By Derek Tronsgard
Last Christmas my wife's sister joined us while we opened our presents. A few weeks ago I did pre-marriage counseling for some friends. Yesterday I showed a friend a picture of my dog.
...except when you consider the fact that I live in Minnesota. My sister-in-law lives in Denver and was at the dinner table via Skype. The engaged couple lives in North Dakota and were talking to me face-to-face on their iPhones. And my friend lives abroad and was sharing pictures on Facebook across the ocean.
Technology is shrinking the world before our very eyes. Distance is no longer a separator of relationships and of people. It doesn't matter where you are. It matters what you have. And if you have a smartphone within range of a 4G satellite, place doesn't matter. With technology, you can rule the air – at least that's what the Verizon ad says.
So in some ways, you could say that technology is slowing stripping “place” of its power.
The question, then, is how this new technology with the power to remove space and place affects our ministry. Almost every writer, thinker, blogger, pastor, and armchair-theologian out there has an idea. But the truth, I think, is that we haven't even begun to realize the full implications.
The last time technology shifted communications, culture, the Church, and relationships to this degree was with the invention of Gutenberg's printing press in 1440. The Church felt the full effects of this technological change in the Reformation when Martin Luther's writings were mass-produced and distributed across Europe. The Reformation, though, began in 1517 on the Wittenberg Door – nearly 77 years after the printing press was first introduced.
Texting became mainstream 7 or 8 years ago. Social Media sites are creeping towards their 10th birthday. I've only had access to the internet in my pocket via a smart-phone for two years.
We are barely two decades into this thing, and the truth is that it's too early to tell how this will all play out. All bets are off when it comes to foreseeing how dramatically this will affect our world, our relationships, and our ministry.
But what I do know is that even in this early state, place and presence are being affected in a dramatic way.
Earlier this month we had a weekend retreat for our Jr. High students. In the past we allowed them to bring cell phones and other electronic devices along, but this year we decided to forego all of that and ban them for 24 hours. After all, a retreat is just that – a retreat – and we felt that by taking away their access to the world outside of the camp, they would be fully present with the group there.
At first my students were ballistic. They kept telling me how bored they were and how many texts they were missing.
But after a few hours something incredible happened. They forgot all about the iPhone-sized hole in their weekend and started playing together. These 7th and 8th graders started a giant pillow fight. Next, they all got together and built an enormous fort by pushing couches and chairs together. Then, they invented this elaborate game that I never quite understood using a football and masking tape.
Later that night during small group sessions, my leaders told me that they had never had better discussions – that kids were thinking deeply, reflecting theologically, and that they were really engaged in each other and in the lessons.
The parents who were adult leaders on the retreat were floored. They said that they couldn't remember the last time that their kids were able to just “hang out” and “do stuff”. I heard them saying that they couldn't remember the last time their kids were fully present in a single location – mind and body all in one place.
Technology is fantastic and I love it. It has a huge upside for our society and for the Church.
But I think that it can also divide our focus and attention. It can divide our presence. It's funny how sometimes I'll be at lunch with a friend and inevitably at some point during the meal we'll both be on our phones simultaneously and separately - physically present and yet divided at the same time.
If you ask me, presence is what we're after. Just as we believe that God's Spirit is fully present with us ministry happens when we are fully present with one another.
So how can our ministries be places that encourage and foster authentic presence? How can our ministries give people the space to be fully present and fully engaged in their relationships with God and with each other?
And, on the flip side, how can our church harness these technologies to give the gift of presence to those far away? My Skype pre-marriage session was incredibly convenient, the couple appreciated it, and it would not have been possible 5 years ago. Ministry happened, even though it was through a screen.
Without predicting the future, I do know that technology divides presence in some situations while facilitating it in others. The task of ministry leaders in light of this is to have the wisdom to know which is which.
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Derek Tronsgard is the Pastor of Youth and Family Ministry at Good Shepherd Lutheran in Mound, MN where he lives with his wife and Golden Retriever. He is also a semi-pro nerd who loves fantasy sports and comic books. You can follow him on Twitter (@derektronsgard).