Of the more moving events we host in our student ministry, my favorites are our media fasts.
(It is another discussion, altogether different, as to how a break from media can almost be the same as a fast from food, but that, my friend, is another topic.)
The latest data, provided by The Harris Interactive poll, shows that the average online user spends about 13 hours a week on the Internet. (Again, to show the power of the Internet, the word Internet keeps begging to be capitalized in most word processing, spell-check programs.)
And the 350 million members of Facebook spend about 10 billion minutes there every day — that is a staggering number.
Last spring, after some prayer, and some research, I decided to ask our students to fast from their media usage. It was a simple challenge — for a time of 24 hours, we asked our teenagers to put down all media devices that used a screen. It was met with a great deal of enthusiasm, but this first fast was really just a challenge. Put down the device. Just for awhile. One of our students told me later that that 24-hour time period really changed his life, and gave him a great moment to think and reflect.
We’ve hosted the fast again, at the beginning of our fall semester, asking our students to again fast from their media devices for 24 hours, and this time we included a list of prayer ideas to fill the time. And as this semester dawns, we will be again be challenging our students to fast again for 24 hours, asking for divine intervention into their lives, their relationships, and their time.
I am encouraged, then, to find that this sort of idea is becoming more popular. I read this post, just last week, of a college who asked their students to attend vespers, asking them to put down their cell phones for just a small amount of time. The service was only attended by a few, but it was a start.
College Asks Students to Power Down, Contemplate
by Alan Scher Zagier
for The Washington Post
COLUMBIA, Mo. — Dianne Lynch wanted to give the students of Stephens College a break from the constant digital communication that pervades their generation. So she asked them to put their phones and computers away and revive the 176-year-old school’s dormant tradition of vespers services.
On a bitterly cold December night, with the start of final exams just hours away, about 75 of Stephens’ 766 undergraduates grudgingly piled their cell phones into collection baskets and filed into the school’s candlelit chapel, where they did little but sit, silently. For an hour, not an iPod ear bud could be seen. There were no fingers flying on tiny computer keyboards, no chats with unseen intimates.
Alexis Dornseif, a senior from suburban St. Louis majoring in fashion marketing and management, said she needed time away from her busy life.
“Sometimes it’s really overwhelming,” she said. “It’s good to have time to think, to not worry about what’s going on tomorrow.”
Lynch, the president of the women’s college, is no technophobe. Her doctorate research focused on “digital natives,” teenagers who grew up with “the Internet as a part of their operating assumption in the world.” She knows most of her students consider their cell phones a social necessity. The Pew Research Center’s Internet & American Life Project has found that 82 percent of 16- and 17-year-olds own cell phones. Ninety-four percent of teens spend time online.
But Lynch fears all that time spent in the 21st century’s town square leaves few opportunities for clutter-free thought. She wants the students to also pursue the more elusive state of mind that comes with silence.
Several other schools are encouraging technology-free introspection. Amherst College in Massachusetts hosted a “Day of Mindfulness” this year, featuring yoga and meditation and a lecture on information technology and the contemplative mind entitled “No Time to Think.”
“Students welcome it,” said Amherst physics professor Arthur Zajonc, director of the Center for Contemplative Mind in Society. “It’s a complement to the very hurried world of gadgets they normally live in.”
At Stephens, Lynch hit on the idea for reviving vespers after an alumnae group regaled her with fond memories of Sunday nights in the school chapel. Once a Baptist school but now secular, Stephens required vespers services as often as four times each week starting in 1920.
“Just a wonderful opportunity to calm down,” said Neel Stallings, a career-development consultant in Charlotte, N.C., who graduated from Stephens in 1967. “To have a place to go to just tune out all of the extra noise, and to tune into yourself, was the most valuable thing.”
By the late 1960s, vespers had become more spiritual than religious, no longer mandatory and held only once a week. By the 1980s the program was gone.
The new vespers program is voluntary, at least for now. Lynch hopes to have the services twice a month, to reinforce the school’s mission of teaching young women to be self-reliant.
“You will need to be able to sit, to be quiet, to be alone with yourself, to have those moments of self-reflection,” she said.
Those moments are infrequent on the modern college campus. Seconds after the end of the first revived vespers service, students got their cell phones back, and the flickering assortment of screens replaced the need for mood-setting candlelight.
As the new year begins, I challenge you to the same. Unplug from the matrix. Fill that time with prayer, with readings, and with clarity. God longs to fill the vacuum in your life.
But you’ll need to make room for Him first.