In the fast lane

Where did last week go? Last month? Last year? Do you find yourself asking questions like that? Doesn’t life seem to fly past, almost in a blur sometimes? No. it isn’t a sign of getting older – I refuse to believe that. Of course time is not passing any more quickly, but the truth is, almost everything that people do is getting faster, and the implications are wide ranging, not least for the Church and for Christian discipleship.

The trend is well summed up in the title of a recent book – The Great Acceleration. How the World is Getting Faster, Faster, by Robert Colvile. Colvile argues, on the basis of all kinds of studies, that the idea that life is speeding up is not just a perception but is hard fact. In the early 1990s investigators visited 31 cities and measured how long it took people (who were unaware that they were being observed) to cover 60 feet of unobstructed pavement. When the experiment was repeated 15 years later, it was found that people covered the same distance in around 10 per cent less time. They were literally going faster. That’s just a symptom of greater changes in society, but a very significant one.

With recent developments in technology people can get what they need faster and have come to expect that they will be able to do so. Who is willing to wait for a shop to order an item and be told that it will be there in a week? Virtually nobody. They will order online and become restless if delivery takes more than a couple of days. Speed is everything, and online retailers know it. A tenth of a second increase in the loading time of the Amazon website will cut sales by one per cent. Google found that by improving loading times for its site by as little as 400 milliseconds raised traffic by 0.5 per cent – a significant increase given the volume of traffic involved. It makes you dizzy just trying to think about it.

There are certainly advantages in these developments, although pity the poor retailer trying to compete with the online behemoths. How do you stay in business when the customer checks an item on your shelves and goes and orders it cheaper online and has it delivered to his door or to some convenient drop-off point? Of course many will go under. The theory in the workplace may be that workers will be able to accomplish so much more given these electronic resources, but the truth is very different. Studies show that an office worker will check his or her e-mail 30 to 40 times an hour. An average employee spends 11 minutes on a task before switching to something else, and changes focus within the current task every 3 minutes. At the top of the corporate tree, the day of a CEO of a Fortune 500 company is so chopped up by electronic messages that on average he has only 28 uninterrupted productive minutes a day. How does anything significant ever get done?

So what about the Church and its members? The busyness and accelerating pace of life mean that attention spans shrink and minds buzz in all directions. Time with the Lord in prayer and meditation on Scripture is squeezed into ever-diminishing spaces. No wonder there are ‘Bibles’ offering three-minute or five-minute devotions. Any day now there will be a 30-Second-You Don’t-Even Need to Stand-Still Bible (or perhaps there is one). A few blessed thoughts and a quick check on the latest blog from your favourite celebrity preacher, and you’re good to go-go-go.

So many forces in society are encouraging high-speed superficiality, yet healthy Christian discipleship requires slowness – time invested in prayer, Bible study (not Bible dipping), private and corporate worship. ‘Be still and know that I am God’ (Psalm 46:10) is a baffling concept to people who are never really still, or who perhaps are afraid to be. There are no short cuts to Christian maturity, and bite-sized devotions make for bite-sized spirituality. Perhaps it is no surprise that many Christians look very little different from the world around them. If time and space for God are not available, then something is seriously wrong and hard questions need to be asked, and perhaps hard decisions made.

As in so many respects, Christian faith is counter-cultural when it comes to the pace of living. If Jesus is really to be Lord, maybe some slowing down and switching off will be required. Who knows? Perhaps you will catch up with some of those other whizzing Christians at the next set of traffic lights?

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