Despite the positive influences of technology on our lives, we don’t often see those gains carried over into our discipleship. But technology can support your discipleship. Here’s how.
My college diet was deplorable. Many days, I saw Taco Bell’s “Fourth meal” less as marketing lingo and more as a privilege. I cherished ramen, fast-food, and freezer pizzas for their convenience and ease (and of course, their taste). Though the food tasted good, it left me feeling . . . not so good. My fat-saturated diet was served up with a side of regret and left me feeling bloated and weary.
These days it’s a tech-saturated diet that has me feeling weary. But instead of gaining weight, I’m losing meaning.
My eyes are dry and strained from endless scrolling on a brightly back-lit screen. My hand aches from forming the claw necessary to hold my phone all day. My brain is exhausted from trying to survive the information tidal wave it wakes up to each day. And my heart is discouraged at the frustration and the futility in it all.
Paul contends, “our outer selves are wasting away” (2 Cor. 4:16), and our devices used in excess certainly do not help. We are, as Neil Postman suggests, “amusing ourselves to death.” Half of our problems with digital devices would go away if we’d simply use them in moderation. But sometimes a hard reset is also appropriate. This is where fasting comes in.
FASTING: AN ANCIENT SOLUTION TO A MODERN PROBLEM
Fasting is an ancient practice designed to free us from what we hold most dear. Fasting provides an opportunity to routinely and starkly remind ourselves of who we are and what truly nourishes us.
Resolved to break free from my tech-saturated world, I considered my strategy. I felt like I was standing at the bottom of a long staircase holding several very heavy bags. I could see the top of the staircase, where I was master over my devices, and I knew it would take more than a few big steps to get there.
So I decided to take on two different forms of fasting; two small steps towards developing a normal rhythm of tech-fasting. These steps are small, but the tech-dependent baggage I carry is heavy. And there’s nothing wrong with taking the stairs one at a time.
A CLEANSING FAST
My first form of fasting was a cleanse. I decided to spend an entire day cleansing my palette of all devices and screens. No phone, no computer, no television. Only the baby monitor was allowed.
Before I started, I thought to myself, It’s only going to be about eighteen hours without devices. It’s not a big deal. Right?
But when you’ve been tech-saturated for years, the itch to sneak a look at your screen is much more tempting to scratch than you might think. While I didn’t feel quite like an addict having withdrawals, there were a couple of moments where I questioned my approach.
What if I miss something—something important? Is this responsible for me to do, as a pastor to people? What if someone depends on me to answer them and my phone is off?
I came to realize these were weak arguments for breaking my fast. But it’s an argument many pastors can relate to. We feel the impulse to be as available for our people as a fully-staffed 24/7 hotline.
Availability is not a bad thing, in and of itself, but if we aren’t careful, we will convince ourselves that ministry hangs on our shoulders. That God is not quite so sovereign apart from our ability, that we are somehow less in need of rest than our flock.
Shepherds watch over and sacrifice for their sheep, to be sure. But they sleep, too. In fact, a shepherd can’t effectively protect and guide his sheep without rest.
PUTTING CLEANSES ON THE CALENDAR
I’ve resolved to begin the practice of being device- and screen-free for three regular time periods: one hour a day, one day a week, and one week a year. This kind of regular detox will remind me that the world can and will continue to turn without me. It will remind me that there is something far more worth my time than an infinite scroll of information.
After all, fasting is not just about doing without but replacing the emptiness with something we need. How could I regret replacing screen time with prayer, Bible study, and other spiritual disciplines? What if I devoted all that former screen time to face-to-face time with family or friends?
I’ve also resolved, thanks to the wisdom of Andy Crouch, to begin putting my phone to bed at night and waking it up in the morning. Too often my phone demands my late-night attention until I’m too tired to go on, and it’s there crying out for me the moment my alarm rings in the morning. But my phone is my pet, not the other way around. I need to take the leash back.
Disconnecting for one hour a day, one day a week, and one week a year may seem unattainable for you. It will probably be uncomfortable the first time you do it. But it will be a routine reminder that this world and God’s plans are much bigger than you or anyone else.
A SPEAKING FAST
My next fasting strategy had to do with talking less. Epictetus (and my mom) used to say we have two ears and one mouth, so we should listen twice as much as we speak. I decided to fast speaking, choosing to listen and observe instead. This kind of fasting doesn’t get nearly as much attention or exposure as the other, but it is arguably just as important for our souls.
Over the last few weeks, I’ve taken several-days-long periods away from saying anything on Facebook. Though still online, I have made it a point to stay silent. And silence is quite the teacher.
Every tweet, every blog post, every status update, every comment can be liked, shared, retweeted, affirmed, reacted to, analyzed, and engaged with. This means the whole of our online contribution is measured, evaluated, and scored by others. We know this. Yet we continue to justify the need to play the game.
Many of us in ministry see our online platform as a chance to share gospel truth with people in our sphere, but because of the inescapable metrics of social media, we also see it as a chance to be impressive. Do we wordsmith a theological statement and post it to the glory of God, or to the glory of self? Do we share a book quote because we want people to be sharpened by it, or because we want to be seen as the kind of person who reads that book?
If we’re not careful, we will mistake gospel proclamation for platform promotion. We will say with the migrants in Shinar, “let us make a name for ourselves” (Gen. 11:4).
WHAT HAPPENS WHEN WE’RE SILENT
What does it do to our soul when we log onto social media and find no notifications waiting on us…again? During my fasting from speaking, I found out.
First, it humbles us. It reminds us that the world doesn’t need our platform. We are dust (Gen. 3:19). It also reminds us that listening first helps us to speak wisely later, instead of being reactionary or presumptuous. It allows us to press into the right discussions at the right time, and helps us avoid getting caught in the “vain discussions” Paul warns against in 1 Timothy 1:6-7. Finally, fasting from digital speaking allows us to choose empathy without anything to gain from it (Phil. 2:3).
We need to empty ourselves of thinking the world needs our words, and more so, that God needs us. He doesn’t. His Word is sufficient. The fact that he speaks through us at all is a cosmic miracle. He does not need to use us, but he wants to use us. That’s what makes being a part of his mission so humbling and so shocking.
“All things are full of weariness,” the Preacher reminds us in Ecclesiastes. Spend some time on social media, and you will agree. Each day is a deluge of debates and statuses and breaking news and sales pitches and memes and noise.
But Christ has the answer for our digital weariness: “Come to me, all who labor and are heavy-laden, and I will give you rest” (Matt. 11:28). Fasting takes our gaze away from our blue-tinted screens and turns them toward the only Shepherd who never sleeps (Ps. 121:4).
We will never be fully in the know. We will never say everything. We will never satisfy our deepest longings. Fasting reminds us of all these truths. You may not start with an extended, long-term fast. But start somewhere—for the sake of your soul.
Don’t be afraid of the emptiness, for it is there that you will find the Way to be filled.
Zach Barnhart currently serves as Student Pastor of Northlake Church in Lago Vista, TX. He holds a Bachelor of Science from Middle Tennessee State University and is currently studying at Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, seeking a Master of Theological Studies degree. He is married to his wife, Hannah. You can follow Zach on Twitter @zachbarnhart or check out his personal blog, Cultivated.
Am I the only who feels this way? I wondered for the umpteenth time. I was in the midst of a conversation with friends lamenting their iPhones. The complaints were familiar: our smartphones make us more self-focused, short-tempered, less able to interact with real people, eager for the approval of others, unable to read and communicate in-depth. The woes are limitless.
And I don’t disagree. I too have given over too much power to my phone. It has shaped me in a number of ways I’m not proud of.
But my secret thought in that conversation and others like it is this: I like my phone. I think it’s more helpful than hurtful—even (maybe especially) in my spiritual disciplines. Am I a fool to say I think it has actually aided gospel growth in my life?
In our effort to distance ourselves from the pitfalls of these devices, are we missing what a blessing they can be?
BRAND NEW TECHNOLOGY, SAME OLD PROBLEM
Throughout history, people have sounded the alarm every time some new technology hits the scene:
Socrates worried writing would cause our minds to grow lazy;
There were cries of information overload and chaos when the printing press was invented;
The distribution of newspapers caused concern that people would no longer get their news directly from the pulpit;
Worried parents thought that teaching reading in schools would certainly wreak havoc on the minds of their children;
Later generations worried the advent of radio and television would wreak havoc on their children’s ability to read.
Today, you can’t go on the Internet without seeing headlines bemoaning the connectivity and technology of this age, too. Those concerns are valid. Certainly, we should not consume new technology without carefully examining the ramifications.
Paul’s warning to the Ephesians is useful for us: “Look carefully then how you walk, not as unwise but as wise, making the best use of the time, because the days are evil” (Eph. 5:15-16).
THE CAPACITY FOR GOOD AND EVIL
Just as the printing press can print the Word of God or pornography, our phones can deliver good or evil. With the Holy Spirit’s help and the accountability of a Christian community (and perhaps the implementation of some digital boundaries), we can choose to use our phones for our edification and sanctification, rather than for our destruction.
Our phones can be put to work to help us to obey this command in our current age: “Whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things” (Phil. 4:8).
They can help us find wisdom and gain understanding, which is a blessing (Prov. 3:13). They can help us “do good to one another and to everyone” (1 Thess. 5:15).
10 WAYS PHONES CAN BE USED FOR OUR GOOD AND GOD’S GLORY
The following are ten ways smartphones can be tools for our good and even God’s glory.
1. Hearing the Bible. Perhaps the most important way our phones can help sanctify us is by providing the Word of God through various Bible apps. While paper Bibles should not be replaced, Bible apps can provide customized daily reading plans, nourishment in a pinch, and add oomph to our quiet times. As I make my way through my Bible-in-a-Year plan, my app audibly reads along with me. In this way, not only am I reading the Word of God in my physical Bible, but I’m also hearing it as I go. This is especially helpful to me in the early morning when my mind is prone to wander.
2. Memorizing Scripture with voice memos. Storing God’s Word in our hearts (Ps. 119:11) is a sweet tool for sanctification. Using a voice memo app can greatly enhance Scripture memory. Reciting memorized portions into our phones allows us to immediately check our work against the written Word. The immediate feedback is excellent for catching mistakes and ensuring we rightly memorize Scripture.
3. Reading more books. Various apps allow us broad access to more books than in any other age. It’s normal today to travel frequently and commute long distances. That potentially wasted time can be redeemed as we listen to or read books we could not access prior to our smartphones. I am deeply indebted to Christian authors whose words have shaped me and library apps that have made wide reading affordable.
4. Growing through Christian blogs and websites. Smartphones allow us to access Christian blogs (like this one) and websites every day. Having the Internet in the palm of our hands allows us to wrestle with even deep theological issues at a moment’s notice. Whereas we would have needed to make a trip to a seminary library in the past, we can now immediately peruse a variety of sites and articles to help us gain commentary on a given Bible passage, theme, or difficulty.
5. Listening to a wide range of teachers and preachers. Many disciples find podcasts and sermons invaluable for growth and learning. Podcast topics vary widely from hearing news from a Biblical worldview to theological discussions, encouragement for moms to the history of racial issues in the church, and wisdom for Christian living. Access to a wide range of preachers and teachers from multiple theological backgrounds helps us keep growing both inside and outside our typical doctrinal bubbles.
6. Connecting with friends and family. Depending on one’s life stage or calling, texting can be a lifeline for Christian fellowship. Missionaries serving overseas, pastors or their wives reaching out to friends in their shoes in another city, or even new moms who need encouragement but don’t have time to meet or call a friend, can all benefit from receiving and sending encouraging texts. In our global, busy lifestyles, texting allows us to type out our prayers for one another. It can be a sweet and intimate way to keep in touch and build one another up.
7. Remembering names, prayer needs, and important dates. Phones can be a practical assistant, helping us practice hospitality on Sundays when we gather for corporate worship. We can immediately record the name of a newcomer to church right after we shake their hands. We can refresh our memories the following Sunday and greet them by name, making a warm and inviting impact. We can have our phones handy to record someone’s prayer request so we don’t forget it as soon as they walk away. Additionally, alarms can be set on our calendar apps to help us remember to pray for a surgery, an important test, or other need in our community.
8. Accessing special groups. While it’s no substitute for face-to-face friendship, Facebook can provide access to specific groups and ministries around the world. I’ve been able to connect with other adoptive parents, missionaries, ex-pats, and Christian women wherever I have lived around the world. These special niche relationships haven’t been available near me at certain times, and the online alternatives have been a source of strength and encouragement. Additionally, we can keep up with missionaries in various contexts through their secret online groups, which provide updates and prayer needs.
9. Understanding your community. Social media apps allow us to know what others in our communities are drawn to or hoping for. Based on others’ posts and what they’re chatting about, we can keep a finger on the pulse of what matters to those who attend our church, Bible study, or neighborhood fellowship. In this way, we can be better prepared for false teaching or false gospels when they arise, or fads that aren’t biblical. Social media allows us to be prepared in advance and contribute a gospel-centered voice to a conversation that might otherwise lack it.
10. Building one another up. Group texts are the way young adults communicate. Rarely do people call one another or use email. Texts are the best way to stay abreast of what is happening in the lives of our community members. Texts can be an excellent way to share joys and sorrows and prayer needs. They’re also a great way to coordinate group meetings, meals for people in need, and more. It’s nearly impossible to stay involved in relationships today without texting.
There is indeed a way to use our phones that will help us “walk in a manner worthy of the Lord, fully pleasing to him, bearing fruit in every good work and increasing in the knowledge of God” (Col. 1:10).
Smartphones can be a powerful tool for our growth. Let’s consider how we might put them to work for our good and God’s glory.
 I am indebted to this article for this historical information. http://www.slate.com/articles/health_and_science/science/2010/02/dont_touch_that_dial.html
Jen Oshman is a wife and mom to four daughters, and has served as a missionary for nearly two decades. She and her husband serve with Pioneers International and planted Redemption Parker, an Acts 29 church. Her passion is leading women into a deeper faith and fostering a biblical worldview. Her book, Enough About Me: Find Lasting Joy in the Age of Self, is forthcoming with Crossway in 2020. Read more of Jen’s writing on her website or follow her on Twitter.
My three-year-old sat in her kid-sized chair, feverishly swiping and tapping on the phone while her siblings ran laps around the house and shouted their favorite tunes. Only it wasn’t a phone she was playing with—it was a Hot Wheels car. We had long since decided against handing phones over to toddlers. In the absence of the real thing, our daughter did what all kids do and used her imagination. She flipped the car over and was pretending the flat bottom was a screen.
After realizing what was going on, I asked her why she would rather sit on the chair pretending to scroll through a phone than run and play with her siblings. Without looking up, she answered, “It’s what all the big girls do.”
My heart broke in that moment. It broke because she was right.
WHAT THE BIG GIRLS DO
My little girl had noticed a pattern, the same one you see when you look around the mall. What are all the big girls doing? When you go to the park, what are all the parents doing?
The average U.S. adult spends five hours per day on their mobile devices. As parents, our hands and schedules are probably full enough that we’re not spending five hours on our phones, but how much time do we spend double-tapping and scrolling? Not long ago, the answer for me was far too much.
A couple of years ago, my husband and I were convicted of our use of technology. We took a hard look at how we used our devices and read about what happens when we’re always connected. We started making changes. It wasn’t easy. We struggled to put our convictions into words and explain to family members why we didn’t want them showing our kids how to play games on their phones.
Then Andy Crouch wrote The Tech-Wise Family, which helped us articulate our thoughts and hearts. Crouch’s book features ten tech-wise commitments, many of which we’ve adopted and made our own. In our home today (with four children six and under), we’re committed to:
- Leaving our phones out of sight and out of reach so we can focus on who God has in front of us
- Minimizing the number of toys with buttons available throughout the house so our children develop the capacity of imaginative play
- Reading aloud and talking during car rides (even hours-long road trips), so we can learn how to be around each other and engage more of our senses
- Allowing kids to watch TV only rarely (about once a month), and only with the whole family so the screen becomes a novel, shared experience
I still use Instagram to stay in touch with my friends (and see pics of their kiddos!). I’m grateful for podcasts to listen to while I’m cleaning or exercising. But I can say that, by the grace of God, I’m not dependent on my devices. That’s less because of behavioral modifications, though, and more because of what the Lord has shown us through our tech woes.
OUR REFUGE IN THIS DIGITAL WORLD
My daughter’s comment—"It’s what all the big girls do”—revealed that while we can seek to create a tech-wise home, we can’t fully shield our children from a tech-saturated world; a world with screens on our wrists, in our pockets, and in our living rooms and bedrooms.
Throughout Scripture, God calls his people to stay faithful regardless of what the world worships. Jesus did just that when he came to Earth. He was in the world, but not of it. He dined with sinners, yet remained free of sin. And he calls us to do the same.
But it’s so easy to get lost in questions like What boundaries do we set? How much screen time should my kids have? How old should kids be before they play video games?
When I get lost in these questions, I forget that sin and distraction entered the world thousands of years ago in a garden—not with the invention of the iPhone. Sin separated us from our Creator and sin will condemn us when we stand before him on the day of judgment.
But God loves us too much to let that be the end of the story. God longs to see our relationship with him redeemed. Psalm 34:22 tells us, “The Lord redeems the life of his servants, none of those who take refuge in him will be condemned” (emphasis mine).
When we take refuge in God, he promises redemption, not condemnation. But taking refuge in the Lord requires trust. And from day one, that’s just what God has been after.
Christian parents can do many really good things without ever trusting God. In the early years, we can make kids eat their carrots before their chocolate. We can put boundaries around technology (as my family has).
But if we fail to daily submit our children, and our role as parents, to the Lord, then we miss the point. Our parental efforts at behavior modification are good, but they aren’t primarily what God’s after.
He’s after our heart. And our hearts reveal what our motives truly are, and those determine our actions. If we want to address technology in our homes, we have to start with our hearts.
THE HEART OF THE MATTER
The next time you’re evaluating tech use in your home, ask why you’re really checking your phone or turning the TV on. Get to the heart of the matter. Are you justifying handing your phone to your child because you simply long for a break? Or the next time you go to check Instagram, ask what you’re hoping to find—affirmation, satisfaction, relief?
Then consider getting your kids involved in the heart check too! Or at least begin the conversation. You may find what we did, that our child was mimicking what she saw around her because she longs to be “big.” Or you may ask a thirteen-year-old and realize his or her worth and identity is wrongly wrapped up in their online presence.
Together your family can reflect on if the heart of your tech use is in line with the world or the Lord.
And if you’re like me and my family, you’ll probably be overwhelmed with the need to repent—of placing hope in getting something accomplished and using technology to “babysit” because it's easy (and free.) Or repent of placing trust in what others think of me and Instagram likes give me instant “love”. When God reveals the true desires of my heart, and how out of line they are with his heart, my sin feels overwhelming.
But that’s why the gospel is such good news! Because in Christ, I am redeemed by his work, not my family's tech habits. He doesn’t love me more when I stand strong in our tech-wise commitments, and he doesn’t love me less when I hand a screaming child a phone because I don’t know what else to do.
Regardless of what “all the big girls are doing,” I will continue to pray for my heart and my children’s hearts. I will continue to beg God for the grace to trust him more. That might mean our family is more up-to-date with board book stories than Instagram stories, but we’re learning to be okay with that.
Maggie Pope is the CEO of a small nonprofit that invests heavily in the lives of a handful of young children. Since the staff is small, she also serves part-time as the janitor, teacher, bread-baker, and driver. Okay, she’s a mom. She lives in North Carolina with her husband and four children.