The internet is like one giant digital buffet line. You control what your newsfeed feeds you. You can pick and choose depending on your momentary desires. Other than advertisements here and there, nothing is digitally forced upon you. You see what you choose to see.
The same can be said about our digital mentors. If you use the internet as your primary source of spiritual input—as your primary source for sermons and teaching—you’re submitting to authorities of your own choice. You don’t have to listen to anyone you don’t want to listen to. But only listening to authorities you’ve appointed yourself is dangerous to your soul. If you find yourself giving into this danger, here’s some counsel to follow.
1. Stop avoiding the challenge of the church.
When a podcast sermon starts to make you feel uneasy, you can stop it and tune into something else. If the online Bible study is too challenging, you can simply click away to a different one you’re more capable of digesting.
When you have complete control over the impersonal “mentors” who teach through a screen, those mentors aren’t truly mentors at all. If you’re only choosing voices you want to hear and neglecting more uncomfortable, challenging, and even painful instruction, you’ve constructed a Frankenstein-like conglomerate of spiritual input that merely suits your desires and caters to your perceived needs.
Our power to choose isn’t all bad. There’s a lot of rotten theology and false teaching out there to ignore. But if I’m the only one in charge of my spiritual input, and I’m not committed to a real-life church community, my Christian life will become little more than a hobby I engage with when I’m comfortable doing so.
But if I’m regularly attending a faithful Bible-teaching church, I’ll hear sermons I didn’t choose to hear. I’ll sing songs I didn’t pick. And I’ll be stretched in ways that would never happen if I were feeding my soul on my own. Churches hold us accountable to attend, give, engage, and lead. In our churches, we must submit to authority. All these things can be uncomfortable because of our sinful nature, but they’re also necessary for our growth.
2. Recognize the limits of your perspective.
God has given pastors, biblical counselors, and teachers to lead, speak, advise, and direct others in Christ’s body. But if we put ourselves in the place of authority over our own spiritual lives, we make ourselves the ones who have authority to direct, control, and lead.
In an individualistic culture, self-directed spirituality may sound ideal, but we must all come to grips with the countercultural reality that the Christian life is not about us. It’s about Jesus, not complete independence to do whatever I want. When I have total control over my Google-search church, it gives me an autonomy I may desire but was never designed to handle.
When I have total control over my Google-search church, it gives me an autonomy I may desire but was never designed to handle.
As sinful human beings, we aren’t at all equipped for spiritual self-determination.
We must recognize that we have a limited ability to understand what’s good for us. If I let my two young daughters go wherever and do whatever they want, they’d be tempted to eat candy for every meal, run into the middle of traffic, and swallow poisonous berries simply because they’re shiny and red. If mature adults didn’t get involved, they’d be doomed.
As spiritual children, we need to follow the will of our Father who knows best. We need a God who is big enough to disagree with us. We need a God who knows that independence is a death sentence for humanity.
3. Pursue loving pastoral authority.
I’m often tempted to pick my digital mentors and listen to whomever I want, whenever I want. But I need differing perspectives in my life, to listen and interact with people who bump up against my sometimes-rigid ways of looking at things, people who provide the refining friction necessary to sand off my rough edges and help me grow, learn, and become wiser.
I need differing perspectives in my life—people who provide the refining friction necessary to sand off my rough edges and help me grow, learn, and become wiser.
When I’m with people who have opposing viewpoints, I’m reminded I must be quick to hear, slow to speak, and slow to anger (James 1:19). This lesson is never more real to me than when I’m interacting with my pastors. Those men have lovingly challenged me to walk closer with Jesus and give my life for the sake of the gospel until it hurts. We all need pastoral authorities who love us enough to challenge us and raise the bar.
4. Pursue humility and maturity.
Mature believers invite corrections from others and welcome feedback because they’re wise enough to know they don’t have it all together. They understand the wisdom of Solomon: “Whoever heeds instruction is on the path to life, but he who rejects reproof leads others astray” (Prov. 10:17). Mature believers are humble enough to know an assessment from others can make them stronger, wiser, and godlier. They aren’t threatened or insecure when scrutiny comes. Why? Because they’ve turned their critics into coaches.
This is the kind of humility and maturity I want to pursue in my local church. To do so, I must recognize that pride is a thief of maturity. It justifies sinful behavior and inhibits deep-rooted growth. When someone neglects the authority God has placed in his life, he pridefully rejects an opportunity for God to work. He stiffens his neck, only to have it broken (Prov. 29:1).
I don’t want to reject the loving instruction from the real-world authorities God has given me, because if I do and I’m left to my own reign and rule, I’ll stunt my growth, spiritually plateau, and eventually tank. God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble, so we must submit ourselves to his loving correction in the context of biblical guidance from in-person believers.