“The passage today comes from James 2,” the pastor says. Suddenly the smartphones—previously silenced and stowed away—come out. Everyone opens their Bible apps and keys in the reference, scrolling down to follow along with the reading.
A lot of us do something similar in our personal quiet times. A notification pops up on the screen reminding us of the passage for the day. We swipe to the right, opening the app and reading through the passage and devotional before continuing with our day.
And it’s not that this is necessarily bad. We have an unprecedented access to information in today’s world, spiritual or otherwise, which is definitely a positive thing. We have at our fingertips the powerful ability to tap into a seemingly infinite resource of facts, figures and opinions. The playing field for finding the answers is level—all you need is an Internet connection. We can all read up on a subject and then share our opinion on it for the world to see in the time it takes to make a cup of coffee.
As is healthy, church culture has changed and adapted to reflect this shift. We have Bibles on our phones and can scroll to Haggai quicker than we could ever find it in our paper versions. We have apps that allow us to log our prayer requests, remind us to pray and send us encouraging Bible verses throughout the day. Scriptures flash up on the screens at our churches, while our eBooks, once finished, disappear into a virtual bookcase, rarely to be seen again.
While the access we all now have to information has undoubtedly led to a lot of good, it also proves risky in the field of faith. The ability we have to absorb this information does not necessarily improve or enhance our faith. Take, for instance, our knowledge of the Bible. Our ability to look up verses on our smartphones within seconds is helpful to a degree, but the immediate closing of our Bible apps once we have read the verses means they do not linger in our memory.
To find the same verse in a paper Bible requires physically turning the pages, scanning the passages before and after, placing a specific verse in context. We see it as part of a whole—in a sense, the physical process of holding a Bible and flicking through it helps us to remember the value and reverence of the Word of God. Glancing at a verse on a screen for a few seconds does not always carry the same weight.
There is a danger our communities suffer as well. There is no question that there is value in online community. It connects those in remote or isolated positions and allows us to network with those we previously would not have been able to. But online, virtual community does not come close to fulfilling the same needs as genuine, face-to-face relationships. We may feel connected to those in our virtual worlds, but in reality all it takes is a power outage to cut the lines of communication and leave us stranded.
The same is true of the information we absorb relating to our faith. Online articles (such as this one) can be extremely helpful, but they cannot and must not serve as a replacement for dedicated time spent in God’s presence or learning about Him through active relationship. Reading about living in community can inspire, but it cannot transform. If we read an article about the importance of reading the Bible without actually putting it into practice, where is the value?
Our access to information gives us the impression we are wiser than we are. The fact that we can now all read about issues to a significant extent means we believe we understand them with, in reality, limited knowledge and even less context and background. This leads to a façade of wisdom—what little we know we consider to be enough, and consequently we do not spend time trying to understand the issues fully. Rather than embracing the learning process, wrestling with the ideas that confront us, we simply take for granted what others have said.
All this in turn leads to an increase in individualism. Our ability to find out things on our own means we no longer rely on the wiser, more educated members of our society for direction or seek to learn for ourselves. Our searching becomes instant and self-serving—a what can I get out of this attitude—and means when we are asked to give of ourselves, we are reluctant. It simply is not something we are used to doing any more.
So what are we, as Christians living in an ever changing, information overloaded world, to do? To shy away from what is on offer would surely be naïve. But to fall fully into the trap of disposable information is equally foolish.
The Apostle Paul encourages us to “work out your salvation with fear and trembling” (Phil. 2:12), to harness the curiosity and desire to learn God has given us for good and for His glory. The Psalmists tell us that “fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom” (Psalm 111:10).
Throughout the Bible, God reminds that His ways are not our ways. We do not know everything He knows, nor can we attain such knowledge. To strive to do so is foolish. But equally, God has blessed us with powerful minds and a desire to learn and grow.
Holding these two hand-in-hand offers us a huge potential—not only in terms of what we can learn, but what we can offer as well. Recognizing the value in learning for ourselves and taking responsibility for our own knowledge, the importance of gritty relationships and the wisdom in recognizing we do not know it all is one of the most valuable lessons we can learn.