I expected a revolt. Instead, I got gratitude. I anticipated accusations of being a crotchety old man, but students told me they felt a sense of relief. I had just announced my decision to no longer allow computers or cell phones (or other tools of technology) in my classroom. I teach a course called “Principles of Biblical Reasoning” at a small Christian college, and I want our times together to be rich conversations about why we believe what we believe. Students updating their Facebook statuses, texting friends outside class, or checking scores at ESPN.com doesn’t promote the atmosphere I hope for.

The class includes training in evangelism, and it seems to me that a core component for most people’s evangelism should involve good conversation skills. But alas, such “common” knowledge is far from common these days. Many are right to bemoan the death—or at least the gradual demise—of good conversation. The implications for evangelism loom large in my wrestling with how we can proclaim truth in an age of distraction.

If we hope to engage in conversation about weighty topics like knowing God, acknowledging sin, and trusting in Christ’s death, we need to have some level of competence in listening, asking good questions, and pursuing rich conversation. If we can’t connect with a person about the weather or their job, we may find it difficult to talk about eternity or their soul.

Learning a Foreign Language 

When providing evangelism training for churches, I include a workshop on listening skills. I pair people up and have one partner start the dialogue while the other is only allowed to ask questions. I’m hoping this helps them engage in better two-way dialogues instead of the more commonly practiced “simultaneous monologues.” For some, it’s like learning a foreign language.

And so I was both encouraged and challenged to read Sherry Turkle’s New York Times article “Stop Googling. Let’s Talk” about her research on how technology is harming conversation. A professor in the social studies of science and technology at M.I.T., Turkle focuses on “what has happened to face-to-face conversation in a world where so many people say they would rather text than talk.”

“When two people are talking,” Turkle believes, “the mere presence of a phone on a table between them or in the periphery of their vision changes both what they talk about and the degree of connection they feel.” She quotes research that suggests a significant decline in empathy among college students, which she attributes to an increase in use of cell phones, especially texting. But she sees some merit to a college junior’s view: “Our texts are fine. It’s what texting does to our conversations when we are together that’s the problem.”

Turkle values conversation so highly as to see it in almost theological terms: “Conversation is the most human and humanizing thing that we do.” Thus she bemoans the decline of conversation because it leads to loneliness, cripples our ability to express empathy, and diminishes our capacity for concentration. This, she insists, is because “our phones are not accessories, but psychologically potent devices that change not just what we do but who we are.”

Reclaiming Conversation

But Turkle is far from hopeless. She’s not even extreme in her suggested solutions: “It is not about giving up our phones but about using them with greater intention. Conversation is there for us to reclaim.” She offers some suggestions for starting to disconnect from our phones and reconnect with our friends:

  • “We can choose not to carry our phones all the time.”
  • “We can park our phones in a room and go to them every hour or two while we work on other things or talk to other people.”
  • “We can carve out spaces at home or work that are device-free, sacred spaces for the paired virtues of conversation and solitude.”

I would add some suggestions for enhancing our spiritual lives and our evangelistic efforts.

  • Put your phone in another room while reading your Bible (the paper one!) and praying.
  • Leave your phone in the car while worshiping in church.
  • Decide to make some meetings or conversations device-free, especially ones that focus on close Christian fellowship or potential outreach toward outsiders.
  • Make it a goal to grow in comfort with eye-to-eye conversation. (This may take some practice.)
  • Develop fluency in biblical meditation and comfort with solitude.

Relational and Social Creatures 

While Turkle has no discipleship goals in the application of her research, it’s easy to see how her insights can help us as we seek first the kingdom of God. She almost sounds like a preacher when she declares: “This is our moment to acknowledge the unintended consequences of the technologies to which we are vulnerable, but also to respect the resilience that has always been ours.”

God made us to be relational and social like himself. As we seek to introduce people to this God, we can pave the way toward rich gospel conversations by keeping our eyes on their faces, our ears attuned to their words, and our phones in our pockets.