A sabbath rest from gadgets: Why it's good for the soul

More than half (57 per cent) of US evangelical leaders say they take a sabbath from electronic communication devices, according to a survey by the National Association of Evangelicals.

It's a good idea, and the fact that many of the 43 per cent who don't wish they did just drives it home.

PixabayTurning off the phone can be a spiritual discipline.

The grip that phones, tablets and laptops have on us is incredibly strong. There's an instant psychological reward when someone emails us, tweets us or responds to a Facebook post. We're connected to a wider world: somehow we matter.

The downside is that we lose the ability to think – at least, to think deeply. That's been very well documented. A Harvard Business Review article from 2014, The Cost of Continuously Checking Email, says: 'Shifting our attention from one task to another, as we do when we're monitoring email while trying to read a report or craft a presentation, disrupts our concentration and saps our focus. Each time we return to our initial task, we use up valuable cognitive resources reorienting ourselves. And all those transitional costs add up.'

It cites a University of California-Irvine study that says the average time taken to regain our initial momentum after an interruption is 20 minutes.

And that article is three-and-a-half years old – and it's talking about emails. Think how far we've come.

That urge to be always on is very, very powerful – and for conscientious pastors there's another layer to it: what happens if someone needs me? 

There's no easy answer to that one, other than educating a congregation so people know where to go if they can't get you straight away – and having a 'gatekeeper' for your days off.

The online world is a vital resource for most of us. But sabbaths from the cyberworld are essential, not only for pastors but for anyone who really wants to deepen their Christian discipleship. Here are three reasons.

1. Information is not education.

Constantly being hit by a blizzard of factoids doesn't necessarily mean we know more about a subject. They can make us think we know about something, but if we've never taken time to study the relevant discipline, they're just a jumble. Joining the dots takes time.

2. Character is better than clicks.

There's a limited amount of good we can do online. Social media can be a wonderful gift for people whose interaction with others is limited, perhaps because of a physical disability, and that's different. For most people, social media is a pastime – and one that can turn addictive. Real growth comes through real relationships.

3. Links lose us precious time.

Everyone's had the experience of looking something up on the internet and noticing a link to something that looks interesting. It might be relevant – let's click on it and see. Then there's another, and another, and soon we're a long way from the job we were doing. This is no way to learn, or to produce anything worth producing.

Learning to live with our own company, being able to appreciate the natural world without photographing or tweeting about it, being able to read carefully and thoughtfully, being attentive to our companions and our surroundings: all of these are under threat from the tyranny of technology. Gadgets make good servants but terrible masters. Without the discipline of the off button, we won't develop strong habits of study or deep Christian character.

Follow Mark Woods on Twitter: @RevMarkWoods