Recently Katie and I walked into a restaurant, and just to my right was a little girl in a stroller. What struck me was that this little toddler — not yet even 2 years old — had full command of a smartphone bigger than her head. She was completely engrossed, swiping this way and that way with her jaw almost in her lap, completely disconnected from reality immediately around her.
Moments later, as we were seated at our table, I saw the same scene, fast-forwarded about a decade, playing out to our left. A family of four had their faces buried in their smartphones — father, mother, daughter and son — each sitting two or three feet apart. No one was talking; no family member was even looking at the other. Their presence was fully engaged in the world of their screens.
While these are examples of the negative impacts of technology, I want to be quick to state that the digital disruption has brought a long list of positive innovations into the world, too. Social media and screens are being used to promote human flourishing and education to the underprivileged, to give a voice to people who have otherwise not had a voice, to spread the Gospel, to distribute discipleship resources, and a long list of untold advantages. For that, I am grateful. However, with all that technology has given us, perhaps we’ve forgotten to ask, what do we lose with the introduction of this technology into our society?
THE HOPE of RELATIONAL PRESENCE
To get perspective on, “How did we get here?”, let’s think for a moment back to Genesis 3 and The Garden. Adam and Eve walked in the presence of God as they had fellowship with Him. Then came their rebellion and sin; Adam and Eve could no longer be in the presence of God. Everything changed.
Today we are experiencing the continued effects of “the fall.” One of those effects is how we experience “presence,” both with God and each other. We still experience the presence of God through prayer, engaging His Word, meditating on the Scriptures and through a lifetime of daily pursuing relational closeness with Him. This can only be done when we’ve developed the discipline of not being distracted into oblivion by our screens. Every generation from here on out is going to have to wrestle with this:
If we don’t manage our smartphones, our smartphones will manage us.
Why is this an important insight? A person who doesn’t know how to manage their smartphone will not know how to be relationally present with other people and with God. (Matthew 22:36-40)
We are experiencing a seismic disruption that is eroding literal, physical and relational presence. Screens are proving to be a powerful draw for humans (children and adults), and they are drawing us away from the presence of God and the presence of one another.
I believe, down to my bones, there is nothing more important on this planet than forming the faith of our children (Matthew 28:18-20, Deuteronomy 6:4-9, Matthew 19:14). Biblical child discipleship should be central to the mission of every church; and in 2023, digital distraction has become a leading factor for why discipleship isn’t happening for children, teens or adults. When kids are distracted, they don’t spend time memorizing Scripture in their handbooks. Digital distraction keeps kids from praying to Jesus or simply having space to think about the vastness of God.
As leaders in the church, you are refusing to let this be our reality.
I’m hopeful because I sense a new conversation bubbling up … a conversation that says, “This isn’t working. This isn’t who we want to become. This isn’t the future we want for our kids.”
Let’s circle up in our family living rooms and in our church conference rooms and kick off a new, hope-filled conversation. With true humility and love, let’s invite elementary-age kids, students and their parents into the conversation and ask them to be a part of solving together the problem of digital distraction. You just might be surprised by how much insight these kids and students have! This will be a fruitful conversation that leads your family or church to a deeper relationship with Jesus.
To prepare you for that conversation around biblical faith formation and technology, will you join me at the Child Discipleship Forum this September? Together we will be equipped to disciple today’s kids with biblical faithfulness and new research insights. Whether you attend in Nashville or online, you can participate in the CDF with your team as you prepare to tackle these tough conversations. I hope to see you there!
Matt Markins serves as the President and CEO of Awana, a global leader in child discipleship. As a leading researcher in child discipleship and children’s ministry, Matt has commissioned nine research projects since 2013, including a study conducted by Barna Group called, Children’s Ministry in a New Reality. He’s a board member at large for the National Association of Evangelicals and is the coauthor of three books, most notably RESILIENT: Child Discipleship and the Fearless Future of the Church. He’s also the cofounder of the Child Discipleship Forum and D6 Conference. Matt and his wife, Katie, have been involved in children’s ministry for more than 25 years. They spend their time in Nashville with their two sons.