Mark D. Roberts

When we begin to use a new technology, usually we focus on its primary impact. For example, when I got my first cell phone, I was excited about the possibility of staying in touch with people with whom I worked when I wasn’t near a phone. I envisioned sitting in traffic on the way to a meeting, and instead of fretting about how rude my lateness would be, I’d be able to call and let the others in the meeting know why I was delayed and when I might arrive. This happened many times, in fact, during my cell phone years in Southern California. Because, as a pastor, I was often on the move, visiting folks in the hospital, studying in the library, or meeting with leaders over lunch, a cell phone improved my work life, in addition to letting folks know when I was stuck in traffic. It made me more available to my colleagues and my parishioners. (For the record, I didn’t publish my cell phone number for the whole congregation, but I was quickly available through my assistant or other church leaders.)
Besides the primary impact of my having a cell phone, there were several unexpected consequences. Some were positive; others negative. On the positive side, my cell phone made me much more available to my family. Before my mobile days, my wife and I might talk by phone once during the workday every other day or so. But new technology made it easy for us to check in a couple times a day. Not only did this strengthen our relationship, but also it allowed us to work together on some of the challenges of family life, such as: Do you think the plumber’s estimate is fair? Or, do you think we should take Nathan to the doctor because of his cough? Or, could you pick up some milk on the way home? I would still say one of the very best things about having a cell phone is the opportunity for me to stay in closer touch with my family when we’re not in the same location. I had not expected this when I got my first phone, which was meant primarily for work. (Photo: One of the early cell phones from the 1980s.)
The main negative unexpected consequence of having a cell phone won’t be a surprise to you. It had to do with the intrusion of work into private life, even vacations. Although my colleagues knew not to call me when I was “off duty” unless there was a genuine emergency, inevitably somebody would interrupt my family time with some trivial work matter.
A related negative consequence of having a cell phone had to do with raised expectations. Some people in my church expected me to be “on” 24/7, and I don’t mean just for emergencies. I made it clear to my parishioners and elders that I was happy to be called at any time of day or night in the case of an emergency hospitalization or similar situation. But I asked people to respect my boundaries when it came to church business. Almost everybody in the church respected this request . . . almost everybody. Some folks were unhappy with my unwillingness to be available at their convenience. The fact that I had a cell phone exacerbated the problem.
I know of other negative consequences of cell phones. I think of one-on-one meetings I’ve had with people. When their cell phone rings, they answer the phone right away, without apologizing for the interruption or asking if I minded if they got the call. Their unspoken rule seems to be: If my phone rings, I answer it. Period. This is rude. It also can sidetrack or squelch a valuable conversation.
Of course then there is the nagging problem of cell phones ringing during worship services. Nothing can ruin a profound spiritual moment in church like a cell phone going off. For the most part, this isn’t a major problem on Sunday mornings, since most folks don’t get calls during worship hours. But it can be a terrible nuisance in midweek memorial services. I remember one service in which seven, count ‘em, seven cell phones rang. I quickly learned to begin each memorial service with an invocation that included this line, “And Lord, please help everyone here to silence their cell phones, or else may they be damned to Hell.” Well, okay, I didn’t really pray that. But I did ask people to silence their phones.
So, evaluating the use of technology in our lives is often difficult given the prevalence of unexpected consequences. Yet these need to be weighed in to our strategic and theological evaluation of technology. I’ll have more to say about this next time.
In the meanwhile, I’d be interested in your comments about unexpected consequences of technology. What have been your experiences?

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