My smartphone has drastically changed the way I interact with the world. If I miss a game, I can easily pull up the highlights on demand. If I want to attend a class, there’s a great chance it’s offered in some type of online format. If it’s raining or the kids are making it challenging to get in the car to go to church, there’s an online service ready for me to view, whether it’s on my phone or if I want to pop it up on my TV screen.

Our devices open doors to opportunities we might not otherwise have been able to experience. A recent tech company commercial advertised its virtual reality capabilities by showing people “sitting” courtside at an NBA game through their smartphone. Here’s my reality: virtual reality is the only way I am ever going to be able to get courtside seats.

Balancing Digital and Analog Experiences

Some of us are skeptical of these digital experiences, particularly older generations. I can be too. But I’m learning the power and importance of them. Plus, digital environments aren’t going away anytime soon. I’m not always sure what the healthiest way is to engage with technology (and no one else has figured it out either since it changes so fast), but I don’t think being a constant critic of new digital formats and opportunities is healthy either.

While digital experiences will continue to be more immersive, it hasn’t (and shouldn’t) completely take over. Author Clay Scroggins observes how “virtually everyone’s life has become both analog and digital. You run to the store to get milk, but you order your next video game on Amazon and then listen to a podcast on the ride home.”

Recognizing the Limitations of Digital Experiences

Even as screen time and smartphone usage hit all-time highs, I think there is something within all of us that knows the digital world can only do so much. Online experiences can create great connections, learning opportunities, and fantastic conveniences. But there are limitations.

People are craving non-downloadable experiences and connections. There’s a rise in taking vacations that are off the grid for a reason. Sometimes a face-to-face conversation is just plain better than FaceTime. Google hangout can’t replace a good dinner party with friends.

Non-downloadable experiences are more critical and desired than ever before. So why are they so hard for so many of us? Why do so many gatherings, small groups, dinner parties, even one-on-one dates often leave us feeling less than fulfilled?

Gathering With Purpose

It’s funny how often I find myself in an “analog” gathering staring at my digital device, waiting for the time to pass by. I took the time to come to this event, but the gathering didn’t hold my attention. Often this is based solely on me: I’m coming distracted, tired, or even a little lazy, choosing to disengage rather than do the work to have real conversations.

But sometimes it’s the way we set-up these types of gatherings. The purpose of the gathering may not be all that clear or compelling. As a result, it makes it easier to stay home.

In her fascinating book “The Art of Gathering,” author Priya Parker observes how many gatherings lack focus, “Here is the great paradox of gatherings: there are so many good reasons for coming together that we often don’t know precisely why we are doing so.” She notes that most gatherings lack a sharp, bold, interesting, and compelling purpose.

There are lots of reasons for this. Sometimes we meet out of necessity; when we know we should get together but don’t really understand why it’s all that critical. Priya Parker says we sometimes confuse category with purpose. We say the purpose of our book club is to read a book together. Or the purpose of a small group at church is to make the church smaller. She rightly observes those are categories are not compelling purposes to meet.

Crafting Purposeful Gatherings

It hit me recently that a gathering I regularly plan had a fuzzy purpose. It’s a group of guys I meet with every other week for breakfast on Saturday. It’s a good group, and we enjoy each other’s company. But our time together felt rudderless. It was unclear what we should discuss or even who was invited. It was my fault – I’m the organizer, host, and planner. If I’m not clear on the purpose, no one else will be either.

So, at a recent gathering, I set out to clarify this purpose. I used a method proposed by “The Art of Gathering” called “Drill, Baby, Drill.” It’s a process of asking a series of questions to get to the core of the meeting.

My processing went something like this:

Why do we gather together for breakfast? Because we like breakfast and we always do it every two weeks.

Why do we do it every two weeks? Our schedules are so hectic that it’s great to reconnect for something refreshing and rejuvenating.

Why is it refreshing and rejuvenating? Because it’s a chance to process the craziness of life with guys who we’re close with and can encourage or challenge us. It’s a place for deep connection, rejuvenating conversation in a casual atmosphere that combats the craziness of life.

The Necessity and Challenge of Analog Experiences

That process helped powerfully focus this gathering. From clarifying our purpose, we made a few significant changes. We decided that not just anyone could join the breakfasts – it was critical to the format for guys to feel safe with each other. We decided to be purposeful at these gatherings to ask each other important relational questions: how we’re doing with our families, work, faith, and life. Breakfast was important but more critical was asking good check-up questions in a relaxing space with safe people.

In a digital age, the quality of our analog experiences is more important than ever. We should resist the urge always to be casual or just go with the flow. Deep down, I think all of us crave experiences that go beyond what a screen can provide. But, it takes leadership and purpose to craft environments that are worthwhile, soul-filling, encouraging, and inspiring.

So, is there a gathering you are part of or that you plan that you can make more purposeful? The people you invite will thank you for the extra work. More importantly, you’ll work to provide a critical space that is quickly diminishing: in-person connection opportunities that make the world feel more meaningful and less lonely.

Photo by Priscilla Du Preez on Unsplash
Our phones have forever changed the way we interact with the world. As we struggle to balance digital and analog experiences, Crafting Purposeful Gatherings is vitally important.