Should Christians be motivated by the fear of missing out (FOMO)?

Bible study that hits the spot
Bible study that hits the spot

My best friend Dina and I recently spent some time talking over some articles that we found on the culture. We specifically talked about what is motivating young people, so I wanted to write something about that.

FOMO: Fear Of Missing Out

Here’s a leftist New York Times article explaining where FOMO comes from:

It’s known as FOMO, or “fear of missing out,” and refers to the blend of anxiety, inadequacy and irritation that can flare up while skimming social media like Facebook, Twitter, Foursquare and Instagram. Billions of Twitter messages, status updates and photographs provide thrilling glimpses of the daily lives and activities of friends, “frenemies,” co-workers and peers.

[…]When we scroll through pictures and status updates, the worry that tugs at the corners of our minds is set off by the fear of regret, according to Dan Ariely, author of “Predictably Irrational” and a professor of psychology and behavioral economics at Duke University. He says we become afraid that we’ve made the wrong decision about how to spend our time.

[…]A friend who works in advertising told me that she felt fine about her life — until she opened Facebook. “Then I’m thinking, ‘I am 28, with three roommates, and oh, it looks like you have a precious baby and a mortgage,’ ” she said. “And then I wanna die.”

It’s like they want to run a race to do fun and exotic things with their peers, and not finish last.

Anyway, I want to begin this post with examples of FOMO behavior I have personally encountered.

FOMO Travel

Dina and I read and discussed this article by Alain de Botton in The European – notice the emphasis on travel and having fun, sophisticated experiences:

We’re continually being bombarded with suggestions about what we might do (go jet skiing, study in Colorado, visit the Maldives or see the Pyramids). We’re always hearing of the amazing things friends have done or are going to do: ‘there was this great bar we all went to …’; ‘she’s getting married in a little country church, then we’re having a picnic…’; ‘the sun was glinting on Sydney Harbour…’ There are endless hints of the allure of life in other places: an article about family-friendly restaurants in Brooklyn, a crime novel set in Trieste, the departure board at the airport with its list of places only a plane trip away: Moscow, Bangkok, Addis Ababa… The modern world makes sure we know at all times just how much we’re missing. It is a culture in which intense and painful doses of FOMO (Fear Of Missing Out) are almost inevitable.

What’s interesting is this – how does FOMO travel affect young, unmarried Christians?

Travel through missions work seems to be the FOMO activity of choice for at least a few young, unmarried Christians. One of my best friends who is married to another of my best friends told me about her missions trip to a European country. I asked her why she did it, since it meant lost savings, lost earnings, lost work experience, etc. (She gave up a year of earnings, and she had a great job in engineering). Her answer was that she did it for the adventure. I have a hard time hearing Jesus say that he was going to do something because he was bored and wanted an adventure. Especially when it’s $30,000 in costs, $60,000 of lost income, and lost work experience – per year. This was before the time of the Internet, though, when missionary work actually made sense. I just don’t think it’s worth spending that kind of money for the impact you make. The people I know who went on missionary trips just wanted to feel spiritual, look spiritual, and have a fun “life experience” vacation. One missionary told me that she was desperate to get away from her boring mid-Western roots.

If you really want to share Christ effectively with people in other countries, then you can start a blog and pay the tiny costs for it out of your earnings from your day job – that’s what I do. I get more people from Europe reading my blog than I could contact in a year of missionary work. I Skype with the people who are interested in Christianity from these countries (Scotland, Northern Ireland, England, Canada, etc.), as well. Meanwhile, I keep working my not-exciting job, so my savings increase, and my resume remains gap-less. This is good stewardship of finances, and self-denial prepares your character for the hard work of marriage and parenting. The Bible says that those who do not work should not eat. And Paul says that he built tents so that no one could accuse him of taking on missionary work for financial gain.

You can tell whether a person is sincere in their missionary intentions by looking at how responsible they’ve been in their decision-making. If a person has gone into debt paying for fun, thrilling activities like skydiving, ziplining, surfing, etc., then it’s FOMO travel. We must look past the spiritual smokescreen, and tell young people to grow up.

After all, if defending God’s honor was the missionary’s main goal, then the real battlefield would be the university.

Bill Craig puts it best:

If serving God is your goal, look to the university
If serving God is your goal, look to the university

There is already a perfectly fine university right next door – no need to fly to Europe to find one! Remember, the university that took your faith away, or maybe the faith of someone you cared about? Yeah, it’s still sitting there in your home town! And it’s still ruining the lives of thousands of young people, by peer-pressuring them into secular, liberal views – and behaviors. It seems to me that it’s better stewardship to stay here and work, then give money to groups like Reasonable Faith. And you can start a blog, teach in church and invite scholars to the local university, too. That costs almost nothing, and it produces better results.

What about Jesus?

Sometimes, it’s a good idea to look beyond the words of the Bible and reflect on the overall message of it at a higher level. When I look in the Bible, I see that Jesus went through a lot of suffering in obedience to God in order to secure the salvation of people who did not even like him. And it’s from this sacrifice on our behalf that his claim on our obedience comes. There are things that I don’t like to do that I do anyway because they work to serve God. Jesus life’s ambition was not to do things that were easy, or that made him happy. Experienced Christians do things that are not fun, because these things are right and because they solve the real problem.

3 thoughts on “Should Christians be motivated by the fear of missing out (FOMO)?”

  1. Hmm… There are some very good thoughts here, but are they the whole picture? Is everyone called to write a blog and serve Jesus in that particular way? You have a facility with words and concepts, but some people find they excel at the face-to-face stuff.

    You may “have a hard time hearing Jesus say that he was going to do something because he was bored and wanted an adventure”, but do you hear him saying you should let the implications for your pension fund be the reason to hold back from doing something? Surely there’s a middle ground between profligacy and parsimony.

    I’ve never taken a gap year or career break as such, but I did spend one year studying abroad in France, and 6 years working and living in Germany. Travelling and experiencing other countries is a great thing to do – I found it matured me, increased my confidence, and took me through experiences I would not otherwise have had: writing songs with local bands, seeing places of historical interest, dealing with crashing my car in a foreign city – all of these were enriching and maturing experiences.

    And I got to share the gospel with a lot of different people, and grew in my own faith too.

    It is right to evaluate what we do and what it costs, but you can’t take money with you. Yes, we should invest it in the gospel, but for some people, time spent travelling can be as much an investment as time spent in college. Things that are not financially beneficial can be enriching in other ways – which sometimes pay back into the financial area.

    Indeed, when it comes to careers, some employers might see a candidate who had taken a gap year as someone who was willing to take risks, who could plan, who was able to stand on their own feet, and who had learned to relate to people of other cultures. That’s not a bad portfolio of skills, and might be what your “bored” missionary friend brought back from some of her travels.

    People in her situation might want to feel they did more in life than just go to school, pay bills and have a family, as important as those things are. There is, after all, a whole world out there that God created and declared “good”, so does it not behoove some of us to explore it?

    Much as I love books, you can’t learn everything from them. Experiences have value too – and there may be more to it for some people than zip lining. :o)

  2. Serious question: Do you consider it an effective Christian worldview strategy for Christians to pursue PhD’s in a variety of fields so they can try to gain tenured faculty positions at hundreds of American universities? I think so. The core problem is Christian parents discourage their bright children from careers in Academia, ranging from STEM to History, English and Political Science. It should be no surprise universities are dominated by anti-Christian professors, since Christians have stopped trying to be professors at secular universities. Likewise, Christians have intentionally abandoned the culture-making institutions of Movies, Pop Music, Advertising, Literature and Journalism. We complain that most Journalists are leftists, but we don’t want our kids working for a newspaper or tv station, or God forbid, working as an assistant editor for a secular film production company or record label. 35 years ago I graduated with a business degree with some classes and experience in journalism. I planned to go work for an ad agency in Manhattan. My dad, a strong Christian and successful financial executive told me as we were driving to the airport for my flight to NYC, “Well, good luck. What a God-forsaken town New York is – there’s not a good church on the whole island!” My mom & dad were very concerned I’d get corrupted. Most Christian parents push their kids into banking, law, real estate, technology or medicine. Hardly any Christians want their kids to pursue careers in academia, the arts, entertainment and journalism. This is why the culture has rotted – no Christian salt where it counts.

    1. I agree with you 100%. I tell people to focus on STEM now because most are not ready to go undercover and infiltrate in a very hostile environment. Your plan is good if people are ready for it, but in most cases it’s safer to do STEM. You’ll notice that in my posts I write a lot about people who have gone your recommended path, like Ryan T. Anderson. I just want people to have both eyes open and be well funded if they do that. My original plan was for a PhD in CS and then teach at a secular university, but something happened to block me for 10 years. I ended up just doing the BS and MS and sticking with private sector employment. This blog is my attempt to making up for failing in my first plan.

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