A deep yearning for depth is arising. Bradley Cooper and Lady Gaga gifted us the haunting tale of the exhaustion of living in the shallow places. Busyness has replaced meaning. Constant access to increasingly alarming headlines (hello click bait) are nurturing societal anxiety while entertainment addiction leaves us decreasingly socially active. Cal Newport draws out in his book Deep Work:Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World our need for disconnected space if we hope to produce ideas and thinking that are truly transformative.
In the emerging economy Newport contends that deep work is becoming increasingly rare due to a constant state of distraction. It is reasonable to say that this same distraction is keeping us from a place of deep faith. Deep faith is that place of connection with Jesus, it is a place of abiding. Nouwen offers,“[t]o follow Jesus you have to be willing to say ‘This half hour I’m going to dwell with Jesus. I know I will be distracted. I know I will have a hundred thoughts and a million things to do, but I know you love me and invite me even when I am antsy and anxious. I am going to dwell.’ Be with Him and listen.”  It is this listening that simply cannot happen in the midst of distraction because we need to not just listen with our ears, but with our hearts. This type of listening requires practice. After Elijah took a great stand for God, he grew depressed and withdrew, hopeless, into a cave. Big weather events occurred around him. Certainly they were distracting. In fact, our constant connectedness offers a close parallel. Even if the storm isn’t actually outside our cave anymore, we live feeling as though it is. When we stay connected, the storms never pass. There is always one somewhere waiting to be let in through our technology. But it wasn’t until the storm passed that Elijah could hear the still small voice of God. If we allow the storm to be constantly raging we cannot hear the voice of God. And there are deep consequences.
People are hard wired to hunger and thirst as part of our basic make-up. Unfortunately we also have a tendency to choose what is easy—which can lead to poor health. As Christians, we become hard wired to hunger for God’s presence. Our streams of social media, carefully tailored to our tastes by clever algorithms, will offer us other people’s reflections on faith and God which we may gobble up as spiritual food. But this cannot satisfy the deep places of the heart. Only feasting on the actual presence of God, through stillness can nourish us properly. But an unfortunate cycle is created whereby people contribute to creating this alternate spiritual food for others, not out of their own genuine encounters, but as they digest what they have been eating. When we become highly digitally connected we face a serious risk of increasingly shallow faith, which in turn affects the church.
What does it look like if we substitute churches for Newport’s work places? Church growth strategies have leaned into entertaining services, small groups to attend, outreach to participate in and places to volunteer. While these all have genuine merit, this busyness combined with surface connections leaves any of these in the shallows. In an effort to attract people, leaders make it as easy as possible for people to be part of these aspects of church life. And so we have people with increasingly surface faith, doing relatively easy things. But research indicates that “[h]uman beings, it seems, are at their best when immersed deeply in something challenging.” Perhaps it is for this reason that I have watched multiple church members over the years give up church in favour of an intense work out regimen. Could it be that the church is robbing people of the opportunity for joy and meaning while offering them fun and Instagram worthy photo opportunities through serving? We don’t demand enough. ‘Communities…thrive on doing hard things together.” Both corporately and individually we must find our way back to depth and challenge. The path it seems is through stillness.
Mark Buchanan points out that “Sabbath-keeping is more than time management. It is a fresh orientation to time, where we think with holy imagination about how the arc of our moments and hours and days intersects with eternity.” If Instagram keeps us focusing on the moment, Sabbath re-places us vulnerably within eternity. Sabbath invites us into the uncomfortable deep places, where our soul is laid bare to receive from the Still Small Voice. “Vulnerability is the birthplace of love, belonging, joy, courage, empathy, and creativity. It is the source of hope, empathy, accountability, and authenticity.” The emergence of authentic leadership recognizes the value of leaders who have nurtured their deep places. It requires: self-awareness, relational transparency, balanced processing, and internalized moral perspective. These attributes ferment in the disconnected times and spaces. However Newport recognizes the limitations of the sabbath, noting that in itself it will not lead to a re-wiring of our brain and that greater lengths of undistracted time are needed. From a faith perspective, retreats might provide the space for reclaiming our capacity for deep connection with Jesus, while sabbath taking and and quiet times would preserve that depth and maintain clarity of priorities. “Clarity about what matters provides clarity about what does not.”
Brown offers this: “[i]f we want greater clarity in our purpose or deeper and more meaningful spiritual lives, vulnerability is the path.” It’s time to reclaim the deep places of our faith if we hope to be a church that offers hope to the deep crises of our world.
1. Cal Newport, Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World (New York: Portfolio/Penguin, 2016), Chapter 2. Kindle.
2. Henri J.Nouwen, M., Gabrielle Earnshaw, and Richard Rohr. Following Jesus: Finding Our Way Home in an Age of Anxiety. (NY, NY: Convergent, 2019) 19:23. Audible.
3. 1 Kings 19:11-13 NIV.
4. Newport, 82.
5. Newport, 110.
6. Mark Buchanan, The Rest of God: Restoring your Soul by Restoring Sabbath. (Nashville, Tennessee: Thomas Nelson, 2006), 76.
7. Brene Brown,Daring Greatly: How the Courage to be Vulnerable Transforms the Way we Live, Love, Parent and Lead. (London: Penguin Life, 2015).
8. Daniel B. Holmquist, “Authentic Leadership Theory: Enhancements from 1 Peter 5:1-5.” Theology of Leadership Journal, Vol 1 No 1 (2018), 9. http://theologyofleadership.com/index.php/tlj/issue/view/v1i1/v1i1.
10. Newport, 62.
11. Brene Brown,Daring Greatly: How the Courage to be Vulnerable Transforms the Way we Live, Love, Parent and Lead. (London: Penguin Life, 2015).