Distracted Discipleship

11084In order to keep in touch with parishioners, many pastors make phone calls, send greeting cards, emails, text and direct messages. This is the result of multi-generational ministry and the influence of social media. In an effort to reach our members, we must go where they are and be able to speak their language. And they expect us to know where to find them and how to get in touch with them. It proves our relational proximity and ability to connect.

It’s not easy. Unlike Jesus, we cannot stand on top of a mountain and expect a hearing, at least not without Sunday morning announcements, email blasts and mailers. Warning: We should not allow our social media accounts to deceive us; maintaining a following is harder these days.

Despite the various means of communication, it is becoming more difficult to reach people. With so many persons to answer on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Snapchat, Periscope and personal blogs, sitting in the “Amen corner” on Sunday morning might prove to be too much. Maybe it is becoming easier to hit the like button instead. And to think this does not include all of the shows that we DVR and then, binge-watch because there is just so much that we need to know and be apart of. Like pastors, parishioners may feel the pressure to participate in conversations across a broad spectrum.

When I asked my Millennials about this reality in Sunday school, they described it as a “word overload.” There are words coming from everywhere and all the time. There is no break from sound, no break in conversations. Maybe this is why they are quiet on Sunday mornings; their tongues are not tied but tired. Or they have reached their word quota and by the time they sit down for the worship service, they are maxed out. Even though we are talking about God, they really don’t want to hear another word.

It’s no wonder that getting members to attend midweek Bible study is a miracle and not because we offer food. They are no longer impressed by our provision of fish and loaves. Persons no longer come for a free meal and they can fellowship online. Maybe this is why some churches are giving would-be visitors the television show treatment on high holy days, offering giveaways that include flat screens televisions and a car. No, each member will not get a car — they aren’t Oprah.

It seems that pastors are pulling out all the stops. They are trying all kinds of methods in order to spread the message of Christ. Still, reaching this generation or any other (as our grandparents are now online) even when they are in the pews is difficult. It is problematic because social media has redefined what it means to be present and involved. It is defined by Internet connection and the faster the speed the better, which translates to shorter service times and fewer words.

Now, we are real because we have a visible online presence. We are worth seeing if we have an online profile. If we do not have a social media account, then we do not exist. In some ways, our church and any other is authenticated online. To be sure, this is where many would- be visitors get their first look at us. The ushers are no longer the first face they see.

The Internet and social media have also changed the way we practice our faith. Bedside Baptist Church is a reality because we can now live stream the church service from our home. We can literally praise God in our pajamas. We can be in worship and at the grocery store or the gym. We can attend church and go to the coffee shop at the same time.

Pastors cannot argue that they are not participating because they are not present. But, it seems that the phone has become our competition. We wonder, “Are they bowing their heads in prayer or texting?”

In many church bulletins, we ask parishioners to turn off their phones. But, most just silence the ringer. They are in a serious social relationship and must be faithful to their phones. They cannot put them down or look away for long periods of time. And they don’t need to because the Bible is on their phone. It’s an app now.

So, what’s the problem? The problem is our attention. It cannot be held for long and it is best if we focus on one thing at a time, which is why it is illegal to text and drive. You cannot keep your eyes on the road and your phone at the same time.

Likewise, we cannot keep our eyes on Jesus and our phones at the same time. We cannot hold our phones and carry our cross. It is not a balancing act to be attempted. We cannot follow in his footsteps if we are not looking down at them.

With all of the words that we see and say, it would be a shame to discount the Word made flesh. You may be thinking: It’s just a phone. I can put it down any time I want. OK. Deal.

Put the phone down slowly and walk away from it. Sit down in a quiet space and “have a little talk with Jesus.” Try telling him all about your trials and triumphs — before posting it on social media. Offer your prayer requests to God without making a hash tag out of it. Like these conversations, discipleship is not to be interrupted.

With all of ways of keeping in touch, prayer remains the sure way to connect to God. It is its own language that speaks to everyone, requiring no Internet connection or the latest phone. And if God can be fully present when in conversation with us, then why are we so distracted?

* This article appeared first as apart of my monthly column with Baptist News Global and was published on Thursday, April 14, 2016.

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