Attention Stewardship Disorder?

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It’s almost a cliché—”What gets your attention gets you.” It’s more true than we may think.

On the bestseller list right now is Thinking, Fast and Slow, by Nobel Prize-winning psychologist Daniel Kahneman, formerly of Princeton University. Though a psychologist, Kahneman won the Nobel in economics for showing that economic decisions are often more irrational than rational.

Here’s an observation early in Daniel Kahneman’s book that should make us think twice about what we give our attention to: “People tend to assess the relative importance of issues by the ease with which they are retrieved from memory—and this is largely determined by the extent of coverage in the media. Frequently mentioned topics populate the mind even as others slip away from awareness” (p. 8).

In other words, we unconsciously think the things most reported in the media are the most important things—even when consciously we know better.

I see two big issues here for Christian discipleship.

First, we need to take care what we give our attention to—because that affects our beliefs and behaviors. There is a stewardship of our attention as much as there is a stewardship of time, the creation, and money.

Do we often suffer from “Attention Stewardship Disorder”? That is, do we allow our lives to be whipped around by the news and pseudo-news that constantly flashes on our screens? Or do we live lives of discipline in which we consciously allocate or “budget” our attention according to our core convictions?

If we are careful about our use of time and money and about creation stewardship but are careless with our attention, we’re in trouble. If we suffer from Attention Stewardship Disorder, our stewardship in other areas will be undermined—our use of time, money, and the good earth. Because what gets our attention gets us, including our time and money.

In the age of the Internet and social media, the stewardship of our attention becomes more and more pressing. For many of us, this may be the new shape of discipleship.

What we call “social media” can in fact it can be highly individual. We interact privately with friends and acquaintances over the Internet—but do we really build community? The first Christians in Jerusalem “devoted themselves” to Christian community (Acts 2:42).

Second, as Christians we must be selective in our sources of information. Bible study and other high-quality reading is not just a devotional exercise; it shapes who we are and how we think and act—our worldview and our world-acting. The same principle extends to our use of the commercial media, particularly cable TV and ever-present online apps and feeds.

We are particularly vulnerable if we get all our “news” from one or two sources only, and if those sources give us information that tends to reinforce our own biases.

Four quick suggestions for combating Attention Stewardship Disorder:

1. Read the Bible and good Christian historical (not just contemporary) biography as an ongoing discipline.

2. Read broadly, not just in our own areas of professional expertise or academic disciplines.

3. Cultivate Christian community, both local and global. Intimate local discipleship groups reminiscent of the early Methodist class meetings are key here. But we can cultivate global Christian community also. Today social media such as Facebook can actually help us. Recently for example I have reestablished relationships with Christian friends I knew years ago in Brazil.

4. Finally, how about an occasional attention stewardship audit?

The Bible, especially in the New Testament and the Wisdom literature, is full of reminders to “walk carefully” before the Lord. That suggests intentional attention stewardship. The biblical call is to moral wisdom, not just information or entertainment.

The Apostle Paul writes: “I beg you to lead a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, making every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace” (Eph. 4:1-3).

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International Representative, Manchester Wesley Research Centre in Manchester, England. Formerly professor of the history and theology of mission, Asbury Theological Seminary (1996-2006); Professor of Wesley Studies, Tyndale Seminary, Toronto, 2007-2012. Has taught and pastored in São Paulo, Brazil; Detroit, Michigan; and Chicago, Illinois. Dr. Snyder’s main interest is in the power and relevance of Jesus Christ and his Kingdom for the world today and tomorrow. Works include The Problem of Wineskins, Community of the King, and most recently, Jesus and Pocahontas: Gospel, Mission, and National Myth.

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