at night, protecting the entrance to the fold with our life. It’s our job to pay attention to potential threats to the sheep and mount a defense on their behalf. We don’t leave the sheep to figure it out for themselves, or to wander away into the unprotected wilderness.

And we now have plenty of evidence to suggest that the digital age, notwithstanding all of its benefits, is threatening the health and safety of our flock. I’ll focus on three of Detweiler’s observations, and offer conversation-starters for each one.
1. “The men who struggled in face-to-face interactions created a world that makes it possible to avoid face-to-face interactions.” Here, Detweiler is targeting Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook, Steve Jobs of Apple, Bill Gates of Microsoft, Jeff Bezos of Amazon, and Larry Page and Sergey Brin of Google. He’s essentially saying that this group of men, all of them notoriously awkward in interpersonal relationships, created technologies that have undermined the face-to-face dynamics that have characterized relationships from the dawn of time. They’ve made it possible to partially remove interpersonal risk in our connections with others, changing the way we relate.
Questions to Ponder: What is your ministry doing to provide a rich environment for face-to-face interactions? How are you coaching kids to move toward intimacy in their relationships with Jesus and each other?

2. “We’ve raised a generation of young people who are shopping for experiences that are cheap, fast, and good.” Detweiler points out that businesses throughout history could be cheap, fast, or good, but never all three at the same time. That is, until Amazon came along and delivered on all three metrics. In an Amazon-ed world, consumers have now been conditioned into the new norm of cheap, fast, and good.
Questions to Ponder: Have you been lured by “the spirit of the age” into the trap of cheap, fast, and good in your ministry? What exactly is “the cost of discipleship,” and have your students tasted Jesus deeply enough that they’re more than willing to pay that cost?

3. “In an age of abundance, the winner will be whoever gives us the most for the least. I think it will be Amazon, because they are the masters of efficiency.” Detweiler says our technologies have solved the problem of too much music (iPod), too many books (Amazon Kindle), too much available information (Google), too many relationships (Facebook), and too many friends (Twitter), condensing them all into one device or software interface. “But,” he says, “Jesus seemed to waste an awful lot of time. His ministry was really small, and really inefficient.”
Questions to Ponder: Are you taking a cue from the slow food movement, an attempt to counter the soul-killing efficiencies of speed, by experimenting with a “slow ministry” approach? I mean, have you strategically injected slow into the rushing torrent that is a typical teenager’s lifestyle?

I think Detweiler is asking the right questions about the digital age—questions that we’ve largely ignored or responded to with a shrug of our shoulders.

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