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Thoughts on the Plusses and the Pitfalls of Using the Web for Mutual Ministry

David W. King

And he gave some as apostles, and some as prophets, and some as evangelists, and some as pastors and teachers, for the equipping of the saints for the work of service, to the building up of the body of Christ, until we all attain to the unity of the faith, and of the knowledge of God, to a mature man, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ. As a result we are no longer to be children, tossed here and there by waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by the trickery of men, by craftiness in deceitful scheming; but speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in all aspects unto Him who is the head, even Christ, from whom the whole body, being fitted and held together by that which every joint supplies, according to the proper working of each individual part, causes the growth of the body for the building up of itself in love. (Eph. 4:11-16)

As the primary means of grace is the Word of God, the growth of Christian believers and churches requires communication, from pastors and teachers to congregations (and to each other), and among believers. For centuries churches and believers have been able to live out these apostolic instructions with personal immediacy and direct interaction only at short distances—within local congregations or between members and officers of churches in the same city. Speaking the truth in love for the purpose of mutual up-building took more time and effort across greater distances—the give and take of mutual instruction, encouragement or correction taking days, weeks, or even months. Could this have been a significant contributing factor to the growth of independency in the vast frontiers of America? This geographic challenge has been, in my opinion, a significant problem for the OPC, a small denomination with congregations often separated by considerable distances.

While the twentieth century has seen exponential increases in the speed of communication over distances, using high-speed communication can be expensive. What pastor has not had the frustrating experience of wishing he could call two or three trusted brothers in distant places to thrash out the exegesis of a difficult passage or work out a questionable doctrinal point or seek counsel on a thorny pressing problem—but the reality of long distance phone rates killed the wish? So you write letters, and maybe it takes a week or two to get answers, possibly too late to help when help was needed most. How many times have you driven home from a presbytery meeting wishing the agenda and everyone's busy schedules had allowed sufficient time for real ministry to each other, and you regret that time and money keep us from getting in our cars and meeting somewhere just for the purpose of fellowship and mutual edification? A number of ministers have drifted off in unorthodox directions who might have been kept on course if they had been in regular and immediate communication with brothers who could have helped them at the outset to think through their aberrant ideas to sound conclusions (though it's quite likely at least some of them would have followed their deviant course in any case).

Enter the modern communications technology that enables instant and nearly cost free (after you pay $1000 or more for the equipment!!) written communication via email and the Worldwide Web. The struggling session can now send out an emergency appeal for counsel to scores of other sessions and hope to receive good advice while the problem is still gestating. Pastor-teachers can ask each other questions, propose ideas for critique, and share new insights across thousands of miles, as if next door. Young ministers can keep in touch with older mentors. Three, four, ten, fifty people can carry on an active conversation without needing to drive long miles and tiring hours to meet.

None of this requires any special ability. I who write am a techno-booby. Somebody who knows how this all works set me up and showed me how.

Computers and the Worldwide Web offer all kinds of possibilities, most of which I have not explored because I am still wading in the shallow end. But I would like to talk about the benefits I have received and also some liabilities and pitfalls I have experienced.

Email greatly enhances the efficiency of committee work. A lot can be done, and done fairly quickly, if committee members are connected together and can generate, send, and critique proposals and reports without the need for driving to meetings.

News of important events, meetings, prayer requests, and thanksgivings can be broadcast to a large group of churches and people instantly. It's still news when you get it! There's still time to pray when you get the prayer request.

I mentioned above sharing of ideas with other elders for critique and seeking counsel. Currently (1998) I am involved in an email discussion group for Orthodox Presbyterians (managed by the Christian Observer, email address: presbyterians-opc@xc.org). Several times sessions have described serious problems they face, and have received timely and (in my opinion) good advice. Individuals ask for the names of the best books on various subjects; they ask questions about difficult subjects; they offer commentary on current events from a biblical point of view. In the course of these discussions, over the last six months, I have been delighted to receive some of the finest exegesis and most weighty theological reasoning one can hope to encounter. I have learned a great deal about biblical church government, both theologically and practically. Membership vows, the nature and extent of church power, the relationship of the church and civil government, questions about taxes, usury, marriage and divorce, and church discipline, arguments about the use of instruments in worship, and the application of the Second Commandment to church decoration, etc., etc. Some of it has struck me as trivial or wrong; but some I have gladly copied to permanent disk storage for future reference.

THERE ARE PROBLEMS

(1) Time management. I find I can allow myself to become quite absorbed in these Internet discussions, to the neglect of more important matters. Self-discipline in regard to time having always been a problem for me, the Internet has occasioned much violation of Ephesians 5:16. A few times I have come close to calling it the hand or foot of Matthew 18:8 and cutting it off.

(2) Gossip and offense. There is something seductive about a medium in which one retains near anonymity while "speaking" back and forth to people almost as if they were right there with you. You converse, but through a wall; you are safe. Some, I suspect, undergo the kind of personality change that others experience in automobiles—when courteous, diffident, quiet people turn into aggressive pit-bulls on the highway. I think it is too easy to ignore the Christian "rules of etiquette" on the Internet. Matthew 18:15 and the Golden Rule still apply, but you don't see, and may not even know, the people with whom you exchange postings; you are alone in a room with their words on a screen. How easy to forget the law of love and pass on gossip or lash out at perceived stupidity and error. In this way the speed of the Internet is a liability. Your fingers fly with brilliant repartee, the barbs shining bright—you are a valiant warrior for truth against heresy, you press the "send" key and away it flies, irretrievably, to pierce its target and reach scores of other readers (maybe hundreds, thousands?). A letter would have taken longer to type. You would have slept on it before handing it to the postman. There would have been time for your better angels to whisper caution to your conscience. Think twice and pray well before you "send."

(3) Ignorance. You often do not know those with whom you may be disagreeing on some theological matter. You know nothing of their history and cannot see their faces or hear their inflection. Their words come out of the ether without these vital contexts. Misunderstanding is easy; making false judgments is a great danger. Ask questions of the other fellow before you assault his statements.

(4) Pseudo-fellowship. As a corollary to (3), your Internet exchanges may have some of the marks of Christian fellowship, but they are not the real thing. Our conversations and debates may express the fellowship we have in Christ, but we still need face-to-face encounter with flesh-and-blood human beings.

(5) Caveat emptor. Balancing the outstanding exegetical and theological material I have seen have been a few examples of the very opposite (in my opinion). A lot of worthless junk floats around on the Internet. Remember how Pierre Salinger made a fool of himself by believing—and loudly proclaiming—a total fabrication about Flight 800, and don't be a naive guppy yourself. Can Christians spread baseless rumors through the Web? You'd better believe it, or you will believe it.

Computers and the Internet are tools. The Word is the Lord's appointed means of grace. The Lord blessed and used his Word for nineteen centuries of gospel preaching and church-building before this latest tool became available. The Word without the computer and Internet has as much saving and sanctifying power as it ever did. Blazing high-tech communications without the Word are useless. As a tool can be used to serve righteousness or sin, so the Internet is neither good nor bad, per se, but can be used by and for either. I managed to live nearly 50 years, and minister more than 20, without it. Now I use it and am glad, mostly, but also see the need to be careful and sometimes to repent.

David W. King is pastor of Christ Presbyterian Church in Janesville, Wisconsin. He is chairman of the General Assembly's Committee on Diaconal Ministries. Reprinted from Ordained Servant 7.1, January 1998.

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