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Digital Discipleship: Warnings and Encouragements for Parents

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As the parent of kids spanning fourteen to four, I’m faced with digital decisions every day. It can be hard to connect those decisions to discipleship. I want my kids to stay out of the dark road of sin and to walk in the light of Christ. Assuming all Christian parents want that for their kids, what does it look like to help them navigate the digital world as tender saplings, not science experiments?

Recently, Tony Reinke gave parents twelve tips to practically help them navigate the digital age. One of them was, “Take up digital discipleship.” He continues, “It is not enough to isolate a handful of Proverbs and scatter them like general seeds of wise counsel. Discipling teens in the digital age requires all of Scripture planted and cultivated in all of the heart.”

In the spirit of digital discipleship, as one who is making mistakes and learning as I go, I offer three warnings and three encouragements to parents like myself:

Warnings
1. Our kids are never alone.
It’s easy to think that one of the problems of the digital age is isolation: everyone’s alone with a device. But isolation is a ruse—it’s a lie that makes us believe that the worst thing that is happening is aloneness. But the worst thing isn’t merely being alone—it’s that kids appear to be alone when they’re on a screen, when in reality, they’re with someone.

They’re with the creator of the video game they’re playing. He’s wooing them with his fantasy world and the rules he’s made up for it. They’re with the software designer who figured out how to make positive rewards in the form of sweet talk so appealing and addictive, à la Candy Crush. They’re with the script writer of their favorite Netflix show and her skewed ideas of right and wrong. They’re with the marketers behind the ads who monetize sinful desire for unholy gain. They’re with a hundred kids from school who are also “alone” on Snapchat or Instagram. And, in the even darker places of the internet, they’re with full-scale predators, who are drawing them into shameful things that can’t be mentioned here.

Our kids are never alone on a screen. Neither are we. But in all this, we must remember there is someone much more important who is with us: the omnipresent God. Digital discipleship means teaching our children to fear the Lord. It is in His presence that we teach them to hold fast to what is good and abhor what is evil. And it is only in His presence that we can tell the difference between the two.

2. Our kids are not adults.
Some of us have fairly mature kids. And if we don’t, most of us have at least met a child who is mature for their age. These are the responsible kids and teens who we know will give an honest report when asked, the kids who we put in charge of other kids. These are the kids who really want to please us, and not just because they’re little Pharisees or teacher’s pets, but because they genuinely want to please their heavenly Father. Many of these kids bear the marks of God’s grace and kindness in their maturity.

Often it is most tempting to get lax on good digital boundaries with these kids because we trust their judgement. And yet, even these mature kids are not adults and need to be trained as they grow, not left to figure it out on their own. We must give our children the gift of being children, that is, the gift of being trained at their level. We can’t expect them to be mini-adults, carrying one of the heaviest weights we’ve yet discovered––the invisible weight of the digital world.

We must learn from Casper ten Boom. When his daughter, Corrie, asked him a question about an adult topic, he responded by asking her to carry his suitcase, knowing it would be too heavy for her. After she was unable to move it, he said to her,

. . . it would be a pretty poor father who would ask his little girl to carry such a load. It’s the same way, Corrie, with knowledge. Some knowledge is too heavy for children. When you are older and stronger, you can bear it. For now you must trust me to carry it for you.

Kids are kids. Adults are adults. We must not confuse the two.

3. Our kids see us.
This might be the most unwelcome warning of all. Earlier today I was sitting in a chair in our living room reading my Bible. My twelve-year-old son asked if he could take a video of our four-year-old son as they had a cute conversation. I agreed and he was off and running with our old iPad. A while later, he showed me his recording. At the very end, it captured a shot of me with my Bible open and my phone in hand just above my Bible, looking intently at the screen.

When I watched the video, I vaguely remembered that I had been on my phone in order to do something I didn’t want to forget to do. It seemed legitimate at the time, and maybe it was. But the image was nevertheless startling for me—my Bible open and unattended, my phone gazed at intently.

As parents, we must remember that, in some ways, our kids know us better than we know ourselves. They often know a truer version of us than we do, just as we do of them. So, it’s important that we take the opportunity to see ourselves the way they see us and try to experience what it’s like to be them. What is it like to try and talk to your mom or dad when they’re too busy on their phone? What is it like to have parents who care more about capturing a moment with a pic than living in that moment with them? We can’t teach them what we haven’t learned.

Our kids see us. But even more, El Roi, The God Who Sees, sees us. This should give us great comfort, but also great care, if we truly fear his name as we should.

With the warnings out of the way, I also want to give three encouragements. What Jesus said to his disciples is still true today: “The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few” (Matthew 9:37). I want to encourage myself and you to labor in digital discipleship for the glory of God. God is not leaving us to sort out this digital world alone. He is our Helper.

Encouragements
1. We don’t have to do what everyone else is doing.
This is really, really good news. Your kid’s best friend got her own cell phone? It doesn’t matter because you don’t have to do what everyone else is doing. Everyone in the youth group is on Instagram or Snapchat? It doesn’t matter because you don’t have to do what everyone else is doing. Musical.ly is all the rage for the off-beat, artsy kids? Doesn’t matter. You don’t have to do what everyone else is doing.

Every parent you know has a smartphone? It doesn’t matter because you don’t have to do what everyone else is doing! Yes! It even applies to what our friends do, not just what our kids’ friends do. God hasn’t told any of us that we must have the internet in our house. God has not commanded Christians to have a smartphone. God did not say, “Thou shalt open a Facebook account.” Not to you and not to your kids.

God said something very different: “Enter by the narrow gate. For the gate is wide and the way is easy that leads to destruction, and those who enter by it are many” (Matthew 7:13).

I’m not saying you have to say no to everything above; I’m saying you don’t have to say yes. So, whether we choose to use technology or not, we will not be doing what everyone else is doing. We will be seeking to glorify God in all things, even our technology, and that is a narrow road.

2. We get to make holiness normal in our homes.
Peter reminds us that we are aliens and strangers in this world (1 Peter 2:11). That’s what digital discipleship is about, really. But there is a place where even aliens are normal––among other aliens. That’s what the church is for. That’s what our homes are for. We get to make holiness normal, as it really ought to be. We get to teach our kids to turn off the TV when a bad commercial comes on—that’s normal at our house. We get to pray every time we are in the car together—that’s normal in our car. We get to sing and worship while we do dishes—that’s normal in our kitchen. We get to read the Bible after supper—that’s normal at our table.

We get to decide what’s digitally normal, too. So, sit down with your spouse and talk about what you want to be normal in your home. Have a conversation about what holiness looks like in the digital realm for you and for your kids. Take notes. Write down priorities and guidelines and hard-and-fast rules rooted in biblical principles. Then love the rules and teach your kids to love them.

3. We know Someone more powerful than a smartphone with more pull than social media, so don’t concede the ground you still have.
I’ve had a thought like this bubble up in the past: “I know my child will see porn on the internet at some point. It’s inevitable. I just want them to know they can come to me when it happens so we can deal with it.” It’s good to be a parent that your child can come to if that were to happen. We should aim to be like that.

Yet, why not develop a prayerful plan that would disciple them away from porn on the internet and toward the all-satisfying Christ? Why not hope all things and ask God to keep them from ever intentionally watching porn their whole lives? If they do see it and stumble, we trust God with the steps forward. But let’s not give up the ground we still have due to assumptions about the power of particular sins over our children while failing to assume the power of God is able to help protect them.

What a kind, holy, wonderful, strong, loving, sacrificial, communicating God we have. He’s spoken to us by his own Son. He’s given us His Word. His glory fills the whole earth; even digital worlds can’t escape it—they are a glimpse and shadow of His reality. We, parents, have the duty and privilege of discipling our children into the bigness and wonder of this God. May God give us all humility and wisdom, and may He be our ever-present help as we make disciples of the Ancient of Days in this time of digital novelty.

For further help on this topic, check out Twelve Ways Your Phone Is Changing You by Tony Reinke.

Abigail Dodds
Abigail Dodds is a wife and mother of five. She’s a regular contributor to Desiring God and blogs at hopeandstay.com. She is the author of (A)Typical Woman: Free, Whole, and Called in Christ. (Crossway, 2019).
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