Technology, Faith, and Practice

Technology? Social media? Have you examined your beliefs about these topics as a Christian and as an educator? Have we had the kind of dialogue together that we need around this topic? It is my hope in writing this article that it will stimulate thoughtful dialogue. Let’s examine together the spiritual implications of technology use, our larger concerns about technology related to student faith formation, and pedagogical directions that will best help our schools to meet their missions and equip our students.

We are living in incredible times! Sometimes, however, we don’t take the time to process one advance well because the next one is upon us, so we may adopt an approach of resistance or numbness and we are not as thoughtful as we should be. As I consider these topics, I am optimistic about the times we live in—partly because that is how God has wired me, but more because I truly believe in the sovereignty of God. My belief in God’s sovereignty does not excuse me from living as thoughtfully and responsibly as possible. I must do so because I am part of God’s restoration process in this world, and my actions will have implications for the next world. I have been called by God to be not only his image-bearer, but also a creative force in the world. In order to create in the culture and time in history in which God has placed me, I must be familiar with (and be able to use productively) the tools of the time. I do not have the choice of opting out if I truly believe I am here to affect the world.

Therefore, in talking about technology as part of my life as spiritual worship to the Creator, I really like the definition that Challies and Dyer have co-created: “Technology is the creative activity of using tools to transform God’s creation for practical purposes.” Since Adam, people have used tools to help human flourishing and as “an attempt to overcome the effects of the fall”. .. .How might we see technology as pivotal to our work as educators? What are our concerns, and what are the unique opportunities before us?

Spiritual Implications

In his book, The Next Story: Life and Faith after the Digital Explosion, Tim Challies suggests that we must consider three key ideas if we are to think about technology in a distinctively Christian way:

  1. Technology is a good, God-given gift. Created in God’s image, we have a mandate and a desire to create, and technology is one example of human creation.
  2. Like everything else in creation, technology is subject to the curse. Our technologies can become idols and compound our rebellion against God. In fact, technology often is an enabler of other idols in our lives.
  3. It is how technology is applied that helps us to determine if it is being used to honor God or advance human sin.

John Dyer, in his book From the Garden to the City, points out that one of our greatest temptations with technology is to use it as a substitute, a way to meet our needs apart from God. Dyer also cautions that it can be a distraction, a way of giving us temporary relief from the curse of sin, and in the process it can stem our longing for a true Savior. Technology is neither simply the benign instrument of the person using it nor an unstoppable force in society, and it is unacceptable for Christians to adopt either view. One underestimates the power of the medium, and the other underestimates the sovereign power of God in history.

I think our major concern as Christian educators is enthrallment with technology by students and perhaps ourselves. Let’s consider the root of the word enthralled: its various meanings are: to be in complete absorption or submission to, or a person in moral or mental servitude. We are concerned that technological enthrallment will cloud our judgment, distract us significantly from more important issues, and basically take over our lives. Ralph Waldo Emerson suggested that the things that dominate our imaginations and our thoughts will determine our lives and our character, so we worry about our students being “in thrall,” or enthralled, with technology and social media. Technology is a powerful force that has the potential to shift how we communicate, but also to shape how we determine truth, beauty, and goodness. We fear the affect of technology and social media on our students in the same way that the parents of some of us who grew up in the late ’60s, ’70s, and early ’80s feared the impact of rock and roll on our souls. Given the technology explosion, will our students be able to accept the idea of moral standards based on biblical truth? Will it dominate their lives and control their passion and time? Let’s further explore some of these concerns how we might respond.

Technology and Faith Formation Concerns

1) Discernment and defining truth, beauty, and goodness. Our students increasingly struggle with the idea of absolute truth. This has been borne out by large-scale studies, such as in the book Soul Searching, The Religious and Spiritual Life of American Teenagers, and other recent research on faith formation (see my October 2011 CEJ article on this topic). How do we know what is true and how is this related to technology? In his latest book about educating for virtues in today’s world, Harvard educator Howard Gardner points out:

“The new digital media have ushered in a chaotic state of affairs. Thanks to their predominance, we encounter a mélange of claims and counterclaims; an unparalleled mixture of creations, constantly being revised; and an ethical landscape that is unregulated, confusing, and largely unexamined. How to determine what is truth . . . when we can all present ourselves on social network sites any way we want . . . how to ascertain what is beautiful when a photograph by a once-acknowledged master can be endlessly edited on Photoshop . . . how to arrive at goodness—the right course of action—when it is so easy to circulate unsubstantiated rumors about another person’s life.”

In an age where we all pick our channel according to whether we want to hear “red or blue” truth (Kovach and Rosenstiel), and where responsibility for determining truth rests more than ever with the individual, I believe we need to teach students practical habits and processes for determining truth that will be embedded in their hearts and minds long after they leave our classrooms. “Is it right, is it good, is it true?” (Col. 3, Eph. 5) would be a good start before we consider letting our tongues or fingers loose via social media. The acronym THINK (T—is it true?, H—is it helpful?, I—is it inspiring?, N—is it necessary?, K—is it kind?) might also be a helpful guide for younger students to remember. Educators at Deborah Meier’s school, Central Park East, asked students to use these questions:

  • Evidence: How do we know what’s true and false? What evidence counts? How sure can we be? What makes it credible to us? This includes using the scientific method and more.
  • Viewpoint: How else might this look if we stepped into other shoes? if we were looking at it from a different direction? if we had a different history or expectations? This requires the exercise of informed “empathy” and imagination. It requires flexibility of mind.
  • Connections/Cause and Effect: Is there a pattern? Have we seen something like this before? What are the possible consequences?
  • Conjecture: Could it have been otherwise? Supposing that . . . ? What if . . . ? This habit requires the use of imagination as well as knowledge of alternative possibilities. It also includes the habits described above.
  • Relevance: Does it matter? Who cares?

Source: Schauble, Throughlines blog.

2) Fragmented reality. In the online world of today, students can have so many experiences, yet so little coherence. How do they tie it all together? Today’s leading thinkers acknowledge the need for a master story to make sense of reality (Perkins, Schmoker). Students are dealing with a mountain of unassimilated and unorganized information, and at the same time have the highest level of biblical illiteracy in recent history. Helping students with foundational understandings and frameworks is more important than ever. Helping them see where they fit into the big picture of God’s story through history is critical. Coherent learning experiences are critical gifts that teachers can bring to the classroom.

3) Technology as idol or object of desire vs. desiring the kingdom. How do we address the passions of students? How much screen time is too much? What does “moderation in all things” look like with student technology use and social media? Are we modeling moderation as adults as we help students examine their own usage? Some effective means to address this have been technology “fasts” and “no-tech Sundays” to help regain appropriate perspective.

4) Pietists or prophets? In his recent book To Change the World, James Davison Hunter asserts that over the last 175 years in American culture, Christians have had a declining impact on culture in the areas of ideas and imagination. If we want our students to have an impact, then they must understand and effectively use the tools of our culture while also understanding their limitations and lures. Researchers in a recent Cardus study titled “Education and Culture” wonder if Protestant education is turning out more pietists than prophets. Millennials have the desire to change the world and be of service, but also are the least religious generation in history (Rainer and Rainer). If our students are not asking (or being provoked by) good questions that force critical thinking and a search for a master narrative, how can they affect cultural ideas and imagination in prophetic ways?

5) Balancing speed, motivation, and persistence. Technology allows us to do a lot of things quickly, often without any reflective thought. Our collective attention span has been altered by our rapid communication and production. It is difficult to be disciplined in a world of distraction. Yet greater use of technology and social media can also provide engagement, promote creativity, and prompt collaboration in new and wonderful ways. Sometimes technology can increase motivation and persistence, and thereby extend learning. Technology creates context and choice in learning in new ways, as well as providing real world-connections and opportunities.

 6) Communication and relationship fluency. Does social media use improve a student’s social intelligence? New evidence in recent years suggests that IQ predicts only about 4 to 20 percent of variance in job performance and life success. EQ (emotional intelligence quotient) predicts the rest (Brooks). It seems critical that for both work/life success and living out their faith, youth need to know how to listen, read others, empathize, and demonstrate respect by seeing others as God’s image-bearers. During a recent tour I took of local business sites, the “soft skills” were repeatedly emphasized as the most important of all the things educators could be teaching—things like being honest, ethical, and responsible. Effective use of social media can be another means to help develop the kinds of appropriate relationships skills that our kids need to learn. Social media use should, of course, be balanced with plenty of “in-person” interactions where relationship skills are practiced face to face.

Pedagogical Directions  

In the table below, I have listed the concerns and student needs, as well as some pedagogical approaches that may help us to better nurture our students in an age of technology and social media.

Concern/Need Helpful Approaches
1) Discernment and defining truth, beauty, and goodness. Use faith-integrated essential questions, and teach habits of mind and heart in order to develop student discernment.
2) Fragmented reality. Help students see the coherence of creation through learning connections. Helpful approaches include increasing use of project-based learning and interdisciplinary learning units.
3) Technology as idol or object of desire vs. desiring the kingdom. Nurture helpful habits and practices, such as discerning idols, worshipping, and developing spiritual disciplines.
4) Pietists or prophets? Create essential faith-learning integrated questions, use project-based and inquiry-learning approaches.
5) Balancing speed, motivation, and persistence. Practice and perseverance are needed, but flow happens when people are engaged and motivated. Give rigorous and relevant work to do, increase student choice and context, and provide opportunities for performance and sharing.
6) Communication and relationship fluency. Give greater opportunity for collaboration and valuing of others in community, and explore appropriate uses of social media in the classroom setting.

I believe we can address these issues best through Christian education, using the tools of our times. We have a master story to share that gives identity to our students and meaning for their lives. We have identified the kinds of outcomes that we seek. We have identified critical knowledge and skills that students need for competency and creativity. Now what we need to do is to increase the level of coherence through educational experiences and allow them to practice thoughtfully, using the tools that are readily available. Technology and social media give us additional tools to use to develop the kind of godly and world-transforming students that we seek.

Works Cited and Consulted

  • Brooks, David. The Social Animal: The Hidden Sources of Love, Character, and Achievement. New York: Random House, 2011. Kindle edition.
  • Challies, Tim. The Next Story: Life and Faith after the Digital Explosion. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2011. Kindle edition.
  • Dyer, John. From the Garden to the City: The Redeeming and Corrupting Power of Technology. Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel Publications, 2011. Kindle edition.
  • “Education and Culture.” Cardus. Accessed December 17, 2011.
  • Gardner, Howard. Truth, Beauty, and Goodness Reframed: Educating for the Virtues in the Twenty-First Century. New York: Basic Books, 2011. Kindle edition.
  • Kovach, Bill, and Tom Rosenstiel. Blur: How to Know What’s True in the Age of Information Overload. New York: Bloomsbury, 2010. Kindle edition.
  • Hunter, James Davison. To Change the World: The Irony, Tragedy, and Possibility of Christianity in the Late Modern World. New York: Oxford University Press, 2010. Kindle edition.
  • Perkins, David N. Making Learning Whole: How Seven Principles of Teaching Can Transform Education. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass, 2009. Kindle edition.
  • Rainer, Thom S., and Jess W. Rainer. The Millennials: Connecting to America’s Largest Generation. Nashville, TN: B&H Pub. Group, 2011. Kindle edition.
  • Schauble, Bruce. “Habits of Mind” blog post on Throughlines blog, January 21, 2007.
  • Schmoker, Michael J. Focus: Elevating the Essentials to Radically Improve Student Learning. Alexandria, VA: ASCD, 2011. Kindle edition.
  • Smith, Christian. Soul Searching: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of American Teenagers. New York: Oxford University Press, 2005.