Do You Need a Digital Sabbath?

By Andrew Burden Posted on April 01 2010

I am old enough to technically be called a digital immigrant, though I have been strongly Internet-connected since the mid-1990s. I cannot imagine being born into a world that has always had widely-available Internet, always had some form of instant messaging, and where the average consumer has a mobile phone, as all of the students in our ministries have been.

This winter I providentially picked up a January 2008 issue of Reader’s Digest from the bookshelf of the 6th grade classroom where I was substitute teaching. In “Don’t Be Overwhelmed By Technology - Get a Grip,” author Ron Geraci highlighted the growing stress caused by our always-on, push-notified, digitally-connected lives. In the days that followed I wrestled with giving up all my digital gadgets for one day a week, deciding that the perfect time for me to do so was Sunday.
From bedtime Saturday until I hit the ground running Monday, my iPhone stays turned off. The laptop sleeps. I don’t text, tweet, Facebook, check email or Google Reader. I’m not alone in this practice, but the phenomenon seems to be more widespread outside the Church than within it. Youth workers check emails, send and receive texts, check wall posts, and even show off how many electronic Bible translations they have (for the record, I have 18). Even solemn moments in worship gatherings fall prey to our beeps and buzzes. Meanwhile, those with no particular religious commitment are increasingly entering into what they call a “secular sabbath” by unplugging their digital selves for a day to rest. Is there something these “secular” folks know that we have missed?

I challenge you to consider joining me. Sunday worked best for me, but you decide what time frame fits your family and job rhythms. In the weeks I’ve practiced what I call “digital Sabbath,” I have learned some penetrating lessons.

“Balance” is a bunch of hooey.
It would be absurd to evenly allot time, or money, or energy, to the various priorities of our lives. Instead, the pattern laid out in Genesis is one of engagement and withdrawal, work and rest. Some have asked me if I was doing all for Lent. My response is that if it’s hard enough to qualify for Lent, it’s vital to continue year-round. Rather than a Lenten fast/feast pattern (and during Lent, don’t many people choose to “give up” something they ought not to do in the first place?), I find it much more rewarding to regularly rest from this good and helpful thing, then reengage with intensity.

You get more done in six days than in seven.
Dave Ramsey points out that folks just starting a written budget feel like they’ve gotten a raise. It is the same with time and attention. As I prepared to engage in my digital Sabbath for the first time, I discovered a book called Bit Literacy in which Mark Hurst helps readers experience the freeing satisfaction of being “done.” His advice? “Let [digital information] go,” either by deleting it immediately or giving it a proper home within a filing and to-do system. I cleared seven inboxes worth of emails, ranging from current projects to years-old. I now go to bed every night (except Sunday) with an empty inbox and everything on my to-do list either checked off or purposefully procrastinated. I am done.

Monotasking trumps multitasking.
Does nobody long for “one thing” (Psalm 27:4) anymore? Have we lost the ability to gaze? We are so easily distracted. Research indicates that humans simply cannot simultaneously manage more than one cognitively demanding task. It’s why more and more states are banning all mobile phone use while driving - even with hands-free devices. And don’t think that people can’t tell when you’re checking emails or tweets while you pretend to be paying attention. I also leave my phone in the car whenever I am out to eat with my wife or others. She has said it makes her feel very special. When I’m in my digital “box” (which is vital to my job as a video editor), she respects my time and attention because she knows that she will get my full focus in time. Wouldn’t our spouses, kids, and friends absolutely light up to receive 100% of our energies, unimpeded by noise tantrums from our gadgets?

You are just not that important.
The world has not come to a screeching halt while I have been away. I’ll bet you wouldn’t have even known I was gone. “But a youth worker’s job,” you protest, “is to connect. I have to be available if students need me!” As a volunteer, my responsibilities on Sundays are fairly limited, although I usually turn on the sound and light boards and start the preservice music. I do that, then my time and attention fully belong to live human beings. Hear me clearly: no youth worker, paid or volunteer, needs to be on call 24/7. If someone really needs to reach me, they have plenty of “throwback” options. I still have a land line. Or they could just come and talk to me. Face to face conversation is fast becoming a lost art.

Since beginning digital Sabbath, I have been more engaged than ever, both digitally and IRL*. I haven’t missed a birthday wish, via Facebook or snail mail. I have processed more digital content, listened to more audiobooks and podcasts, and read more (real) books than I have in many moons. Every spring I edit interview footage into a video presentation for about twenty graduating high school seniors. The project normally takes a couple hundred hours to complete and has come down to the wire every year. It has always been an exhausting, if fulfilling, experience. This year, however, I am two weeks ahead of schedule, with a clear plan to finish well ahead of deadline. And my Sundays? Free and clear to enjoy my God, my family, and my life.

*In Real Life 


Picture of Nathaniel

From Nathaniel on April 05, 2010

Thank you for this article.  I have noticed that I too, have been caught in the “web” of technology and it has seriously caused me to think about the time I have lost with my 12 year old son and my wonderful wife.  Your article has spurred me to plunge into this headlong and “everyone” will just have to endure the fact that for one day they will not be able to get in touch with me.  With tears in eyes, thank you again for writing about something that I should have done long ago.

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From Miranda on April 06, 2010

Thought provoking take on the Sabbath Andrew.  I took a 4 day break from twitter for Easter, and no one seemed to miss me!  Humbling, as you said…  I proudly have gone with out a cell phone for the last three years - and don’t miss it.  Just like your take on Lent - all is well if you shouldn’t have been doing it in the first place.  I think the point to remember is in your last sentence - take time to enjoy God, your family and your life.  I think it would be hard for me to take a digital Sabbath because I enjoy my email devotionals.  You have encouraged me to think twice next Sunday before sitting down at the computer.  Who knows - a digital Sabbath may be just what I need and what God wants.

Picture of Marv Nelson

From Marv Nelson on April 08, 2010

  Good insights.  I was just talking with a youth min team member about this.  I tend to be the guy texting, emailing and calling at the same time so hearing these words is a sober reminder that sometimes we need a sabbath from everything.  Thanks again!

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From Marie on April 28, 2010

GREAT information! This hit home with me!!! Thanks!

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From Andrew Burden on April 29, 2010

Thanks for the feedback everybody - glad this has been an encouragement and challenge to you.

I’m thrilled to report that without compromising my rhythm of digital Sabbath, I finished the mega video project almost a week ahead of schedule! The colleague I work with most closely commented how relaxed the whole thing felt this year, compared to frenzy and panic in years past.

I have also expanded my “rules” and do not watch any TV (DVR) or listen to music (iPod or radio) on Sundays now, either. That and switching from our church’s 9 AM service to a new 5 PM service have made Sundays such a reinvigorating time for me. Sleeping in a bit, unhurriedly enjoying breakfast without being tethered to screens, reading a bit, and heading to the Sunday school hour to interact with the kids has been incredible. God has blessed this new-found discipline in amazing ways.

Picture of Bill Bennett

From Bill Bennett on May 28, 2010

I practice the digital sabbath as often as possible - but I come at it from a purely secular point of view.

The idea of resting one day in seven if sensible and practical.

Whatever one’s view on religious matters, there is a lot of plain wisdom in the scriptures.

Picture of Reece

From Reece on May 26, 2011

I have done a lot of reflecting on this and recently gave a sermon on “Sabbath and Technology”.  If you are interested, here is the link.

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