Rev. Thomas, the former General Minister and President of the United Church of Christ, is now a professor and administrator here at CTS. Follow his timely, provocative writings on the issues of our day.
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Does our fear of loneliness, our seemingly desperate desire to “be with” someone physically or virtually, rob us of needed solitude in our lives? Does our eagerness for lavish contact with friends and family “out there” stunt the development of a rich inner life? Is one of the reasons we have trouble “living with ourselves” that we spend so much time fleeing ourselves and so little time cultivating relationships with ourselves?
These questions were prompted by a recently published study by the Pew Research Center on “Teens, Cell Phones and Texting.” For someone who doesn’t spend a lot of time with teens these days, the findings were startling. Two-thirds of teens report that they are more likely to use their cell phones to text their friends than to talk to them by cell phone. A third of all teens send more than 100 text messages a day, half of all teens send over 50 text messages a day, and 15% send over 200 texts a day. If one conservatively subtracted 10 hours from each day for sleeping, showers, and other activities that make cell phone use impossible, it’s not unusual for a typical teen to send a text message every eight to nine minutes every available waking hour of the day! And this doesn’t count e-mail, talking on the phone, or using Facebook and Twitter.
Like almost any new technology, cell phones and texting offer enormous benefits. Teens need companionship, a sense of belonging, practice developing relational and social skills, and a sense of security that comes with having trusted people available in times of need or crisis. Cell phones and texting undoubtedly help meet these crucial needs. Nothing is more painful for teens than to be trapped in an isolating loneliness. Nothing is harder for those who love our youth than to see them lonely and be unable to do much about it. Loneliness is neither a gift nor a virtue.
Solitude, however, can be. During my years as General Minister and President I cherished an annual retreat with my counterparts from other denominations held at the National Cathedral in Washington. The centerpiece of this retreat, which also included worship, prayer, and rich personal sharing, was twenty-four hours of silence. It took some doing to quiet our mouths and our souls, particularly during meals when conversation and banter seem so necessary and often so enjoyable. For those of us who usually felt we had to be “on” all the time, or have something interesting or helpful to say “on command,” this day of silence, this time of solitude, was a welcome countercultural gift. Even if only once a year, it was a relief to know that your job was to keep your mouth shut and your fingers away from the phone or the keyboard! Invariably we arrived at the end of the silence wanting more time for quiet walking, meditation, reading, writing, praying, reflecting. And, oddly enough, our day of silence invariably drew us closer to each other, suggesting that intimacy may in fact be impeded by our constant communication, that it may be encouraged by times of solitude.
Eager to minister to and with our teens, the church will certainly want to find ways to use technologies like texting to engage our youth and build community. A morning devotion or scripture text, an invitation to the youth group to pray for a member facing a challenge, a reminder of care on a tough day, a special birthday greeting or a congratulatory note – all of this can deepen the relationship between adults and youth and can model for them the deep attentiveness that is central to Christian community.
But in our rush to take advantage of these and other emerging communication technologies, we may also want to consider how we can help our youth embrace the gift of solitude, claiming space in their lives for practices that foster a different kind of intimacy with another kind of companionship. The Pew study found that over two-thirds of cell phone owning teens report that their phones entertain them while they’re bored. No doubt many of us adults are boring! We shouldn’t overlook the need to attend to bad teaching or bad preaching! But are we helping our youth develop practices that are sufficiently imaginative – spiritually, intellectually, and emotionally – so as to offer a richer alternative to entertainment texting?
Could we engage them in ritual marked more by symbol and silence than by words? Could we take them on mission trips with phones and computers deliberately left at home? Could we practice spiritual journaling with our youth, or meditative reading and prayer? Could we risk taking our youth on a retreat that includes a day of silence? Could youth ministry not simply be creative, high tech communication providing religious enrichment or alleviating the trauma of adolescent loneliness? Could it also guide teens to see solitude as a gifted space where intimacy with God, loved ones, even oneself can be nurtured, rather than always experiencing silence, or being alone, as something to fear or to flee? Could it help teens set aside technology’s lure of immediacy for a while, learning to savor experience rather than simply report it? It’s tempting to track the latest thing fascinating teens, then trying to use it to our advantage, seeking to claim our share of the adolescent market. But sometimes we need to consider another way.
In the Gospel of John the disciples hear Jesus speaking to them of leaving and returning, of no longer seeing and then seeing again, of going away and of coming back, of an absence which will allow for, indeed be necessary for the Comforter’s, the Advocate’s presence. The disciples are confused, and probably alarmed. Leaving us alone? Their fear is often ours, leading us to fill any silence with white noise, any alone time with contact, even if not real companionship. In the process, we squeeze out solitude, mistaking it for an enemy rather than a friend.
This Johannine text seems to suggest that discipleship requires something like the experience of solitude. Making friends with solitude doesn’t come naturally. It’s a discipline we must practice. Perhaps the best thing we can offer our teens today is not to add – literally – to their “contacts,” but to invite them into a lifelong embrace of the gift of solitude where the deepest intimacy is nurtured, and the true Companion is often to be found.
John H. Thomas