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Leadership 2013


Here and There
New technologies are a gift from God, but not if they keep us from being fully and physically present.

Some of the pastor's most precious moments are the ones when you are there. There at the front of the church standing beside the young groom as his bride walks through those doors and down the aisle. There at the hospital to hold the newborn and to pray with and for the new father and mother. There at the courthouse when the judge proclaims those children fully and finally adopted into their new family. There in the river to plunge that new Christian beneath the water in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. There at the bedside when that faithful, older church member takes his final breath and is ushered into eternity. There in the pulpit week after week, opening God's Word and proclaiming eternal truths.

The pastor has many callings and many responsibilities, and so many of the best of them involve being there.

With every great new breathrough there's an unintended consquence. What else would we expect in a world marked by sin?

We live at the cusp of a new era in history—the digital era. And we are forced to reconsider what it means to be there and what it means to be here. We are grappling with new challenges to the realities of time and space. We are learning what it means to be present in and through new technologies, and these changes have important implications for pastors and their ministries.

Let me be clear: I am no Luddite. Quite the opposite, in fact. I believe technology is a good gift from God and one of the ways through which he calls us to carry out our Creation Mandate and our Great Commission. It is technology that allows us to have dominion over the earth, technology that enhances our ability to be fruitful and multiply, and technology that allows us to go to all the earth and take the gospel with us so we can make disciples of all nations.

We have been given specific instructions from God, and technology is an indispensible means through which we carry these out.

A fine line

Though technology is a good gift of God, it exists in a sinful world. The use of technology did not escape the Fall and all its consequences. The very thing that offers us such good with one hand is prone to take it away with the other. All technologies have benefits and drawbacks; with every great new breakthrough there's a cost or an unintended consequence. What else would we expect in a world marked by sin?

Not only that, but our technologies offer us such good things it's easy to elevate them until they become our hope and confidence. There's a fine line between technology and idolatry.

I see at least two challenges to presence, to being there, in a digital world.

First, our new technologies try to convince me that I can be there even while I remain here, that my presence can be transported through bits, bytes, and pixels, that the essence of who I am can exist on a screen.

Second, the digital world, with all its attractions and distractions, hinders me from being fully here, fully present in life's best times and places.

The first is the challenge of mediation, and the second is the challenge of distraction.

The mediated life

No young man looks deep into the eyes of the lady he loves and says, "I cannot wait to be apart and write you a letter." No, he writes her a letter and says, "I cannot wait to be there with you." It would be ridiculous to wish for anything less.

The apostles knew the value of there. As Paul wrote to the Christians in Rome, he said right from the beginning, "I long to see you" (Rom. 1:11). It is as if Paul was saying, "I wish I was there, but I must be here, so a letter will have to do." It was only because of this forced separation, this geographic distance between them, that he was writing this letter at all.

Similarly, when he wrote to the church in Philippi, he spoke of how he yearned for them. And I cannot read the letter to the Hebrews without seeing in its author that same yearning to be there with the people he loves. He is a pastor to them, he loves them, and he wants to be there with them.

And we know the value of there when it comes to our Savior. To be face-to-face with the Savior, to be in his presence, is the great longing of every Spirit-filled heart. As R.C. Sproul says, "The final goal of every Christian is to be allowed to see what was denied to Moses." We want to see him face-to-face. We want to bask in the radiant glory of his divine countenance.

It was the hope of every Jew, a hope instilled in the most famous and beloved benediction of Israel: "The Lord bless you and keep you; the Lord make his face shine upon you and be gracious to you; the Lord turn his face toward you and give you peace" (Num. 6:24-26).

The digital world offers us a challenge right there, for never before have we had a technology that so compellingly promises to transport us there even while we remain here. It disembodies our presence, as part of us can go elsewhere while our bodies remain.

Human history in many ways can be traced through our technological innovations. The digital revolution is just the most recent of these advances. And it is, at heart, a revolution in communications.

The common thread in these technologies—computers, Internet, email, smartphones, Twitter, iPads, Skype—is communication. We use them to exchange information and ideas. We use them to express ourselves and to learn from others. These gizmos and gadgets bind us together and they do so in new ways and with new abilities.

One of the great new concepts of the digital world is that of cyberspace. Never before have we had a technology that has offered the promise of transporting us, our being and identity, into a medium.

When I wrote a letter to my pen pal, we never claimed to be interacting in letterspace. When you and I both watch the same television program at the same time, we don't consider ourselves in cablespace. Yet the Internet offers us cyberspace, a place where we believe we are together even while you are in your office and I am in my living room.

While there is no doubt that we can communicate through digital media, and there is nothing wrong with that, these media threaten to displace better, more intimate, more significant forms of communication. When we are apart, a letter may have to do.

But what if we begin to prefer text messaging to face-to-face communication?

What if we find ourselves thinking that being "together" on a screen is no different from, or even preferable to, being there together? It is beyond obvious that texting "sorry 4 ur loss" cannot replace the handwritten card. And the handwritten card cannot replace the hug, the crying on the shoulder, the presence.

If we believe that technology is a gift from God, we have no reason to fear the newest, the latest, and the greatest media. Yet we are wise to evaluate them, to examine how we use them, and to consider our dedication to them.

For a pastor, there is a call here to evaluate which ministries require presence and which can be done in a mediated way. What can a pastor do successfully through pixels and cables and what can only be accomplished by sharing space? An email or Facebook message may be meaningful, but it can never replace being there in the best or worst hours, holding that child, shaking that hand, drying those tears.

The distracted life

There is another challenge to presence in a digital age, and it is being fully present right here, right where you are, no matter where you are. Your devices keep calling you away.

Flash mobs are a recent phenomenon. A mall not too far from home had a choir suddenly appear in the food court and sing a stirring rendition of the "Hallelujah Chorus" from Handel's Messiah. An orchestra in Sabadell, Spain, brought Beethoven's 9th Symphony to their town while the Copenhagen Symphony Orchestra brought "Peer Gynt" to a metro car.

When I see a video of a flash mob, I always find it fascinating to watch the audience and to see how many of them are experiencing the event through their mobile phones. Instead of living fully in the moment, enjoying the power of the music without distraction, they go digging in purses or pockets to find their phones and then watch it all unfold through a three-inch glowing rectangle.

I want to yell, "You're missing the performance! It's right there, and instead of enjoying it, your phone is making you miss it!"

Our devices and all the distractions they offer can, at a moment, transport our minds elsewhere. We go from being deep in conversation with a friend to being completely distracted by a beep, a buzz, a new text message, a little snippet of information. We can sit beside the people we love, each lost in our own little digital universe.

We have to train ourselves, or perhaps re-train ourselves, to be here, to be fully engaged, to live in the moment, to live undistracted. Wherever you are, your devices can cause your mind, your attention to shut off, to turn away, to disappear. Learn to be all here while you're here.

Where to be there

Be there in the home. Pastors are qualified for ministry because they are able to manage their own homes, because they are exemplary in the ways they love and care for their families. When you are at home, when you are with your family, are you with them all the way? Or are you answering your phone, responding to text messages, checking email, seeing what's new on Facebook? When you come home, maybe it's time to leave your phone at the door, with your keys and wallet.

Be there in counseling. Few things are more insulting than when we are deeply engaged in conversation and the other person looks away from us to check his phone. You know exactly what I mean. You are pouring out your heart, describing how it feels, how much it hurts, when there is that buzzing noise and your conversation partner has just received some kind of a notification. You can see the distraction in his face. You can see his mind slip away and his eyes dart down.Few things portray less concern for another than choosing a text message over a conversation. Better to be all there when counseling.

If it was sleep that kept Jesus' disciples from being able to watch for one hour, it is text messages and Twitter that interfere when I am on my knees.

Be there in prayer. Robert Murray McCheyne wrote, "A man is what he is on his knees before God, and nothing more." If a pastor is what he is on his knees, and nothing more, yet our commitment to technology, and the distraction it brings, can make its way into the prayer closet. What does that make us?

How many times has my phone beeped while I have been praying, drawing my mind away from prayer and toward something unimportant or just plain meaningless? If it was sleep that kept Jesus' disciples from being able to watch for one hour, it is text messages and Twitter that interfere when I am on my knees.

Turn them off, leave them behind, and go to God undistracted. Be there with God in prayer, and be only there.

Be there in study. Email and Twitter. Facebook and text messages. Too often when I am studying God's Word, trying to understand it and apply it, I long for any of these things to give me respite, to give me a short burst of entertainment or distraction.

Too many good ideas, too many pressing applications, too many Spirit-driven insights have been lost as I've been distracted from the always-difficult but always-rewarding discipline of studying God's Word.

When I refuse to anticipate and reduce distraction, I actually invite it. When I do not discipline myself to be there and to remain there in study, I find myself everywhere else instead.

Our devices, our new technologies, are a great gift and a means through which we can carry out our God-given mission. But if we don't take control of them, they will control us. If a pastor's ministry is dependent upon presence, then the pastor must be there. When you are there, be all there.

The ministry of there

I heard recently of a pastor who keeps a jar of marbles by his pulpit, each marble representing one week in the life of the pastor with an average lifespan. The marbles represent what remains of his ministry, what remains of his opportunity to be there with the people he serves. Each week, immediately before he walks to the pulpit, he removes one of those marbles.

He does this to remind himself that he will only be with them so many more times, and that while he is with them he needs to take advantage of the opportunity, to preach truth, to bring comfort, to show love to the people assigned to his care.

He knows that the best of his ministry will come through presence.

Not long ago I met with a church that has no pastor. There is no one to be in the pulpit on Sunday to preach the Word, no one to go to the hospital to visit the sick, no one to visit their homes to reassure them of God's grace in their lives.

The ministry of there is one of the pastor's highest callings and greatest privileges. By all means, use new technologies to minister to God's people and to reach those beyond the walls of your church. But don't allow these great technologies to keep you away from where you are needed most.

Ultimately, there's no substitute for being there.

Tim Challies is a pastor at Grace Fellowship Church in Toronto, Ontario. He is author of The Next Story: Life and Faith After the Digital Explosion (Zondervan, 2011) and blogs at

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