The age of the smartphone allows instant connection and 24-hour availability. Jamie Cutteridge explores its impact in Premier Christianity magazine.
There’s a lot of waiting in the Bible. Noah had to wait for the rain to stop. David didn’t become king overnight. The Israelites waited 40 years to move into the Promised Land. They waited even longer for the Messiah to turn up.
There’s not a lot of waiting in 21st century Britain. Emails come straight to our phones at all hours of the day, and we impatiently wait for people to reply to the ones we have sent. When we can’t get hold of someone, we assume something is wrong. Pub arguments about which country came third in the Mexico ’86 World Cup, which would previously take days to settle, are now solved by a couple of app taps (it was France, by the way). We can order food, taxis and people to come over or find out how to put up a shelf just by putting a hand in a pocket. We prioritise swiftness over superiority, quickness over quality and speed over service.
We are never really ‘out of the office’ because we can read our emails whenever they arrive.
All of which seems a little… sad. That beautiful Guinness advert from years ago, the surfer waiting for the perfect wave to break, seems outdated. Good things no longer come to those who wait. Good things are defined by the availability of 4G coverage in your area. Patience isn’t a virtue; it isn’t even an occasional necessity.
In fact, the idea of patience has always been incredibly countercultural – not just in the last decade, but throughout history. Let’s turn our attention to the temptations of Jesus. Reflecting on the three things that Jesus was tempted with, we see that the temptation is less about ‘what’ and more about ‘when’.
LIVING IN THE NOW
Jesus was first tempted by the promise of food: ‘Turn these rocks into bread.’ What do we know about Jesus’ time in the wilderness? He was fasting. He’d made a deliberate choice to go without food for 40 days. He knew he’d eat again, but not right then. So he’s tempted to shortcut the timeline and bring it forward.
Next, he’s offered the chance to rule all the kingdoms of the world. But Jesus knows the endgame… he knows that this is how the story ends; that one day he will be king of all the world. But not yet. He rejects temptation.
Finally, when Satan tempts him to throw himself from the temple, he is offered the chance to impress people, to command worship. Again, Jesus knows that one day every knee will bow (and not because of a daredevil stunt), so he bides his time. He sits back like the patient Guinness surfer, rejecting the disease of now, waiting for the perfect moment.
In contrast to Christ, we are constantly tempted to demand the future now. We don’t know how to wait. We get fidgety and bang our fists on the table. We want more and we want it now.
The by-product of rushing to the next thing is that we fail to fully value people. Everyone else becomes a means to an end, someone who can help us get to where we’re going, rather than someone we’re called to journey alongside. The disease of now actually stops us living in the now. We miss the opportunity for a divine connection because we’re too busy looking five steps ahead.
But there seems to be a theological imperative towards patience. God’s story isn’t a fast one, but one that slowly unfurls over millennia, revealing more of who God is and what he calls his people into. We see patience referred to as one of the fruits of the Spirit. Jesus tells a story about a son who asks for his inheritance before his father has even died. Things don’t (in the short term) turn out well for that son. The call to follow God, the journey of discipleship, is not about haste.
Life today is lived at a faster pace than in any previous generation, and the rise of smartphone technology seems to have heightened our need for speed. When the first iPhone was unveiled in 2007, Steve Jobs said: ‘Today, Apple is going to reinvent the phone.’ That was an understatement. Smartphones and tablets in all their forms have transformed 21st century life altogether, connecting us to more people than ever before.
It’s also had a huge impact on the lives of our churches. The rustling of pages as people find the passage at the start of a sermon has been replaced by a couple of clicks and the odd swipe as we open an app to find the right section. We project song words using iPads and phones. We control incredible lighting rigs and sound systems in the same way. When someone in church needs prayer, we can instantly pass it on. It’s never been easier or quicker to be fully connected to our church communities.
Smartphones in numbers
The average user spends 3.6 hours a day on their smartphone
1 in 8 people in the UK are addicted to their smartphone
54% of people in the UK said that the constant checking of phones at the dinner table is the most likely cause of a dinnertime argument
5G Internet access is expected to make mobile downloads ‘virtually instant’ and is likely to arrive in the EU from 2020
Yet it feels like the immediacy of connectivity can produce further isolation. We’re simultaneously more connected yet lonelier than ever. Mental illness is the biggest issue facing young people; those at the forefront of technological innovation. All of the traditional teenage issues of bullying, peer pressure and self-image are exacerbated by 24/7 connectivity. Even our friends can make us feel isolated – every post on Facebook about the ‘perfect group brunch’, every event we’re not invited to, every photo of a great night out – they all scream that everyone else has it all together apart from you. And if it’s not the social climbing of Facebook, it’s the people you see on Instagram making you feel fat, ugly or useless.
There’s also the danger of constantly being ‘on and available’. We are never really ‘out-of-the-office’ because we can read our emails when they arrive at the weekend. We seem to have lost the ability to step away from technology and interact with the world around us.
Dinnertime becomes a place where the only community expressed is that we’re all looking at our smartphones at the same time. Road incidents caused by drivers or pedestrians looking at screens are on the rise. It’s perhaps made us even more selfinvolved. Phone cameras used to only point outwards; now, front-facing cameras give us the chance to take plenty of photos of…ourselves. We’ve got a whole world to look at but most of the time we’d rather stick our own faces in front of the camera lens.
Those in-between moments in our day, walking to appointments or waiting at the bus stop, might once have been used to talk to God. Now we are more likely to listen to a podcast or check our mentions on Twitter. And have you noticed that we’ve stopped learning Bible verses? Why would we bother? The whole Bible and a decent commentary is available at a click and a swipe. At one level that’s a great thing, but it means we no longer carry the word of God in our hearts. We carry it in our pockets, which isn’t quite the same.
As with so many things, the medium isn’t the problem. The disease of now and obsession with ourselves has always existed, but smartphones have streamlined it nicely into our palms. So what could it look like to hold our phones a bit more loosely? (Metaphorically speaking – those gadgets are too expensive to risk dropping.) How do we slow down in a culture that’s constantly racing to the next thing?
Youth ministry theologian Mark Yaconelli talks about ‘slow club’, which was started by his then five year- old son, Joseph. There are two rules of ‘slow club’: no running and no hurrying. It was only when Mark slowed to the pace dictated by his son that he was able to notice things: rabbits, flowers, lizards, butterflies…things Mark had previously missed in the hurry of everyday life.
Something beautiful happens when we’re able to slow down and truly, faithfully notice. We miss the presence of God in individual moments when we spend the whole time worrying about and rushing towards a destination.
There are two approaches we can take to incorporate this ‘slow club’ way of thinking. One is to be intentional about cutting ourselves off from devices, technology, social media and the Internet on a regular basis. Be it for Lent, a weekly day off or some other length of time, you may feel the need to put your phone away in the drawer and intentionally spend time with those around you, without distractions. Christian author Rob Bell notably takes a day a week away from his phone and emails. If you feel constantly ‘on’ and if you struggle to disconnect from the Internet and talk to those around you, this might be a really important discipline to practise.
But for others, this might be about a more intentional speed of life. It’s perfectly possible to be a part of ‘slow club’ with a mobile in your pocket, just as it’s possible to seek instant gratification without a phone.
If ‘slow club’ really is all about the journey, what if we took more time over our physical journeys? What if we stopped for picnics on road trips? Walked instead of jumping on the tube for two stops? Tried to cram less into a 24-hour period?
ERADICATING THE DISEASE OF NOW
This isn’t just about our own individual lives. How can our church communities model it? Is there a danger that we become so programme and outcome-orientated (even when the activities are normally overwhelmingly positive) that we lose out on a communal journey?
Jean Vanier, founder of the L’Arche community, believes the pace of our communities should be set by the slowest rather than the fastest. Is that true in your church? Do parents with young children, often late and disorganised, set your pace? Do the old? The infirm? Or are we all such go-getters that we leave behind many of the people we’re called to journey with? The invitation to ‘slow club’ is an invitation to journey together. In a culture where individuals are constantly seeking the next instant fix, this is a prophetically beautiful picture of the kingdom.
The answer to an instant gratification culture isn’t to simply discard technology but to subvert the very values of a society that calls you to produce and consume more, more, more and do it now, now, now. Our society is defined by what we do and how fast we do it, but God looks at us all and calls us children. We don’t define our children by what they come back from school holding; we define them by who they are. And so does God.
Perhaps in slowing down we will find humanity and beauty where we least expect it. And yes, sometimes we could even capture it in a selfie.
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