by the Rev. Dr. E. Scott Jones
First Central Congregational Church
22 May 2022
Back in February of 2012, a full decade ago now, I traveled to the Claremont School o Religion in Claremont, California for a conference about how folks who were imagining and embodying new ways of being church for the 21st century might engage in conversation with Process theology. At the conference I led a breakout session entitled “Blogging, Social Networking, and Process: Adventures in Ministry.”
In the early years of my ministry, I was often a pioneer, engaging new internet communication tools to connect with people and carry out ministry. For example, I remember the days of using AOL instant messenger to chat with my youth.
In my breakout session, I highlighted these positive for the church’s use of the new technologies:
- The internet was Open-ended, adventurous, and egalitarian.
- You could easily share your stories, reflect upon them, and watch them develop over time. And this was true both as an individual and in telling the story of the church community.
- I said we were able to be present with people, because we were understanding that presence is not limited to physical location.
I felt that these new technologies presented opportunities to advance theological and ministry goals. My model of pastoral leadership has always been to use persuasive power through the presentation of possibilities to excite people's sense of adventure, so that through their free agency, together we will choose how to move forward. I felt these new technologies enabled and expanded that.
My presentation also talked about some of the concerns raised by these new technologies:
- The danger of creating a community within the community that leaves out those not engaged in social media or who are not tech savvy
- Wondering whether social media can violate our ministerial boundaries or whether it actually revealed that the ways we’d previously understood this was a mistaken notion, and that these new technologies were compelling ministers to live more openly without a facade or division between our private and professional lives?
- And what about privacy anyway?
- And, presciently to this worship series we are currently engaged in, a decade ago in that presentation I talked about the challenge of keeping up with all of the constant changes in technology and wondered whether keeping up would be a distraction from other, important aspects of ministry?
Of course over the ensuing decade, with all we now know about social media and mobile technologies, the concerns often seem to outweigh the strengths. I wasn’t sure what I thought anymore about those ideas from my presentation a decade ago. Plus, the more I prepared for this worship series--about how the effort to keep up with the ever-accelerating pace of change is negatively affecting us spiritually--the more anxious I became. Clearly one aspect of the Time Fatigue we’ve been focused on this month in worship is the role that the internet, social media, and mobile devices has played in changing everything about our lives.
Given my enthusiasm, optimism, and hearty embrace of new technologies a decade ago, this spring I jumped at reading a new book The Internet is Not What You Think It Is: A History, A Philosophy, A Warning by Justin E. H. Smith. Smith is a very insightful philosopher who teaches at the University of Paris.
To my relief, on page 2 of his book, Smith affirmed my excitement of a decade ago. He states, “As recently as ten or fifteen years ago, one could still sincerely hope that the internet might help ‘to bring people together and to strengthen the social fabric.’”
According to Smith, the positive goals for the internet are rooted in three centuries of utopian dreams and technological and scientific achievements. Those positive dreams are actually deeply rooted in our human nature and our hopes for the human future.
Yes, in the last decade the internet has turned in a negative direction, but he keeps pointing out that it didn’t have to end up that way, and doesn’t have to remain that way. We can shape it in that more utopian direction if we so desire and so act.
How do these negative developments connect to the spiritual crisis we’ve been discussing the last few weeks? Smith identifies four new problems with the internet that have become apparent in the last few years.
First, there exists a new form of exploitation. Whereas once human labor might have been exploited by others for economic gain, now our very selves, our lives are the resource being exploited.
Second, is that this new economy is an extractive one, but not in the sense of material resources, rather, it extracts our attention. Smith writes that “the largest industry in the world now is quite literally the attention-seeking industry.” Companies work to gain and keep our attention, using tools we have learned are actually addictive and compulsory. He writes:
Most of our passions and frustrations, personal bonds and enmities, responsibilities and addictions, are now concentrated into our digital screens, along with our mundane work and daily errands, our bill-paying and our income tax spreadsheets. It is not just that we have a device that is capable of doing several things, but that this device has largely swallowed up many of the things we used to do and transformed these things into various instances of that device’s universal imposition of itself.
And this focusing our attention has moral implications. It robs us of time and attention that should be focused on other things, particularly people. This, he believes, has impacts on our empathy. How often have you found yourself immersed in your phone when you should be interacting with the people, the nature, the things around you? We’ve all done it to some degree.
The third new problem has already been hinted at—so much of our lives are not concentrated in a single device. This was supposed to be about utility and efficiency and freeing us up. And there is so much about the new technology that does make life easier. But do we feel freed up from drudgery for more important things? Or do we feel enmeshed in even more drudgery?
The fourth problem is that “human beings are increasingly perceived and understood as sets of data points.” This is how we are viewed by the big data companies. And Smith believes it is inevitable that this type of thinking will permeate through every other aspect of our culture, and we will all be viewed as data points in algorithms instead of full human persons. Remember what I said last week about the theological importance of personhood.
So Smith warns that we have ended up in a dangerous place with unhealthy relationships to our new technologies. But he reminds us that it didn’t have to be this way. However, he thinks we can’t just stop, quit, or go back. There are good things and benefits to these technologies. As a society, we could make the choices and take the steps to bend the internet back towards those utopian hopes of humanity.
But, meanwhile, we live with this vital but dangerous tool that is a major culprit in our time fatigue and our growing sense of disorientation, disconnection, anxiety, and even depression. All the topics we’ve been exploring the last four weeks in worship.
So I return to the theologian Andrew Root’s quote that I used in my first sermon of this series to clarify our current spiritual crisis:
We long to find a true fullness that draws us not through time, into some future, but more deeply into time itself. We long to live so deeply in time that we hear and feel the calling of eternity. We yearn to find once again the infinite in time, to find the sacred in the present, and therefore to be truly alive!
Andrew Root, then, turns to this gospel story in Matthew 18 to help us understand how God is calling us to something different and better that transcends and heals our time fatigue. Jesus says, “Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Whoever becomes humble like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me.”
Root draws a typical preacher’s three lessons from this passage. First, it is “a direct call to humility.” To quit comparing ourselves to others. To quit focusing only on ourselves. To open ourselves to other people. To admit that we need other people. To be vulnerable.
Second, we are invited by Jesus into real relationships with real persons, giving of ourselves, receiving from the other. And in this we experience Jesus. Recall everything I said about loving relationships with persons in last week’s sermon.
And third, Jesus calls us to be transformed. To become like children. Children are attentive to the world and therefore experience curiosity, wonder, delight, and affection. They aren’t yet caught up in the ever-increasing rate of change in our social lives. They aren’t yet part of the rat race. Instead, their lives are full of the resonance we desire. They become our mentors as we learn how to live a better life, how to experience time for everything.
I ordered and started reading Andrew Root’s book because I thought it was going to be about what churches needed to do in our ministries in the twenty-first century. Afterall, he’s a youth ministry professor at Princeton whose earlier work has focused on such things. I was thoroughly surprised by the rich and revealing intellectual and theological creativity as he analyzed and discussed the underlying spiritual crises that churches and church people encounter. Reading the book on my monastic retreat last December was an epiphany that led to fertile study and exploration of these themes over the last six months.
Andrew Root does get to the practical things that the church needs to do to minister faithfully and effectively spiritual crisis. What is the antidote to our time fatigue? His answer-- to care for children.
Because to focus on children is to escape the focus on our current time and to take a long view. As I said a few weeks ago, the youngest among us will live for another century or more. What we do for them now—how we shape them and educate them and care for and love them will have lasting impacts long, long after most of us are gone. And if they also grow up caring for children and furthering those lessons, the time horizon for our ministry lifts beyond even one century.
To care for our children also means we are drawn into relationships of wonder, affection, and delight, relationships of resonance and fullness, the obvious antidote to the experience of alienation, time fatigue, and spiritual crisis.
And Andrew Root believes that any congregational community which prioritizes caring for children is a congregation that will be shaped by humility, vulnerability, giving and receiving, transformation, and thus we will learn to prioritize loving relationships with persons in all aspects of our lives. In other words, a congregation that prioritizes caring for children is one that becomes more caring towards everyone and everything. We are spiritually shaped and transformed by our love of kids to become more loving people.
And so he concludes his book, “The ecstasy of witnessing eternity in time [in caring for children] will ignite the good life of giving and receiving ministry in the world.”
To draw these four weeks together then. In our struggle with time—how to tell it, how to keep it, what to do with it, how fast or slow it goes—what we truly long for is a feeling of fullness, of being fully alive, of living the good life.
We get to that when we open ourselves to God to transform us, to make us new creatures. That transformation occurs through loving relationships with persons. We can open ourselves to love by practicing the spiritual gifts of wonder, curiosity, attention, delight, and affection. The gifts of resonance. Which our children have in abundance, and are willing to share, because “sharing is caring.”
So, if you want to transcend your current time and feel fully alive, the best gift any congregation has to offer you is a chance to care for children.