Australian theologian Peter Tong is concerned about bad theology being perpetuated via the Internet. He, along with many pastors—including this one—is concerned that an overreliance, and an overexposure to the internet, can be unhealthy.
In the book Women, Sermons and the Bible: Essays interacting with John Dickson’s Hearing Her Voice, Tong notes,
Theology is not the only field affected by the nature of online information. In 2011, The Sydney Morning Herald reported that four out of five Australians turn to the internet for health information. Half of those use search engines to make a self-diagnosis. Understandably, doctors are frustrated by both the misinformation on the web and people’s propensity for believing it. They are now warning of the real dangers of trading the family GP for blogs and forums.
Tong adds, “There are some obvious parallels to the dynamic of online theology. Just as erroneous medical information poses a risk to physical health, so sloppy theology poses a risk to the spiritual health of the church.”
I share his concern about the “viruses” of bad theology, and yet my concern in this article is about something far subtler: the unhealthy tendency to replace a local church’s Holy Spirit appointed shepherds (Acts 20:28) with cyber-pastors. I am concerned about spiritual virtual reality minimising the flesh-and-blood body life of the local church.
Every era presents unique challenges to the health of the church. One of those in our day is the ubiquitous presence of podcasts, blogs, tweets, and the like, from theologians and pastors—of all stripes. Of course, much of this is cause for thanksgiving to God. After all, for the price of an Internet connection, one can access great teaching from gifted Bible teachers. Edifying podcasts can accompany us on the way to work or as we exercise, and soundly biblical blog posts can provide much truth for our souls. This deserves a hearty amen!
Yet, there is a subtle danger lurking behind this blessing: the danger of disconnecting with our community of faith and with those entrusted to care for our community of faith—its pastors.
Those who regularly preach to their churches are aware that they are a far cry from the likes of a Piper, DeYoung, Challies, MacArthur, Moeller, Dever, Baucham, Wilson, etc. To make any comparison is sheer folly.
Yet, none of these gifted brothers can do what a church’s pastors/elders can do: shepherd the flock over which God has uniquely placed them.
As a preaching-pastor, I am aware that many are entering the building each Sunday having listened throughout the week to excellent sermons and podcasts from exceptionally gifted men. I am aware of the great gulf that exists between these men and what often comes from our pulpit and pen.
Yet, those dear and very gifted brothers cannot do what I and my fellow elders have done the previous week, nor what we will do in the week ahead: shepherd our flock.
Those who teach us via the Internet will not be on the other end of the phone when heartache strikes; they will not be the ones seeking to comfort those whose loved one has died; they will not be the ones seeking our wandering fellow church member; they will not be losing sleep because of the spiritual, physical, relational, emotional and financial struggles of the beloved sheep of our congregation; they won’t be praying for our church members and shouldering their burdens alongside them; they won’t be risking the rejection that sometimes attends confronting out of concern for a church member’s welfare. I have no doubt that the gifted men who fill our cyberspace do all of these things—for their own congregations.
Yet, they do not do this for me, nor for you. Sorry, but as a member of our church, we are stuck with us!
To use the example of Tong above, the elders of our church are the GP’s that are called to be the physicians of the souls of our congregation. Of course, just as it can be helpful to check out the Internet when we have a physical ailment, there is spiritual value in surfing for what gifted brothers and sisters have to say when we are searching for biblical truth. I am all for that.
Yet, at the end of the day, a church needs pastors who, like our GP, know us. A podcast cannot replace the flesh-and-blood interaction between a church member and his or her undershepherds. Reading blogs can be enormously beneficial, and yet.
Yet, there is no replacement for gathering with the church to listen to a message delivered by someone who knows your context, and who has your best interest at heart.
With easy Internet access to wonderful preaching, a church member may have a “favourite preacher” whom they will never meet. Most pastors understand this, and they can quite happily accept this congregational reality. In fact, a good shepherd will be quite happy to know that during the week the flock has been blessed to be able to feed on healthy imported bales of biblical truth.
Yet, this should never replace the regular feeding that takes place as the flock gathers—under the watchful care of its appointed shepherds—in the well-grazed, but hopefully equally nourishing, pasture of the local church.
So, as we gather each Lord’s day to learn, to worship and to fellowship, let us do so knowing that God has entrusted us to shepherds who, though very flawed, yet love the flock to which God has called them. This tangible reality trumps virtual reality, every time.