Discipled by Everyone and No One

Is the Internet Good for the Church?

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Guest Contributor

Around the turn of the century, some 20 years ago, well-informed citizens might claim 20 sources of news. They’d watch a national and local TV news program, pick up a newspaper delivery or two each morning, wait each week or month on a few magazine subscriptions, forward some emails with bizarre threats, and tune in during morning and evening commutes to a talk radio station or two.

In the last 20 years, however, the number of sources has expanded to 200 . . . to 2,000 . . . to 200,000 . . . to 2 million . . . to 200 million . . . to 2 billion and beyond . . . to every person around the world who can open a Facebook profile, a couple burner Twitter handles, an Instagram account for public and one to hide from the parents, and on and on.

This revolution has implications for every corner of our lives, but perhaps none more consequential than that of Christian formation and discipleship.

From Curation to Algorithm

When pastors stepped into the pulpit 20 years ago, they held a knowledge advantage over most church members. They knew more about the Bible, more about other Christians around the world, more about history and theology. That didn’t mean the congregations would always agree. They could read the Bible for themselves. They could purchase the history books from Borders or Amazon. They could subscribe to Christianity Today. But this study required time, money, and effort.

At the time, it was still a curated world, controlled by editors and publishers and producers. Like pastors, these gatekeepers benefited from broad agreement. TV shows and periodicals could sell more advertisements that way. Pastors could focus on study and shepherding with one eye on the most popular cable news and talk radio hosts among their congregation.

The curated world has largely disappeared. The inconspicuous editor has been replaced by the opaque algorithm. And the algorithm knows more about us than any pastor or any editor ever could. The algorithm gives us what we might not even admit we want. Church leaders can only give us what they think we need.

Internet-Shaped Christians

Compared to 20 years ago, the Internet — not the local church — has become the primary place where Christians are formed today. Before their leaders ever speak, church members already know what they believe. And they expect their leaders to conform — or else. No wonder so many church leaders feel like they’ve lost their footing in the last two years.

“The Internet — not the local church — has become the primary place where Christians are formed today.”

Every pastor, of course, is led to think his situation is unique. Elders resign with accusations of theological drift. Younger members leave in frustration because pastors didn’t change their sermon to speak about the latest viral video. Deacons break decades-long friendships after they discover a new favorite YouTube channel.

In the aftermath, pastors reflect on what they did wrong. Did they unintentionally offend someone? Should they develop a new policy for when to revise the pastoral prayer? Did their favorite person to quote actually do all the terrible things that the podcast suggested?

When it’s happening to one pastor, it’s good to look in the mirror. When it’s happening to a denomination, it’s good to look at the culture of training leaders. When it’s happening in every single church, though, it’s a revolution.

The (Technological) Reformation

Revolution’s not necessarily a bad thing.

Martin Luther lived through a revolution. More than a century before Luther unwittingly launched the Protestant Reformation, Jan Hus had raised many of the same concerns about the medieval Catholic church’s ethical offenses. Hus, too, had the support of powerful political leaders in his native region of Europe. But Hus was executed as a martyr in 1415 at the Council of Constance. Luther died a natural death in 1546 after effecting schism with Rome. Under God’s providence, what made the difference?

Luther seized upon the print revolution of the early sixteenth century. And according to biographer Andrew Pettegree in Brand Luther, he effectively invented the popular theological treatise. He didn’t wait on the church hierarchy. He didn’t write only in scholarly Latin. He took his case straight from the Bible, straight to the people. This revolution of grace prevailed in much of Europe, and now continues to spread on every inhabited continent.

Today we’re living through the early days of a revolution of equal scale but with an uncertain outcome.

Terror to Bad or Good?

Luther and Hus remain heroes to the podcasters and YouTubers denouncing today’s church leaders as corrupt. If any figure in church history would have excelled in the volatile back-and-forth of Twitter, it would be Luther. Hus only wishes TikTok had been available on the road to Constance. If you’ve been hurt or outraged by corrupt denominational leaders, the Internet is your insurance. You don’t need a magazine editor or TV producer to investigate your story. They’ll sit at home and report on your Twitter Spaces. You have the power.

This revolution is a double-edged sword. It’s a terror to bad conduct. But sometimes it also slices the good. How can we, then, leverage this revolution for God’s glory?

Luther didn’t exploit the emerging celebrity culture and printing press for revolution’s sake. His revolution returned Christians to the ultimate authority of the word of God, which is “living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and of spirit, of joints and of marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart” (Hebrews 4:12). This word of God condemns anyone who taxes the free gift of the gospel (Galatians 5:12). This word of God exterminates the brood of vipers who speak good but practice evil (Matthew 12:34).

“Any technology revolution that returns the word of God to the center of Christian life and practice will be blessed by God.”

Any technology revolution that returns the word of God to the center of Christian life and practice will be blessed by God. For the accountability of the word, every true church leader gives thanks. For the videos of BibleProject, the sermons of John Piper, and small groups on Zoom during a pandemic, we give thanks. For Paul’s command that our speech should “always be gracious, seasoned with salt” (Colossians 4:6), we give thanks — and ask God for slower thumbs.

Wherever the word rules, no one who belongs to God should fear.

Stumbling Toward Sobriety

This is the day the Lord has made. Ultimately, the Internet holds together not in California server farms, but by the word of his power. And yet church leaders today can no less ignore the Internet than the pope could dismiss Luther as a wild German boar.

So what’s the solution to the crisis of church leadership at the dawn of the Internet revolution?

Shifting all our ministry online would make the problem worse. In fact, church leaders do well to tread carefully and even consider stepping away from social media. You don’t pass the glutton another pint and expect him to stumble toward sobriety. Sometimes the best defense against the Internet’s never-ending pseudo-events is ignorance. You may not be able to ignore the Internet, but you should probably ignore most Twitter beefs.

As the Internet has expanded our horizons to the whole world, most church leaders should feel released to focus locally. Ministries like Desiring God and The Gospel Coalition have grown in the last 20 years to help fill the void of digital discipleship and counter anti-gospel messages with biblical truth. But the best our staff can do is help support local church leaders — the ones who know the real you, not the Instagram selfie. We can’t, and won’t, break the body of Christ and pour the blood of Christ at the Table so that you might taste the Lord’s goodness in the forgiveness of sins. When you stray from the word, we can’t knock on your door and offer encouragement and prayer. We can’t preach the word in power after sitting by your bedside in grief.

Our Soul’s Best Defense

The Internet exposes false teachers even as it enables false teachers to spread their destructive heresies (2 Peter 2:1). In every revolution, good people suffer from darkness masquerading as light (2 Corinthians 11:4). The best defense or discernment in the digital age is a local church leader, submitted to God’s word, who knows your name and knows your weaknesses and loves you all the same.

When we reorient toward the local church, the Internet revolution will enhance — not supplant — the ministry of the word. Another Reformation, where God’s people read and heed his word, may unfold in real time. And God’s name will be praised in our spiritual unity, rather than being reviled in all our man-made division.