Opportunities of the digital reformation

digital reformation

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?

Early Adopters

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.

Three opportunities

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. Continue reading

Additional reading

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