Does Face-to-Face Education Damage Seminary Students?

The Campus Experience

Recently a student from a previous semester sent me an email saying, “A course I’m taking this semester is confusing me. Could we have coffee and talk about it?”

This is the kind of connection I think every professor dreams of. Running into students after you’ve had them in the classroom, reconnecting, and seeing them change is a truly satisfying joy. I also teach online and I am responsible for building out the technology in Dallas Theological Seminary’s online programs. As much as I support and believe in what we are doing, in my personal experience I’ve found it harder to create these same kinds of connections in online classes, and that has always made me wonder about the spiritual formation side of online education.

So is this true? Is online education inferior when it comes to relationship building and the spiritual formation side of the seminary experience?

Studies in Online Education

Last year, two major studies were released about online education in seminary. In the spring, Association of Theological Schools (ATS), the accrediting body for the majority of seminaries in the North America, from the SBC schools to my employer, DTS, to Harvard, Duke, and Roman Catholic seminaries, put out a two-part study (part 1, part 2) of 2016 graduates which compared the growth and skills of students who completed their degrees primarily on campus to those who did most of their work online. Auburn Seminary also put out a comprehensive study called “(Not) Being There” which has some rich insights. One of the key takeaways answers our question saying that “Online student outcomes are equal to or better than those of traditional residential classes.”

The ATS study drills down and compares individual ministry skills (Since their data is in PDF, I’m reproducing it below). In many cases in the charts below, online students actually reported that their personal growth and ability to perform ministry work was at a higher level than what the campus-based student reported. One might think that a student sitting alone with a laptop would be less enthusiastic about education, have a less vibrant spiritual life, and without rubbing shoulders with us – the esteemed faculty – they’d be less able to teach, pray, and lead people. But this study shows just the opposite!

Online vs. Campus Personal Growth

Personal Growth Majority Online Majority Campus Difference
Enthusiasm for learning 4.42 4.17 +.25
Respect for my religious tradition 4.22 4.17 +.06
Self-knowledge 4.19 4.11 +.08
Respect for other religious traditions 3.92 4.05 -.13
Empathy for poor and oppressed 3.78 4.00 -.22
Insight into troubles of others 3.85 4.00 -.13
Trust in God 4.30 3.95 +.35
Self-discipline and focus 4.27 3.97 +.30
Ability to live one’s faith in daily life 4.20 3.88 +.32
Strength of spiritual life 4.20 3.75 +.45
Self-confidence 4.10 3.92 +.18
Desire to become an authority in my field 4.03 3.87 +.16
Concern about social justice 3.72 3.95 -.23
Clarity of vocational goals 3.86 3.80 +.06
Ability to Pray 3.64 3.37 +.27


Online vs. Campus Ministry Skills

Skills Majority Online Majority Campus Difference
Ability to think theologically 4.49 4.45 +.04
Ability to use and interpret scripture 4.38 4.33 +.05
Ability to relate social issues to faith 4.18 4.18 +.00
Ability to work effectively with men and women 4.11 4.17 -.06
Knowledge of church doctrine and history 4.19 4.11 +.08
Awareness/appreciation of globalized context of ministry 4.20 4.07 +.13
Ability to work effectively in my religious tradition 4.09 4.07 +.02
Knowledge of Christian philosophy and ethics 4.21 4.00 +.21
Ability to interact [well] with other cultures, racial/ethnic contexts 3.97 4.00 -.03
Ability to teach well 4.20 3.93 +.27
Ability to lead others 4.09 3.89 +.20
Ability to give spiritual direction 4.07 3.77 +.30
Ability to preach well 3.96 3.97 -.01
Ability in pastoral counseling 3.80 3.85 -.05
Ability to interact effectively with other religious traditions 3.91 3.92 -.01
Knowledge of church polity/canon law 3.72 3.71 +.01
Ability to conduct worship/liturgy 3.70 3.79 -.09
Ability to administer a parish 3.53 3.24 +.29
Ability to integrate insights from science into theology/ministry 3.79 3.62 +.17
Ability to integrate ecological concerns into theology and ministry 3.54 3.59 -.05

How do we explain this?

I have to admit that I was genuinely surprised when I first read these results. I have worked in seminary online education for more than 10 years, and I believe in the importance of bringing education to wherever God has called people. But even as I argued that the value of a student staying in his or her community, my experience of connection online versus on campus always made me wonder.

So, what does this data really show? When I posted it on social media some time ago, I heard a number of interesting responses, and I’ll work through them below:

  1. Question the Method – A few people seemed to distrust the results because they were self-reported. Some thought that it would have been better to ask the students’ spouses, friends, and congregants about their spiritual development and skill, but that’s not terribly realistic and shouldn’t affect the outcome. Others suggested that online students aren’t reporting accurately either because they are untrustworthy or because they aren’t around fellow seminarians and profs makes them less aware of their shortcomings. If this were true, it doesn’t explain why they rate themselves lower in some other areas.
  2. It’s the Evangelicals! – In summarizing the data, Tom Tanner, the Director of ATS’s Institutional Evaluation, pointed out that the two areas where online students reported less skill were “empathy for the poor and oppressed” and “concern about social justice.” He explained this by saying that, “a greater number of predominantly online students tend to be evangelical, rather than mainline Protestant or Roman Catholic, two ecclesial families who tend to give those areas greater attention.” This is plausible, but if this study is simply comparing evangelicals to mainline or Roman Catholic (rather than online vs. on campus) it would imply that evangelicals tend to be worse at social justice but better as teachers, leaders, prayers, and parish leaders. I had the chance to ask Tom if he felt that this was the implication, and he said he thought it as more complex than that.
  3. Campuses Are Negative – Lastly, as the title of this post suggests, one twitter friend suggested that perhaps we have it all wrong. Maybe seminary campuses are toxic places, and interactions on campus actually weaken spiritual life, the ability to teach and pray, etc.

I definitely wouldn’t argue that a campus is an inherently negative place for formation. But I think there is something to this. The process of uprooting one’s family and moving to a residential campus does come at a high cost that goes beyond the financial. Compared to a generation ago, seminary students today tend to be older which means they have more family and financial responsibilities at a time when the cost of education is much higher. Taking graduate classes, whether online or on a campus is tough to balance alongside work and family. But these data may indicate that distance ed students are able to lean on their existing jobs and community to lighten that burden.

Of course, these aren’t the only explanations for why online education is as good as or better than face-to-face. Some literature suggests is that online courses tend to get created from the ground up rather than retread like a campus class, and sometimes the fresh thinking makes for a better course. The Auburn study also suggests that, “The old divide between traditional, online and hybrid courses is obsolete,” and that students learn in a variety of ways including where they live and work.

All of this suggests that as with other areas of life, technology change functions like a mirror that forces us to evaluate how we’ve always done things. How and where does education and formation take place? Is the professor the key to change and what is the role of presence in forming meaningful relationships? These are important questions to wrestle with for both online and campus education. The good news is that after a few decades of experiments and tests, we can say that online education appears to be a spiritually healthy way to train men and women for ministry.

Lying to Machines: How Apple’s New “Do Not Disturb While Driving” Feature Will Shape Your Soul

Over the past few months, I’ve been testing out the beta version of iOS 11 on my iPhone, and I’ve found myself doing something very disturbing – I regularly tell Siri little fibs, and sometimes I tell her full blow lies.

The “Do Not Disturb While Driving” Feature

iOS 11 was released yesterday, and one of its most important new features is called “Do Not Disturb While Driving.” If you enable it and set it to “Automatic,” your iPhone will detect when you’re moving fast enough to be driving which will trigger two main things.

First, it stops displaying all Notifications such as tweets, texts, and weather alerts. Second, when someone calls or texts you, it sends an auto-reply saying that you’re driving and that you’ll respond to them later.

Based on statistics showing an increase in accidents caused by distracted drivers and laws in 47 states banning texting while driving (my home state of Texas finally passed one this month), there is some hope that this will prevent more needless fatalities.

But I think the more interesting aspect of this feature is what happens when you attempt to use your phone while driving. If you click the home button, a dialog comes up that says “Do Not Disturb While Driving is Enabled,” and it presents the user with two buttons: “Cancel” and “I’m Not Driving.”

A White Lie That Grew and Grew

Notice that the second button doesn’t say “Disable” or something machine-oriented. Instead, Apple has chosen to make the button into a statement that you, the user, say about yourself. In doing so, Apple isn’t letting you to just turn off the feature without telling your device something that is either true or false.

During the Beta period of iOS 11, I had a chance to test this while I sat in the passenger seat as my wife drove for part of road trip. When I took out my phone, I truthfully tapped “I’m Not Driving” and caught up on some emails.

But then a little later, I found myself at a stop light, needing to get directions.

I tried voice commands, but when “Do Not Disturb While Driving” is enabled, the screen won’t show you any feedback. This makes using Maps very challenging. (Other features, such as voice texting, are also visually downgraded while driving).

Desperate for directions, I gave in and pressed the “I’m Not Driving” button, reasoning that while I was in the driver’s seat with the car in gear, I wasn’t actually moving and the light was still red. After tapping the button, I quickly setup directions before the light turned green, and all was well. No big deal.

But soon after that first little fib, I inevitably found myself driving and simultaneously feeling that I “legitimately” needed a phone function that I couldn’t get to via voice commands. In retrospect, I could have pulled over, but it was just this once, and I’m special, right?

So, while I was driving, I tapped “I’m Not Driving.”

And in doing so, I lied to a $700 object made of plastic, glass, and rare metals.

Conditioned to Lie

I’d like to think that the “Do Not Call While Driving” feature will at least cause drivers to think about how much they use their phones in the car. But my prediction is that in the next few weeks, millions of people will begin doing the exact same thing that I, to my shame, did. It’ll start small with a “legitimate” purpose, but eventually it’ll snowball and people will just tap “I’m Not Driving” as unthinkingly as we all check the “I’ve Read the Terms and Conditions” box.

Unfortunately, this will come quite naturally to us, not because we’re liars, but because of the way computer user interfaces (UI) are designed. Over the past few decades of computer use, we’ve been presented with thousands of buttons that say “OK” and checkboxes that say “I’ve read …” This has taught us that interacting with computers and devices means tapping whatever button is in the way of what we want.

This probably wasn’t terribly significant when the stakes were low, and it might seem hyperbolic to call it “lying.” But when we bend the truth about reading the Terms and Conditions, there aren’t kids in the roads or oncoming vans full of people.

Now that people’s lives are at stake, I worry that this “habituation of the button” will essentially render Apple’s well-intentioned new feature powerless. If someone wants to get new directions while sitting in traffic – or much worse, check their likes while cruising a residential street – they just have too many years of practice clicking through whatever is in their way to stop now.

Technology vs. Bad Habits

While I don’t think “Do Not Disturb While Driving” will ultimately work, I do think that this feature signals more what’s coming with technology and with ourselves. At least as far back as monks who created accurate clocks to prompt their times of prayer, humans have attempted to use technology to prompt good behavior and prevent bad behavior.

In recent years, a variety of tracking apps and have been built with the belief that if technology can just show us how few steps we take in a day, that we’ll be motivated to live healthier lives.

And it seems that when a person is already motivated to change, these tools can really work. I’ve personally become a much better runner since using RunKeeper. But when a person doesn’t want to change, we’ve also seen that they’ll do whatever it takes to find a way around the technology. There are plenty of people who sit on their couches shaking their Fitbit up and down while binge-watching Netflix shows just to ensure they get lower insurance premiums.

Advanced Technology Will Require Advanced Deceit

Shaking a FitBit or tapping a button might not seem like soul-forming activities, but in the coming years our devices will only grow smarter and our interactions with them will become more humanlike. This means that the methods we will use to skirt the system will similarly become more humanlike.

In other words, as technology get better at tracking us or warning us about bad behavior, we’ll have to get better at lying and deception in order to get around it. Like an alcoholic chiseling off his ankle monitor, we will click, tap, break, or lie to whatever sits in the way of what we want. One day, we might need to look an android in the camera and tell it something untrue, just like we do to other humans.

In this sense, technology will continue to do what it always does – reflect back to us what’s happening deep within us. Like a mirror, our interactions with technology have the potential to show us not what we say we value, but what we truly desire when we think no one is looking. Remember, technology, like God, is always watching.

Shaping Our Souls

You might think it’s hyperbolic to say that tapping “I’m Not Driving” while driving is lying. After all, it’s just an inert device and a few hundred million lines of code. But the truth is that none of our actions, however private they seem to us, happen in a vacuum.

Tapping that button not only endangers others around us, it also forms our souls in a particularly destructive way. When I choose to act in untruthful ways, even with a machine, I’m developing a pattern and a practice in my life. I am inculcating myself in a world of alternative facts where truth is defined by what I want rather than what truly is.

So when you update to iOS 11 and you find that “I’m Not Driving” button looking back at you, spend just a second thinking about what the interaction is telling you about yourself and the orderliness of your desires.

And then, for the sake of both your neighbor’s body and your own soul, put your eyes back on the road.

Little House in the Prairie on Technology Dependence

I recently had the chance to speak down at the lovely Christ Church of Austin, TX. Afterward one of the attendees sent this to me this great little moment from one of the Little House stories:

“If only I had some grease I could fix some kind of a light,” Ma considered. “We didn’t lack for light when I was a girl before this newfangled kerosene was ever heard of.”

“That’s so,” said Pa. “These times are too progressive. Everything has changed too fast. Railroads and telegraph and kerosene and coal stoves–they’re good things to have, but the trouble is, folks get to depend on ’em.”

― Laura Ingalls Wilder, The Long Winter

Secure Your Online Life with the Bible (and Good Security Practices)

The New Year is a great time to take inventory of your online security setup.

We can’t control the (now commonplace) security breaches at companies that hold our data, but we can ensure that we don’t have any glaring holes that would make us an easy, vulnerable target.

It’s Not Just About Passwords

We’ll get to strong passwords in a minute, but by now I hope we’ve all learned that passwords alone can’t fully protect us. Here are a few things that can help offer additional layers of protection.

Things to Do Right Now

  1. Two-Factor Authentication – This is probably the most powerful and easiest security feature to turn on. Every major social network and credible banking system will have this feature which requires two things to login – your password and a second physical thing like a text message, device, or fingerprint.
  2. Avoid Debit Cards – If someone steals your credit card, you can simply decline false charges and not pay them. But if someone steals your debit card, the money they use is gone and much harder to get back. Racking up debt with a credit card is bad, but if you use your money wisely to begin with, then you’re safe with a credit card.

Things to Consider

  1. One-Time Credit Card Numbers – Bank of America, Citi, and others allow you to generate a one-time use (or multiple use with an expiration date) credit card number you can use for online transactions. For sites you plan to only use once this can be great. However, you might avoid it if you think you’ll return the item or if you’re reserving a hotel or rental card where you need to show the card in person to verify.
  2. Alternate Email Addresses – For a long time, I’ve used a common email address across a lot of accounts, but based on the recommendations I’m seeing creating additional less public emails for networks can make it harder to link all of a person’s accounts or use those addresses for phishing attacks.
  3. Alternate Phone Numbers – Again, listing the same phone number publicly in several accounts makes that number less secure. Having a secondary, less public number like a Google Voice account that you use for Two-Factor can strengthen your overall security.

Good Passwords Are Strong and Unique

What undergirds all the practices above is having a good system of passwords, and that means they need to be both strong and unique.

  • Strong passwords – A strong password is one that can’t be easily guessed by a machine, and a password becomes stronger when it either uses more characters (not just the 26 lowercase letters, but also uppercase, numbers, and symbols), or is very long, or both.
  • Unique passwords – Even if you have the strongest password in the world, if you use it for Facebook, your bank, and your email, once that password is lost, you’ll be out of luck.

One of the best ways to ensure that you have strong, unique passwords for each website or service is to turn off your browser’s default username/password use a tool like 1Password or KeePass. These tools can generate very strong passwords and manage them for you across websites and browsers.

The Problem with “Strong Passwords”

Even if you use 1Password, KeePass, or another tool, you still need at least one good, strong master password that’s not written down anywhere and isn’t recorded in another electronic tool. Further, whether or not you use a manager, the password requirements for many websites can sometimes cause more problems than they solve. Most websites attempt to help you create a strong password by requiring that your password meet the following criteria:

  • 8 or more characters
  • Upper and lowercase
  • At least one number
  • At least one symbol

In theory, these requirements are a great way to force people to make strong passwords. However, in practice, the past few decades have shown that there are several problems with these 8-letter strong passwords:

  1. It’s hard for humans to remember a truly random set of characters, so we often take a common word and replace a few letter with symbols (a => @, s => $).
  2. Because even that is hard to remember, we use the same password for dozens of websites and that makes us vulnerable.
  3. An 8 character password that meets the above requirements is actually not as secure as a longer password with all lowercase letters.

On the last point, this brilliant XKCD comic points out the vast security difference between a short “complex” password and a longer “simple” password


  • Tr0ub4or&3 = 28 bits of entropy, 3 days for computer to guess (1000/sec)
  • correcthorsebatterystaple = 44 bits of entropy, 550 years for a computer to guess

It turns out that 24 letters instead of 10 letters – even without uppercase, number, or symbols – is much, much more secure. And, it’s way easier to remember.

The problem is that many websites won’t let you make passwords like “ilovejesusandpumpkinpie” even if it is several orders of magnitude more secure because they still require uppercase letters, numbers, and symbols.

The Bible as a Strong Password Generator

So here’s a fun solution that can meet both the requirements of websites and manage to be more secure: A Bible reference.

Take a look at the following well-known reference:


It has (1) upper and (2) lowercase letters, (3) numbers, and (4) a symbol (see opening graphic). This means it (1) meets most password security requirements, and (2) it’s easy to remember.

You can have lots of fun thinking of references that are little inside jokes to yourself, such as “1Chronicles4:10” (for your bank) or “Leviticus3:16” (for your fitness tracker) or “Exodus34:35” (for Facebook).

But, there are two important caveats. First, common references like “John3:16” are probably the “password123” of bad Christian passwords, and the ones I mentioned above might be overused due to their inherent hilarity. So please  you avoid using anything that’s ever been written on Tim Tebow’s face or turned into a multi-million dollar empire.

Second, as some commenters pointed out (thanks fellas!), it is possible that someone could attempt to hack passwords that fit the Bible verse pattern, so it’d be best to also include a random word or two that will both lengthen the password and increase its overall entropy/security.

John3:16 – meets password standards, but is still hackable
John3:16pumpkinroof – meets password standards, plus more entropy

In summary, it’s always best to use long, random passwords from a generator, but for this few that you need to remember yourself, if you can meaningful but uncommon references and add one or two random words to it, then combined with the security practices above, you should be well on your way to a more secure 2017.

Special thanks to Robert Estienne for inventing the modern versification system :)

The Shocking/Sobering Reason There Are No Trump Supporters on Your Facebook Feed

If you’re anything like me, you probably have Facebook friends across the political spectrum, and over the past few months you’ve seen a range of posts from young idealists feeling the Bern to staunch conservatives who Trust Ted.

But there is one glaring exception: the bewildering avalanche of articles denouncing Donald Trump and the mystifying absence of a single pro-Trump post.

So what accounts for this? Why do many of us see people posting pro and con on all the other candidates, but only negative things about Trump?

Where Are All the Trump Supporters?

When you think about it there are only a few options

  1. Trump supporters don’t actually exist
  2. Trump supporters aren’t using Facebook or the Internet
  3. I’m not Facebook friends with any Trump supporters
  4. Facebook isn’t showing me any pro-Trump news

Yes, Let’s take these one at a time.

A few months ago, the first option might have seemed plausible. Surely this is all just a fun stunt for Trump, and he might have some supporters, but he won’t actually get votes, right? However, primary after primary has proven this to be yuuuugely wrong. Donald Trump has tens of millions of living, breathing, voting supporters. The are real, and they are making their voices and votes count.

So what if Trump supporters just don’t post on Facebook? That doesn’t seem likely because this map of candidate Likes (HT: Tim Hutchings) shows that there are indeed many, many Facebook users who support Trump. And they aren’t avoiding anti-Trump articles either. Whenever I click on a “Why Trump is Bad for America” post, I see dozens of pro-Trump comments below the article. As his support grows, it’s also apparent that some people are embarrassed to be supporting him and so they keep quiet about it, but that doesn’t yet appear to be a majority of his supporters.

Is it possible, then, that I (and presumably ‘we’) don’t have any Trump-supporting friends on Facebook and that’s why we don’t see any posts in his favor? In person, I’ve only heard one couple friend (or really acquaintance) of mine offer strong support of Trump, so it seems very likely that few of the Facebook friends I’ve accumulated over the years support him.

This all means its possible that there are Trump supporters among my 500+ friends, and that leads to the another possible explanation for why I don’t see their posts — Facebook just isn’t showing them to me. Is this a Zuckerbergian conspiracy, or is something else going on?

Your Facebook is a Mirror

No it’s not a conspiracy. If Facebook isn’t showing my any pro-Trump posts from friends, it’s because it knows I probably don’t want to hear that message from those people.

My patterns over the last ten years – whose baby pictures I’ve liked, whose articles I clicked on, who I “respectfully disagreed with,” what ads I’ve clicked, even the posts I scrolled to and paused on for a few moments without clicking anything – all of that has been recorded, analyzed, and processed in order to create something Facebook knows I’ll like.

That Facebook’s job. Figure out what I like, and keep it coming, so I’ll return again and again. This might be a time to trot out fun statements like, “If a service is free, you’re the product,” but in this case, I think something deeper is a work.

Who Are “Those People”?

In his article, A Message from Trump’s America, Michael Cooper reminds us the majority of Trump supporters come from a large, neglected group of Americans – working class white people. They don’t make a lot of money, they are struggling to put food on the table, and they are frustrated that no one seems to be listening and no one seems to care. He writes:

His supporters realize he’s a joke. They do not care. They know he’s authoritarian, nationalist, almost un-American, and they love him anyway, because he disrupts a broken political process and beats establishment candidates who’ve long ignored their interests.

When you’re earning $32,000 a year and haven’t had a decent vacation in over a decade, it doesn’t matter who Trump appoints to the U.N., or if he poisons America’s standing in the world, you just want to win again, whoever the victim, whatever the price.

What’s worse is that there is a popular narrative that says only working class people are racist bigots and can be dismissed easily. However, in reality there appears to be plenty of racists among the highly educated as well. So it’s easy to say those working class supporters are wrong, but the shocking and sobering reality of Trump’s rise is that it exposes how utterly cut off most of us are from an entire class of people in need. People in need of compassion and grace, not condescension and more anger.

When I read Cooper’s description above, it doesn’t sound like the kind of person I seek out regularly. And it certainly doesn’t sound like the kind of person who could entertain me on Facebook, post an amazing photo on Instagram, or have a super interesting Periscope channel.

We tend to see only what we want to see, and social media is very good and showing us what we want to see.

The media we consume is so good at regurgitating the story we want hear, that an entire nation has been caught off guard by the presence of a class of people so desperate for change that they would support anyone – literally anyone – who will listen.

Post script: As Trump amasses more votes, he also seems to be getting more vocal supporters who don’t fit the original demographic – Chris Christie, Ben Carson, a pastor in my area who seem to enjoy media attention, lots of embarrassed people, educated people, etc. It’s likely that this “Trump as pragmatic choice” will continue right up to the nomination and possibly election.

But don’t let that distract you from the strange truth that from July 2015 to March 2016, many, many people thought Trump didn’t have a chance, and they thought this because they (including me) weren’t aware of the feelings of a massive group of people, some of them hurting quite badly. And our media echoed that back to us so strongly that for a time we believed they didn’t exist.

Declining Religion in America? There’s an App for That

Image: Hugh McLeod –

This week, the Pew Research Center released a sweeping study tracking the precipitous decline in religious affiliation in the US since 2007. While commentators are debating the role of factors like theology, birthrates, and immigration, it’s also interesting to note that 2007 was the same year that Apple released the iPhone and Google announce Android.

Of course, it’d be silly blame the smartphone for the decline of religion and the rise of the “nones,” but it’s hard not to think that our collective worship of the glowing rectangles in our pocket doesn’t play at least some representative part in these broader cultural shifts.

Technology and the Secularization Thesis

To explain the decline of religion in Europe during the 19th and 20th centuries, sociologists of religion posited the Secularization Thesis, which argues that when education, democracy, and science spread, religion eventually loses its authority, and secularism becomes dominant. In other words, the more Europe modernized, the less religious it became.

However, for much of the twentieth century, the Secularization Thesis never quite worked in the US. Religious faith here remained strong, and the growth of Islam around the world and Christianity in Latin America, Asia, and Africa forced sociologists to reconsider just how secularization works.

And yet, while secularization doesn’t appear to work in a simple manner in all cases, it’s also important to note how deeply it is tied to technology. In The Homeless Mind, Peter Berger, wrote that modernization is essentially, “the transformation of the economy by means of technology.” In this understanding, it would seem that technology would have to play at least some role in the move toward secularization and the rise of the “nones.”

The One Perk No Googler Wants

I recently saw a visible representation of how technological progress can squeeze out religion, however unintentionally. A few months ago, I had the chance to tour Google’s main campus in Mountain View, CA, and a bright, articulate, young Googler pointed out interesting details such as the first servers Sergey and Larry ever used and the much talked about perks like free food around every corner, Octobikes, full service laundry, child care, nursing rooms, and on and on.

As we walked, it occurred to me that just about the only thing lacking from the Google campus was some visible, physical representation of faith. Of course, most employers don’t provide chapels in their workplace and in that regard Google certainly isn’t exceptional. But Google and other Silicon Valley companies are exceptional in the number of perks and benefits they offer to entice and keep employees. Other multi-cultural centers of commerce like airports and universities have interfaith spaces, so why don’t big tech firms?

I think part of the answer is simply that no one asks for a chapel. And no one asks for a chapel because it would be at odds with the central selling proposition of Silicon Valley—progress. Unlike an Octobike or a massage pod, which reinforce the idea that technology can solve problems, a chapel might remind us of long-forgotten needs that technology cannot meet.

The gods in Our Pocket

Today, the mythology of progress, long championed in the business and tech sectors, calls to us moment by moment from our pockets. As a culture, we spend enormous amounts of time discussing the growth of screen sizes, increases in Internet access, the development in apps—progress, progress, progress we tell ourselves.

At the same time, we fill nearly every waking moment with beeps, vibrations, and reminders, drowning out any chance that our soul might surface a needs no device can meet. The more we use our devices, the more we find ourselves inculcated with the idea that our primary needs in life are those things that technology can meet. “There’s an app for that” thinking is so ubiquitous that when there’s not an app for something, it seems like it might not even be a real problem. How many of us have tried to solve our business or lack of spiritual discipline with an app?

Perhaps in this climate, it’s not so much of a stretch to say that technological culture in general and the smartphone in particular was at least partially responsible for cutting off the vestigial limb of religion dangling from many Americans at the turn of the century. Now that progress-oriented technology is a permanent fixture in the life of nearly every person in the country, it’s not surprising fewer are finding a need for religion in their lives.

Does the Church Have Anything to Offer?

Cultural change always feels threatening to the church, but past upheavals have also provided a chance for the church to refocus on its core identity. In a world where many people already have their physical needs met by technological means, the church has to figure out what it uniquely offers the world.

Google will always have more information, Spotify will always have better music, and Starbucks will always (arguably) have better coffee. But information, music, and coffee are not the trade of the church. Ours is truth, worship, and communion which together offer us not a product we can download and consume with diminishing return, but an inexhausible encounter with a living being, the risen Christ.

What Can We Learn about Video Churches from Mars Hill’s Closing?

It’s been a while since I’ve written here, but I did put together a piece about the video satellite model of churches for OnFaith. As I write in the piece, I’ve always been a bit skeptical of the model since I want to favor in-the-flesh personal encounters and avoid celebrity preachers and branded models of church.

However, when I actually talked to churches using this model, I found that some of them had actually thought through a lot of the common objections and come up with creative ways to overcome them. Here’s how it starts:

At the Acts 29 Conference in Dallas, Texas last week, the recent events surrounding Mark Driscoll and the network he founded were in the air. But as one attendee commented to me, the pastors there weren’t focused on Driscoll himself so much as what they could learn from Mars Hill Church’s recent decision to dissolve its video-powered network of 13 churches.

As of January 2015, each Mars Hill Church location will either become an independent church or will cease to exist. And as the satellite model of churches continues to develop nationwide wide, the larger question, not just for Mars Hill but for churches and denominations of all kinds, is whether the video satellite model is a viable way to do church.

Continue reading: Is the End of Mark Driscoll’s Church a Sign for Satellite Churches?

What Form of Video Best Addresses Phone Addiction & Isolation?

We all know the basic message: “put down your phone” “talk to a real person,” and “pay attention.” And we’ve probably all noticed the irony of people use social media to post videos that contain these messages and warn about  the dangers of social media.

As I’ve been watching these, I noticed that some struck me as quite powerful while others as predictable and even boring. Why is this? Is there a simple reason why some of these videos more effective than others? Why do some make us stop for a moment, but others are easy to dismiss?

Below is a small sample of a few of these videos representing the various ways they use video: direct speaking messages, some use infographics, and some are wordless stories. Watch them, and see which you think are most powerful.

Look Up (4:59) – Lyrical Presentation

The second half has a heart-tugging story element with a strong A/B storyline. It felt a little long and a tad predictable, but the lyrical style kept me interested.

Innovation of Lonelineness (4:20) – Infographics

The animations and graphics on this video are incredibly well done. They kept me watching even when I felt like the message was too strong and one-sided.

I Forgot My Phone (2:10) – Wordless Story

I think this video is the most powerful, because it was short, it told a story, and it avoided an omniscient narrator. To me, this made the message clearer and the emotional impact deeper.

Video as a Visual Medium

I appreciate each of these videos and want to thank the creators of each for their hard work. But I think the reason the final video seemed most powerful to me was that it uses video as a purely visual medium and communicates through images rather than propositions.

In the first two videos, the narrator tells the story, and he tells you what to think about the story. That means the visuals are secondary. The images, video, and graphics are only a supporting element to the statements the speaker is making. But if you didn’t have those statements, you’d still get mostly the same message. [tweetable]In the final video, everything essential is communicated visually, through the main characters eyes[/tweetable].

Even when there is a particularly powerful visual element in the first two videos, the narrator breaks in with statements and propositions, forcing your brain to enter into a more logical mode and making the video secondary. I think this is why the narrators chose a lyrical presentation rather than a more direct style of speech, because they intuited that they needed something more compelling that direct propositions.

And yet, I think [tweetable]the final video is still more powerful because the message is communicated entirely without words[/tweetable]. The power of that video is derived solely from its visuals, and the audio is secondary and supportive rather than the other way around.

Let me know if there are videos you find more or less powerful and how the medium itself contributes to that power (or lack thereof).

Kids Are Addicted to Social Media Because Parents Are Addicted to Control

Of course, it’s not quite as simple as the headline makes it seem.

But new data suggests that while the often heard complaint, “Kids these days spend all their time online rather than face-to-face,” may be true, it’s not true for the reasons we think. No, today’s under-18 crowd is not made up of degenerates who don’t like human contact. Rather, they want face-to-face time as much as we did, it’s just that their parents won’t let them have it.

Parents Controlled by Fear

Its ComplicatedIn her forthcoming book It’s Complicated: the social lives of networked teens, dana boyd interviews teens about their social media usage versus time in person. In almost all cases she found that the students said they would much rather spend time face-to-face, but they cannot because, well, their parents won’t let them.

Two major cultural shifts seem to be at the root of this. The first is that many of today’s youth are over-scheduled with sports, school activities, community service, and so on, all in an effort to be visible in an increasingly competitive college admissions process. This means they have very little down time to rest or be with friends.

When teens do have a little precious free time, the second cultural shift takes over. Today’s parents are much less likely to let their kids roam free, exploring the outdoors, riding bikes, going over to the friend’s house down the street, or engage in other unstructured activities. Ben Wiseman of Wired suggest that this parental tightening began when, “over the [past] three decades, the media began delivering a metronomic diet of horrifying but rare child-abduction stories, and parents shortened the leash on their kids.”

In other words, 24-hour news coverage of kidnappings made it seem like American neighborhoods are less safe when, statistically speaking, there are fewer kidnappings than when today’s parents were kids. But today’s parents (the same ones who get all their parenting advice from online sources) scared by the unstoppable torrent of violent images and stories, respond by keeping their kids sequestered at home.

What Kids Really Want

danah’s data and conclusions shouldn’t surprise thinking Christians. Our understanding of humanity teaches us that every man, woman, child, and teen was created in the image of a deeply relational Truine God. Certainly some of that “image” is our longing for contact, community, and presence.

But left in solitary confinement with nothing but an internet connected device, today’s kids have little choice. They desperately want human connection, but the only parentally-allowed way to image the Triune God is to use Snapchat, Facebook, or the flavor of the week. As boyd puts it, “Teens aren’t addicted to social media. They are addicted to each other.”

So the next time you see a checked out kid on her phone, remember that there might be more going on that what you see outwardly. This doesn’t mean that we need to turn kids into victims or excuse every negative, narcissistic behavior. What it does mean is that saying “Turn off your phone” doesn’t address the very real social and culture issues at the root, nor does it offer a compelling alternative.

To an over-scheduled teen under constant parental surveillance “Turn off your phone” basically means “Go to your room and be alone.” That’s no good either. Without real, unstructured time with friends, kids can’t develop the healthy social interactions today’s adults long for them to have.

[Note: I say all this as a parent of preschoolers, so my time is coming!]

10 Years of Facebook

In the first act of The Social Network, the movie depicting the origin Facebook, we are introduced to a fictionalized version Mark Zuckerburg who, after being spurred by his girlfriend and overlooked by Harvard’s elite final clubs, begins creating, a site that lets visitors vote on which of their classmates is better looking.

After a night of beer chugging and code writing, Zuckerburg unleashes his creation on the Harvard campus which both delights and disgusts his classmates. Director Aaron Sorkin then juxtaposing scenes of students gathered around laptops ogling pictures of female coeds on with students gathered around tables watching scantily clad women dance at the final club parties.

In this sequence, Sorkin seems to be asking us, “What is the relationship between these two worlds – the ogling women online and the ogling women in person, that of flesh and blood and that of bits and pixels?” Sorkin never ventures an answer, and ten years after the launch of what was then called “thefacebook,” it’s a question we’re still trying to answer.

Online vs. Offline is Dead

When Facebook started, there was still a raging debate that pitted the “real world” against the “virtual world.” In the ensuing years, confidence in this simple dualism has eroded, with researchers, pundits, and bloggers alike recognizing that the relationship between the two is more fluid and dynamic.

Online and offline interact with one another, influence each other, and augment one another, but they never exist in isolation. Even those that choose not to use Facebook still communicate and relate to others through forms of media (phones, letters, and so on), and one must look at the ecosystem of media as a whole rather than isolate one strand and pin various social ills or benefits on upon it.

This is part of the Sorkin’s genius depiction of Facebook’s birth. He shows that the two worlds are so inextricably intertwined that they are really one world. He doesn’t say it’s the one world that God made, but I think that’s the conclusion to which Christians should come.

Rather than see “online” and “virtual” as two magically distinct spheres, one fully incarnate and the other its discarnate doppelganger, Christians especially must affirm that the entire created order, including all that humans create (yes all that “virtual” stuff) is part of one continuous spectrum of creation over which God have complete dominion and control and through which God’s Spirit is actively working.

The Interactions Are More Complex Than We Acknowledge

While we are breaking down the online vs. offline dualism, it is also becoming increasingly clear that the interactions between the technology and culture are more complex than initially imagined. One still doesn’t have to look far to find one person offering effusive praise of the new world of social networking and another offering outright condemnation of all things Internet. But happily it also doesn’t take a terribly long view or much data to see that both of these extremes miss the complexity of what’s really happening. Take for example the idea that “Kids spend all their time online rather than face-to-face.” Statistically speaking teens may in fact be spending less together face-to-face, but to link this effect exclusively to the cause of Facebook is both wrong and unhelpful.

Its ComplicatedIn her forthcoming book It’s Complicated: the social lives of networked teens, Dana Boyd interviews teens who say they’d much rather spend time face-to-face, but they cannot because, well, their parents won’t let them. It turns out that today’s kids are overscheduled (bowing to extreme pressure for college admissions) and today’s parents are overly fearful (while kidnapping and crime is down in America, 24 hour coverage of gruesome crimes contributes to a general state of fear among parents). Left in solitary confinement with nothing but an internet connected device, kids have little choice. They desperately want human connection, and the only parentally-allowed way to image the Truine God is to go online.

So the problem of “less face-to-face” time isn’t simply caused by social media and neither is social media merely a symptom of some deeper boogey man whose secrets are only available in a book or special conference. Instead there is always complex ecosystem of cultural forces.

Even when Facebook itself is making terrible commercials encouraging narcissism and self-focus (see below), we must also take into account the spiritual forces at work, the “powers and principalities” of which Paul writes and about which Wormwood’s uncle encourages us to forget. Christians have a vocabulary of spirit and flesh and of word and spirit that can add richness, power, and depth to the comparatively anemic ideas of narcissism, privacy, and identity.

The Questions Change as Both We and Facebook Age

And yet, for all this talk of complexity, over its 10-year existence Facebook has made an undeniable impact on society and individuals. Ten years may not seem like a long time, but it’s long enough to see that Facebook has come to have different meanings at different stages in our lives, and that these meanings shift as we age.

Early adopters of Facebook, who were then scruffy college kids, are now approaching the threshold of untrustworthiness, the age of 30. Where they once used Facebook to update their “relationship status” and Poke one another, they moved on to sharing wedding photos, and eventually parenting advice, and now Vitamix coupons. The then bewildered 40 and 50-somethings who didn’t “get it” when Facebook launched are now grandparents who have gone from joining Facebook to see baby pictures (which are no longer mailed to them) to using Facebook independently to share the thoughts that didn’t have an outlet in their earlier lives.  And then there are today’s teens who were never given the chance to know a world without the word “selfie,” and whose use of social media will, too, evolve as they enter college and the workforce.

Many of these same people have now deleted their account in disgust with the entire social media enterprise only to rejoin again in order to reconnect with loved ones who no longer call or write. Some are on their third of fourth account, and many of us maintain multiple accounts on different networks that we use for different purposes. We often complain about the system, but we also recognize that it is a new and constant part of our reality.

The Continuum of Home, Work, and Play

So in this new reality what role should social media play in our lives and in the lives of our communities? How has our conception of identity and relationship shifted? Can we just unplug and things will get back to normal?

Long ago, it was expected that the way one interacted with professionally with co-workers was different from the intimacy afforded in marriage and different yet again from one’s orientation to one’s children or one’s parents, and different still from a relationship with a long-time friend or pal at the gym.

But by today’s standards, acting differently in these scenarios might be considered “inauthentic.” To be “genuine” today, one must be the same in every sphere of life. Interestingly, this is just what most social networks require – a single, flat identity equally discoverable by anyone. A teacher cannot have a different Facebook relationship (in its current iteration) with her students than she has with her mother, and a student’s relationship to parents, teachers, and friends must be the same as well.

As we’ve previously mentioned, such shifts are multi-variant; we cannot blame them soley on Facebook. In the same 10 years, the physical distinction between one’s job, one’s home, one’s leisure, and one’s school have been blurred by economic and technological forces, each playing on one another.

The cumulative effect of these forces has allowed (or forced) many Christians to re-examine fairly basic concepts like discipleship, preaching, and Sabbath. To take just one of these areas – Sabbath – we know taking a break from “work” is a biblical idea, but when our work machines are also our leisure machines and our social machines, where can we go to truly rest? We can unplug the laptop to stop working during out Sabbath, but what if we need it to socially connect through Facebook? If stopping the use of media is important for true rest, what other technologies might we also give up?

Such questions bring us back to Sorkin’s original question: What is the relationship between the offline and online, the physical and the digital world? It seems that simplistic, binary answers don’t offer us much hope. We must proceed carefully and with perhaps more discipline than previously thought.

A Mirror and a Window

What I hope is emerging from these questions is a sense that looking deeply into Facebook and its impact is not altogether different from looking closely at humanity itself. This is not to say that Facebook is humanity or that Facebook is inert. To the contrary, our global culture has undergone some big changes in the past decade, and Facebook is one of the forces behind that change.

What I mean to say is that the benefits and problems we attribute to Facebook are in many ways a reflection of the two sides of our humanity as the Scriptures portray it.  Every thoughtful post, every beautiful image, every impactful campaign is rooted in the stamp of God’s image embedded on every Facebook account’s human. And every case of bullying, every self-focused rant, and every single game of Candy Crush betrays our brokenness and need for Christ to finish his work of redemption in us.

Facebook can be a convenient punching bag for all kinds of social ills, but it can also offer us a window into the struggles and beauties of a human race that still bears God’s image and which is in need of a complete resurrection.

I think our understanding of technology is clearest when we can carefully take into account its downsides while also seeing its benefits as pointers and foretastes of the resurrection. To that end, I’ll leave you with this commercial from Microsoft. It of course places too much hope in technology itself, but if you can see past the technology and see the time and place to which it points, it is indeed encouraging.