Preaching and the Internet: Enemies or Friends?

19 Jul

For the last few days I’ve been considering the topic of the ministry of the Word in the 21st century. Our rapidly changing world can prove challenging to those who want to effectively communicate the unchanging Word of God. Nowhere is this rapid change seen more clearly than in the online world of internet, smart phones, tablets and other coming forms of technology (Google Glass, anyone?). How does this online world affect the preaching task for the average pastor-elder in the average church? Is the internet the preacher’s friend or the preacher’s enemy?

The answer to that last question is, of course, both. I would tend to lean to the side of friend, however. Here are some ways I see the internet affecting preaching and preachers.

The internet gives people access to preaching in unprecedented ways. One of the most important developments in the Church in the last ten years, in my view, is ministries like Desiring God and Grace to You making their sermon libraries available free online. This has given millions of people around the opportunity to hear what solid, passionate, expositional preaching sounds like. There are other excellent preachers online also whose materials have enriched the lives of millions of Christians through streaming on the internet. This is a good development, especially in those places where there is little access to biblical preaching.

The internet gives preachers access to resources for preparation unheard of even twenty years ago. Not only can we peruse the sermon libraries of contemporary preachers, we can access works by Spurgeon and Wesley and Luther and others. We can study for free all sorts of resources that most of us would have never had opportunity to study otherwise. There are excellent offerings from seminaries and organizations like Biblical which give pastors refreshment in the word and sharpening of their skills. The internet connects us to conferences where we can find encouragement from fellow pastors. And the internet hosts blogs which often help us think more deeply about God and about how we handle the Scriptures.

On the flip side, there are potential pitfalls for preaching in the rise of the internet. First, the internet has given rise to a new generation of celebrity pastors. Those with large churches and well-connected online lives tend to be well-regarded by many and afforded a respect and even devotion which can border on the unhealthy by some. The temptation can come for some pastors to shape their message so that it coheres with (or sometimes so that it opposes) the message of the celebrity pastor. Anytime our words from the pulpit are shaped more by blog interactions or the latest internet theological controversy rather than the text of Scripture, we are in trouble. We need to be mindful that the best preacher doesn’t always get it right and we need to strive to wrestle with the text in our own hearts and in prayer, not relying on the almost limitless resources at our disposal as much as we rely on the Holy Spirit.

The other problem I see with the internet as it relates to preaching is what the internet can do to members of the congregation. Much like TV in a previous generation, many people think as long as they listen to a sermon online, they are doing what they need to do. And they think after all, the internet preachers are much better than their pastor, so it must be a spiritually healthy thing to do. The pressure for this kind of church to be formed, a totally online church, is only going to increase in the years to come. But the online world will never be a good substitute for reality. It is in fact dehumanizing and unhelpful at its worst and it makes us long on information and short on application at its best.

The internet exacerbates one of America’s great problems of the last 50 years, our lack of positive personal relationships. In spite of the world of social media with its status updates and tweets and picture sharing, we are more relationally inept than ever. Think for a minute about the last time you sat face to face with someone and really looked at them and just talked. Think about the last time you really listened to another human being without distraction. So much information with so little life change. Is it any wonder that many people just want to abandon it all?

But it doesn’t have to be that way. Just as someone watching their weight doesn’t have to avoid all foods but just has to be mindful of what they eat and how much, so we can enjoy the benefits of the internet without regret if we will not put too much of our hope there or overindulge in even its good aspects.

Preachers can use the internet to great effect in their preparation and promotion of sermons. Believers can benefit from the tremendous resources available online when they use them with discernment. But like with every good thing, there is always a potential for misuse and abuse. So let’s receive the internet as a friend without bowing to it as a god.

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