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Digital Citizenship in Church Work: An Interview with Trevor Sutton

Oct 28, 2022 12:00:00 PM

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Digital technology is a part of daily life and our collective life together. I sat down via Zoom with Rev. Trevor Sutton, a pastor, speaker, and coauthor of Redeeming Technology: A Christian Approach to Healthy Digital Habits, to talk about thoughtfully engaging with technology, its place in ministry, and the intersection of our digital and heavenly citizenships.

Q: Can you share a bit about how you became interested in the topic of technology and its intersection with the Christian life?

I’ve been a parish pastor for just over ten years now and interacting with the congregation, I started realizing small ways that technology was manifesting itself in ministry. One of my favorite stories is when I was leading a confirmation class and I asked a student to read a part of the Bible. He started and then he said, “Oh, my Bible died.” I remember in that moment thinking, That is such a strange thing to say, but I know exactly what you mean.

Maybe seven or eight years ago, I started a master’s program at Michigan State University in digital rhetoric, and that program really opened my eyes to the ways that so much of communication today is mediated through digital technology. And it opened up my eyes to all the ways that ministry today is done through some sort of technology.

Q: In Redeeming Technology, you talk about using technology in healthy and purposeful ways. Can you share more about that?

I find in my experience talking to people about technology that there are two extremes people gravitate toward. They gravitate toward the extreme of just rejecting it—[that] there’s no possible way technology can be used well or in beneficial ways. And then the other extreme is kind of uncritically, without thinking at all, just accepting, using, [and] pursuing technology in kind of a headlong way. Both of those extremes, I think, are problematic—an absolute rejection of it or an uncritical acceptance of it.

Somehow, those need to be avoided. That’s really what we were hoping to do in the book—just help people think through, through the Gospel, “How can technology be kept in its proper place, be put in its proper place?”

If Christ is in the center of all things, then technology will find its proper orbit in our lives, in our churches, in our communities, in our homes.

Q: How does technology impact your vocation as a pastor?

This one’s kind of silly, but I think there’s a connection to it. I was teaching a Bible study. We were doing the prophet Isaiah, and talking about the Book of Isaiah, you use the word Assyria a lot. As I was teaching, at some point I said the word Assyria and somebody’s phone said “I’m sorry, I didn’t catch that.” It made us realize that Assyria sounds a lot like Siri, and somebody had “Hey, Siri” activated on their iPhone.

It made for a really interesting teaching moment to then say, “Huh, that phone has been listening to our entire conversation here.” It totally took us in a different direction to then help people think about the devices they carry with them all the time and to just explore the implications of that. It was one of those moments where I saw technology intruding itself in ministry in a way that I wasn’t even thinking about.

Q: Technology can be used in ways that grant constant access to an individual. Practically speaking, what boundaries do you employ around technology personally and professionally?

There’s the simple wisdom of “just because you can doesn’t mean you should.“ What I often find myself doing is responding in kind to how the request was made but then suggesting a better platform or environment for the next step. What I mean by that would be, sometimes I get deep theological questions texted to me. I’ll respond, saying, “Hey, that’s a great question. I really appreciate it. This might be better for a phone call or a cup of coffee.“

Just the idea that simply because someone has reached out with this medium [doesn’t mean] you then have to continue the conversation in that medium. . . . We need to be thoughtful as to sort of the media ecology and the environment in which we’re doing ministry and engaging in conversations and relationship with each other.

Q: Can you share more about the idea of media ecology you just referenced?

That word ecology kind of makes us think of environment or a landscape. That’s kind of the idea of media ecology, is that no one type of media is isolated unto itself, but these are all existing in an environment together. And so, for instance, you read texts, but you also listen to podcasts and watch video on the news. Those things together form an environment in which communication happens.

Q: How do you see the implications of the intersection of our heavenly citizenship (Philippians 3:20) and online citizenship?

Lutheran theology has a really robust understanding of our dual citizenship—our dual citizenship of God’s kingdom and then civil kingdoms—as citizens of heaven and citizens of a particular locality and place. The beauty of this is it resists that singular citizenship, and so we recognize that we have multiple vocations.

I think what’s great about that tension that Lutheran theology has is it allows us to hold those together and let one inform the other. What I mean by that is they’re not miles away. So I’m a child of God, and then I have this online world, and [it’s not like] never shall the two meet. But they are in constant conversation with each other.

Your identity as redeemed in Christ Jesus, baptized child of God, that’s the citizenship that does not change, and then you can use that citizenship, that identity, to help you navigate the confusing world of social media and the confusing world of digital technology.

Q: Does the online citizenship/digital presence of a congregation matter?

Several things about that elicit thoughts from me. One thing is this: digital technology has changed the front sign of the church—and even the front door of the church. What I mean by that is the sign out front, in many ways, is now your website, and the front door of the church could be the content that you have on your website. . . . Many times, that first contact will be digitally mediated, so that’s something we need to attend to.

But then the other thing . . . is  this idea that just because that’s the first contact, to never being satisfied that that’s the only contact. If a website or your social media presence or your digital content—if that’s become the front sign and front door to the church, you know you wouldn’t be a very good front if you welcomed me to your house and kept me on the front porch forever.

How do we create opportunities, invitations, and hospitality for people to come into the family room, the living room, the kitchen, and everywhere else and really make a home in that place? I think churches would be wise to consider what is that digital presence that’s often the first point of contact, but then what [are] the analog, nondigital interactions that we want to facilitate after that point?

Q: As church workers and leaders, how can we engage those we serve in the conversation on more thoughtful use of technology?

One of my favorite axioms in ministry is “the church will only go where you go”—this idea that if you won’t thoughtfully consider your use of technology, you can have no hope of your congregation and your people thoughtfully considering their use of technology.

The first thing you would need to do is to kind of critically assess your relationship with technology in big ways and small ways. What does it look like in your leisure time, professional time, ministry time, things like that? Thoughtfully wrestle with it yourself, and then, after having done that, begin to engage your people and your congregation in that conversation.

Q: Is there a process for this critical analysis you would recommend?

I do think one of the best places to start with all of this, whether personally or professionally or with a group of people, would be to do [an] ACE (Audit, Count, Evaluate) analysis. Audit does not sound exciting at all, but really what that is is selecting a period of time for a thing that you are going to count.

Set out to do that audit and begin by counting how many times you unlock your phone in a day, how many times you check your email, how many minutes you spend on Facebook, something like that. And the nice thing is there’s lots of built-in apps that can help you with this, so the counting may not be all that difficult to do anyway.

Set out to do that audit, count that specific thing, and then take a little time and just reflect on it. Evaluate does fifty, or one hundred, or one hundred fifty times checking my phone in a day—does that seem excessive or not? Another way you can evaluate, you can ask a trusted friend or a spouse, “What do you think about my use with this particular technology? Tell me about your understanding of my social media presence. Do I ever neglect in-person interaction with you because of my phone?” [These are] scary questions to ask, but I think in that evaluation it’s telling, revealing, and ultimately beneficial.

Q: Have there been any standout “aha!” moments as part of conversations you’ve led on thoughtful technology use?

The one that I’m always surprised by is I often give the "life hack" of turning your phone to grayscale and how that will make your phone miserable, and you will hate it. But then you’ll find that you become far less addicted to it and you use it only for the intended purpose of it. That’s one that . . .  I always get people after a presentation coming up saying, “I did that, and wow, it changed everything!”

The one that I’m probably most struck by as I teach on it and think on [is] how almost unanimously people see this as an issue. It’s just shocking to me that I hear someone say, “Why are you talking about this?” There [are] other topics that we might talk about in society and contemporary life, and people are kind of mixed on the importance of it, but I’m just so struck by the fact that, almost across the board, people think this is a thing that is timely, relevant, and of concern for their family, their relationships, their health.

It’s stunning. Just recently, at the [LCMS] Youth Gathering for my presentation, I threw some statistics together. A lot of them point to the fact that we spend more time in front of a screen than we do reading books, exercising, eating, sometimes even sleeping. So it’s kind of just crazy to think. The suggestion I made is if this occupies so much quantity of our life, it deserves thoughtful reflection.


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Katy Crawford

Written by Katy Crawford

Katy Crawford loves her husband, twin boys, family life education, and exploring the intersection of dearly held traditions and innovative ideas. As a new mom, she has a deep appreciation for online grocery ordering and also enjoys podcasts, exploring new places, pretending to be a runner, and drinking a good cup of coffee. Her greatest joy is found in Christ and being baptized into His life, death, and resurrection!

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