Among the many ways 2020 has been punishing for pastors, one of the most disheartening is the way COVID-19 has further accelerated the already troubling tendency of Christians being shaped more by online life and its partisan ideological ecosystem than by church life and its formational practices.
It was already an uphill battle for pastors before COVID. The digital age, and more broadly our secular age, has greatly expanded the horizon of ideas shaping Christians. The church is increasingly just one voice among many speaking into a Christian’s life. A church’s worship habits may occupy two hours of a Christian’s week. But podcasts, radio shows, cable news, social media, streaming entertainment, and other forms of media account for upwards of 90 hours of their week.
How can a few hours of Christian formation (and during COVID, maybe zero hours) compete with the tidal wave of media rushing over people? Even the most pastorally effective shepherds will struggle to guard flocks against the many voices influencing them. Pastors feel the weight of this ongoing challenge, which the divisive COVID climate has only further exposed. It’s enough to cause some to predict a mass exodus from the pastorate in coming years.
Be Alarmed, Not Alarmist
We should be alarmed at the pressures facing pastors, but not alarmist. Pastors fighting for the hearts and minds of their sheep is nothing new. Jesus warned that wolves would snatch and scatter the sheep (John 10:12). Paul cautioned the Ephesian elders to “be alert” to the “fierce wolves” who would not spare the flock (Acts 20:29–31). For pastors, the “wolf” threat is not new.
What’s new is that, in the internet age, any given sheep is vulnerable to literally millions of wolves, whose overt or subtle dangers are only ever a few clicks away. It’s impossible for any pastor to be aware of all the wolves. It’s impossible for pastors to track the online activities of any one of their sheep, let alone hundreds of them. The search bar is the spiritual battleground of our day, and yet it’s a largely hidden battleground where the fight for hearts and minds is waged in one-on-one combat. Even if a pastor wanted to take up arms in this war, the reality is a congregation of 100 would mean 100 fronts, with each person’s online experience different from the next. No wonder pastors are exhausted.
In the internet age, any given sheep is vulnerable to literally millions of wolves, whose overt or subtle dangers are only ever a few clicks away. It’s impossible for any pastor to be aware of all the wolves.
All of this is even worse in a pandemic, because the “unseen” nature of the search-bar battle is even more unseen. In quarantine, Christians have been driven yet farther into a fully online existence: drinking from the often-toxic well of internet discourse in ways that poison their souls. Largely devoid of meaningful immersion in Christian formative practices, Christians are instead being formed in whatever online echo chamber they call home.
It’s not that pastors should demand exclusive influence over the hearts and minds of their flock. That dangerous approach leads to a whole host of other problems. The issue is that in the internet age, sheep have more opportunities than ever before to wander in all sorts of directions, after shepherds they don’t know, who don’t know them, can’t take care of them, and in many cases turn out to be wolves.
Pastors are trying to corral sheep being lured in various dangerous ideological directions; some to the extreme left, some to the far right. On one day a pastor might receive a strongly worded email from a conservative member threatening to leave because the church has bought into mask-wearing protocols of the Bill Gates-orchestrated “scamdemic.” An hour later, the pastor might need to talk a progressive member off the brink of leaving because they claim the church is insufficiently outraged by whatever President Trump said that week.
This whiplash leaves many pastors feeling defeated. Can anything be done to bring coherent Christian formation to a flock so disparately formed?
What Can Pastors Do?
This is a massive issue—perhaps the biggest meta threat facing the church in the 21st century—and it can’t be sufficiently addressed in one article. But in terms of tactical things pastors can do to make headway in Christian discipleship in the age of Google, here are a few ideas to spark further conversation.
1. Media habits should be a discipleship focus.
Pastors, help Christians see the formational power of what they consume online. Show them how toxic a media diet can be when it’s heavy on partisan sources, cable news, and Twitter. Teach media literacy. Suggest digital fasts. Encourage them toward more reliable sources of wisdom (this is what my forthcoming book, The Wisdom Pyramid, is all about). Point them to trustworthy online resources. Help them see the emptiness of newsfeed-style, remixed spirituality. Treat media gluttony and excessive internet time as serious pastoral issues on par with other addictions. Lovingly speak into the online habits forming your church members.
2. Prioritize formation beyond Sundays.
While the Sunday worship gathering is essential and should never be neglected or deemphasized, it’s vital to provide other opportunities for Christian formation. This does not mean churches must compete in the crowded media marketplace, creating Christian versions of things like Netflix and TikTok. It does not mean gimmicks or chasing technological fads. I’m talking about encouraging creative rhythms during the week to facilitate God-centered community, education, beauty, work, and leisure throughout the week. The burden for this doesn’t fall entirely on pastors, but we urgently need fresh vision for what holistic Christian formation looks like in the 21st century.
3. Church is about more than getting “content.”
Any church that conceives of itself primarily as a deliverer of content—giving people great sermons, top-notch worship music experiences—will eventually be a dead church. In the age of Google, there will always be better preaching and better worship music just a click away. But such online “content”—yes, even from TGC—can never replace church, and pastors must think carefully about why. What can a local church provide that a Google search cannot? Offering compelling, attractive answers to this question is one of the most urgent questions for the church.
Pastors and church leaders, don’t lose heart. This is an incredibly difficult moment, but it’s just the latest challenge Christ’s bride has faced. She will survive. Yes, be alert and concerned for your internet-scattered flock. But remember we are the flock’s stewards, not its owners or creators. We feeble shepherds have nothing to give that we didn’t also receive from the Great Shepherd. He’s in charge. He’s building his church, and nothing—no pandemic, no divisive political issue, not even the gates of hell (Matt. 16:18)—will prevail against it.