Sunday, November 27, 2005

IM One Another

A few hours after posting the link to a contemporized letter from Screwtape last week, I heard a real-life example that further illustrates how important it is for church leaders (and for that matter, all Christians) to understand how heavy use of information technologies is shaping the minds and practices of those we’re seeking to help mature in the faith.

In a gathering of pastors last week, one young man who works with people in their 20’s and 30’s related how readily many of these folks share the very intimate details of their lives on a website that bills itself as a community of online diaries and journals. Some make 3 or 4 entries a day, recording their fears, failures, frustrations, and disappointments. Yet, according to this pastor, they rarely speak about these issues with others. Borne out of his sincere desire to better understand and minister to his people, this young pastor has made a habit of regularly reading their contributions to their virtual journals and offers biblical counsel, often via email.

I was fascinated as I listened to him describe how widespread this phenomenon is. He said that many of the men he deals with are lacking in social skills and are much more comfortable communicating through the Internet. As an example of this, he told us of one young man who, while in college, regularly instant messaged his roommate while they were in the same room. My immediate reaction, upon hearing this, was to laugh. The image of two guys tapping away at computer keyboards in order to “speak” to each other sounded at first like something out of a comedy. However, looking into the face of the pastor telling the story made it clear that this was no joke. I felt ashamed for finding this scenario humorous. Tears are a much more appropriate response. What a graphic depiction of alienation and loneliness this is – two bearers of the divine image, endowed with the wondrous gifts of language, speech, hearing, and facial expression which God gave us in order to experience the joys of knowing and being known – choosing instead to avert each other’s gaze and fix their eyes on screens. Painfully aware that there is something wrong with us, we try in vain to cover our nakedness with electronic fig leaves.

What is even sadder is the likelihood that these men are representative of countless others who daily traffic in various communication technologies yet exist in a state of personal isolation. How do the “one another’s” of the New Testament get fleshed out among people more comfortable LOL’ing than actually laughing together? God does not command us to :-) with those who rejoice and :-( with those who weep but to actually enter into each other’s joys and sorrows thereby representing Christ to each other. 

I don't offer these thoughts from a stance of superiority or self-righteousness but as one who is often ashamed of and frustrated with my own foolish use of communication technologies. How should the fear of the Lord manifest itself in my thinking about and use of high-tech gadgets that promise to keep me well-informed, connected, and entertained? How do I use these things in a manner consistent with my professed beliefs about creation, sin, the image of God, and sanctification? The Bible tells us to consider how to provoke one another to love and good deeds. In our day of ubiquitous cell phones, voicemails, emails, computers, PDA's, and mp3 players, the church should aim to help believers use these items with wisdom and love. I was the recipient of such counsel recently. When I mentioned to my friend Tony at Theological Meditations that I was seriously thinking about getting an mp3 player, he offered the following word of warning:
...having an mp3 player can help to redeem the time that is usually wasted by driving or standing around. I use mine while sorting packages at UPS. I'm able to listen to it without compromising my job performance. There's one thing I've noticed at work. I get irritated with some people who come up and want to talk to me while I am listening to an excellent audio message. It's like I want to be an intellectual sponge and avoid opportunities to befriend co-workers. This misses the whole point of why I am listening to the messages, i.e. to reflect the goodness, truth and beauty of Christ to a lost world around me with a view to God's glory. Anyway, just beware of this tendency if you get one.

With the staggering statistics about how many people are ensnared in Internet porn, it's understandable that most of the exhortations we hear concerning information technology involve the moral content of the medium. We have to continue to sound that warning while also encouraging more thoughtful reflection about what other forms faithfulness to Jesus should take in how we use technological tools. Using them in humanizing rather than dehumanizing ways can be a powerful part of our witness to the world.


Joshua Sowin said...

Amen, thanks for thinking and posting about these issues!

David said...

Great stuff Keith but hey, I don't want you to take this too far and quit blogging. After all, the internet and blogging helped you and me become friends!

But you are right - we have an RUF minister here in Baltimore who has described similar things on the college campuses he works at - roommates who IM one another from their rooms and people who can't stand one another co-existing relatively peacefully in the same dorm room because they can hide behind their computers.

Kerry Doyal said...

Keith, I know of families that do this - parents with adult college aged kids at home - all 4 in the same room IM-ing each other. Husband to wife ...

gotta go, my wife just IM-ed me

Kerry said...

I don't like IM. Maybe I'm too old (43). I still remember when email was brand-new.


Greg said...

Great post. (And I like your blog template!)

Three of my four kids (ages 16, 14 and 12) have blogs, and I make it a regular practice to read all of them. This is indeed a huge phenomenon--most of their friends have blogs, and they keep up with one another's posts and make comments about them.

And I have seen my 14 year old with as many as six IM conversations going at once. I have no idea how he does it; I've done two at most, and I always fear I'll reply to one conversation in the other box.

Chris D. said...

Good post - My husband IM's me from work - I kind of miss the dinner conversations. I wonder if like in your post it is more of a male thing.

Rob Fay said...

Instant messaging and other social software has its place in making an otherwise disconnected life more connected - "connecting" with people who live a great distance away or making new friends that you might not otherwise have the opportunity of "meeting" otherwise.

Personally, it has not become a substitute for meaningful relationships but instead it has become a wonderful complement - I can quickly converse with far-away family and friends, even use video im to let people see my newborns from afar.

Certainly instant messaging is no proper substitute to good face-to-face communication, but how is it any less effective than speaking to someone on a telephone? After all, a vast majority of actual communication takes place nonverbally, and neither tool can convey these nonverbal messages. Does instant messaging mean that the person lacks social skills? That's not necessarily true.

Let's take this a step further. Video chatting is becoming more the norm, with services such as AOL and others offering text, audio, and video communication capabilities. Again, I believe this can be leveraged as a positive aspect of social software, making people like you and me "connected" although never having met in person.

I do agree that an overreliance on technologies can become dangerous when it becomes a sin of idleness or becomes addictive. On the other hand, think of all of the wonderful benefits. Do you believe that the teenage boy with a blog really would "connect" with his pastor or some friends and share his/her thoughts in a face-to-face manner? I think the pastor is right on by reading his kids' blogs to get to know them a little better. I bet that this medium of communication might actually facilitate a connection between the pastor and his kids in a way he might not otherwise had been able to do.

Hannah Beth said...


Zeke said...

Being transparent with people is not a "social skill", it is a risk that one either is willing to take on or, given the environment they are in, choose not to engage in. I personally feel, and am hearing from many other people, that church culture has become somewhat hostile to transparency. If you create the space for honesty, honesty will come. Most churches aren't like that.

Milton Stanley said...

Thanks for bringing up these issues, Keith. I quoted your post at my blog today. Peace.