Do you have to use something if that something is presented to you?
It really boils down to this one line. And there's plenty of toil and trouble if you don't adequately consider the consequences of grabbing a dagger out of thin air and using it. But enough about high school drama class. Let's talk about the internet.
There is a common thread among every pro-online church personality right now. One where like a script they seemed to have memorized. Everyone knows their lines and they all say this one in unison. "Online ministry is an opportunity we can't afford to miss." I know this because I said the same kind of thing in my book about online ministry that beat most of theirs to the market by a good two years. But we've all been to, or at least know what it would feel like, to be at a play with bad actors trying to do a good show. Everyone still watching SNL right now likely feels this in their bones. When what's trying to be said from the stage and the actors doing the saying isn't lining up in a believable way.
Online ministry is an opportunity to use a thing (The Internet) for the Christian mission. But it is being marketed as an opportunity to go somewhere to do Christian missions as if it were a place. This would be fine if it were a place, but if it's not, then we have some issues that show up, like what happens when you've misquoted Shakespeare in a high school musical. There are several avenues to go down. But we'll stick with a three-act structure for harmony in the theme, and try our best to avoid the sock puppets.
Act 1: Missions
When we treat the internet as a place the mission field seems to get wider. Before there were a couple hundred countries to visit and only a few that would get you killed for doing so with the intent to be salt and light. But if the internet is a thing, what changes about that perception of these online spaces? It looks like you can reach people by going where they are, It looks like a way for anyone with a data plan can now start acting like missionaries in the games and social hubs of the internet. But what's actually going on though. The missionary drive is a noble thing but is this vehicle being driven nobly?
My first critique is that there isn't a place where you're likely to find widespread internet users and social media addicts that isn't already a place where churches are within walking distance. The problem with using a thing, especially a thing as socially prevailing as the internet like a place is that it overlooks the place you're in, so you can use the thing you have wrongly. When missionaries go to a different country and learn different languages, they actually go somewhere, from somewhere. But online missions change that. Now you get to say that last line so long as you're holding onto the joystick, mouse, and/or keyboard. That hardware is attached to the same lines as the local church's internet down the street. And their doors are wide open for people to come find Jesus.
Missionaries give their entire lives to the mission. Moving their families and often every possession they have to where they intend to spread the gospel by gathering like Christ instructed. Online missionaries give their social media time or their gaming time, redeeming it for the chance to do the same kind of communication with none of the risks. Because they are protected by the thing they call a place. You don't need to risk more than your social time in online missions because there are no risks to online missions. Every person you speak to and website that you visit will not and can not stop the spread of the gospel by ending your life like countless martyrs have been over the centuries. You are safely separated by the technology you use to connect with. Because every technology that connects humans together also separates us by it.
By accepting the terms of online missions as a concept we bifurcate the actual mission of the church. If you'll connect with people across the country because of a video game, but won't connect with your neighbour because of your faith, you're not building the church, you're complicating it. The Bible talks about people being your neighbour and loving them, even people that you don't know personally, but those are always people that you are near, people you could bind a wound of, feed and clothe from your own food and clothes. This is what missionaries do. They make neighbours of people across the globe, by going there and sharing with them the love of Christ as the embodiment of the church. This is what all Christians are supposed to do even in their local context. It's not that you cannot have the same deep and meaningful relationships with the people next door and down the street. It's that you prefer those relationships to exist in a world where you can block and turn off that relationship. or rather, that you can prescreen for common social ties. Like the ones that get you all on the same Rust server or in the same Metaverse world.
You, online church, are spending a lot of time playing video games and enjoying your social media. Even if you are doing so as a Christian with Christian good intentions. The Christians you find along the way even the ones you see become Christian along the way, are doing the same thing.
Act 2: Evangelism
Which brings us to evangelism. A hashtag on Instagram with over 500,000 entries and a term no non-Christian has ever searched for on Instagram in an effort to find God in their online life. Sure, they need evangelism. And sure, there is a need for evangelism online. But putting out content with a string of hashtags like #evangelism, #apologetics, #jesussaves, and #christianityistrue, will only trend into the feeds of people looking for those terms.
How many non-Christians look at these terms without the prompting of another Christian? Or maybe better put, given what's popular in these discovery algorithms, how and when would anything tags like this show up next to people dancing, pranks, and cute videos of cats?
What's going on here exactly? Christian porn, that's what. Not the naked kind that gets you off physically. It's the inspirational kind that gets you off spiritually. Feel-good posts meant to inspire and bless someone who would look for that kind of hashtag in the hopes of a positive response. But is that the sharing of the gospel?
13 For “everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.” 14 How then will they call on him in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in him of whom they have never heard?And how are they to hear without someone preaching? 15 And how are they to preach unless they are sent? As it is written, “How beautiful are the feet of those who preach the good news!” 16 But they have not all obeyed the gospel. For Isaiah says, “Lord, who has believed what he has heard from us?” 17 So faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ.
Romans 10:13-17 English Standard Version
There are two missing pieces to this puzzle, a "sent " piece and a "heard" part. What we have online, specifically here on Instagram is a "searched-for" piece and a "read". You see, you don't see things on the internet, and while there is audio to be found as well it's held back by the same kind of thing too. You don't see things on the internet, you search for them. And Evangelism isn't a searching-for activity on the side of the lost. it's the other way around. We missed this because we were too busy building online-only churches in the fishing simulator, or frankly, showing our biases because we didn't do that exact thing.
16 You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you that you should go and bear fruit and that your fruit should abide, so that whatever you ask the Father in my name, he may give it to you.
John 15:16 English Standard Version
Act 3: Discipleship
Finally, our rubber hits the road in a good way, a way that both sides of this car to the theatre can agree on. Discipleship is what the internet was made for but there has to be a recognition that discipleship only happens after a person meets Jesus and joins a church. and that those meetings and joinings only happen where hands can shake and arms can hug.
But the process of discipleship, in fact, most training, is something that thrives in an information-rich environment. Discipleship uses the internet like the internet was meant to be used. It uses it to transfer information between two parties. The only issue here is that while it's good at doing just that. We're bad at using it for just that.
The church has an opportunity to really nail down the way pastors and other leaders in the church get their training and become stronger in their faith and practice in ministry. All the building blocks are there but that's precisely the problem too. They're scattered on the floor of an online Christendom like so much Lego, and no one is either cleaning them up or building something with them. We have the technology to make a free and valuable online seminary, something any Christian could attend from home, and meritocratically prove their worth as a leader in the church to prospective search committees or pastors, looking for more people in their church to step up. We have all the websites, tools and technology to make discipleship something that could happen online better than it's currently happening anywhere in the church. But we are floundering somewhere between online seminary classes that cost the same as in-person ones and theology TikTokers.
That's how I know that this online thing isn't all it cracked up to be. Because the church isn't 100% on board or online with this stuff. It like's the low-cost nature of online spaces, likes the idea of messages going viral and generating content like all the cool kids. But is dragging its feet on this discipleship angle like it got stabbed by Macbeth and now needs a place to hide as a dead body. In a few short generations, the church could close almost every seminary down and move online in a powerful way that would produce a hundredfold more disciples, pastors, leaders,0 and church workers, but isn't. It could close down these valued and important historical institutions just like so many Blockbuster Video Stores, and capture the attention of a world of online Christians ready to find the work God had pre-ordained for them.
But until that happens, until the church's hands and feet meet their ideals and ambitions, then there will be no online missions worth the kind of lives that martyrs lost or viral content of revivals that were more than just college kids getting out of midterms via worship service. Until the church brings discipleship online in a meaningful way, there will be no meaningful online missions. Just a crowd of Christians meaning well and justifying the use of something. All while working towards a high score and that new set of non-armour or god.
"Come, let me clutch thee. I have thee not, and yet I see thee still."
Macbeth Monologue (Act 2, Scene 1)