The World in the Church: A Distracted World, a Distracted Church?

The World in the Church: A Distracted World, a Distracted Church?

How does the world get inside the church? The prince of this world is not modest in his schemes or unambitious in his aspirations: his attack on the Son of God reveals the insane over-reach of his pride. Sometimes he might use subtle and insidious means, but he is just as capable of attacking the church at the very point where her divinely ordained defence is focused. Thus while the elders of the church are appointed by God for her protection (Acts 20:28-31), Satan is ready to attack them in order to undermine the church. 

Satan wants the world to get inside elders and ministers in order to get it inside the church. He plans to use them to harm the people. It is therefore important for them to be alert to the world around them, to understand the particular ills they are exposed to in their setting and the ways in which they themselves will be tempted to go wrong. 

Also vital to the health of the church is corporate, public worship. In one sense corporate worship is not the centre of the church's life (in that the church is sent out into the world), but in another sense it is, as the focus of the appointed means of grace and the place where the spiritual food of word and sacrament are primarily found. Much as Satan will strike at elders, so too he will seek to undermine corporate worship. 

Put these two thoughts together and we find that they overlap at an alarming point, the point where the elders of the church lead and preach in its public worship. Here then is a bastion of the church, and here is one of Satan's prime targets. 

I think I underestimate the infiltration of worldly thinking in my own life. The problem is that it is hard to see it because it permeates me as an inhabitant of the world; it is like trying to see the air I breathe. As David Wells puts it: 'the church is ever exposed to the world, ever vulnerable to its alternative reading of reality, its system of values, its outlook, its habits, its prejudices, its temptations, its counterfeit gospels, its fraudulent hopes, its dangers, its pressures, its distractions, its dark holes, its conflicts and persecutions'.[1] 

Over four articles I will examine examples of worldly thinking infiltrating the church: we are prone to be distracted, to seek inoffensive normality, to be irreligious, and to be lawless. 

In this article I focus (!) on the problem of distraction. Even as early as the 1960s Marshall McLuhan spoke of how new electronic media would break down the processes of sequential, linear thought produced by printing and typography. His particular genius was to draw attention to the importance of the medium in determining the message. Nicholas Carr summarizes: 'in the long run a medium's content matters less than the medium itself in influencing how we think and act. As our window onto the world, and onto ourselves, a popular medium molds what we see and how we see it--and eventually, if we use it enough, it changes who we are, as individuals and as a society'.[2]

As Carr argues, McLuhan's thoughts are highly applicable to the effects of the internet on human thinking. Have you observed that you find it increasingly hard to concentrate, more difficult to sustain attention? As you work on your computer, as you read material online (perhaps even right now), do you always feel the pull to click on to the next thing? Do you ever find an article that is definitely relevant, interesting, and well-written, but by the third or fourth paragraph find yourself clicking on to something else? 

And yet do you find that although you are so easily distracted, you are still hungry to read more? It isn't that you get distracted and so unplug. Rather, you get distracted from one thing and so click on to another. Carr describes what he observed in himself: 'my brain, I realized, wasn't just drifting. It was hungry. It was demanding to be fed the way the Net fed it--and the more it was fed, the hungrier it became.'  

But surely, we say, the problem is not the internet, it is what we do with it, it is the content that matters. McLuhan is scathing of such naiveté, calling it the 'current somnambulism' and 'the numb stance of the technological idiot'.[4] The content, he maintains, is just 'the juicy piece of meat carried by the burglar to distract the watchdog of the mind'.[5]  I do not think that is true, though the problems of content may be much more apparent now than they were in McLuhan's day. It is self-evident even to the unbeliever that much of the content on the internet is an enormous problem, indeed one of the great moral and pastoral problems of our time. Nevertheless, McLuhan is right that the medium is as dangerous as the content.

Carr explains how the scientific evidence is clearly on McLuhan's side. For much of the twentieth century neuroscientists believed that the brain is a fixed, hardwired mechanism. Neuroscientist Santiago Ramón y Cajal wrote of the brain in 1913: 'In the adult centres, the nerve paths are something fixed, ended, immutable. Everything may die, nothing may be regenerated.'[6] This view has since been entirely undermined. Experiments have shown conclusively that the brain is plastic; in the words of the pioneer neuroscientist Michael Merzenich, 'massively plastic'.[7] This does not mean that the brain is elastic, since it does not spring back to its original state after learning new ways of thinking. It means that, as Carr explains, the 'chemically triggered synapses that link our neurons program us, in effect, to want to keep exercising the circuits they've formed.'[8]

This is why we may feel that the way we are thinking and interacting and reading is changing and becoming fixed in new habits by our use of the internet. Our brains are actually being re-trained by the medium. The plastic is taking a new shape. 

I expect many readers will have felt this change, or at least the beginning of it. I have. In my own research and writing work I am committed to the careful study of primary historical theological texts. In the classroom I pick slowly through paragraphs of Francis Turretin with students seeking to foster in them a commitment to sustained engagement with classic theological literature. But I have felt increasingly the impulse to flit from one online article to the next. 

Where would this lead? Here it is from the horse's mouth in the words of Google's ex-CEO, Eric Schmidt: 'I worry that the level of interrupt, the sort of overwhelming rapidity of information... is in fact affecting cognition. It is affecting deeper thinking.'[9] Or in the words of the journalist Brian Appleyard: 'I feel that much of my life is ebbing away in the tide of minute-by-minute distraction'. Appleyard writes vividly of his fear that 'we become infantilised cyber-serfs, our entertainments and impulses maintained and controlled by the techno-geek aristocracy'.[10] Maggie Jackson in her book Distracted: The Erosion of Attention and the Coming Dark Age describes the resulting phenomenon as 'cultural ADD'.[11] 

We return to my opening question with this phenomenon in mind: How might worldly distractedness corrupt the church through its elders and their role in public worship? The answer is simple: distraction is the enemy of the kind of meditation on the word described in Psalm 1, and it is the enemy of prayer. 

Recognizing the problem of a distracted world itself has dangers. There is a risk that, seeing the dangers of distraction, we will be tempted to mimic the new patterns of cognition as a way to accommodate our ministry to distracted people. We desire to reach people, so we adjust our services, little by little, to their expectations. Our desire to preach the gospel to the lost leads us to fill church services with fragmentary titbits of communication: a video here, a video there, a clip of this, a clip of that. And so the world determines the shape of the church.

Meditation is a divinely commanded duty and delight. We are commanded not to flit around. But, we may wonder, if people's brains are trained out of sustained attention, won't doing it put them off? I think we have no choice. We have to be teachers not only of the content of revelation, but also of its prescribed form. Being faithful pastors will involve challenging the way people think as well as what they think. We are not doing our job if we only communicate the content and not the form. Reducing preaching to fragmentary form is like serving freeze dried astronaut ice cream and claiming it is Ben and Jerry's. We are told to preach the word, which means communicating it by sustained speech, living man to living man. Preaching is a particular form of communication. It is not a string of videos punctuated by commentary.

If not by mimicking the world, how can we rightly resist the danger of distraction? First, we need deliberately to teach about it when we gather together, to forewarn and thereby forearm people against it. We can articulate for them what many probably already feel. This is a particular responsibility of parents whose children are growing up surrounded and potentially saturated by the new media. Of course we need to teach them about and protect them from the dangers of internet content, but we also need to take steps to educate them about the form of electronic media and its dangers. 

Second, we should underline the need for biblical meditation by modeling it. I think of churches that sometimes preach on a passage and then reflect further on it in the adult Sunday school or at midweek home-groups, rather than adding another text or topic. Hearing a lot of Scripture is a good thing and there is no small irony in the fact that evangelical churches with a higher doctrine of Scripture often read less of it than anglo-catholic ones which prioritize the tradition of the church. Nevertheless, when it comes to sermons we should surely be modeling a counter-cultural, careful, sustained meditation on the law of the Lord. This will involve sometimes preaching much shorter sections, even verses (in context of course), rather than always zooming over several chapters and alighting on occasional nuggets in a way that mimics the cyber medium. In reading slowly, we should attend closely to the details of the word, carefully constructing before the eyes of the congregation the meaning of a passage before bringing it to bear searchingly upon our lives. 

To my mind this means that we should avoid introducing other media in our sermons. If we are tempted to use them to aid our communication, we should understand that we are making our own job harder, not easier. If people's brains are trained to love images and videos and want to click on to more and more of them, then the last thing we should do in the middle of our sustained preaching is to turn on that desire, to remind them of what they are missing, to set alongside our verbal the stimulus of the visual. This can only make it harder for people to listen after the image, not easier. 

What then can we do to make our preaching more engaging? The challenge to hold people's attention in a distracted age calls not for a change of method but for us to be better, more engaging preachers. And what does that mean? 

If you are a preacher, let me ask you: what do you think is interesting in your preaching? What is engaging? Is it the illustrations? The stories? Do you ever find yourself thinking that your sermons are a mix of a few minutes of frankly dull explanation and then a juicy story to lighten things up? Do you plan them out so as to alternate between the two, using one to compensate for the other? I fear that sometimes we preachers think that we can purchase the right to dull expositional sections in our sermons by peppering them with lively illustrations. But we can never purchase the right to be dull. There is no currency that can buy it. We expound the acts of God. Are they dull? The acts of God are gripping. It is always a travesty to make them dull. If we would address the distractedness of the congregation we must in the final analysis do it by better, more gripping proclamation of the redemptive deeds of God.

Dr Garry Williams is Director of the John Owen Centre at London Theological Seminary, and Visiting Professor of Historical Theology at Westminster Theological Seminary (Philadelphia). His new book is His Love Endures For Ever: Reflections on the Love of God (IVP in the UK, and forthcoming with Crossway in the USA), in which he tries to put into practice the idea of theological meditation. These four articles are developed from a talk originally given at a Proclamation Trust conference


[1] David Wells, God in the Whirlwind (Wheaton, Crossway, 2014), p. 192

[2] Nicholas Carr, The Shallows, p. 3

[3] Carr, The Shallows, p. 16

[4] Understand the Media, pp. 19, 26

[5] Understanding the Media, p. 26

[6] Cited in The Shallows, p.22

[7] Cited in The Shallows, p. 26

[8] Carr, The Shallows, p. 34

[9] Cited in Susan Greenfield, 'Computers may be altering our brains', The Independent, 12th August 2011

[10] 'Distraction', The Sunday Times, 20th July 2008

[11] Cited in Wells, God in the Whirlwind, p. 36