Millennnials' digital overload calls for lessons in mindfulness
After years of struggle, I came to the light. Specifically, the soft glow of my smartphone screen.
I had tried over and over again to make Bible-reading and daily devotions a regular habit, only to end up shamefully watching my Bible collect dust on my bedside table. Then came the digital world of Bible resources, right on my iPhone, which beckoned to scriptural newsletters, blogs and apps.
For me, this digital hallelujah moment happened through the Park Forum’s devotional blog, 843 Acres. The blog sends out daily emails, following the annual Bible reading plan of Robert Murray M’Cheyne. They hit my smartphone’s inbox by 6 a.m. every weekday. As soon as I turn off my alarm, open my New York Times app, and refresh my inbox, it’s there.
At this point, my routine has become common among Christians, particularly Christian millennials. Our generation’s adoption of social and digital platforms has ushered in a new age of connectivity for our faith. The Barna Group reports that 70 percent of these digital natives read Scripture online. If we don’t have the answer to a question, we Google it. We multitask and switch digital platforms to find the information we need.
Yet as much as I love the bite-size format of my email devotional, I can’t shy away from the lack of intentionality that pervades the opening, refreshing, and scanning of my emails – even when I’m reading and meditating on Scripture. Or the slavish attention I lavish on my inbox, where a new message always awaits. To co-opt a well-known T.S. Eliot quote, is this how a prayer is to end, not with an amen but a buzz in the pocket?
Even leaders and entrepreneurs within the tech community are beginning to question the ethics of a force that has changed our ability to truly listen and be present. They’re bringing up relevant questions for young Christians whose faith practices take them onto their phones and laptops.
Some ask whether the lure of technology has negatively impacted young people’s brains, decreasing their ability to sustain undivided attention. Or as one tech writer asks, “Are all the modern devices and digital conveniences we have at our disposal – from the web and social media to smartphones and tablets – making us more distracted and less able to concentrate?”
Perhaps. But it’s not too late to change our attitudes. Just as technology enthusiasts have rushed to embrace such axioms as “stay lean” and “work smarter, not harder,” a countercultural conversation advocates meditation and mindfulness within digital culture. This latter conversation by no means supersedes the wisdom and directive of the Bible, but still has something to teach us. For if “culture informs technology development and then technology moves culture forwards,” a new attitude toward technology can strengthen how we use it to practice our faith.
How do we temper our mediated reality, one awash by distraction, forgetfulness and stress, with mindfulness and intentionality, without retreating to a Wi-Fi free Silence Room?
Bethany Jenkins, a member of the Redeemer Presbyterian congregation in New York City, who cofounded the 843 Acres site, reminds me, “Any tool is what you make of it.”
My email devotional is not the problem. I am.
Taking cues from the mindfulness discourse of late in the media, I’ve come up with some suggestions of my own to guide my digitized devotional time:
Create a habit: This is the first step. So much of my lackadaisical approach to carving out a quiet moment to read the Bible and reflect had to do with a lack of scheduling and prioritization. Luckily, (and I don’t mean to be glib here), there’s an app for that. Do you fall into the 80 percent group that sleep with their phone next to their bed? Set a reminder for yourself to read, meditate and pray when you first wake up. For those not quite happy with Apple’s built-in reminder app, download an app such as Bugger that will trigger annoying notifications to remind you throughout your day.
Memorize Scripture: This is a hard one for me, but Mobilize Faith gamifies the approach by setting up review quizzes, fill-in-the-blank games and an accountability system to help you retain what you’ve memorized. Loath to download yet another app? Set a Bible verse as your wallpaper. If you check your phone as much as I do, you may surprise yourself by how much you end up memorizing.
Remember that quality trumps quantity: Most email-based devotionals have traded in long-winded paragraphs and thematic chapter designs for brevity and personalization. Bible Gateway offers a plethora of daily devotional guides that target men and women, leaders and inspirational types. You can even opt for a “classic” devotional to devour the writings of Dietrich Bonhoeffer and C.S. Lewis, coupled with a relevant Bible passage.
The 843 Acres takes the compact approach. Each devotional is curated to around 400 words, the average word count limit applied to the length of a New York Times op-ed piece. “Sometimes, 400 words are great for people who aren’t readers,” Jenkins said. “They may not read a book, but they might read a short 400 word reflection.”
In our quest to quiet our hearts, pray and meditate, we need to remember that word count does not a saint make. It is the attitude, time and attention we lend our reading, the habit of obedience that should, Lord willing, grow our knowledge of who we are and who God is.
But let’s not forget. Should your phone keep on buzzing while you attempt to read your digital devotion, just turn it off.
Says Jenkins, “We need to manage our hearts better than our emails.”