Saving Children’s Souls in the Tech Revolution

December 15th, 2019

Preacher: The Rev. Doyt L. Conn, Jr

To listen to the sermon click here.

“Strengthen the weak hands and make firm the feeble knees. Say to those who are of fearful heart, ‘Be strong, do not fear!’ Here is your God. He will come with vengeance, with terrible recompense.” (Isa 35:3-4)…(clap) BREAK!

That almost sounds like something you’d say in a football huddle. I played a lot of pickup football as a kid. I went to Bamber Valley Elementary School, and it was surrounded by acres of open fields. After school we’d play football for hours then ride our bikes home muddy and starving; often with bumps and bruises we didn’t even notice…’cause we were kids, and that is how kids play, at least when I was a kid.Things were stable and predictable and familiar in 1970’s America.

We live in very different times; I dare say revolutionary times, driven by the advent of personal, powerful, ubiquitous technology. This technological revolution has changed the world, and one of the ways it has changed the world is by how children play.

In this season of Advent, I want to take a look at children and play, and our responsibility toward them as guardians of their souls. This season is, after all, a time to wonder how we will respond to Jesus when he returns and asks us: “How have you cared for the world you were given guardianship of? How have you attended to souls; both your own, and those, particularly children, who have been given into your care?”

Children are the first to be impacted by revolution, any revolution. They are the canaries in the coal mine. These are revolutionary times, though not the first revolutionary times we’ve encountered in this country.

We have plenty of precedent. So, before I wonder with you at the impact of the technological revolution we are in the midst of, and how it impacts children and their play; let’s take a look back at our Christian predecessors to see how they exercised their guardianship in revolutionary times.

It was the 19th century and the industrial revolution was upon us mastering the monetization of the material world, and in doing so creating an insatiable need for labor, that was quickly filled by children. By the beginning of the 20th century one in six children under the age of sixteen were employed; some wearing their fingers to the bone rolling cigarettes in Charlotte, NC; others losing fingers to the spinning looms in Scranton, PA.

Two men in England, which was also experiencing the industrial revolution, were alert to these issues. They saw the broken-down bodies and emaciated souls of children ravaged by work in the service of the industrial revolution. The men were Sir George Williams and the Reverend John Stewart, and in 1844 they founded an organization that offered young men, and soon thereafter young women, a safe place to live, as well as, a place to play. It was called the Young Men’s Christian Association, we call it the “Y”.

Williams’ and Stewarts’ guardianship over children in the midst of the industrial revolution was early and influential, and spread throughout the world. By 1851 there were “Y’s” throughout the United Kingdom, as well as, Australia, Belgium, Canada, France, Germany, the Netherlands, Switzerland, and the United States.

As the prophet Isaiah might say: “The eyes of the blind shall be opened, and the ears of the deaf unstopped; and then the lame shall leap like a deer, and the tongues of the speechless sing with joy.” (Isa 35:5-6a)

Those words well mark how Williams and Stewart engaged their community, and how their guardianship impacted the world. Williams and Stewart had open eyes and ears that could hear, and they acted, and their actions allowed the souls of beleaguered children to leap like deer and sing with joy.

It took the secular government of the United States at least 94 more years to act, passing, finally, in 1938 the Fair Labor Standards Act, which created the world that I grew up in.

In some ways the world our children live today is like the one I knew in the 1970’s. They get bumps and bruises, but, it is also radically different because of technology.

The children of the industrial revolution were the fuel that fed the machines that turned the world’s material wealth into things of function to serve humanity. And while I believe we are all better off now for the industrial revolution, we were way too slow as guardians to see how this revolution was eating our children. People of faith like Williams and Stewart were out front. I hope we can be as well, if we need to be, so, children are not eaten by the technology revolution we are in the midst of.

Here is the potential terrible recompense, to use Isaiah’s words that concerns me about this technological revolution. While the industrial revolution turned the material world into things of function (it made stuff); the technological revolution is mastering the monetization of the content of our lives; it is commodifying our stories, and turning their inherent truth into transactional possibility for the profit of people other than ourselves.

And what is happening to our children is that they are being trained, conditioned, acculturated to go to screens; to play on screens; to be entertained by screens; to get stuff from screens. They seem to prefer sitting in front of screens – for hours. They get mad if we take the screens away. Technology is, too often, their go-to friend, when they get to pick who they want to play with.

These games and entertainment vehicles and retail sites give children the sense that they are at the center of a one-click world, masters of their own dominion, even as they are being solicited, subtly and relentlessly, for the profit of others; even as these games titillate their minds and provoke their endorphins, our children sit alone.

We wish their endorphins were fired by running with neighbors or building forts in the backyard; but, to send them outside to play may be just as lonely as sitting inside, if all their peers are somewhere else glued to a screen… all alone.

Maybe we can return to the wisdom of Williams and Stewart for some hope and modeling of Christian guardianship through play. The word play comes from the Indo-European word plegan which means to risk. Play is not a diversion, then, but, rather an exercise that pushes us to test our limits. Isn’t that what we see children do at the playground? Test their limits?

Remember when you were a kid, and you would swing super high on the swing set, and then right at the apex launch your soul out into space, soaring, flying, falling, and learning to roll when you hit the ground— and maybe hearing with delight your mom’s shouting “Nooooo!” ? That is fun. That is play. And that is good for the soul.

Play sets us in an environment where we have nothing to lose; and we have nothing to lose, because, (and this is the critical point, this is the shift I want you all to hear), because we are held secure by God; we are deeply loved all of the time and forever by God;  this is God’s universe, or should I say multiverse, it is all God’s, made by God for our love and delight.

And God delights when we play, just like we delight when we see children play.  Come-on, there is nothing more delightful than watching children play…hysterical to see them as they try to walk across balance beam at the park and keep falling off, and then trying again, and falling off again, and trying again, until they finally make it. DELIGHTFUL. God delights in us in the same way.

Play reveals the Kingdom of God. That is what play does, it reveals the Kingdom of God, It lets us risk, testing the limits, and having fun doing so, knowing we are held by God.

Play also was designed to mend tattered souls, which is why Dan Allender in his book Sabbath, reminds us that part of the Sabbath experience is to play. Allender advocates play for all ages, which makes sense, because we are all children of God; God has no grandchildren; and God delights in all our play…

Play does some lovely things-it is inherently communal; building wholeness within ourselves, and health within our community. Play challenges us to take risks, to try new things, to explore this world that God made. And play is not about winning or losing, it is actually about how you play the game.

I’ll give you an example: Look at the choir: testing themselves, doing it together, for the glory of God; revealing the Kingdom of God; that’s play.

Play looks many different ways. Go find someone to play with. Go Christmas caroling, play tennis, walk with a friend in the woods. Delight in the risks; encourage your companions. And whoever you are with remind them, and be specific, be clear, that God is with them. We are living at the front edge of the technology revolution as Williams and Stewart were living at the front edge of the industrial revolution; and like them, we are guardians of souls.

There are canaries fluttering around us. For as it was in the days of Isaiah, as it was in the days of Williams and Stewart, so I pray it will be with us as well…“May there be a highway called the Holy Way, where no loins shall be, nor ravenous beasts to eat our children. And the redeemed shall walk there, the ransomed shall return, singing. Everlasting joy shall be upon them, and sorrow and sighing flee away.” (Isa 35:8-10 para)

“So be strong, and do not fear,” as Isaiah reminds us: “Our God is here, with us,” coming as a little child.