Are you a techno-geek?
Apps galore on your phone; trawling through reviews of the new iPhone? Or are you a closet (or open) Luddite, who recoils at the very mention of technology? You’re still using your turntable and you pine for the days of the rotary phone.
Whichever you are – you’re probably somewhere in between – the digital revolution has transformed your life. It’s done the same for all our lives. It’s not hyperbole to say that the advent of the world wide web has had an impact as great as the invention of the printing press and the internal combustion engine.
I imagine a conversation between my present self and my former self if I visited him while he was a teenager in the late 1970s. It would go something like this . . .
“Hello Past Me.”
“Hello Future Me! So what’s in store for me? I was watching Tomorrow’s World last night and they tell me we’ll all have personal robots soon. Does yours do the cooking and cleaning?”
“We-ll, gotta tell you, robots didn’t quite pan out.”
“Oh, that’s disappointing. Jet packs to get across town?”
“Not so much.”
“Just better hoovers and lawnmowers? Thought we could manage a bit more than that.”
“Oh, you don’t know the half of it.”
“See the phone on the wall over there? Gone. Now we carry our phones with us wherever we go.”
“We have those already. Cordless phones. Nothing new there.”
“No, not cordless. Mobile. You can call your mum from the top of a mountain.”
“O-kay . . . wow. That is very cool.”
“You can text with your phone too.”
“Text? You lost me.”
“Short digital messages from one phone to another. And the computers that fill a room here in the 1970s have been reduced in size. A lot. They’re down to the size of a briefcase and they’re called laptops.”
“Personal computers. We often use them to do our shopping.”
“What?! Shopping from home? No more trips to Woolworths and BHS?”
“Yeah, about those shops, they don’t have a great future. Get ready for the names Primark and Sports Direct, but mostly get ready to order everything online.”
“Online? You keep on inventing new words.”
“Podcast. Netflix. Bandwidth. WhatsApp. Email. There are some more, but online is the important one. It’s when you’re connected to a vast network of digital information, so you can share videos, play all your music, create photo albums, talk to your friends. Oh and companies like Amazon sell almost anything. Next day delivery. Right to your door.” Silence. “Richard Past? You’re looking pale . . . are you okay?”
“Sorry. Er, so no more . . . letters? Ph-phones you carry . . . with you. Music and shopping on a computer? I just . . . how is that even possible? And Amazon? Never heard of it.”
“Oh you will. The owner’s going into space next week. So anyway, get used to the word “download” and companies like Apple, Facebook and Google. They’re the biggest companies in the world. And a bit of advice. Take out some shares in a company called Zoom.”
[Richard Past passes out.]
“Past Me! Wake up! I haven’t told you about pausing live TV yet!”
How things have changed.
The digital age has altered not just the methods we use to communicate, but even the way human beings relate to each other. No more letters. No more crackly phone calls. No more waiting for the six o’clock news.
During the pandemic, I have re-connected with some university friends I hadn’t seen for over thirty years. Seeing their faces every few weeks on a screen has filled me with joy. Social media enables us to find old school friends, share photos and videos, and support causes important to us. We’re connected in ways that only a couple of decades ago would have been unthinkable.
Yet some studies indicate that many are lonelier than ever.
But that’s not my focus today.
You can order almost anything from anywhere. It will be delivered within a few days. Why shuffle along a line of shelves offering hardware when you’ve got Screwfix? Why pay Waterstones prices when you’ve got Amazon marketplace? Billions of products at the touch of a button. No wonder we’re overwhelmed.
But that’s not my focus today either.
The sheer convenience of it all. So much within touching distance, yet what impact is it having on our lives and the lives of those we serve?
This is my focus today.
Our digital economy has changed the way we view our lives, and what’s important to us. There is a relentless push towards more choice and convenience, and this impacts how we view our spiritual lives. Show me where in the Scriptures Jesus teaches that a priority for his followers is to create for themselves a more convenient life. You won’t find it anywhere.
But don’t think I’m straying into Luddite thinking. I’m not. I’m writing on a laptop, having just texted my wife. My music is playing on a Bluetooth speaker. Later, I will order a memory foam mattress to ease the pain of my aching back. No traipsing around shops, just a browse online, and a few clicks.
Instead, my concern is the broader impact of technology on how we view Jesus’ invitation to a life with him. The With-God life, as Dallas Willard called it.
Slow and Relentless
First, God takes his time. He is slow and relentless. The Israelites spent forty years in the desert. Abraham waited twenty-five years for Isaac. Jacob waited fourteen years for Rachel. (Even seven would have been hard.) The Jews waited hundreds of years for a Messiah. God is not in a hurry, and the spiritual giants of the past attest to how long growth takes. Convenient? Quite the opposite. It’s a long, at times bitter but rewarding path, and convenience has no part in it.
Second, convenience was probably the furthest thing from our Saviour’s mind as he walked among us. He wept and sweated and bled among us. He experienced disappointment (see my post on Disappointment), he was deserted by followers and abandoned by friends when he needed them most. Convenience? That wasn’t a consideration when he called people to follow him with these immortal words:
If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it. For what will it profit a man if he gains the whole world and forfeits his soul? Or what shall a man give in return for his soul?
Technology makes life easier and more convenient. Discipleship moves us in the opposite direction. It calls us to sacrifice our time and resources for the sake of our Lord and those we serve. It’s not convenient to sit with an addict or care for the children of immigrants while their mother seeks advice. It’s not convenient to forgive someone who’s hurt you. It’s not convenient to give up a summer holiday to serve in a kitchen at a camp for teenagers. Nor is it convenient to establish disciplined habits of prayer and bible study.
The call to discipleship, however, is never a stick to drum up more volunteers. If you’re prone to cajoling your congregation, playing the “guilt” card, or lamenting publicly why so few volunteer, you won’t find ammunition in Jesus’ words to use on your targets. That’s because the cost of discipleship is paid from the reserves of a heart saturated with the love of God. Convenience is shunned by followers who respond to God, who make the choice to give up their lives gratefully and sacrificially.
Because they have grown to recognise the voice of God calling them. Like sheep who recognise the voice of their shepherd.
Because they have grown in the grace and knowledge of God. That’s discipleship.
And that’s why you can’t download God.
Every time people fill your church building, they bring with them digital voices tempting them with ever increasing convenience and comfort. Yet the one thing they need most cannot be downloaded.
Because you can’t download God.
To follow him, you must take up your cross.
Cross over convenience.
Hour after hour. Day after day. Year after year.