I looked down at my smartphone, and then up at the television, wondering how long it would take before CNN would report what Twitter had been telling me for several minutes. In 140-character bursts, friends were disseminating the news that Osama bin Laden was dead, while the once cutting-edge 24-hour news channel lagged behind.
I thought about the lightning pace of change. I thought about how air travel—only a dream for most of human history—was now commonplace, even regarded as inconvenient. And I thought about the computing power it took to land a man on the moon and how that power is dwarfed by the cheapest laptop on the market today. Our seemingly insatiable demand for new, fast, and convenient can barely keep up. Whether we like it or not, our world is a technological one, and this reality affects the way we work and live, our relationships, and even how we follow Jesus.
Two thousand years before Twitter, James knew the power of short, impactful statements. He summarized the Christian life like this: “Pure and undefiled religion in the sight of our God and Father is this: to visit orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world” (James 1:27).
Because orphans and widows are among the most vulnerable members of society, God shows special concern for them (see Deut. 10:18; Isa. 1:17; Jer. 7:5-7). To care for them, then, is to be like God. In the incarnation, the Son of God humbled Himself and came to dwell with broken people, living out this ethic on earth. And as the disciples followed Jesus from town to town, they went with Him to the sick and the needy. Following Jesus today looks much the same. It requires us to stoop down and touch the hurting—orphans, widows, and others gasping for relief.
Community is not optional for Christians. Jesus makes no provision for His followers to do life on their own.
But there’s another ingredient of “pure and undefiled religion.” James reminds us we are to keep ourselves “unstained by the world.” All of us have been beaten, battered, and tarnished by living in this world. Even Jesus Himself bears the scars of what this world did to Him. James isn’t talking about keeping free from these kinds of stains; he’s talking about holiness and purity, the marks of a life lived by walking in our Savior’s footsteps. While Jesus’ disciples followed Him all over ancient Palestine, He taught them how to pray, helped them understand Scripture, and opened their eyes to the kingdom of God. Peter, James, and John, along with the rest, were learning God’s heart as they spent time with Jesus, becoming more like Him.
The disciples grew in knowledge and faith and then helped others do the same. Those others passed on what they learned to still more people. This practice of making disciples spread from city to city and from generation to generation, right down to our own. Pastor and author Kevin DeYoung puts it this way: “The one indispensable requirement for producing godly, mature Christians is godly, mature Christians.” We cannot grow more like Christ apart from community; we cannot grow deeper with Jesus if we don’t spend time with people who know Him well.
As we strive to walk in close step with Jesus, technology offers some wonderful tools. The world is now more connected, and we find ourselves with more opportunities than ever before to offer a cup of cold water in His name. But for every breakthrough in technology empowering us to love our neighbors in a new way, we have a choice to make.
When an earthquake or typhoon strikes, sending aid is now as quick and easy as sending a text. But seeing natural disasters on screens day after day can dull us to the very real pain of others if we’re not careful. And while the Internet makes it easier to help the poor—for example, by providing microloans to people in the developing world—many will find it easier to ignore extreme poverty when the eyes staring back at them can be reduced to pixels on a computer display.
At the same time, streaming video, podcasts, and eBooks allow anyone to sit at the feet of some of the world’s greatest Bible teachers. Some, however, will be tempted to forego their local church community when the busyness of life creeps in. They may even rationalize their choice, knowing that their pastor’s sermons can’t live up to those of their favorite online teachers. Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram connect us to the encouragement of friends and family, but social media also makes it possible for “friends” to never speak or see one another.
Community is as much a need for Jesus’ followers as ever, but technology can fool us into thinking it’s now less than necessary or can lead us in the wrong direction, tricking us with a counterfeit type of community. Today we can be completely in sync with the surrounding culture while living completely alone. But Jesus makes no provision for His followers to do life on their own.
Though I don’t believe it’s necessary to go off-grid, I also don’t believe we need to be blown about by every technological wind. In fact, technology isn’t the problem; how we interact with it is what matters. It’s tempting to see the issues involved as all or nothing, but there’s a middle road to take, and it passes straight through the New Testament.
In the first century, as the apostles and first missionaries went out to spread the good news of Jesus Christ, they could count on a certain technological advancement to make their journeys possible: roads, the original broadband network. They may never be considered a wonder of the ancient world, but under Roman rule, roads went just about everywhere. As a result, so did the gospel—into distant, otherwise inaccessible parts of the empire.
And as the good news went out, the first Christians were writing. The Gospels and letters of the New Testament are themselves the ancient equivalent of sermons on MP3—portable and reproducible. When Paul couldn’t visit Rome, he sent a letter to outline his theology and encourage the faithful. If he had today’s technology available to him, he might have recorded a video and sent the Romans the YouTube link. The book of Romans is, in essence, a recorded message available for “playback” whenever someone needs to hear it.
The early church used the technology available to share the gospel and make disciples. They used it to enhance discipleship, not displace it. We must do the same. For some, this may mean finding new ways to get connected; for others, it may mean unplugging more often. To the extent that our digital lives and devices help us connect with one another to become more like Christ, they are a blessing. Following Jesus was the highest priority for the first Christians, and it must be ours, too—screens or no screens.