Harnessing Technology So It Doesn’t Harness Us

March 13, 2018 Katy Munson

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“Science Finds, Industry Applies, Man Conforms.” These words were deemed the unofficial motto for the 1933–34 World’s Fair in Chicago. More than eighty years have passed since that grand event, which celebrated great strides in technological innovation. For our culture, the same motto seems to ring a little too true.

In his book Digitized: Spiritual Implications of Technology, Dr. Bernard Bull discusses this pattern of our conforming to, or being shaped by, technology, at times without realizing what is happening. It’s vital we recognize that the solving of one problem generally leads to a slew of new challenges to address. Many of these challenges have significant connection to our spiritual lives and the faith formation of our families.

To say this topic is vast would be an understatement, and I won’t pretend to thoroughly examine it in the next few hundred words. Rather, I’m advocating that we approach the conversation on how much and when to utilize technology from a stewardship perspective—managing the resources God has given to us, particularly in our homes. This includes special attention to our time, relationships, focus, and thinking skills.

Thoughtfully Questioning New Technologies

A couple weeks ago, Rev. Bill Johnson shared six questions to ask before adopting new technology. While the focus of his post was geared more toward congregational uses of technology, the idea of intentional consideration applies to us within our families and homes as well. Rev. Johnson’s first question and answer certainly stands in this conversation: “Is it sinful? If the technology itself involves sinful behavior, then the conversation’s a non-starter.”

Dr. Bull also encourages the practice of asking questions as we consider the role technology has to play in our lives and in the lives of our families, noting that “we do not want to merely follow wherever the technologies lead us; so we are wise to recognize both their benefits and their limitations in order to live examined, thoughtful, alert, and deliberate lives” (pg. 6).

As we learn to ask questions, we find greater balance between thoughtlessly jumping on the bandwagon of a technology and flat-out rejecting it on the basis of its novelty or newness. Personally, I have a long way to go in becoming a thoughtful adopter of new technology. For years I’ve operated with a mentality along the lines of, “If something seems like it would add benefit or convenience to my life and it fits into my budget, let’s give it try.” All too often, I stop short of thinking through the non-monetary costs, making only partially informed decisions.

Moving forward, I believe this is a foundational question: Is this use of technology aiding me in or distracting me from fulfilling my God-given vocation(s)?

When Technology Hurts Rather Than Helps

Technology can be used to nourish, equip, and encourage, and we’ll return to this in a bit. Yet digital technology distracts us. We commonly hear terms like “screen addiction” or “device addiction,” and these are important things to discuss. What I’m talking about here, though, is the general tendency (myself included!) to be ruled by the ding of a phone, automatically ask Google something any time someone begins to wonder about something, or simply pick up or turn on a device without any or much thought to the surrounding alternatives.

When I’m looking at my phone, I’m not paying attention to people right in front of me. When I’m engaged in my own digital world, I’m not engaged in conversation or community with family and friends who are physically present. And this engagement and present-ness is oh so important in nurturing faith!

Discussion is a vital part of faith development, as we read in Deuteronomy 6:6–7: “And these words that I command you today shall be on your heart. You shall teach them diligently to your children, and shall talk of them when you sit in your house, and when you walk by the way, and when you lie down, and when you rise.” When we are distracted, we miss opportunities for teachable moments and can stifle environments that promote organic conversation. Families are interconnected systems and the way one member uses technology affects the system as a whole. When I bring my phone to the dinner table, I’m limiting my interaction with and ability to invest in those who are right there with me.

We also model technology usage habits to those around us, whether they be our children, friends, or others. Personally, I find myself sliding into the habit of scrolling through Instagram or checking my email first thing in the morning, stealing from the time allocated for morning devotions. Email and Instagram have their place, but I’m convicted when I look at the priority I give to them over God’s life-giving Word.

As you can see (and have probably experienced), in this sinful and fallen world, the devil confuses or distorts even good gifts to distract and derail us from God’s Word and the vocations to which we are called. The good news is, however, that God is in the business of redeeming, and that includes the use of technology for His purposes and the benefit of His people.

Using Technology to Build Relationships

Looking toward ways our use of technology within our homes and families can be redeemed and used well, here are a few questions I wrestle with. Some may be more easily answered than others, but the goal here is the thinking.

  • How can we move technology use from isolation into relationship? Are there resources that can be used to build community, spark conversation, or learn together in favor of individual screens and distraction?
  • Are there ways we can leverage technology for growth rather than distraction? Consider using your smartphone as a resource for family devotions or memorizing the great treasure of God’s Word.
  • Where in our daily or weekly rhythm do we have times to disconnect digitally and invest in face-to-face conversations or quality time?
  • Where is there a place for digital technology and when is the “old fashioned” form or approach a better route? Check out Rev. Pete Jurchen’s case for using a print Bible in a digital world.
  • Is there an appropriate time and place for fun (some might say mindless) technology engagement? If so, how do we manage and moderate that?

For the rest of our lives, we will find ourselves living in the tension of how to best utilize technology. Amid the chorus of beeps and dings that so commonly characterize these modern resources, we must ask ourselves these and other questions that might not be easily answered. Does this technology seek to build up our family and community or unintentionally tear it down? What balance do we aim to find in keeping up with the times while communicating truths we believe, teach, and confess to be timeless and unchanging? And most importantly, how does this point to or distract from Jesus?

Within our families and faith communities, let’s encourage one another to recognize the power of digital technology, both the great resource it can be and the drain it can be on our resources. Rather than being consumed by technology, let’s be thoughtful, weighing both advantages and limitations. Let’s use technology in ways that nurture our relationship with God and with one another. Operating from a foundation of God’s Word and grace and using the good sense He has given us, we can move forward in a rapidly-changing world, confident of the work of our Lord and Savior.

P.S. If you’re looking to explore this topic in greater depth, I highly recommend picking up a copy of Digitized: Spiritual Implications of Technology by Dr. Bernard Bull or checking out his article “Lost in Oz” in the January 2018 issue of The Lutheran Witness.

Join us for a live conversation with Katy about the use of technology in relationships.
Thursday, March 15 at 11:30 a.m. (CDT) on Facebook

Watch Live Conversation »

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