The Medi(a)cation We All Know Fails to Mend

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Device distraction is a way that we have trained ourselves to avoid awkward interactions with God and each other. We mindlessly engross ourselves in them while the earth keeps spinning and evolving. The distracted person remains stationary, and the living world moves along.

Devices take the grand landscape of life and shrink it into a tiny rectangle. What once caused awe, inspiration, and creativity now bores us. We turn to our devices instead, as a way to medicate our casual discomfort.

We have willfully surrendered our alone time and the ability to appreciate nature along with it. We live in a world with awe-inspiring scope, but it goes unnoticed by most of us. Tech distraction is the latest step in a centuries-long process of stripping our sense of God and awe from the world around us.

Western society was once obsessed with the mystery of the cosmos, but since the Enlightenment (rise of the scientific and naturalist worldview), we have dissected the natural world and removed God from our collective belief set. We have discredited any experience outside of a quantifiable event as imaginary. God’s existence is largely denied by scientific culture and the grand mysteries of the cosmos have collapsed into the enclosed and measurable natural world around us.

The Enlightenment was a massive step in shrinking our sense of purpose and well-being in the cosmos because it removed the expectation that each person will experience the mystery of God within it.

Technology has further stripped a sense of God’s presence from our collective imagination. Our world, our sense of mystery, awe, and wonder has shrunk yet again. Technology occupies our brains in a way that halts our imaginations and robs us of the freedom to experience a potentially breathtaking world.

The world has lost its divine purpose and society has a problem with meaninglessness as a result. We escape emotions of emptiness and dread by fixating on our devices. They have become our protection against the pain of purposelessness. Motivational speaker and author Brené Brown wrote: “Disengagement is the issue underlying the majority of problems I see in families, schools, communities, and organizations and it takes many forms . . . We disengage to protect ourselves from vulnerability, shame, and feeling lost and without purpose.”1

The question is: Could our feelings of purposelessness be a sign that God is pressing in on us? Transcendent longing could be our sign that he actually exists. It beckons and calls us to recognize God himself. C. S. Lewis believed these desires to be signs that point toward a spiritual reality: “If I find in myself a desire which no experience in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that I was made for another world.”2

Our transcendent longings are meant to lead us to thoughts of God and, perhaps, to a discovery of meaning. But these discomforting thoughts now lead us to our phones. We self-medicate our personal feelings and spiritual problems by going to our devices.

Many disengage from the world as means of coping. Screens are used to pacify the transcendent urges that are designed to guide us into God’s presence. Andy Crouch, in his book The Tech-Wise Family, wrote:

So here is one result of our technology: we become people who desperately need entertainment and distraction because we have lost the world of meadows and meteors. Quite literally lost—where can my own children go to see a meadow? How far from the city would we have to drive for them to see a meteor in the night sky? But very nearby are technological forms of distraction, from video games to constantly updated social media. They do little to develop our abilities to wait, pay attention, contemplate, and explore—all needed to discover the abundance of the ordinary.3

My writing desk overlooks an urban park. This park is an oasis of natural life in the middle of the city. Students come to the only spot for miles around where they can experience the natural world but, unfortunately, most of them walk their dogs with their phones in front of their faces. I watch person after person walk past marvelous trees and step over large natural stones, all while staring at their phones.

Our intimacy with God is harmed when there isn’t mental space left for him to occupy. The late Ellsworth Kalas wrote: “Distraction instead keeps faith at the margins of life. And if there is anything that Christianity cannot abide, it is marginality.”4

Distracted Friendship

God is not the only person that we’re tempted to ignore by looking at our devices. Can you remember a time when you have set down your phone, only to discover that someone is looking deadpan at you, waiting to continue a conversation? That is an embarrassing moment, but is one that happens to each of us from time to time. It is tempting to abandon in-person conversations for a quick look at our phone (or a TV or tablet).

In her book Alone Together, Sherry Turkle said that in these moments each of us is “pause-able.”5 Face-to-face interaction is hurt by our constant tech use. Phones in our pockets or on the table cause us to mentally multitask while having face-to-face conversation. We struggle to listen to the person in front of us while also being conscious of the rectangle in our pocket. It is difficult to be present with the face-to-face while simultaneously being connected to people digitally.

Our devices connect us to too many people and streams of communication at once. They provide seamless connection to the world and provide endless opportunity for distraction. We trade in meaningful face-to-face moments for dozens of irrelevant interactions. They are distractions that we can’t escape so long as a device is near us.

Distraction competes with the presence of others. The most meaningful conversations happen when two people are fully engaged with one another. Intimacy happens when we bring all of ourselves to the moment with another person.

Think of the deep conversations you have had in your life . . . conversations about friends and family, death and marriage, faith and love. They involve qualities such as trust, confidentiality, safety, and patience. These traits are each hindered by phone use during a conversation.

We break trust when we choose to pause a conversation to take a call or a text. We break confidentiality when we send signals to a friend that, “Your life isn’t important enough for me to hold off on communicating with others.” How many intimate moments have been ruined because someone wants to throw the perfect moment up on an Instagram story? Significant memories like birthday parties, weddings, and deep conversations are halted when we reach for our phones and pause real life for a camera.

We develop weighty friendships through face-to-face interactions. It shouldn’t surprise us that, statistically speaking, Gen Zers spends less time with friends if their screen time increases. It also shouldn’t be a surprise that depression also follows the same correlation.

In-person relationships are humanizing. They help us feel alive and have the power to restore a person whose spirit is dwindling. Emerging generations ache for friends with whom they can smile, laugh, and dance—friends who are physically present.

You can provide spaces for thriving friendship within your Christian community. The church can restore vintage human relationships. However, we will lose the potent power of forged families if our communities are built around distracted friendships.

Hosting young adults in disturbance-free environments is a good way to enhance forged families. But you must first teach, model, and value presence. Communities will be present with each other only when they are made up of present people. Undistracted lives pave the way for present community.

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This book illuminates both the darkness that surrounds most emerging adults, and the blind spots that keep most churches from effectively ministering to them. Take a second to look critically at these generations and evaluate how your church can serve them. Some simple but profound changes in how you approach young people may spark renewal. God has called you to lead these generations in this moment. Forged will help you confidently lead your church into a bright and positive future with twenty-somethings.

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1. Brené Brown, Daring Greatly: How the Courage to Be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent, and Lead (New York, NY: Avery, 2012), 176.
2. C. S. Lewis, Mere Christianity (New York, NY: Harper Collins, 1952), 136–37.
3. Andy Crouch, The Tech-Wise Family: Everyday Steps for Putting Technology in Its Proper Place (Grand Rapids, MI: BakerBooks, 2017), 145.
4. Kalas, Preaching in an Age of Distraction, 32.
5. Turkle, Alone Together, 161.

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Austin Wofford is a writer, speaker, and church planter from Lexington, Kentucky. As a ten-year campus ministry vet, he has pastored at local universities and has also established national collegiate ministry networks. Together, Austin and his wife/co-pastor Maddie passionately pursue spiritual awakening among emerging generations and the church.

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