Who Will Have Your Attention?

Clinging to Christ in the Digital Age

Sing! Global 2020 Conference


As you know, our world offers us a feast of new multimedia — new video games every month, new Hollywood movie releases every week, new YouTube videos every minute, new social media updates every second, and a fresh set of Instagram images with every pull-down-to-refresh gesture.

So here we are, celebrating the centrality of the word, celebrating the ear, in the golden age of image — in the age of the eye. It’s been called “the age of spectacles.” Fitting.

This resulting ear/eye tension poses massive challenges for parents and for church leaders, pastors, worship leaders, youth leaders — anyone facing this inundation of media competing for the attention of the people we love and are trying to serve. So, how do we lead deeper into the faith those who are predominantly being led by the eye? That’s a huge challenge and my task today.

I have a few takeaways and thoughts on what this means for our own lives and for how we lead Sunday gatherings. But first let’s open God’s word together to Hebrews 2:1. The writer of Hebrews says this:

Therefore
we must pay much closer attention
to what we have heard,
lest we drift away from it.

We will return to this text later, to listen to what it says to our age.

Age of the Spectacle

But let’s talk a little more about this age itself. We live in the age of spectacles, the age of the eye. And this is not new to us. Traditionally, the church offered pretty robust resistance to the dominant entertainment industries of a given age — to the amphitheater and the playhouse. But this is no longer the case. Partly this is due to a more nuanced appreciation for art in the church today. That’s good.

But I think we also see less resistance to the entertainment industry today because entertainment is no longer a secluded industry tethered to one particular location. It’s not Hollywood or Bollywood — it’s everywhere. Popular entertainment and viral video on social media is now made everywhere. And it reaches us anywhere. And it never stops. Like no century before us, we are submerged into media and into what has been famously called “the age of the spectacle.” And that’s especially true now that we carry a digital theater in our pocket — our smartphone.

This means any Christian resistance to entertainment and media will look a lot different from Christian resistance to the theater districts of Puritan London or to the Roman Colosseum of Augustine’s time. But the root spiritual concerns haven’t changed much. In any generation, spectacles are what sinners turn to in order to turn their attention away from God and away from neighbor. And for those reasons, the church has long brought some measure of resistance to the culture’s dominant entertainment industries.

It’s time for the church to renew that resistance today, but to do so with new attentiveness to what makes our age unique, and to first understand how digital media shapes and forms and deforms us. That’s the goal for our time together. And I think the best way to approach this entire conversation today, in our culture, is to frame it in terms of spectacles.

Our Collective Gaze

So, what is a spectacle?

“Is my media diet enriching my time with Christ or eroding it?”

A spectacle is a moment of time, of varying length, in which a collective gaze is fixed on some specific image, or video, or event. A spectacle is something that captures human attention, an instant when our eyes and brains focus and fixate on something projected at us. In an outrage society like ours, spectacles are often controversies — the latest scandal in sports, entertainment, or politics.

Controversy in any form makes for a captivating spectacle to grab millions of eyes. And as our media gets faster and faster, it becomes more fragmented. Now the most miniscule public slip of the tongue or passive-aggressive celebrity comment or hypocritical political image can become a spectacle. More collectively, spectacles take the form of public protests and riots framed for the camera. So, a spectacle is some moment captured and published to hold a collective gaze for a particular purpose.

Spectacles can be a brilliant photograph, an eye-catching billboard, a creative animation, a sexualized advertisement for deodorant, a witty commercial for fast food, or a new music video. Spectacles can be mind-blowing digital landscapes in a video game, or a celebrated network TV show, a new binge-worthy season on Netflix, a blockbuster movie, a horror film — even down to a sports clip of an athlete’s glory (or injury). All of those are spectacles.

And, as you know, our culture is awash in all of them — so much so that spectacles now compete for our limited gaze. There’s huge competition to grab as many eyes as possible. That means the politician’s tweets get more insane. The pranks get more insane. The trick shots get more insane. The CGI gets more immersive. There’s stiff competition for eyes in this “attention market,” all driven by waves of new spectacles to grab our attention.

Cycle of Addiction

Now, all of this seems like a bunch of harmless fun, until we realize that every spectacle — get this — every spectacle wants something from us. Every spectacle makes demands on us. So, what do our spectacles want from us? This, I think, is a huge reality that a lot of us fail to see.

The truth is that images aim to provoke something in us in order to extract something from us. New spectacles ask us for all sorts of things — our time, our attention, our outrage, our lust, our affections, our money, and our votes. Every picture, every video, every viral tweet brings before us needs, expectations, and desires. They’re all asking for something in return.

So, as we “consume” spectacles, we don’t merely ingest them; we are constantly responding to them. Visual images awaken the motives inside of our hearts. Images tug the strings of our actions. Images want our celebration, our awe, our affection, our time, and our outrage. Images invoke our consensus, our approval, our buy-in, our resharing power, and of course our wallets.

“Christ crucified is the hinge of history, the point of contact between BC and AD.”

The porn industry wants your lust. YouTubers will give you new spectacles in exchange for your views and your likes. Netflix flat-out wants our most precious commodity: our time — deliberately and intentionally trying to intrude on our sleep patterns to extract even more time from us. Politicians want our votes. The gaming industry wants our money. And so, from each of them comes a vast array of eye-grabbing spectacles, each demanding something from us.

Many of us know how this dynamic works from the inside. We make our own spectacles online in social media, little spectacles that we hope will grab some attention. In them we implicitly want to be celebrated, heart-ed, liked, shared, retweeted. We are hoping for something in return.

Every spectacle in the world implicitly comes to us packaged with a scripted set of responses for us to choose from. All spectacles ask for us to respond. This is because attention is the currency of power. The more plays or “likes” you give something, the more it grows in power and influence. The most attention we give to something becomes a viral spectacle, something so powerful you have to see it. So, the attention market exists because we feed it — that is, because we keep giving spectacles what they want.

It becomes an addicting cycle that seems to be nearly impossible to break.

Where All Time Collides

So, how does God respond to this world of spectacles? And how should we respond?

Well, it would be very easy at this point to retreat to a position that’s simply anti-spectacle: Trash the TV. Throw the smartphone in a lake. Sledgehammer the Xbox. Live a spectacle-free existence. And yet, that’s exactly not how God confronts our digital world.

Instead, into our spectacle-loving world, with all of its spectacle makers and spectacle-making industries, came a greater Spectacle, the greatest Spectacle ever devised in the mind of God and brought about in world history: the cross of Jesus Christ. Christ crucified is the hinge of history, the point of contact between BC and AD, where all time collides, where all human spectacles meet one unsurpassed, cosmic, divine Spectacle for the ages. From this moment on, God intended all human gaze to center itself on this climactic moment. It’s as if God says to us, “This is my beloved Son, crucified for you, a Spectacle to capture your hearts forever!”

In his accounting of the cross, Luke tells us in Luke 23:48 that the crucifixion was a physical spectacle before the crowds to see. It reminds me of the lyrics of Joseph Hart’s hymn, “His Passion”:

See how the patient Jesus stands,
Insulted in His lowest case!
Sinners have bound the Almighty hands,
And spit in their Creator’s face.

With thorns His temple gored and gash’d
Send streams of blood from every part;
His back’s with knotted scourges lash’d,
But sharper scourges tear His heart.

Nail’d naked to the accursed wood,
Exposed to earth and heaven above,
A spectacle of wounds and blood,
A prodigy of injured love!

Captured by Divine Beauty

But the cross is not merely a physical spectacle for the eye. No, its greater glory is in serving as a spectacle for the ear of faith. So, in Colossians 2:15, Paul tells us that what you could not see with your eyes was the spiritual spectacle of victory it represents. And in Galatians 3:1, Paul says the preaching of the cross is the re-celebration of the spectacle of the cross, as if it were portrayed on a prominent city billboard. That’s what preaching Christ means. It’s the recapitulation of the divine spectacle of Christ, in the local church, over and over throughout time. But it’s a preached spectacle — a spectacle now, not for the eye, but a spectacle for the ear.

This is why everything about you and your eternal destiny boils down to what kind of spectacle the cross is to you. Is it merely the mocking of a fraudulent king in his final defeat? Or is it the raising up of the King of the universe to supreme victory? Those are the two options: the cross is either the terribly unfortunate murder of a deluded insurrectionist, or it was a preplanned spectacle orchestrated by God to display a divine beauty unsurpassed. The spectacle of the cross separates all of humanity. The spectacle you see in Christ says everything about you.

By divine design, Christians are pro-spectacle. We give our entire lives to this greatest Spectacle. But it is a spectacle for the ear, and that’s where the greatest tension arises in our age of competing spectacles.

“The spectacle you see in Christ says everything about you.”

From one angle, the age of digital spectacles is all about wealth, advertising, coercion, popularity, and grabbing more and more attention from us. But even more problematic, the digital spectacles do something worse, worse because of what we, sinners, do with those spectacles. At root, sinners feed on diversions to escape God. This is the root problem I mentioned at the start.

So, Christ serves as the ultimate Spectacle of the universe. He is the one who most captures our hearts — or should most capture our hearts. We were created to be spectacle-beholders and to be captured by the beauty of the cross, a beauty celebrated in the New Testament.

Grandest Glory, Cosmic Catastrophe

Hebrews 1 is one of my favorite portraits of Christ, in the glory of his atoning sacrifice for sinners. Hebrews 1 ranks up there with Colossians 1 in offering us a Spectacle of the supremacy and majesty of God’s Son. In fact, Hebrews 1 is so compelling that it calls for urgent application. And so, we return again to Hebrews 2:1:

Therefore . . .

The logical conclusion of Christ’s glorious atonement in chapter 1 follows into that first word:

Therefore
we must pay much closer attention
to what we have heard,
lest we drift away from it.

A drift away from what we have heard with our ears — in the form of a nautical metaphor. It tells us the importance of holding a ship’s course toward a fixed point, to avoid being pulled off course and drifting away.

So, “we must” — we must, no suggestion or hint, but a demand — pay much closer attention to Christ. Affectional drift — heart drift — away from Christ happens through attentional negligence, when we no longer focus on Christ. This, I argue, is one of the core challenges we face as Christians inside the attention economy, and one of the greatest challenges we face as Christian leaders.

Only Christ can be this most brilliant Spectacle for us. And when our ears, our attention, neglect Christ, we drift away from him. That’s the point of Hebrews 2:1–3. To drift is the easiest thing in the world. And this drift is felt most clearly when we find ourselves constantly seeking after a new thrill in our media, meanwhile losing interest in the person of Christ, watching our interest in the Bible decline as we coldly mouth the words to Christ-centered hymns, and yawn through Christ-centered sermons, and spiritually snooze through the Lord’s Table.

And like I suggested earlier, this is a problem even with morally virtuous media. By them we can easily drift and grow bored with Christ. This is tragic because all of creation exists by Christ and for Christ, we are told in Hebrews 2:10. To be bored with Christ is for our minds and hearts to be disconnected from the greatest thrill of the cosmos, severed from God’s very purpose for this creation — as a theater to display the worth and beauty of his Son. There’s no greater catastrophic loss imaginable to a soul than to grow weary of Christ, the Spectacle of all spectacles — the spectacle for which everything else exists. And this catastrophe, I fear, is only accelerated in a media age like our own that inundates us with digital media 24/7/365.

Attentional Drift

Affectional drift away from Christ (in our hearts) is caused by attentional drift away from Christ. We forget what we’ve heard. And this is hardly a new temptation to the digital age. In fact, there’s a moment in Mark’s account of the transfiguration of Jesus when “a cloud overshadowed them, and a voice came out of the cloud, ‘This is my beloved Son; listen to him’” (Mark 9:7). This thunderous word, from the heavens, spoken over the Word (over Jesus), is spoken into the clamor of the world’s attention market — a call to serious listening.

Listening here means a lot more than casually tuning in for a moment or two before we switch off again. It means real listening, intense listening, listening which hurts. It means attentive straining after what is said, giving ourselves wholly to the task of attention to Jesus. Why? Because he is God’s Word, he is what God says to us. (Confronted by Grace: Meditations of a Theologian, 96)

“At root, sinners feed on diversions to escape God.”

Church leaders are called to reecho this plea from the heavens: Listen! Listen! Listen until it hurts! Give Christ your life-attention, not in tweet-by-tweet scattered glances. Focus on him in sustained discipline as if your life depends on it, as if you will drift away if you lose sight of this North Star.

Spectacles want your attention and your affections.
Christ wants your attention and your affections.
This is the competition.

Who Has Your Heart?

So, we’re always asking, Does he really have my heart? We are commanded to give our most earnest and careful attention to the person and work of Jesus Christ. We see his glory in the Bible. We pursue him in our daily devotions, in our prayer life, on Sundays, in the Lord’s Table.

And, of course, this all depends on the supernatural work of God in regeneration. In that moment when our inner man, this inner deadness inside of me that only pursued sin, when this is put to death and then raised up with Christ, my affections also get raised up and fixed on something greater than anything this digital world can offer me. As Paul puts it in Colossians 3:1–3,

If then you have been raised with Christ [that’s the condition — an inner man that has been resurrected from the dead — if that has happened, if you are regenerated, then], seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth. For you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God.

Our spiritual affections, once dead, are now alive. Those reborn affections are made for Christ. And this is not natural and it’s not automatic — it’s supernatural grace, calling for life discipline. We keep working at this until we can affirm with Peter — in 1 Peter 1:8 — that even though we have not seen Christ — we have not yet beheld the spectacle of his transfigured presence — we now love him with a love that fills our hearts with joy, a joy we cannot put into words.

Great, Big Lie

So, my root concern over our worst digital habits is not TikTok, Instagram, Snapchat, Netflix, Marvel, Disney, the iPhone, the Xbox. And it’s bigger than pornography, R-rated movies, or MA-rated gaming. The battle is not merely over the sinfulness of the world’s spectacle industry; it’s a battle over media saturation — even with otherwise wholesome and good media. By the sheer volume of new media in our lives, Christ grows more and more distant from our attention and our affections. In digital media, we take our eyes off of Christ, off our North Star, lose our direction, and begin to drift off course.

Social media and gaming and Netflix binging — the whole spectacle age is all built on one lie: If you give more of your life to your screens, you will become more satisfied. And that’s a false promise. It will never deliver.

This is the root problem Christians face in the age of the spectacle: Compared to the thrill of our pixilated screens, we lose confidence that Christ really can satisfy me.

Four Principles for Discipleship in a Digital Age

So, what can we do? How do we respond? Here are four practical steps.

1. Be honest with our own susceptibilities to the world’s spectacles.

All of us face these challenges. We need to lead from within the fight that we face ourselves. The Bible says, “Sheol and Abaddon are never satisfied, and never satisfied are the eyes of man” (Proverbs 27:20). Sheol is an open mouth, always consuming life, day and night — a mass graveyard never filled. That is our eyes. Our eyes are insatiable — always roving, never fully satisfied by anything in this world. Which means, again, our great enemy is not the seduction of our spectacle makers. Our great enemy is our own insatiable eye-lust — my own eyes, your own eyes.

“We dare not let the greatness of Jesus Christ get lost on our affections.”

Where our eyes go, so goes our heart. Where our heart is, so go our eyes. Attention and affection are linked. So, if you glut yourself on the spectacles of this world, your heart must drift away from Christ. We all must get honest with that reality inside of us. Lead your kids and lead your church from this starting point of personal honesty. No one is exempt.

2. Apply the concept of fasting to the buffet of digital media.

I’m talking here about a digital detox — getting away from our phones and streaming services for a whole week (or more). These practices are how we say to the world, “The endless cascade of digital spectacles on my phone is not my god. And the praise I get in social media isn’t the source of my happiness either. God alone is.”

A digital detox is a withdraw from the power-currency system; it’s a fast. And fasting is how Christians say, “Food is not my god. Food is not my comfort. Food is not the basis of my happiness; God is.” We use food rightly when God is at the center of our lives, not food. In a consumer-driven age of abundance, you can imagine how fasting becomes even more urgent.

Food is a powerful habit, and so is our phone. Every day, we habitually turn to our phones, more often than we turn to sugar. Smartphones are a virtual candy bowl. So, a digital detox is my way of saying, “The endless spectacles of digital media available to me in my phone are not my god. The self-affirmation and acceptance I seek in social media is not the basis of my happiness; God’s acceptance of me, my union with Christ, is.” Only when our lives are re-centered on God can we learn to use our phones in an honorable way and with eternal purpose.

Many movies and videos and games and apps are wonderful gifts from God to be embraced. But like all fasting, a digital detox is sanctified gratitude, one way to ensure that our lives center on the gift-Giver, not on his proliferated gifts.

3. Recalibrate the purpose of the local church around the affections.

Especially in the book of Hebrews, fixing our attention and affections on Christ becomes one of the grand callings of the local church. It’s a collective work. I am called to be aware of your affection for Christ. You are called to be aware of that in me. Together we refuse to allow one another to drift. In the midst of an age that will grab your eyes and your attention in a thousand ways, we are brothers and sisters, each helping one another fix our minds and hearts on Christ.

We need to give Christians the tools they need to evaluate the spiritual impact of digital media on the health of their own hearts. Here are eight diagnostic questions you can use and share:

  1. How much of my media is for escape? And what am I escaping?
  2. Does my screen time leave me more recharged or more depleted?
  3. Is my media diet enriching my time with Christ or eroding it?
  4. How consistent is my personal devotional life?
  5. What does my prayer life look like?
  6. Is communion with God drab and boring? Or is it alive?
  7. How do Christ-centered sermons and songs land on me, and what does this say about the affectional health I bring with me on Sunday?
  8. Are my digital desires serving my God-given duties, or are they distracting me from them?

These questions are meant to put our media diet and our spiritual affections in the same conversation, because that’s where they belong: in the same conversation. Our attentional drift will show up in these areas. The effects of our media diet will show up in these honest answers.

4. Church leaders, keep leading ears into unseen glories.

There are many temptations church leaders face to make the Sunday gatherings of the church as visibly spectacular as possible. The church, having been tempted to appeal to the spectacle industry, starts taking on the vibe of a theater: lasers and neon lights and sermon trailer videos and fog machines. We can over-index on visual production. We want to be excellent in what we do (yes, absolutely) and we want to be creative too (certainly) all while being careful not to leave the impression that we’re simply trying to impress eyes. No! The work of ministry is to persuade hearts — through the ear — to treasure unseen realities.

Dr. J.I. Packer, who recently passed into glory, was the most heavenly minded man I ever met. His academic work centered on Puritan Richard Baxter, the most heavenly minded Puritan of them all. It is said that Packer liked to go for walks in his neighborhood simply to think about the glories of heaven, and to remind himself of eternity. And it was this same Packer who liked to ask this question: “When was the last time you heard a sermon about heaven?” He’s now gone to heaven, but he left us with that searching question. Pastors, when did you last preach a sermon on heaven? Worship leaders, when did your congregation last sing of the glories of heaven? Do you put more time into stage props and backgrounds than you do in expounding or singing about eternity?

Our church meetings are not a theater for passive viewers to come and be entertained by professional ministers and musicians and stage performers for an hour. No, this is a gathering — the people of God together in active communion with one another, ears awake, and captured (together) by unseen glories.

Spectacle of Hope

We dare not let the greatness of Jesus Christ get lost on our affections. This is one of the greatest threats to Christians in the digital age. It’s as easy as giving our affections over to this age of the visible spectacle — to this attention economy — and our delight in Christ will deteriorate. We will drift. And that drift, away from Christ, for digital thrills, is the worst trade in the universe — to turn away from God’s great Spectacle in favor of the next little buzz of media offered by the world.

In all of this, we proceed in faith, knowing that digital minimalism will not save me. And a new lifehack app will not save me. And a digital detox will not save me. And throwing my smartphone into a lake will not save me. And sledgehammering my Xbox will not save me. And tossing my television in the garbage will not save me. And switching to a dumbphone will not save me.

Any of those drastic actions might help me. But my ultimate hope rests in a Spectacle, the most satisfying Spectacle of the universe — Jesus Christ — a spectacle for the ear now, and for the eye later.

Lord, make this true of us right now. Capture us by Christ. We live inside Vanity Fair. And this playground of digital amusements has never been more addictive and eye-grabbing and time-consuming and affection-dulling. Save us from wasting our lives by giving our precious attention to what ignores you and to what dishonors you. Capture us. We don’t trust in ourselves here. We are not confident in our own powers to delight in eternal things. Do this work inside us, in the new life you give us and in the reborn affections inside us.

May we begin each day like the psalmist, who prayed, “Satisfy us in the morning with your steadfast love, that we may rejoice and be glad all our days” (Psalm 90:14). Lord, that is our daily prayer. Satisfy me today that I might live today in your joy. Because if you won’t answer this prayer, what hope do we have to resist the vanities of this world? We need you. Especially in this media age, capture our ears. Don’t let us drift, we pray, in the name of our steady anchor within the veil, Jesus Christ. Amen.