The Shepherd’s Staff: The Internet and the Gospel

Most everyone is sensitive to the power and influence of technology on our culture and particularly on our economy. As the NASDAQ rises and falls with the tech stocks, our economy is affected profoundly. As we go through our day using telephones, cell phones, computers, email, and even driving our computer-designed and supported automobiles, we live and work in a technological wonderland. Some of us are obviously more comfortable with this technology than others.

But a recent interview I caught on TV about the impact of the Internet on the church and the kingdom of God struck me. The person interviewed was the CEO of one of the new Internet companies, but was also a well-read Christian. He made a remarkable statement that hit hard. “The Internet will have the same level of influence on our culture as Johannes Gutenberg’s printing press had on culture from the 15th century on.” Think about that statement for a minute, and do so as a Reformed Christian. Because of the printing press, the Reformers were able to read and study the ancients. Because of it, they were able to write sermons, commentaries, catechisms, and thus inspire, educate, and train God’s people in Biblical faith. Because of the printing press, the Bible, long the exclusive property of scholars in cloistered medieval academies, became available to all God’s people. Because of the printing press, life changed dramatically, profoundly, irreversibly. You and I grew up with books, magazines, newspapers. We all own our own Bible, and many of us own several. We all read, and do so all the time. Printed words shape the way we learn, the way we live our lives, the way we think, the way we engage in politics, even the way in which we function as church members.

Is it possible for the Internet to impact life with that kind of significance?

Indeed it is. Already a dominant worldwide phenomenon, the Internet is growing at a shocking rate, adding millions of people each day to the list of those on line. More and more companies have fundamentally changed the way they do business, putting more and more of their dollars into e-commerce (electronic commerce) applications, plans, and marketing. And that’s only just begun. More and more schools and libraries have fundamentally changed the way education operates. Students are trained to do research through the Internet, where far more resources are readily and inexpensively available than ever before. Children learn to work with a keyboard and a mouse almost before they learn to walk, and a student can't get through early grades without learning much about and through computers. You can now buy groceries on the Internet, have them delivered to your home within 2 hours, and it won't cost you any more than it would if you spent an hour in your local Kroger. And, if a recent conversation with a knowledgeable friend is accurate (he assures me it is), within a few years your refrigerator will have the capability to be programmed with a list your favorite foods, will track them (bar codes!) as you buy, put away, and use them, and will automatically communicate with your local store to order more when
you run out.

What in the world does any of this have to do with being an elder or a deacon in the church of the Lord Jesus? Why such an article in this journal? Several reasons. First, I’m fascinated by the capabilities of technology for the church and her gospel ministry, and I am convinced that, with rare exceptions, Christian people have been slow to explore those capabilities and harness the power of these tools. This article will discuss some of these capabilities. Second, I’m concerned about the negative side effects of the use of the Internet in gospel ministry. Next month’s article will look at the dangers. And, third, because I hope to stimulate a dialogue with you on this subject. At the end of this article and at the end of next month’s as well, I’m going to give you my email address and invite you to tell me briefly how you use the Internet in your church or ministry and what you think about it. I’ll let you know the results of this correspondence in future columns.

Possibilities Unbounded

Let’s explore in a few brief paragraphs what the Internet and related technology could be used to do for the gospel ministry.

First, consider the use of technology for communication within the kingdom. A few years ago, when a good friend insisted on hooking up my computer for email, I balked. This morning, a typical one, I downloaded 27 messages, sent about 15, and will repeat that two or three more times today. I regularly correspond now with people I used to reminisce about and think of. I wonder whatever happened to them? I am able, as a pastor, to keep in touch with dozens of college kids studying all over the world. I'm able to communicate with elders and deacons daily. Our church is able to distribute daily prayer concerns instantaneously, and many of our people set aside a few minutes at a break during the work day to pray for the needs of church and kingdom.

I’ve argued for years that much of the communication work of Classis/Presbytery and even Synod/ General Assembly could be handled on the Internet. I’m beginning to see that take place all around me. And consider the impact of web sites. Our church has one. It’s modest. But people from all over the world communicate with us, get sermon tapes, interact with us about what we believe and why, and learn where our church is and how to get there for Sunday services. Obviously, more could be said and done, but perhaps this will give you a little taste.

Second, consider the use of modern technology for education and training within the kingdom. None of us will dispute the radical transformation of modem culture. We live life at a much faster pace today. People live farther and farther out from the local neighborhoods that used to characterize cities. The congregation I serve, not a terribly large one either, has a geographical spread of over 100 miles E-W, and over 90 miles N-S. Yesterday, I made 4 pastoral calls and put 220 miles on the car. In such a world, getting people to the church building for midweek catechism classes, for example, is virtually impossible. But we can easily bring catechism to them via the Internet. (I’ve been thinking for some time about a web-based curriculum. Perhaps it should not be the exclusive way to provide such nurture, but it certainly could supplement existing local church programs. I’d like your feedback on the idea.) I use the web to read magazines and newspapers. I frequently send articles via email of something I’ve read to all my elders and/or deacons so that they can be instructed as well. The web brings powerful tools for research and study for those interested in digging deeper into Scripture, theology, science, modem culture and its worldview. And one of the most significant advances in technology will knock down the walls of seminary classrooms, enabling pastors and students to hear lectures, interact with professors, write and submit papers, and thus literally attend seminary from their own computer terminal.

Third, let’s dream big. Technology is now available, and is quite inexpensive, to distribute sermons, music, lectures and speeches, and other similar material on-line. No, not just the capability for people to order tapes and CD's, but the actual digital documents can be accessed and distributed over phone lines so that people can listen on their computer speakers. Does this signal the end of sermon tapes? Probably not. But it certainly will enhance distribution of information to people in much greater numbers in far more diverse places. Recently, I began an email correspondence with a fellow in New Zealand who listened to a short bit from a sermon I preached, made available on our web site. He was intrigued by what I said about a certain passage, and his short email gave me opportunity to respond, to refer him to a church there, and to begin a relationship impossible only a few years ago.

Now, obviously, I could have said much more. But I’m not a techie, and I have only just begun to explore this area myself. That’s one of the reasons I invite your ideas on Internet technology and the kingdom of God. You can write me at jSittema@fiash.net. Feel free to check out our local church web site at www.bethel.netministries.org. (But please, keep your remarks brief. I’m not kidding when I tell you I get over 50 emails a day.)

For next month, I want to explore the dark side. Or, to put it in other words, what about the use of technology is dangerous for the church and kingdom?

Dr. John R. Sittema is pastor ofthe Bethel Christian Reformed Church in Dallas, TX and contributing editor of The Outlook.

 

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