Written by Patricia Diaz
A starving little boy stares out from the photo, transfixing the 6-year-old girl.
“That isn’t real, Daddy, is it?” she asks. “That’s just pretend, right?”
How does a father explain to his daughter that somewhere in the world children just like her die every few seconds because they can’t get enough to eat?
“She was incredulous,” remembers her dad Jonathan Acuff, a copywriter by day and popular blogger by night. Her questions set him to thinking: What could they do to change the pain of that reality?
So one day last November, Acuff took up the challenge. He announced on his blog, “Stuff Christians Like,” that he would be raising $30,000 to build a kindergarten in Vietnam.
“I thought it would take us six weeks,” he says. “It took us 18 hours.”
Blown away by the results, Acuff decided to do it again. In just 25 days, he raised $60,000 to finance two kindergartens, using only his blog and social media tools such as Twitter and Facebook.
“I’m just a guy in my kitchen; I don’t possess anything different from anyone else,” Acuff says. “I use a free template that everyone in the world has access to. It’s not anything special.”
What is special is that the children in the Phong Tho district of Vietnam will soon have two new kindergartens thanks to an ordinary guy with a computer, an Internet connection and a vision. These are the times we live in — ones of unprecedented opportunity to enact change.
Sixty-one percent of Millennials (voters born after 1980) say this generation has a unique identity, and 24 percent say it is their use of technology that makes them unique, according to a Pew Research Center survey from January 2010. The survey describes Millennials as “confident, connected and open to change.” This generation has proven itself more willing than any other to fuse technology into their social lives, forging a new identity as they do so.
Heavy use of technology also shapes our interaction with social issues, something particularly important to the current generation. Millennials rank helping others in need as one of their top priorities, second only to a successful marriage and happy family, according to the Pew survey.
Social justice ministries have been quick to recognize the value of the Internet’s global platform. The screen of every computer or cell phone is now a window to the larger world and its problems. The organization Invisible Children promotes awareness about child soldiers in Uganda; To Write Love on Her Arms provides support to people struggling with depression; the ONE Campaign fights poverty and preventable disease in Africa; TOMS provides a pair of shoes to a needy child for every pair purchased by a customer. And the list goes on.
Social justice holds a wide appeal for a generation that is already seeking to help needy people. But in some ways, people might identify with a cause in the same way they embrace fashion trends — by wearing the T-shirt, bracelet or pair of shoes; putting stickers on their computer; and joining multiple Facebook groups.
“It seems that social justice is vogue right now,” says Biola communications professor Sarah Auda. “It kind of becomes a fad.”
Her husband, Jason Jaggard, a professor at Pepperdine University, believes this “fad” has potential to produce a harmful focus.
“One of the dangers of the social justice movement is converting people to social justice, not to Jesus,” Jaggard warns. “While those two things are connected, they are not the same thing.”
Unfortunately, the Internet can play right into a surface level involvement with social justice. A person can stare at a screen and scroll through Web pages, “like” Facebook causes and even donate electronically, but never get up off the couch to truly make a difference through tangible action.
The grand paradox is that the Internet allows us to be more connected to global suffering than ever before, but it also allows us to remain more passive. This is the phenomenon author Shane Hipps identifies in his book Flickering Pixels as “empathy at a distance.” And empathy kept at a distance rarely results in actions that will better the world.
Ryan Daugherty, a staff member at Mosaic Church in Whittier, points out that people can feel they are engaging with a social cause simply because they frequent an organization’s website.
“I can actually feel I’m involved when I’m not,” Daugherty says. “I can experience all kinds of emotions, and I can actually feel like I’m doing something because I’m processing a lot with my brain.”
Daugherty says that confusing mental engagement with physical action is one “curse of technology.” Auda agrees.
“A lot of people want to help so far as it is convenient for them,” Auda says. “But when it takes a significant amount of sacrifice whether that’s time, energy, finances or physically going somewhere, all of a sudden it changes.”
These are the unfortunate results of the “empathy at a distance” concept. Many people are willing to interact with a cause online but cannot stand to face a person who is truly hurting. They allow technology to become a protective barrier between them and the people who need help.
As Acuff demonstrated, the Internet, when used intentionally, can certainly be a powerful vehicle to advance God’s kingdom. But when used casually, it can give us a false sense of our involvement and prevent us from acting for God.
Although much can be accomplished over the Internet, at some point it must move beyond the screen. But making this transition from awareness to activism is a hard task.
“People manage their lives by what happens to them,” says David Bolt, a Biola graduate and founder of the orphan care organization Bring Me Hope. “It’s more a reactive lifestyle than a proactive lifestyle. Whatever is happening in your life is what you focus on.”
Bolt’s ministry provides short-term service opportunities for people to volunteer at orphan summer camps in China. Over the years, Bolt has witnessed how people are impacted when they are willing to leave their comfortable surroundings and go somewhere where they see needy, hurting people.
“A lot of people’s lives are not challenged,” he says, comparing it to the parable of the Good Samaritan. “I feel like we’re not even out on the road seeing people half-beaten.”
Bolt’s passion is to see people more fully loving God through their actions, and he says that often involves breaking their hearts first.
“It goes beyond just the Internet at that point,” says Dave Bourgeois, a Biola business professor who teaches a class on using Internet tools in ministry. “There has to be more than just reading something on the screen that’s going to get you to get up. You have to be led by the Spirit. You have to be moved.”
With our incredible access to be able to impact the world for good, we have no excuse not to act on our opportunities. Daugherty advises not to get caught up in waiting for a specific calling, but to practice acting on the change you want to see right now. He says that college is the perfect time to start experimenting and not be afraid to get involved.
“Passions are extremely important,” Daugherty says. “But a lot of people can allow the discussion of passions to handcuff them because they say, ‘I don’t know what I’m passionate about so I’m not going to do anything.’ That’s the worst thing you can do.”
As Biola’s director of the Coalition for Social Action, Alicia Miller has a similar vision to see Biola students actively living out their faith.
“I think it comes down to an individual looking at their open hands and seeing what God has placed in their hands to do at this time,” Miller says. “Get involved with what you’re able to right now.”
Technology is certainly one thing that is in all of our hands that we can use for God’s glory. But we must approach it with intentionality, commitment and imagination. And we must make Jesus the focus of it all.
“What God does through people who partner with Him over long periods of time, committed to seeing substantial change in their lifetime in one cause or issue — that is the hope of the world,” Jaggard says. “There’s no Facebook fan page for that kind of commitment.”