Editor’s Note: Much of this article was originally posted on The Gospel Coalition website at:
expected a revolt. Instead, I got expressions of 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 no longer to 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 the 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 conversational skills. But, alas, such “common” knowledge is far from common these days. Many people are bemoaning the death or, at the 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 such as 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 people about the weather or their jobs, we may find it difficult to talk about eternity or their souls.
When providing evangelism training for churches or as part of our C.S. Lewis Institute Fellows Program, 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 people, 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,” (September 27, 2015) about her research on how technology is harming conversation. A professor in the program in Science, Technology, and Society at MIT, 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?”
She believes, “when two people are talking, 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 that, “Our texts are fine. It’s what texting does to our conversations when we are together that’s the problem.”