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Shaping or Being Shaped? Digital Technology and Christian Formation

January 31, 2024
Dr. Felicia Wu Song
Dr. Felicia Wu Song
Photo: Calvin University January Series

In recent decades digital media such as smartphones, streaming services, and social media have reshaped society and the way people interact with the world around them. In her January Series presentation, Dr. Felicia Wu Song explored how this shaping has happened, and how Christians can develop habits to stay oriented to Christ and his people.

Song began her presentation by describing her experience with smartphone use, which many would recognize as similar to their own: we can use smartphones to keep up with family, stream podcasts, curate music to accompany us wherever we go, and get notifications when anything new pops up in our apps. It’s convenient, efficient, and even pleasurable, said Song.

Yet most of us who use our devices in these ways also recognize that these devices can occupy a lot of time and can change patterns in our life. They can affect our moods and distract us during face-to-face interactions. While we sit in a coffee shop across from a friend, we wonder what the email or text message might be that just chimed its arrival to our phone.

The ubiquity of devices has reshaped our expectations and norms in social life, said Song – and this is true both inside and outside the church. “Despite what Christians profess, we’re swept up in curating and chasing our digital life.”

The Christian life offers community, forgiveness, salvation, welcome, and love. Christians know the story of how God created and sustains the world and loves it enough to redeem it from its broken state. There is a richness to Christian faith that makes the digital world’s offerings seem thin and paltry, said Song. And yet, she stated, “Our stories don’t match up with what our faith professes to be true.”

She went on to present and explore two questions: What are we being trained to do in the digital world? How can liturgy help us reimagine our story?

Mobile devices, on-demand content, and round-the-clock social media have normalized the expectation of permanent connectivity, explained Song. People have always needed to connect and share and participate in community, but while previously that required intentional time and effort, connectivity is now almost a state of consciousness or a state of being. It’s in our pockets and backpacks and strapped to our wrists. According to one study Song cited, 30 percent of Americans ages 18-54 describe themselves as being “almost constantly” online. The number goes up to 48 percent for Americans ages 18-29.

The convenience of connectivity also comes with obligations, said Song. “There’s an expectation that we’re always available and immediately responsive. It's ‘necessary’ to being a good parent, friend, colleague, employee, and leader.”

This sense of constantly meeting expectations and obligations becomes exhausting, said Song. “Life is constantly being lived elsewhere. Our bodies are in one place while our minds are somewhere else in the world on the screen.”

We’ve trained ourselves into this state, explained Song, by the sheer amount of time we spend on our screens. Even before the pandemic, 56 percent of parents admitted to being on social media too much. Children between 8 and 12 years old now spend an average of five hours per day, and children 13-18 years old spend about seven and a half hours per day on devices, according to studies cited by Song.

“Much of that time we’re not even really aware of what we’re doing while we’re online,” she noted. We’re not sitting for seven or eight hours straight – it’s compulsive bits and moments between tasks, meetings, and waiting in line. Or we allow autoplay to curate our viewing. We recognize that this is addictive behavior and that it’s not a way to live our best lives. So what can we do about it?

Song suggested that the reason we are drawn to our devices is the promise of a cure for loneliness, isolation, or emptiness, but it doesn’t deliver. So we need to seek not the escape promised by the digital world but the deliverance offered by the Christian story.

The Christian story, said Song, doesn’t offer escape but presence – the divine presence and love of the creator and sustainer of the universe – to accompany us through the difficulties of life and all that being human means.

Rather than staying attuned to our devices, waiting for some answer or amusement or new information, we can train our minds and hearts to stay more attuned to communion with God.

Song explained, “We have a remarkable endurance and capacity to stay attuned to our devices. . . . We’re waiting for joy, satisfaction, purpose, love. What if we cultivated that heart of expectancy for God’s communion?”

Admitting that most of us can’t throw out our phones and computers or walk away from social media without a cost to our relationships, Song encouraged her listeners to wonder what type of spiritual formation needs to happen so that we can attune our minds and hearts differently.

Drawing on ideas from James K. A. Smith’s book You Are What You Love, Song noted how our habits of searching cyberspace for meaning can become “secular liturgies” that misform our desires and loves.

“Our Christian heritage offers spiritual disciplines – they can be seen as counter liturgies that will redirect our hearts to God,” said Song. These include silence, solitude, fasting, prayer, lectio divina, and more.

We can experiment with these disciplines, said Song, and with other ways to step out of our comfort zones and established habits. Instead of multitasking, try monotasking, she suggested. This might mean just driving – no podcasts or music or phone conversations. Or just eating, or just doing the dishes, or just waiting. “What would happen if you tried this, just experiencing that one thing? Would you experience God’s presence differently?” Song asked.

She also encouraged listeners to set aside times of the day and spaces in their home or neighborhood that are tech free. Song said she sets aside half an hour each morning to go tech free, and she has a tech curfew for herself and her family each evening. Some people have a room in their house or a bench in their backyard that is always tech free and can become a sacred space, where it is easier to hear the voice of God and develop their interior life.

Organizations and workplaces or schools can consider using technology differently, focusing on ways to use digital communications to bring people together. Sometimes older technologies like posters or phone calls can slow us down and allow for more embodied interactions. Song challenged organizational leaders to ask themselves, “What kinds of lives do we hope our people can inhabit?”

“We’re restless and hungry for something we can’t put our finger on. Many people are tired of the digital craziness,” said Song. In this landscape, she reminded her listeners, the church has something to offer – an opportunity to guide people out of the digital landscape and into the kingdom of God. We can draw out the truth and navigate the challenges of contemporary life and offer real goodness to our web-weary world.