I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about the web recently, since reading Shane Hipps’ book and being involved in the EA Digimission day. Am currently in the middle of Clay Shirky’s simply excellent HERE COMES EVERYBODY (thanks to the tipoff from Jonny Baker) and learning lots – one of those books where you keep nodding and going, ‘yes of course, that’s exactly how it is’.

The perils OF online pastors

EA linked an interesting article recently on its site – Tim Keller is not your pastor. It quotes Redeemer’s sermon download page which says

Redeemer’s primary method of evangelism has always been through the planting of gospel-centered churches. The Free Sermon Resource is not intended as a “broadcast ministry” which would create “virtual” members listening from home, rather than getting involved in their local congregations.Instead, we hope that this will serve as a “resource” for the broader movement of the gospel in the world: both as an evangelistic tool to share with our inquiring friends, neighbors and co-workers, and as a way of sharing our core principles, or “DNA,” to assist in the planting and nurturing of gospel-centered churches around the world – many of them in places difficult to reach via traditional means. Please enjoy listening and sharing the good news!

All of which makes a very important point and one that I completely agree with (as I suspect would, for example, Shane Hipps).

It got me thinking about how we should regard such ‘resources’. The problem with audio or even videos of sermons is that they can kid us into thinkingwe’re part of the church experience – when we’re far from it. They miss the sheer particularity of the sermons preached and indeed services they’re part of. It reminded me of the fact that Martyn Lloyd-Jones frowned on those taking notes during sermons, as if they were merely lectures to be revised at some later stage (or not, as was more usually the case). Instead, hearers were to be conscious of the sermon event as a divine event, and be expectant for what God might say to them. As someone involved in preaching regularly, I always find things change in what I say (even if only subtly) as a result of encounters/experiences en route to the service starting, and through things that happen during the service. But once it’s recorded, it’s set in stone. If it’s a divine event at all (and I do know that it can be), it’s a past one (albeit one with some, even great, relevance later).

There are other, more obvious problems. There is potentially an unhelpful take-it-or-leave-it atmosphere with downloaded talks. Ignoring challenges that are heard on an online talk is much easier to justify than when it’s live. Or we can slip into a consumer culture. Or, as we’ve discovered amongst a number at All Souls, a particular online guru gets discovered and everything they produce gets devoured, to the exclusion of anyone else – and thus they measure everything and everyone by this one voice, including what goes on in the local church here. This can also ignore the very particularity of their ministries of these gurus (quite apart from the fact that they can answer questions and make clarifications offline). Such papal tendencies are not helpful!

Finally, the online pastor’s ministry is dislocated from daily life – which is something that the New Testament is VERY concerned about. Being part of a community life makes that harder. There is simply no way to test integrity online (or on TV for that matter – e.g. the grimness that is much TV evangelism). Of course, this is hardly the fault of the person whose talks get put online necessarily – it’s just a reminder of yet another difference between real and virtual church life.

But this is not to deny that online ministry has its place, not least in the ways Redeemer mentions. Far from it. Not a week goes by without our All Souls resources centre getting emails from people in far-flung places thankful for teaching that is impossible to get in their contexts, for whatever reason.

So would a solution be partly one of simply rethinking our categories? I read many books and certainly have my favourite writers (of whom Keller is one). But in no sense am I tempted to consider them my pastors (or at least, not in anything other than a metaphorical sense). No genuine relationship (as we normally understand them) is involved in owning, reading or engaging with with their books – it is virtual and strangely one-sided – they spoke (sometimes long ago), I engage. Just like online sermons – there’s no encounter at the door (and as a preacher I’ve had some weird ones!), nor can the preacher respond to immediate context or provocations. So, how about thinking of mp3s and books in the same way? Useful resources – sometimes even profoundly life-changing resources – but not necessarily more; and like books, they can inform and shape my community life and involvement.

The perils FOR online pastors

The flipside is of course what it does for those who minister in this way. I’ll never forget one wise friend who passed on this wise adage:

A congregation’s greatest danger is to place their pastor on a pedestal; a pastor’s greatest danger is to want to be there.

So, so true. There is a thin line between wanting people to enjoy one’s gospel discoveries and wanting to bolster one’s reputation, fame and fandom through vigorous self-promotion. A VERY thin line! And one of which I’m all too conscious as a blogger. So let me be blunt for a mo… There are a handful of blogs out there (not mentioning any names!) which I’ve stopped following, simply because every time they post they are simply linking to their latest public utterance. Quite apart from the fact that I simply don’t have time for all the (no-doubt inspiring) messages floating about in cyberspace, in my cynicism, I rather question the point. Fine for the occasional plug (I know – I do that!). And to be fair, some perhaps have the best of motives in that they are doing this primarily for members of their congregations in case they’ve missed out. Perhaps. Fine – but i’m not a member of their church, so it’s not for me. I much prefer blogs that engage and do things which you can’t really do in a talk or with whatever else is out there online.

Otherwise, the trap I can fall into is to be more concerned about the number of virtual fans listening to me than the heavenly Audience of One (which is of course a danger for ANY speaking/writing ministry – though the proliferation of recordings makes it even harder). I’m grateful therefore for Pam, our All Souls Resources manager who refuses to say who is downloading what when from our archive. To know would lead to either ego-massage or ego-deflation, neither of which is helpful in the slightest.

I love the internet and its liberating potential. That includes online talks, many of which I avidly download. But avoid its perils – see what it offers as primarily an extension of older forms of resource NOT as primarily an extension of community life.

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This Post Has 5 Comments

  1. simon

    great mark! think you have nailed it. i particularly agree with Martyn Lloyd-Jones views of sermons.
    it is intresting to see some vague parralels to the bible when you say that the sermon’s are a devine event that is used after the event to edify and challenge the believers and to open eyes of those who are not. slight differences of course but intresting all the same!

  2. David Todd

    Thanks for that Mark. I’d been pondering the effect of people listing to online pastors and then comparing with their own. An online pastor is never grumpy with you, or has to rebuke you on a one-to-one basis, so in your mind he can always be nicer, and he of course would be best friends with you. Not like the numpty at the front of whatever church you’re part of

  3. Nick

    Thanks Mark, this is an interesting topic. You may or may not know the vast literature on the use of virtual learning environments (VLEs) in education (both adults and children), and their benefits and shortcomings. If you’re getting more involved in discussions about ‘digimission’ maybe it’s worth digging around in this literature. I can let you have some references if you like.

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