Being Present in a World of Cell Phones and Social Media

So much of the time I’m not completely present. I’m thinking of what else I need to be doing, or somewhere else I would rather be. I don’t think I’m alone, either. I sometimes sense that others are half-present, suffering from what one person has called continuous partial attention. We can end up skimming through life, ministry, and relationships.

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One of the culprits, to be honest, is technology. I find myself checking Twitter and Facebook more often than I’d like to admit. I sometimes suffer from phantom vibrations of my cell phone. I forgot my cell phone one evening at a concert and felt a little lost. I also felt strangely judgmental towards others at the concert who spent the evening looking at glowing screens rather than at the artist who was right in front of them.

And that’s the point: we miss what is right in front of us — stunning, average, or even negative — because we are plugged into screens that are roughly 8-10 square inches.

What’s hard to believe is how new a problem this is. I remember seeing the first iPhone from a friend who is a tech journalist, and it was only seven years ago. When I sent my first round of Facebook friend requests in 2007, I received this puzzled response from a university professor:

I have no idea what "Facebook" is. I'll have to ask my boys...I suspect that they know what this is. Do let me know what you have in mind with this.

When I joined Twitter in 2007 (the same year as I joined Facebook and saw the first iPhone), it wasn’t the time suck that it is today. My first tweet, by the way, was a lame and only one word long:

In his book The End of Absence, Michael Harris observes that this is all so new that we haven’t even stopped to consider what we’ve lost when we’re always connected. “Soon enough, nobody will remember life before the Internet,” he says.

Just as previous generations were charmed by televisions until their sets were left always on, murmuring as consolingly as the radios before them, future generations will be so immersed in the Internet that questions about its basic purpose or meaning will have faded from notice. Something tremendous will be missing from their lives— a mind-set that their ancestors took entirely for granted— but they will hardly be able to notice its disappearance.

We went camping this summer, and were completely unplugged (no cell phone signal, no Internet, no power) for two weeks. By the time I came back, I found that I had no desire to immerse myself in social media again. Since then, I’ve drastically cut back on the number of blogs I follow, and the number of tweets I read. (I follow over 2,700 people but make use of lists to help me manage that number.) It took a complete break from social media for me to be ready to make drastic changes. And yes, I’ve thought about going back to a dumb phone, although that may be a little too drastic. (See David Wells, though, on six ways that cell phones are changing us. The article is definitely worth careful thought).

There’s no going back, but there are some steps we can take. I’ve found these ones helpful:

  • Consider a digital fast. It is hard to be aware of how deeply we are immersed in technology until we take a break from it. Take a break as an experiment to see how you feel.
  • Make it a little bit harder to pull out your cell phone when you’re bored. At least you will be aware of when you pull it out absent-mindedly to pass the time, when you could instead be alone with your thoughts or the people around you. (Surprisingly, some people would rather be shocked than to be alone with their thoughts.)
  • Turn off the screens at a certain time of the day. We’ve tried to start putting our screens (except for the Kindle) away at 8:00 at night. It’s made my evenings a lot more enjoyable.
  • Cut back. Stop reading so many blogs and tweets. Separate the essential few from the trivial many. (Greg McKeown’s book Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less is helpful here.)

I continue to live both online and off, but I want to be deliberate about where I am choosing to focus. This will no doubt be an ongoing struggle, but I want my life back. I want to be present.

I’m guessing that you do too. I’d love to hear your thoughts on how you are managing your life so that you are present despite the new technologies that can capture us before we even think.

Saturday Links

Links for your weekend reading:

Tangled Up in Blue: Depression and the Christian Life

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A Sample Letter to Help Cultivate Community While Struggling with Depression-Anxiety

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Chosen is Better Than Worthy

Why worry about being worthy or not, when Christ has called you chosen?

Cultivating Wonder in Children

As you go about discipling your children, as you teach them their Bible verses and correct them when they disobey, do not neglect the sacred discipline of awe.

Never Resist the Urge to Pray

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On Platforms, Self-Promotion, and Pleasure Complete

John’s happiness was not tied to his platform. His happiness was tied to God’s purposes.

11 Preaching and Pastoring Lessons Learned from My Mentor

Following are 11 of the preaching and pastoring lessons I’ve learned from my mentor.

Ministry and Presence

I’ve been thinking about the story of Jimmy Carter, who was so free from having to worry about where else he should be and what else he should be doing that he was able to focus fully on the person in front of him.

He spoke as though we had all the time in the world. At one point, an aide came to take him off to the next person he needed to meet. Free from having to decide when the meeting would end, or any other mundane care, really, President Carter could let go of those inner nagging voices and be there. (The Organized Mind)

Is it possible to be this present in our lives and ministries? Not only is it possible; it’s essential.

Here are some thoughts on being present in ministry.

It’s hard. In his excellent book Sensing Jesus, Zack Eswine traces the desire to be present everywhere to the Garden of Eden. We try to act as if we have no limits in space and time. The desire to avoid being present in one place is an age-old temptation that goes as far back as the original sin.

There’s no alternative. There really is no other ministry than ministry right here, with these people, and in this place. Again, Eswine writes:

Our lives, in contrast to God’s, are necessarily physical and local…While spiritual wars rage about and while angels fly, I remain grounded. Battles all at once and everywhere outpace me. Here (and not everywhere) is where I must fight.

The people here are always messy, and this place is by definition limiting. But the only one who is not limited to ministry in a particular location is God, although even He is also working with messy people.

They can tell.  A few years ago, I visited a pastor that I know through his blog. I told him that I appreciated his online sermons. His response surprised me. “I’m glad you enjoyed them, but they’re not for you. I pastor these people in this place, and those sermons are meant for them. Whether or not you appreciate them is irrelevant.”

I like that. I believe that people can tell if we are trying to serve and impress a general audience out there, or if we are rooted in a particular place, committed to a particular people. I can tell when people are half-listening to me. People can tell if we’re half-present while dreaming of a better place that doesn’t actually exist.

It’s at the heart of effective ministry. There is certainly a place for large, regional ministries. But as books like The New Parish teach us, there is a need to locate ourselves in a single community, to be attentive to what God is doing there, and to commit over the long haul to be present and faithful. Like a farmer committed to a plot of land, staying long enough to put down roots, clear the rocks, and pull out the tree roots, we must be committed to one place. I think I remember David Fitch saying that we should generally look at a ten-year commitment to a single place. While not canonical, it’s an idea that makes a lot of sense for most of us.

We are in what could be termed a hard-soil plant. We have moved in the neighborhood, and we are learning the joy and power of being as present as possible in one place, knowing and being known (both equally scary). There is something powerful about being present in one place, as if we have all the time in the world, letting go of the inner nagging voices that we would be better off somewhere else. Again, as Eswine writes, “Here (and not everywhere) is where I must fight.”

Be There

I’ve experienced it. I’ve been talking to someone important, and felt that they are completely present with me. They are not thinking of what they are going to say while I’m talking; they are not in a rush to get to the next appointment. They are completely present. It’s such a rare thing to experience that it’s almost unsettling.

In his new book The Organized Mind: Thinking Straight in the Age of Information Overload, Daniel J. Levitin reflects on a time that he met Jimmy Carter when he was campaigning for president.

He spoke as though we had all the time in the world. At one point, an aide came to take him off to the next person he needed to meet. Free from having to decide when the meeting would end, or any other mundane care, really, President Carter could let go of those inner nagging voices and be there.

The secret? In Carter’s case, and also in the case of famous musicians Levitin mentions, it’s assistants who handle distractions so that you can “narrow your attentional filter to that which is right before you, happening right now.”

For those of us without executive assistants, he writes, we need to rely on our own wits in making decisions so that whatever is in front of us is the most important thing we can be doing right now, so that we can let go of the rest. Easier said than done!

I want to reflect on this a little, though, because it’s so important. I want to unpack a few ideas over the next week or so:

  • the importance of being present for ministry;
  • the power of being present compared to the tragedy of being continually distracted;
  • some practical ways to make this happen, and
  • the implications of a God who is always present with us.

I am blogging about this because I need to think about it as much as anyone. Stay tuned, and let me know what you think as I try to unpack some of my thoughts on this important topic.

Saturday Links

Links for your weekend reading:

4 Reasons to Pursue Authentic Discipleship

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Living Sent (For the Relationally Challenged)

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Choosing to Live an Unbalanced Life

Question: Is there such a thing as a balanced life when it comes to ministry and family?

I would argue that the answer to this question is a resounding, “No!” Here are just three reasons I believe that...

The Spirit is Willing But the Schedule is Tight

If the Spirit is willing to set up divine appointments, how should we prepare to respond—even when our schedule is full?

The Essential Secret of Preaching

The key to effective preaching is not mastering certain techniques; it’s being mastered by certain convictions.

Top 100 Christian Blogs

To make this list of top Christian blogs, I gathered and inspected about 500 Christian blogs and ranked them using a variety of factors.

Themelios 39.2

The Gospel Coalition just released the latest issue of Themelios, which has 190 pages of articles and book reviews.