Whenever world-changing episodes in history unfold, new technologies are often in the background. Jesus arrived in history “when the fullness of time had come” (Gal. 4:4), and it was exactly the right time for his good news to catch fire. The new “technology” of Roman roadways made possible the rapid spread of Christianity in the Mediterranean. So did the communication technologies of the scroll and, starting in the second century, the codex. Centuries later it was a communication technology—the printing press—that helped ignite the Protestant Reformation.
Five centuries later, a new technology represents what could be a new Reformation. For communicating the gospel, the internet is a technology as game-changing as the printing press. It’s a medium with its fair share of challenges, to be sure, but also powerful new opportunities. God in his sovereignty has placed us in this specific era, with this unprecedented tool, for a reason. What we do now could ripple through history and affect generations.
Will we seize or squander the opportunity?
Christians have often been quick to adopt new technologies. When Johannes Gutenberg invented the printing press in the 15th century, Bibles were some of the first books printed—thus helping to ignite the Reformation. When movies were invented in the early 20th century, Christians were quick to see the power and potential of the form (for good and for ill). Some of the earliest silent films were biblical epics or explored Christian themes. Soon after radio-broadcast technology debuted in the 1920s, Christians like Paul Radar, Bob Jones Sr., Charles Fuller, and Aimee Semple McPherson were using this powerful form to reach audiences in the millions. When television broadcasting followed, evangelicals were quick to seize its potential. Billy Graham became a household name in part by using television. And of course, a neologism soon entered the lexicon: “televangelism,” with TV preachers like Oral Roberts, Jimmy Swaggart, Jerry Falwell, and Pat Robertson gaining massive audiences.
Though the evangelical impulse to quickly leverage new communication technologies is understandable and admirable—evangelistic zeal is good!—often this zeal has not been accompanied by caution regarding unintended side effects. The printing press was a huge win for getting God’s Word into the hands of common people for the first time. But it also contributed to our fragmented church today with “me and Jesus” ecclesiology and “what it means to me” hermeneutics. Radio and television amplified the gospel to masses across the planet. But it also gave rise to the “celebrity pastor” phenomenon, greedy prosperity preachers, and positioned faith on the same infotainment plane as The Ed Sullivan Show. Evangelicals have been entrepreneurial in developing mobile apps—Bible apps, prayer apps, tithing apps, church apps—but slower to consider how such media might further degrade a user’s (likely) already poor ecclesiology.
Media critic Neil Postman wisely observed, “Technology always has unforeseen consequences, and it is not always clear, at the beginning, who or what will win, and who or what will lose.” He said every technological change is a Faustian bargain: “A new technology sometimes creates more than it destroys. Sometimes, it destroys more than it creates. But it is never one-sided.”
Technology changes the game. New potential strategies are introduced, but also new obstacles. For Christians, the key is not to rush onto the field and start playing as fast as possible (often doing more harm than good); nor is it to stay on the bench in protest, because the rules aren’t how we first learned them. Rather, we should take a bit of time to understand the dynamics of the new game so that when we do throw our energies into the field, it’s in the right way and the right places.
God has placed us in this specific era, with this unprecedented tool, for a reason. What we do now could ripple through history and affect generations.
As an editor for The Gospel Coalition—which has been an internet-based ministry since its inception 14 years ago—I’m aware of the downsides of the web. I work and live in this world, and I know how ugly it can be. But I also know how much potential there is to be salt and light in the oft-dark spaces of the web. For example, here are three opportunities I see for how ministries like TGC can make an unprecedented impact for the cause of Christ and the gospel:
1. Serving the Searching
The Field of Dreams mantra, “If you build it, they will come,” isn’t exactly how it works on the web. But it’s close. At least in theory, if you create excellent, substantive content that answers questions people are asking, people will find their way to that content—via the great boulevard of the search bar, or (to a lesser extent), the village green of social media.
With older communication technologies—printed books, magazines, radio, and television shows—you only reached those who knew about you: your subscribers, your opted-in fans, maybe people who saw an advertisement. But on the internet, users are more empowered: they type in exactly what they want, and trust search algorithms to sift and sort and deliver the best results. This is why, for online Christian ministries like TGC, the search bar is a spiritual battleground. The opportunity of the internet is not just that you can deliver content to your audience faster than ever before; it’s that “your audience” now includes everyone in the world with a phone and a question
2. Connecting the Lonely
One of the paradoxes of the internet age is that while we are more “connected” than ever before, we are also lonelier. And yet connection remains one of the greatest potentials for what an online ministry can do. This is why TGC has never been satisfied to just be a purveyor of content on screens; we also want to be a tangible connection point for enfleshed people. This is why we have national, international, and regional events, gathering thousands for in-person fellowship. It’s why tools like our church directory are some of our website’s most visited resources—helping believers avoid “church shopping” by quickly locating a church they can trust. It’s why we have regional chapters and international coalitions—connecting like-minded believers in their home contexts.
The internet can be a blessing when it gives people that “you too?” feeling—providing models of thinking and living that powerfully resonate. An evangelical pastor in China who is new to the doctrine of election, or a conservative evangelical college student who feels like an alien in their aggressively secular college classroom, can do a little googling and find their way to helpful and encouraging resources that give confidence and remind them they aren’t alone.
3. Sharing What’s Good
Much of what’s shared online is either anger-triggering or frustratingly trivial. But it doesn’t have to be this way. Christians can be light in the darkness if we use the internet less to rant than to point people to goodness, truth, and beauty; putting a megaphone to Christ rather than adding to the noise with our own cantankerous muttering.
This is what we try to do at TGC. Whether through sharing encouraging stories of gospel advance, testimonies of powerful conversions, compelling models of integrating faith and work, or curated lists of excellent Christian music, we aim to use our platform to encourage believers and churches at a time when so much online is discouraging. Should Christians online also call out falsehood when necessary? Absolutely. This is part of pointing people to truth. But too many Christians online only do this, looking for fights and simply falling in line with the spirit of the age. At TGC we want to zig where the culture is zagging—using the internet not to spotlight ourselves or shame sinners, but to shine the bright, beautiful light of the gospel on all of life.
Christians can be light in the darkness if we use the internet less to rant than to point people to goodness, truth, and beauty; putting a megaphone to Christ rather than adding to the noise with our own cantankerous muttering.
Don’t Abandon. Redeem.
We know the internet is often a cesspool of spiritual bacteria. Some Christians might be tempted to run for the analog hills. Understandably. But like the leper colonies, Ebola-stricken nations, or plague-infested medieval cities where Christians risked their own health to bring healing to others, the internet desperately needs people of light to stay rather than to leave.
This is why ministries like TGC are more important than ever before, and it’s why we ask for your prayer and engagement in this digital reformation, supporting us as we bring light to the darkness of the web, and hope to the searching.
TGC sees the potential for new reformation in the digital age, but we know it won’t be easy. The web is a hazardous and ever-shifting mission field. Christian ministry online is like ministry in Hollywood: be there, and be excellent, but don’t let your guard down. Stay alert to dangers, always mindful of how the internet can be hazardous to your health. But don’t abandon the sick. Don’t leave these spaces to rot. Instead, find ways to heal and to redeem. Encourage the online world to breathe fresher air offline, but also do what you can to improve the air quality online.
Countless souls are suffocating, gasping for nourishing air in the digital world. Join us by planting new trees online—trees that bear nourishing fruit and yield life-giving air; trees that point people to the tree of Christ’s cross, the healing and hope-giving Tree of Life.