Attentiveness: Literacy

Like many people, I have recently been thinking about the past year and what I want to do differently or start doing. For the first time in decades, I want to commit to bringing about social change through the church. More specifically, I want to be an advocate for the kind of change that will bring attention to the gospel through the lives of everyday Christians.

Let me tell a story to explain.

When we moved to Singapore many decades ago, our children began attending an international school, and the adjustment was a little overwhelming for them and for us. At the first parent-teacher conference we were nervous about how our oldest was doing.

“What is it you are doing at home?” was the opening comment from Caroline’s teacher. Anxiety turned to fear as we began wracking our brains to figure out what we were doing that caused our daughter to be so difficult in school.

“Why? What has she done?”

“Oh, it is not what she has done. It is what she does every time we talk about books and reading. She asks questions, observes so well, and understands what she reads. Her comprehension is amazing. What do you do at your home?”

“Oh, now I understand,” I mumbled with a sigh of relief. “We do morning Bible readings before school. One of us reads a passage, and then we ask some questions so the kids will remember it, and then we talk about how this should guide the way we live.”

A Christian child whose parents read the Bible out loud and talk about its meaning has a great advantage over most students in school.

“In the beginning was the Word,” took on a new meaning for me. “Word,” as so many of us learned in seminary is, in the Greek “logos” which connotes meaning and rationality and understanding. Words, used well and studied well, bring meaning and point us to the one who is ultimate meaning: the Logos, even Jesus Christ.

Why is this important to remember as we commence a new year? To put it simply and directly, Christians who are real disciples will stand out in our culture as social media and technology continue to erode our abilities to read, think, and comprehend. It is overwhelming how many studies have come forward in the past ten to twenty years about the impact of reading digitally rather than from books and papers.

The main issue is reflected in the impact of the iPhone and social media. Research has identified three different but closely related issues.1 Without intervention or family discipline, we end up with young people who have less comprehension when they read, an inability to follow a complex argument throughout a book, and a lack of patience to read carefully. In fact, their brains are developing differently. Images—and constantly changing pictures—distract and prevent thoughtful reading.

This brings me back to the first paragraph and my desire to be more intentional in bringing about social change. What kind of change? I would like to inspire pastors and other Christian leaders to give parents the wisdom and courage to raise children who are readers and thinkers. Christian leaders in all settings need to support and encourage young parents to make conscious decisions to introduce technology late in a young person’s life, giving a gift both to their children and to society! Limit exposure until after the brain has developed an ability to read, listen, and imagine. These young adults will be more thoughtful and less impulsive. They will have more self-control.

Pastors and educators and anyone in a position to do so, need to take the initiative to guide and support parents in their congregations and spheres of influence.

We are not simply talking about iPhone addiction; we are talking about brain development. Children whose brains have developed the ability to read well, will continue to read and think and follow an argument through chapter after chapter and thus understand the ontological argument for the existence of God, or even to understand nuances and conflicting evidence. The ability to rightly judge rather than make quick impulsive judgements requires certain brain development and literacy skills. Comprehension, thoughtful discussion, and persuasion are waning. Christians have an advantage if we encourage and cultivate basic discipleship of our children and young adults.

So that is my New Year’s commitment: to be more intentional about helping pastors and leaders in raising congregations and communities that are more literate for the health of our witness and for the sake of the gospel! We can do this by beginning the conversation in our local congregations and families. Will you join me by beginning the discourse at home and at church?

[1]Study: Relationship Between Digital Reading, Improved Comprehension Marginal“–This article and the following book brought me to this commitment: Maryanne Wolf, Reader, Come Home: The Reading Brain in a Digital World (New York: Harper Books, 2019)

Dr. Scott W. Sunquist, President of Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, is author of the “Attentiveness” blog. He welcomes comments, responses, and good ideas.

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