As citizens of the twenty-first century West, we are awash in data, information, alerts, and media of all kinds. One recent study reports that teens spend an astounding nine hours and 49 minutes every day on their cell phones, with tweens (ages 8-12) not far behind at five hours and 54 minutes.1 Adults, on average, devote four hours and 25 minutes. This means adults will spend over two months (65 days) on their phones in 2023!2 When you consider that most Christians only spend a handful of hours each week worshiping, studying Scripture, and having Christian fellowship, we are in danger of being discipled more by the messages coming through our phones than anything else in our lives.3 This presents a unique challenge to church leaders seeking to lead their members to become mature followers of Christ. As Jason Thacker relates,
I have heard from countless ministry leaders that the digital age is presenting unique challenges to reaching our end goal due to the rise of misinformation, conspiracy theories, politicized communities, and rampant technology addictions. I’ve heard it time and time again. My people aren’t loving God and others because they are too busy scrolling on their phones or tearing one another down online.4
In light of these challenges, we need biblical wisdom to navigate these turbulent waters, both for ourselves and those we’re discipling, and especially to be intentional about managing our attention. Below, we’ll dig deeper into the importance of this topic and suggest some strategies for staying focused on the things that matter most.
The Examined Life
One of the first things we should do to improve our relationship with technology is to think more deeply about how it affects us. As Thacker observes, “Following Jesus in a digital age requires . . . having our eyes wide open and seeing how technology is subtly shaping us in ways often contrary to our faith. We need to learn how to ask the right questions about our relationship with technology, examining it with clear eyes grounded in the Word of God.”5
I don’t mean to suggest that our digital devices and their abilities are inherently harmful. On the contrary, they can be used for great good. But as Paul instructed, we should “examine everything carefully” and “hold fast to that which is good” (1 Thessalonians 5:21, NASB). As we consume large quantities of popular culture, for example, we can easily absorb the modern American worldview, which tells us,
Be true to yourself. You do you. Do what you want, whatever feels right to you. Be happy. The story’s predominant message is that your life’s meaning and self-fulfillment are discovered through, and therefore dependent on, your ability to authentically express yourself—that is, to find your unique way of being human that does not imitate anyone else. If you are unable to do this, you will miss the point of your life.6
Though we may be unaware of it, our various activities online subtly shape our theology. As Angela Gorrell explains, “Theology is not merely a set of beliefs, convictions, or ideas about the nature of God; theology is lived. As human beings perform theology in their actions and habits, they learn to reflect on it, describe it, shape it, and reform it.”7 Our likes, comments, views, and other online activities shape and change our beliefs, for good or ill.
Our modern digital landscape also has a way of programming us to believe that convenience and efficiency are the highest values, and that our individual worth depends on the attention and adulation of friends and strangers. Thus, as we engage online, we have to guard our hearts since “everything you do flows from it” (Proverbs 4:23).
Stewarding Our Attention
As one individual has aptly observed, “Our psychological universe is being populated more and more by our screen lives. We squander so much energy just trying to cut a path through all that stuff, it’s like walking through a blizzard.”8
Given this reality, which I think we can all relate to, what is now even more important than managing our time is managing our attention.9 In the same way that personal examination can help us when it comes to technology in general, asking some key questions can help us decide where to invest the precious resource of our attention. Such questions include:
(1) What should I give my attention toward?
(2) What should I invest my mind’s energies toward?
(3) What do I want to be doing with my life? and
(4) How do my digital practices help or hinder me from stewarding my attention in the directions I am committed to?10
“The conveniences and efficiencies that the digital offer are real,” writes Felicia Wu Song, “but how do they help or hinder us from exercising more attention over the things that we recognize as actually mattering in the long run?”11
One of the illusions various digital platforms can create is that some event or post or comment is more important than the people, activities, or things God has given us to steward right where we are. But as one commentator reminds us,
Aside from voting once every two to four years, most of us wield no national authority. The world will go on virtually unchanged whether we have seen the latest segment on Fox News or CNN or read the latest tweet from our favorite pundit. Therefore . . . we would be better off tuning that information out and focusing on what is in front of us: the responsibility—and opportunity—to do our work well, support our colleagues, build up our places of worship, strengthen our local municipalities, and nurture our circles of friends and family.12
If we find ourselves getting bogged down in a morass of digital distraction, we can find an off-ramp by refocusing on the fundamental pillars of our lives as Christians—our walk with Christ, family, church, friends, job, neighbors, and community, to name a few.
Church leaders who model and teach good stewardship of attention will encourage their members to avoid distractions and focus instead on “righteousness, peace and joy” in the work of the kingdom (Romans 14:17-18).
Christopher L. Reese (MDiv, ThM) is a writer, editor, and journalist. He is the editor-in-chief of The Worldview Bulletin and cofounder of the Christian Apologetics Alliance. He is a general editor of the Dictionary of Christianity and Science (Zondervan, 2017) and Three Views on Christianity and Science (Zondervan, 2021) and his work has appeared in Christianity Today, Bible Gateway, Beliefnet, and other sites.