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Why God Isn’t As Close as a Text Message

I often ask members of my youth group how their relationship with God is going.
Sometimes I get typical one-word answers such as “good” or “OK,” and the conversation moves on. Other times, there is a longer engagement as they wrestle with the question.

Some are excited as they talk about how they see God working in their lives while others talk about their struggles.

On multiple occasions, youth have responded by saying, “I don’t feel close to God anymore.”

As I mentioned in a previous article, adolescent faith formation can be complicated. It cannot be addressed through a simple, one-size-fits-all formula.

I am convinced one of the greatest challenges stems from our advancements and relationships with technology.

My experiences and readings of leading thinkers in the field of technological innovation have convinced me that technology is a growing conundrum for faith formation.

Over the past few years, numerous publications have noted the impact technology has on human relations and religion, such as The Barna Group, Pew Research Center, Hartford Institute for Religious Research and The Atlantic.

In response, I do not believe we need to offer laments about how technology is taking over our lives.

Rather, we should practice Anselm’s dictum of “faith seeking understanding” in a rapidly changing world.

Sherry Turkle, professor of the social studies of science and technology at MIT, has been studying humanity’s relationship with technology for several decades.

In her recent TED talk, “Connected, but Alone?” she explained the change she sees occurring in today’s teenagers (and all of us) regarding their understanding of the self.

To explain the shift she has observed, she reformulated René Descartes’ famous phrase “I think, therefore I am,” into “I share, therefore I am.”

In other words, we express and define ourselves by what we share online and through the growing number of social media sites.

As she teases out fully in her latest book, “Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other,” without this ability to be constantly connected to our friends through texting and the Internet, we begin to feel isolated, almost as if we don’t exist.

Herein lies the growing theological conundrum that I believe we must begin to ponder on a deeper level.

None of the youth who shared with me their struggles of feeling close to God explicitly articulated their growing relationship with technology as a reason for their struggles.

Nevertheless, I am convinced that technology might be a factor, especially when you consider how we so often portray God in church and youth ministry.

I know I am not alone in being told, “Jesus wants to be your friend.” I have even used the phrase myself in helping to articulate God’s desire to be in relationship with us.

This concept raises an important question: “If Jesus wants to be my friend, why can’t I keep in constant contact with him like my other friends?”

Technology has given us the means to keep in touch with our friends and family from almost anywhere in the world.

This has allowed us to achieve, in some sense, omnipresence. I can always maintain my relationships through social media by means of wireless communication.

In helping youth think critically about their relationships with God, particularly when addressing their feelings of distance from God, I am beginning to wonder if the most important Bible verses for us to articulate theologically aren’t those which speak to God’s immanent presence, but those which speak to God’s theological absence?

Too often we breeze over the passages where God appears to be absent or distant – not a text message away – moving too quickly to reveal how God shows up.

We forget it was years before God fulfilled his promise to Abraham and Sarah with the birth of their son, Isaac.

Abraham’s descendants also spent years in oppression in Egypt before God decisively acted in partnership with Moses. Later, they were left contemplating on the shores of Babylon whether God would liberate them again.

Days, much less years, can seem like an eternity in an age where I can text my friend across the country in a matter of seconds.

Digital technology is in its infancy, as Turkle and others have noted.

This means it is imperative for us to think about technology’s theological impact and what it means to relate to God in a world that is rapidly achieving omnipresence – expressed through our ability to be in constant contact with one another anywhere.

Seth M. Vopat is the associate pastor of youth and family at Louisburg First Baptist Church in Louisburg, Kan., and a graduate of Central Baptist Theological Seminary. You can follow him on Twitter @svopat.