Women Alive

Idols of the Heart: An Interview with Tim Challies


Here we are: about to remember the amazing miracle of the Incarnation, or as the Apostle John described it, the Word becoming Flesh (John 1:14). But we do so surrounded by images, many digital, where it seems every commercial includes a tablet or smartphone, even if not advertising these products. The most important guests at the table this season may not be the ones we talk to, but the ones we are texting.

This spring, I realized the Internet had slowly eroded much of my patience – weeding out some fruit of the Spirit (Galatians 5:22-24). I set out for answers and discovered (through the Internet), Tim Challies. A pastor, noted Christian blogger and author of books also printed on paper, Challies’ latest, The Next Story: Life and Faith After the Digital Explosion (Zondervan, 2011), considers  virtuous living in the virtual age. He shared some of his thoughts with me.

WA: What do you think the Christian worldview towards technology is?

TC: Technology is good. It’s given to us by God as a means through which we can fulfill the creation mandate to subdue the earth and have dominion over it. However, the sad reality is that it’s a sinful world and technology too is subject to the curse which means that what should be a good gift is something that can be used for evil as much as it can be  used for good, and unless we take it under control, then it will be used for evil. It is now up to us to redeem our technology, just like everything else, to make sure that we’re using it in a way that honours God.

WA: Is it that important? It’s just an iPhone.

TC: At least on some level, we become who we are on the basis of our technologies. We do create technologies, but over time they tend to return the favour. We make technologies in our image. Technology returns the favour by re-making us in its image. [My generation and older] learned through books, and books shaped us. The new generation is being raised on computers and screens.  In some way, that’s going to shape them.

WA: How do digital immigrants [those born before 1980] relate to each other differently than digital natives [those who have never known the world without the digital]?

TC: Digital natives are ones that are much more comfortable with mediated communication: they can very comfortably communicate through a screen. … They don’t see face-to-face contact as being as significant as former generations do.

WA: You’re not against technology, and you designed websites for a living. What about the new digital landscape excites you?

I think it offers amazing opportunities. The question we shouldn’t be asking is, “Do we want this?” It doesn’t really matter whether we want it or not. Here’s reality. This is the world now. We just have to learn how to live in this world.

WA: What virtues do you think are harder to live with in this world?

TC: I think just the value of [Scriptural] meditation. How can you do that today when you’re always distracted? And prayer. Concentration I think is a lost art. Multi-tasking is taking over just doing one thing well.

WA: As a pastor and someone involved in church ministry, how have you seen churches change as a result of digital technology?

TC: Think of something as simple as the way we sing in church. It used to be: we’d have a hymnbook. [A hymnbook] tied you into the past, the present, the future of the church. It was something you could hold. PowerPoint doesn’t give you any sense of permanence or any sense of history. Churches have websites. Think of how much good has been done for the church through websites. However, how about the fact that we all put our sermons online? How is that affecting the church – that a lot of people go to Main Street Baptist Church in their town, but effectively their main teacher is [someone online]?

WA: Talk about why you think the digital church isn’t really the church.

TC: Because people aren’t really there. The big trick of the Internet is making us think that the Internet is space. We call it cyberspace, as if when I’m on my computer and you’re on your computer, we’re sharing space together. [Cyberspace] makes us think that if we’re both there, we’re actually having some sort of meaningful communication. I’ll grant you can still have meaningful communication, but nowhere near as meaningful as being face-to-face. You can craft a whole [online] persona for yourself having really absolutely no grounding in reality. When you’re face-to-face in the local church, then of course people know who you are. There’s no hiding. That’s why God puts us in community: so we live lives exposed to one another so we can encourage one another, and if necessary, correct one another.

WA: How do people practically reclaim community and relationships?

TC: Look at what the local church may have to offer in a world where people no longer have meaningful communication, meaningful face-to-face communication. We can be the ones that are saying, “Look at how great this thing is. We’re living true community.” So people can join into our community and experience something that’s increasingly rare out there.

WA: You talk about how technology can become an idol factory. What are the signs that technology is becoming an idol?

TC: Try to leave it for a while and see what happens. Can you step away from it, or do you need it? And then you can also ask your family and ask your friends: How attached am I to this?

WA: What types of questions should parents especially consider when they’re buying the latest [digital technology] for their kid?

TC: Every technology comes with a benefit, but it also comes with a cost. It always adds something, and it always exacts a cost, or takes something away. . . . Don’t look just for all the benefits, look for what it might take away from your life.

WA: Do you have any tips about how churches navigate now when [older generations] seem to think that social media is the new trendy thing, but the people who grew up on social media are starting to doubt its effectiveness?

TC: I think in a lot of ways the older generations are looking to the younger generation to provide leadership, show us how to do this. I think it’s especially true with parents. Parents always feel they don’t understand the new stuff as well as their kids do, and so they just kind of give up and let the kids run it. I think that’s kind of what happened with my generation where parents came and everybody said, “You need to have a computer [and the Internet].” So every parent went out and bought a computer and hooked it to the Internet. The boys figured it out [and] stumbled across pornography. We’ve got a whole generation of boys where pretty much literally every single boy has consumed massive amounts of pornography because Dad just handed him the technology and never taught him how to use it. I’m looking more to my generation and the generations that follow [to not make that mistake]. I do think it’s the generations that come that sort of figure it out and learn how to use it well. So maybe you need to look to yourself [and] show us how to do that.

Further Resources

Because the Internet may decrease attention spans, this is only some of the interview. So, buy the book! For more information on this and Tim’s other works, visit www.challies.com.

For advice about how you can live a counterculture lifestyle by practicing hospitality with real people in real places, be sure to check back here next month.

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