New Media and the Local Church
Anyone who uses social media knows how these venues can disorient you to the real world. As you delve deeper into Facebook, Twitter, podcasting, and blogging, your perspective on the world seems to expand. You're connected with friends, family, and celebrities around the world as never before. In reality, however, your perspective may actually become confined to the computer screen you stare at the entire day. An alternate, virtual world overtakes you.
You realize something's amiss when these worlds collide. I talked with one pastor who understood this dynamic only too well. I wanted to interview him for an article I was writing, so I asked if I could visit his church. He politely welcomed me, but he wanted me to understand something first. I should not assume that just because people followed his blog that his church would be filled. In fact, his small church was struggling to learn how it could engage the community and trust God for gospel growth.
I hadn't expected to visit a megachurch, so I expressed no reservation about visiting him. Actually, I grew to respect the pastor and his evangelism efforts even more after I did visit him in person. Meeting church members and his family allowed me to better understand and appreciate his blogging.
Yet real life does not always reflect so well on the virtual world. Few bring better knowledge and depth of insight to this important challenge than Joe Carter, web editor for First Things. Writing for a Patheos series on the future of evangelicalism, Carter takes a stab at projecting how cultural trends we observe today will affect the church moving forward. For example, he deftly observes how new media have already enabled the spread of Calvinism among younger evangelicals who frequent online forums. Pastors who might have felt isolated in their beliefs now find a welcoming, supportive, and boisterous community online.
At the same time, we observe limitations to this trend, reinforcing the disconnect between two realities. A pastor who runs into trouble with his small church over Calvinism will find little help by appealing to The Gospel Coalition Blog or any such similar forum. The deacons won't be impressed by his number of Twitter followers or Facebook friends. We live in the already/not yet tension of new media's proliferation.
Carter mentions several ways new media already affect the local church, not always for the better. He notes that the average American pastor delivers his sermon to 60 people each week. Yet during that same week, even mildly successful bloggers will reach a more sizable audience. Who has the greater influence, then? A pastor may lead church members through the thick and thin of real life. You certainly can't replicate that loving concern in a blog. Then again, ask pastors, particularly in small churches, what they think about sermon podcasts. Or inquire about their love-hate relationship with trendiness in Christian blogging and publishing.
Carter was an early adopter of new media. He founded the Evangelical Outpost in 2005. Nevertheless, he expresses serious concern about Christian influence and the new media:
Despite the importance of these new media teachers, there is no council, diocese, presbytery, or synod that oversees and sanctions these religious blogs. These bloggers are able to instruct and inspire large audiences without oversight from any higher-level church polity. Of course, evangelicals have always been loosely bound by denominational boundaries. But in the past, some form of credentialism or institutional position was necessary to reach an audience. Today, all that is required is a broadband connection.
Evangelical bloggers are not only able to gain significant influence, but are able to do so without scrutiny by a seminary, local church, or other ecclesiastical or institutional body. Indeed, some bloggers have found that their leadership on the web dwarfs the leverage they have within their local church (especially if they attend a megachurch).
I'm not convinced it would be possible to institute a reliable accountability program for evangelical bloggers even if we wanted one. And I think we've learned from mainline Protestant churches that credentials don't necessarily solve the problem of doctrinal infidelity. Still, Carter has raised a challenge our churches and bloggers need to address. God has instituted the local church for our good the the glory of Jesus Christ. He has revealed to us standards of character for Christian leadership. At its biblical best, the church enforces those standards with loving concern that the gospel would sink deeper and deeper into our whole lives, manifested in our words and deeds. We should be concerned that our online voices find that gracious support from their local churches. And our local churches should realize that online leadership is real leadership in a new media age, so they would be wise to identify and encourage the bloggers among them.
Already the new media have been a boon to the church in many ways. Good gospel resources have proliferated. If we would avoid the curse of new media, though, we'll need to bring our two realities together in the church.