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Jacques Ellul & the Importance of Attachment

By Rick Lawrence
Vibrant Faith Executive Director

The late Jacques Ellul, author of The Technological Society (the seminal work on our relationship with technology), offers a prophetic way forward for a culture of “digital natives” who’ve experienced a “thinning of the soul” as we’ve become more deeply dependent on our devices.

Ellul says that we become what we attach ourselves to. 

This is both a warning and an opportunity. The nature of the thing we are attaching ourselves to seeps into our soul’s operating system, re-fashioning it into the image of that thing, whatever it is. Philosopher Marshall McLuhan was trying to get at the same dynamic, but through a different lens, when he said: “The medium is the message.” That is, the thing that is delivering the message is what we attach ourselves to, and that thing has an innate forming power in us.

So it makes sense that our attachments deserve both careful scrutiny and focused curiosity… 

An attachment mindset in ministry, for example, gives us clarity in both our vision and practice. Ellul framed technologies as “techniques,” a kind of outsourcing of the power of our presence to the promised power of a conduit. Translated to the way we see Jesus promoting growth and transformation, we see an intentional shift away from the conduit of law-keeping (the “tips and techniques” approach practiced by the Pharisees and teachers of the law) to the conduit of a “branch-in-the-Vine” relationship that emphasizes a growing attachment above all else. 

In a ministry context, this means creating an environment that promotes experiencing Jesus more often and “automating Christian principles” less. We want people to become more deeply attached to the heart of Jesus, not merely to the moral principles He represents. A heart attachment then progressively forms our faith as an organic process, not a test of our discipline and will.

This shift in the focus of our ministry practices and habits embraces a reality that Dr. Peter Kreeft highlights so well: 

“Christ changed every human being He ever met…. If anyone claims to have met Him without being changed, he has not met Him at all. When you touch Him, you touch lightning…. The Greek word used to describe everyone’s reaction to Him in the gospels is ‘thauma’—wonder. This was true of His enemies, who killed Him. Of his disciples, who worshiped Him. And even of agnostics, who went away shaking their heads and muttering ‘No man every spoke like this man’ and knowing that if He didn’t stop being what He was and saying what He said that eventually they would have to side with either His killers or his worshippers. For ‘Jesus shock’ breaks your heart in two and forces you to choose which half of your heart you will follow….”

In an attachment mindset, the power to transform our lives comes not from mastering principles, but from creating learning environments that naturally invite people to “meet” Jesus on deeper and deeper levels.

For example, this experience I first wrote about in my book The Jesus-Centered Life

“A few years ago I was in Canada, leading a mix of adult and teenage ministry leaders from a very, well, “buttoned up” denomination through a series of experiences that helped them to slow down and pay better attention to Jesus. In one experience, small teams wrestled with a series of Scripture passages intended to introduce them to “the Jesus they never knew.” At the end of this process I ask groups to finish this statement: “Jesus is …” They can finish it any way they want, based on their exploration of Jesus through Scripture. As group after group called out their “Jesus is” statements, I wrote them on a huge flipchart at the front of the room. It has always been a profound and surprising and even life-changing experience for many. On this day, I was about halfway through my survey of the room when I got to a table full of teenage girls. I pointed to the table and one of them, the designated speaker, stood up and proclaimed, in a very loud voice: “Jesus is a badass!”

“Then she sat down. 

“What followed was a very pregnant pause—a moment that splashed me with terror as I waited for this very prim-and-proper group of ministry people to react to the girl’s raw proclamation. And then, like a concussion bomb, the room erupted in delighted glee. The clapping and laughter spiraled together and rolled through the room like a tsunami. And I couldn’t stop smiling as this straight-laced gathering of ministry people persisted in applauding the teenager’s declaration—her description of Jesus had captured and channeled the pent-up passion of the moment. And, maybe like me, they knew “badass” was as close to a dead-on portrait of the heart of Jesus as we were likely to hear in our lifetime.

 “When the ruckus finally died down I told the girl that I’d never given a prize for an answer in any of my training experiences—ever—but she had just forced me into an exception…”

Rick Lawrence is Executive Director of Vibrant Faith. He’s the general editor of the Jesus-Centered Bible, and author of 40 books, including The Jesus-Centered Life and the new daily devotional Jesus-Centered Daily.

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