How many of your friends can you name who do not have a cell phone? If I don't count anyone under the age of 16, or over the age of 80, then I can only name one: my friend Garrett. He's barely 40 and is a pastor, which seems like a tough job to do without a cellphone in hand. Over the years he's taken a lot of razzing about his stubborn unwillingness to conform to the group. Lately, however, I've been wondering if he might be onto something. So, I asked him to respond to a few questions about what it's like to navigate culture and ministry without a phone in his hand. Here's how the conversation went:
TS: Let's start with the obvious question: why don't you have a cell phone? Is this technophobia? Are you a Luddite? This has to be a philosophical objection, right?
GL: I do not suffer from technophobia. Truthfully I like the idea of a portable handheld computer. It is the phone that I find objectionable. My reasons have multiplied through the years but there are basically three.
First, I don't think that level of connection is healthy for me, and possibly not for anyone. I fear a cell phone would place me on a tether which stretches out to hundreds of people who are making dozens of rash decisions a day. If only a fraction of those rash decisions involve expressing momentary negativity or asking for my immediate assistance with a crisis, I could be exposed to a hail of need/hate bullets for which I lack the emotional Kevlar. I see men every time I go to the grocery store calling their wives on cell phones to ask "Which baked beans should I buy?" Does it really matter? I do not want to be the on the receiving end of hundreds of baked-bean calls. I believe cell phones allow us to transfer anxiety quickly to another, when that anxiety rightly belongs with us, right where we are, momentarily overwhelmed by the number of baked beans before us... but we can figure it out.
Second, by observation I now find that people with cell phones are present everywhere on the planet, except in the place where they actually are. People now talk to me (sort of) while carrying on a second (text) conversation with someone else, somewhere else. I've seen people being interviewed in documentary films answering texts while they are on camera. "Hey! You're in a movie! Millions of us will rent this to hear about your experience. Must we all wait for you to text your peeps?"
Third, a moment before my wife's phone rings, our TV surround sound clicks several times. As a scientist [former career], I am still not convinced of the safety of having something emitting that amount of field energy (reaching twelve feet) close to my head for long periods of time.
TS: Are you offended that I just asked you why you haven't bought a consumer product, as though that is a prerequisite for participation in our culture?
GL: I am not offended. I am fascinated that something which barely existed twenty-five years ago has so quickly attained "necessary for life" status.
TS: What kind of reaction do you get from people when they find out you don't have a cell phone? Has anyone harassed your, or taken offense?
GL: Absolutely. Most people who are offended that I don't have one seem to consider it a piece of life-safety equipment. I am endangering my wife and children by not having a cell phone. I used to say, "You’re right. Remember when we were in school, and millions of kids met terrible fates all because they couldn't call their folks from the sidewalk; when we used to have to walk into a building and ask to use the phone to check in. Oh! The lives that were needlessly thrown away!" People didn't think that soliloquy was clever so I had to stop. I sometimes think about pointing out cell phones are now a factor in 25% of all car accidents. People probably wouldn't think that was clever either. Safety first.
TS: Is there a fraternity? Have you found other people who have opted out of the cell phone?
GL: This is amazing. I don't know anyone else who doesn't have a cell phone. Kids, the elderly,the very poor, people in third world countries...everyone seems able to get and maintain a cell phone. That is impressive. However, when someone now tells me they don't have enough money to go on a prayer retreat or to the marriage counselling I am recommending, a voice in my head does say, "This person who can't afford to invest in soul or marriage is paying for five cell phone plans." (And had they not been texting the new girl at work so often perhaps this counselling would not be necessary in the first place.) But again, safety first.
TS: What do you see in cell phone users that we can't see in ourselves?
GL: You are part of a massive cultural phenomenon that has grown so much faster than any sort of good etiquette to regulate it. You are present to everyone in the world except for the people who are right there with you. You are on a leash. If the cell phone rings you feel guilty for not picking it up immediately. If not guilty, you are at least anxious until you can get somewhere and look at that screen and see what it is you have missed. It’s been months since you did only one thing at a time in your own home. You are experiencing so much more anxiety. Think about it:
Non-cellphone World: Person A has problem, anxiety, and must solve it themselves. Person B is at peace, unaware
Cellphone world: Person A has problem, anxiety, and must solve it. Person B gets a text and now has anxiety also, though they cannot help.
Net Gain for Cellphone World = x2 anxiety
TS: Do you ever feel like you are being more demanding on others by making people work with you when you don't have this piece of technology that has become such a big part of how we mediate our interactions?
GL: No friend has ever told me, "I wish you had a cell phone." My wife says it often, but only because she was unable to transfer anxiety for a problem she was having and would have had to solve by herself anyway. She felt lonely for a moment. But feeling lonely for a moment is very human. It is not fatal.
TS: Do you have any concerns regarding cellphones and ministry? How has this impacted your role as a pastor?
GL: I do have concerns. Christians now handle their conflict by texting, which denies them tone of voice, posture, and physical touch. It reinforces the western concept of humanity as disembodied souls in disposable fleshy space suits. The communication is imprecise. There are at least three ways to say “I’m sorry I hurt you” with varying levels of sincerity and contrition. Unfortunately they all look the same on a phone. The addition of an emoticon is not helpful.
I don’t see any negative impact on my ministry. I might be better. When I am listening to you, I am listening only to you. When you send me on a retreat to pray, I only pray for you and for our church. I don't ask for any of your tithe dollars to upgrade my data plan.
TS: Will you, or have you, let your kids have a cell phone? Are there other instances you've opted out of technology or culture?
GL: Not yet. They have phones but the phones have no service. They are handheld computers. I would like to keep it that way, but I don't know if I will prevail in that endeavor. The older they get the more the choice must be theirs. I opt out of cable tv, because if I did I would watch it all the time and miss out on family, creativity, and people. I have Netflix. I never bought a minivan or SUV, which in the burbs was standard equipment. But you can put two car seats in the back of a Nissan. I embrace technologies until they become things that separate me from people. I am already an introvert. I don't need anything else to reinforce my isolationist tendencies. I need real connection.
TS: Do you feel any pressure to get a cell phone? Do you think there will come a point when you do get one?
GL: I feel a light pressure although now it has become my schtick, like a cartoon character. Last year the church got a cellphone app for giving and the staff made me do all the announcements to introduce it to the congregation so that all might laugh at my inability to use the right lingo. I don't see myself getting one. I am also prone to leaving things lying around. Buying a new stocking cap or hoodie every year is barely tolerable. Replacing a $300 phone would be too much.
TS: In your estimation, has this had a net positive effect on your life? What is the net effect?
GL: The effect on my life has been overwhelmingly positive. Before cell phones I was not considered a focused or warm and fuzzy person. But now the bar for what is considered focused has dropped so low that I am considered nearly super human in what I can accomplish. The recouped time I have to spend on family and friendships also makes me appear to be relational and attentive by stark contrast to the surrounding culture.
Tim Suttle is the senior pastor of Redemption Church in Kansas City. He is the author of several books including his most recent, Shrink: Faithful Ministry in a Church-Growth Culture (2014 Zondervan). An Evangelical Social Gospel?, (2011 Cascade Books), Public Jesus (2012 The House Studio). His blog is called Paperback Theology. Tim often writes for The Huffington Post and Sojourner's and his work has appeared in The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal, and other magazines and journals. He is the founder and front-man of the Christian band Satellite Soul, with whom he toured for nearly a decade. Tim has planted three churches over the past 12 years and is the Senior Pastor of Redemption Church in Olathe, Kan.
Publication date: March 5, 2015