Four Ways that Screens Distort the Gospel
If the students at your church are anything like the ones at mine, then you probably have some level of pent-up frustration regarding screens, social media, and the ways they influence your students. Some of your frustration might be trivial at best: “For the last time, I don’t want to play Farmville with you!” Some might be directly related to your ministry: “What do I have to do to keep them off of their phones while I’m teaching?” Some of your frustrations are likely characterized by a deep mourning over our brokenness: “Why would he say such a terrible thing?” or “Why would she post a picture of herself wearing that?” These frustrations will often lead us to view the internet, screens, and social media as inherently evil and unredeemable. At least, they have often led me to do so.
If the internet, screens, and social media are wicked in and of themselves, then there is no better encouragement for youth leaders to give their students than to simply do away with them altogether. But before asking to use a parent’s pool to host a “baptism service” for everyone’s cell phones, let’s take some time to think about the answer to the following question:
Are screens distracting and mesmerizing because they are evil, or because they are good enough to satisfy us with cheap, empty grace?
In their book When Helping Hurts, authors Steve Corbett and Brian Fikkert describe four key relationships that were undeniably damaged by sin’s entrance into the world: our relationship with God, our relationship with ourselves, our relationship with others, and our relationship with the rest of creation. We long to be set free from these broken relationships – relationships that the Fall of Man ushered into the world (Romans 8:22-23). The wonderful message of God’s gospel of grace is that in Christ, our longings for deliverance will one day become reality!
The problem is that our broken natures are fickle and impatient. Too often, the good things of this world become more real to us than the One who created them. Tired of waiting for Christ’s all-encompassing redemption, we go about seeking “quick-fix” freedom in all the wrong places, particularly in the good things that God has created. As Tim Keller writes in his book, Counterfeit Gods, “Anything can serve as a counterfeit god, especially the very best things in life.”
I believe that students and youth leaders alike become distracted and mesmerized by screens precisely because they are such powerful, potential-filled devices. Here are four specific ways that screens distort the gospel:
1. Screens falsely fix our relationship with God: The Fall of Man was rooted in Adam and Eve’s desire to be “like God.” Instead of relating to our Creator in submission and love, we each have a broken nature which leads us to try to be the gods of our own lives. God has “set eternity in the human heart” (Ecclesiastes 3:11). Instead of seeking our eternities, our paradise, with God’s power and vision, we choose to seek it in our own. Screens provide one of the easiest pathways for us to continue this destructive trend.
Screens allow us to create a world of our own making. We get to choose the sites and platforms on which we interact, as well as how we appear in those places. We get to choose with whom we interact (as well as whom to avoid!). We get to design ourselves the way we want to be made; we plot our lives in the ways we’d choose to design them, rather than accepting exactly who we are, who we were made to be, according to our perfect maker. All of that sounds awfully familiar to being the god of our own lives, doesn’t it?
2. Screens falsely fix our relationship with ourselves: Because we have assumed the role of god in our own lives, we do not sense the freedom to rest in Jesus’s work for our justification. Instead, we labor tirelessly to be perfect and accepted, especially by ourselves. How easy screens make the process of self-justification, and how seemingly permanent it seems to us! Don’t like the picture you just took of yourself? Simply pass it through Photoshop and an Instagram filter, and, viola! You’re “perfect” in a matter of clicks. Want to be accepted by the “in” crowd, you know? You yourself don’t have to do much changing; just post quotes and content that caters to their interests.
As easy and permanent as this self-justification seems, it pales in comparison to the hope of the gospel. In Christ, we are freely justified just as we are. With screens, we are justified in who we work to become, through filters, followers, and everything in-between.
3. Screens falsely fix our relationships with others: When dealing with other people, it doesn’t take long to face the reality of the Fall; hurtful comments, broken trust, and frustrating qualities are sure to abound on all sides! What wonderful hope that, through Christ, a day is coming when people from every tribe, tongue, people, and nation will serve together as “priests to God” (Revelation 5:9-10). But until that day arrives, screens confront us with a tempting offer: “Why wait?” With screens, we don’t have to face our common brokenness; we can just block it, un-follow it, de-friend it, and move on.
4. Screens falsely fix our relationships with creation: Far different from the frustration and futility associated with working in the natural world, screens allow us to create and build whatever we desire in a matter of clicks and with very little pushback. “Copy” and “Paste” allow for quick building and maximum creativity, while “Delete” and “Undo” provide ways for mistakes to be remedied quickly. Still, as alluring as that redeemed relationship with the virtual world can be, its efficacy is much smaller than Jesus’ ministry of reconciliation. Screens only allow us to create new things. In Christ, everything broken will be made whole again; all things are being made new.
The fact that screens so easily become a counterfeit gospel is not a condemnation of them, as much as it is an indictment of the sinful nature of our hearts. By clarifying exactly how screens distort the gospel of grace, we can see how the true gospel is so much better than the counterfeit, and how Christ’s work far exceeds our own. May these thoughts equip us to preach the surpassing worth of knowing Christ more than we know our screens – to our own hearts, as well as to the hearts of our students.