I feel it's time for a rant. It's been too long. My subject today is a question: "Is digital communication causing us to grow shallower by the minute?!" Let me expand. Does instant access to communication and information make us broader but shallower--in our relationships, knowledge, and critical thinking?

Take texting for example. It seems we've lost the ability to spell, write complete sentences, even articulate thoughts beyond 160 characters. Sorry, but emoticons don't count. Texting is fine for last minute updates on information ("running late")--but we all know that for many (kids in particular) this medium serves more purposes than this. As a possible consequence of this, I am now stunned by how many spelling errors I'm seeing not only in digital media, but also in print media. Boulder's Daily Camera gives me a wealth of examples each morning. It's fingernails-on-the-chalkboard for this English major.

I would argue that thoughtful, articulate communication requires time and space--and lack of interruption. My big fear is that we are not only growing shallower and losing our capacity for critical thinking (as a culture), but that we are inevitably giving way to our feelings and jettisoning our ability to reason well. As we get busier and more distracted by tweets, emails, IMs, facebooking (it's a verb now), etc--and as we customize all our preferences online--are we trading something essential--giving up quiet and solitude for constant noise? Thoughtful, considerate communication for more convenient instant contact?

What about these bizarre things people keep sending on Facebook--virtual flowers, coffee, blah, blah, blah. I know they're meant to indicate someone's thinking of you, but they strike me as impersonal and frankly ridiculous.

I'm fascinated by the changes we're witnessing and sharing together, but at the same time, I'll be honest: I'm troubled. I'm worried about our souls. Sometimes I feel we're like lemmings, rushing pell-mell to the cliff's edge, propelled by technology, and hurtling to our demise.

Okay, okay... that was a bit strong...but I am concerned. My ambivalence grows daily: I'm excited by the breadth and speed of information technology--but discomfited by what we may be sacrificing along the way. More and more the need to be "shrewd as serpents and innocent as doves" comes to mind--we need much wisdom to navigate the opportunities and perils of the digital age. Anybody with me? Or am I just getting old and crotchety?

The Dangers of Consumer Christianity

When we first moved from Oakland, CA to Colorado some seven years ago, I was tremendously impressed by how quiet things were here. By how I could easily find a parking space near a store or outside the mall. By how quickly I could simply "pop" into the local Costco and make a purchase on my way home. Less traffic, no lines, friendly service--how strange and startling! What I realized is that there was an ambient noise- and stress-level in the Bay Area to which I'd grown accustomed. In fact, more than that, I didn't notice it any longer. It was only through the out-of-state move that I learned the beauty of a quieter, less congested, less frantic life. Sometimes things are so close to us, so pervasive, so much a part of our existence, that we barely notice them. But they shape us tremendously.

So it is with our consumer culture, where buyer is king (or queen). Where individual preferences and customized experiences reign. Where we can shop around literally or virtually for the best deals on the planet. Our wants and needs become the dominant criteria for our choices, our lifestyles, indeed, our very lives.

Skye Jethani's recent book The Divine Commodity: Discovering a Faith Beyond Consumer Christianity (Zondervan, 2009) does a marvelous, if not disturbing, job in pointing out just how captive most of us Christians have become to our consumer culture. His fluid, engaging prose and his use of Van Gogh's artwork provoke the mind and fire the imagination. His primary point is to show how we've tended to commodify God and reduce God to a genie in a bottle, who exists primarily to fulfill our wishes for our lives. As an antidote for these tendencies, the author makes a creative case for the use of historic Christian spiritual disciplines. Jethani, a managing editor of Leadership Journal (http://www.christianitytoday.com/le/) and a suburban Chicago pastor, engages popular culture, art, history, and academics in emphasizing his points. Here are some quotes from early in the book which give you a flavor of his writing:

"Consumerism is the dominant worldview of North Americans. As such, it is competing with the kingdom of heaven for the hearts and imaginations of God's people" (p. 12). "Consumer Christianity, while promising to strengthen our souls with an entertaining faith, has left us malnourished with an anemic view of God, faith, church, and mission" (p. 14).

Jethani reminds the American church that, according to most surveys, American Christians are no different behaviorally than their unchurched counterparts. The reason, says Jethani, is that such believers have failed to be transformed by their faith; their imaginations are stunted and shaped more by consumer values than by biblical realities. This is tragic for the church and for the world: we Christians settle for watered-down religion that parrots our purchasing habits and the world is deprived of vital, life-changing examples of how we are in love with and transformed by the power of Jesus.

What's particularly provocative for me as a pastor and church leader is Jethani's indictment of churches who uncritically accept business principles and marketing techniques to grow their congregations. This is so tempting for us! Certainly, we can learn from business practices--but these need to be filtered through the criteria of the Bible and historic Christian spirituality in order to discern their proper roles. We must beware our American penchant for pragmatism and our myopic view of history. Church history and theology can be very relevant for spotting the potential pitfalls before us.

Here are some pointed excerpts: "This philosophy of spiritual formation through the consumption of external experiences creates worship junkies--Christians who leap from one mountaintop to another, one spiritual high to another, in search of a glory that does not fade...Ministries that focus on manufacturing spiritual experiences, despite their laudable intentions, may actually be retarding spiritual growth by making people experience-dependent" (pp. 78-79).

This is a great book to be read by small groups and particularly by those under 50 who, like me, can be so conditioned by their culture that they hardly notice it shaping them at all. It's also an important read for those in my congregation who are journeying through a pastoral leadership transition: what kind of church is God calling us to be and what kind of vision and leader should lead us? Key questions right now!

For more from Skye Jethani, visit his blog: http://www.skyejethani.com/

The Challenges of Customization

As we continue to reflect on the challenges and opportunities for the church in a digital age, "customization" seems to be a very important topic. If you've discovered the wonders of Pandora (pandora.com), you know what I mean. Pandora is a customizable online radio station, free of charge, where you become your own deejay. You can select your own genre-based channels, with all kinds of sub-categories (I never knew there were so many kinds of country music!). Pandora makes suggestions of artists and songs and you rank them, thumbs up or thumbs down. Out comes your own music station with only the songs YOU like. No advertisements, just uninterrupted listening pleasure. In a word: customization. For your music.

Of course, you can subscribe to your self-chosen diet of podcasts--you get to listen to your favorite subjects (even sermons!) when you want to listen to them. You get your preachers in your way on your schedule. Do you see where I'm going with this?

As print media moves the way of the dinosaur, as we have literally hundreds of cable channels to choose from (and which we can now DVR or TiVo to watch when we want), as we create our own customized home pages on the web (have you tried iGoogle? It's a self-created page with all your favorite news and entertainment feeds)--as we can now customize our online experience to meet our personal needs, style, and whim, older options become obsolete. Remember when we all used to watch one of the three network news channels at the same hour? When we got a lot of our news from the local paper? When our main choices were "take it or leave it"? Times have radically changed.

Two critiques I'd offer at this point, one for people, one for churches. For people, I'd question the starting point of customization. As the DayTimer ad proclaims: "It's all about you!" Customization's delight is that it is indeed all about us: we get only what we want, as much as we want, when we want it. What's wrong with this picture?

For followers of Jesus Christ, the Suffering Servant of God who came to offer his life as a ransom for many, the motto is not "It's all about you." Rather, it's about dying to self in order to live. "If any wish to become my followers," says Jesus, "let them deny themselves, take up their cross daily, and follow me." He also said, "for those who want to save their life will lose it and those who lose their life for my sake and for the sake of the gospel will save it." Jesus says the way to life is not through catering to the self, but dying to the self. Try making that your website's philosophy! The goal, Christians have said for centuries, is to learn to follow Jesus and sacrifice yourself and your needs in order to love and serve God and neighbor. And for those of us bent on customizing our lives to meet our every need ("save your preferences!"), this is getting tougher. That's a thought for us as people. Now, for the church...

My hope is that churches who seek to reach out to a digital generation will be, as Jesus urged, "shrewd as serpents and innocent as doves." I hope we can discover how to harness the benefits of technology while not uncritically accepting all their aspects. For many of us, our 21st century spiritual formation agenda must include a challenge to thoughtfully navigate these challenges and opportunities. Churches must strive to understand the emerging benefits and costs (not just financial!) of the internet age. And most importantly, we'll need to read between the lines to see the hidden human cost: how does even this subject of customization influence the spiritual life?

We've got our work cut out for us as church leaders: understanding and employing these emerging technologies even as we build our websites, market our ministries, and offer our programs, all the while recognizing the possible pitfalls to the inner life and the growth of genuine community--not to mention the worship and service of God.

The Joy of Living Unplugged?!

Just got back from the family vacation in the Northwoods of Wisconsin. It's a great time to truly unplug and get away--no internet access, a small hard-to-watch TV, hardly any shopping or commercialism, just woods, lakes, wildlife...good simple gifts.

My oldest son was asked to leave his cell phone behind and he was a good sport about it. What a difference it made: we had a teen far more engaged than is often the case, someone more content to play board games, to go outdoors and fish, to play cards with family members. But best of all, we heard him laugh and chat with his little brother after lights out at night. That normally never happens at home with separate rooms, schedules, and interests. There's a joy to living unplugged--at least once in a while. When was the last time you did that?

But...I returned to our church to find that the front office had been vandalized and our email server badly damaged. Our church staff has been out of email contact with each other and the wider world for over a week now. So, clearly there's a joy of living unplugged--as well as a great hassle when taken to the extreme!

What an interesting juxtaposition: the usefulness and necessity of digital communication on the one hand, as well as the blessed break we can enjoy when stepping away from it once in a while. How to live in that rhythm is the challenge, it seems to me.