I’m sitting in the backseat of the car with our grandson, Ezra, and he asks, “Grammy, does Daddy have my Kindle?”
“Why do you need your Kindle?” I ask.
“Because I play games. And there’s something on YouTube that I like to watch, too. I really want my Kindle.” Ezra is four years old.
In a recent church gathering I heard this conversation with two women in their seventies: “I don’t have a smart phone. I have an old person’s phone. I suppose I should get one. But I have dipped my feet into Facebook. I get on when my kids have posted pictures of my grandchildren.”
We live in a culture where living “on the grid” has become addictive. A typical smart phone has more power than Apollo 11 when it landed a man on the moon. Cell phones abound even in areas of the world where the poverty is staggering and many people do not have enough food. Nine out of ten Americans carry a cell phone with them at all times, and 75% of 25- to 29-year-olds even carry them to bed!
A year ago Time magazine published its 2012 Wireless Issue, which surveyed 5,000 people of different income levels in eight countries. According to the survey, one in four people checks their cell phone every thirty minutes, and one in five checks it every ten minutes.
I am especially fascinated by the phenomenon of teen texting. A report from Pew Research released in 2012 showed that 77% of teens in the U.S. own a cell phone. Of younger teens (12-13), 57% own cell phones versus 87% of older teens (14-17). Purchasing power makes a difference. Suburban teens (83%) are more likely to own cell phones than either urban (69%) or rural teens (73%).
Of all teens, 68% send at least 21 texts per day (roughly two per waking hour), and 18% send more than 200 texts per day. The median number of texts for teens age 14-17 is approximately 100 texts a day, which is six texts per hour in a sixteen hour waking day.
If we are honest, many of us should admit that we are addicted to our cell phones. We can’t put them down, and we become anxious when separated from our phones, even for a brief time. Our phones provide the illusion of instant access to the world through the internet, texts, and social media. Yet too much connection is not always a good thing if it disconnects us from our present environment. Last year, Eva Restaurant in Los Angeles began offering a 5% discount to customers who choose to give their full attention to the people with whom they are dining by checking their cell phones at the door.
I am no longer amazed at our insistence on being wired on the wireless at all times. It was amusing how many Facebook and Twitter conversations were taking place two weeks ago when Kate Middleton went into labor. When George Alexander Louis’ name was finally revealed, the blogosphere exploded with joy for Prince William, Duchess Kate, and His Royal Highness Prince George of Cambridge.
What is fascinating is that some people today are deliberately choosing to get off the grid. Out of the blue, Rachel, a college friend with whom I hadn’t had contact for years, reached me on our home phone. After a good conversation I asked, “How can we stay in contact? Can you give me your cell phone number? How about your email address? Are you on Facebook?” “Sorry,” she said. “I don’t have a cell phone or a computer. What’s Facebook?”
Another friend Tanya, who is younger than me, has a cell phone but no computer. She has no need for a computer because she works in a grocery store, uses her cell phone to communicate with family and friends (no texting), and watches TV to get the news. Why bother with a computer?
By making a decision to get “off the grid,” Rachel and Tanya live in a different way than the vast majority of Americans. The term off the grid (OTG) was originally used in conjunction with not being hooked into the national transmission grid in electricity. Today OTG often describes people who choose to live in a self-sufficient manner without depending on one or more public utilities. Those who grow their own food, make their own clothes, use renewable energy, and have “green” homes live off the grid. OTG also characterizes people who are not part of a social networking site or who do not have their cell phones attached to their hip twenty-four hours a day. It is possible to live a full and rich life without availing ourselves of the latest technology.
As a person of faith, I wonder, what does it mean for a disciple of Jesus Christ to be connected? In a world where technology makes it possible to communicate instantaneously with almost anyone across the globe, is it even desirable to be connected at all times? When and how should Christians get off the grid?
In many ways, Jesus lived off the grid. The grid was the Jewish law, the rules surrounding food, cleanliness, sacrifice, and Sabbath observance. Jesus delivered his most scathing attack on the Jewish religious leaders in Matthew 23: “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you tithe mint, dill and, cumin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law – justice, mercy, and faith… First clean the inside of the cup, so that the outside will also become clean!”
Jesus freed himself from the expectations of both Jewish and Roman society. He chose to connect with people one on one by demonstrating grace, forgiveness, and compassion by what he said and how he treated others. Living off the religious and political grid cost Jesus his life, but saved you and me and our world.
How is Jesus asking us as individuals and the church to step off the world’s grid and on to God’s grid? The apostle Paul puts it this way in Romans 12:2: “Do not let the world around you squeeze you into its own mold.” (J.B. Phillips translation)
Many Christians who are “spiritual but not religious” choose to leave the religious grid because they perceive the institutional church to be too judgmental, too connected to money, power, and status, and too insistent on squeezing them into a one-size-fits-all theological mold. At the same time, our young people, who are more connected to the tech grid than ever, yearn to leave the grid of cultural and societal expectations and follow Jesus’ call.
The church has much to teach the world about not being conformed to this world and disconnecting from the grid. There is a different way to live. Having grown up as a Mennonite, I’ve lived partly off the grid for my whole life. The Christian modeling I experienced as a child empowered me to express my faith in a non-conformist way by not wearing jewelry, using make-up, drinking alcohol or coffee, or using caffeine. By disconnecting from the world’s expectations and living simply, I have been able to connect with the heart of God’s world in a deeper way.
Like you, I cannot imagine myself totally off the tech grid, however. As a local church pastor, I need to communicate well and be available to the congregation, yet being wired twenty-four hours a day is not healthy for me or anyone else. How can you and I get off the grid?
- Fast regularly from your cell phone, computer, and social media (consider it the 21st century version of biblical fasting).
- Put time limits on your work.
- Vacation in places where you are forced to get off the grid, or only allow yourself limited time to be “wired.”
- Connect with God by taking timeouts in daily life. Go for a walk, work out at the gym, garden, read, pursue a hobby, meet a friend for lunch, and turn off your phone.
“Grammy, my Kindle is about to die.”
“So is my computer, Erza. Let’s just turn them off and talk to each other.”