Opportunities & Limits of Online Ministry | Lesson 5
By Ben Lovvorn
Welcome back for the final installment in our iCampus 101 series! What we’re going to cover in this last session is an issue that we all deal with every day. It’s about our use of technology. We live in a high-tech age. It affects our lives and our daily habits in so many ways, great and small. So as Christians who want to follow Christ, we need to think carefully about how we use technology and what role it plays in our discipleship and in the church. So that’s our goal for this lesson.
The Promise and Perils of Technology:
We live in a technological age, and people have some pretty widely diverging reactions to this new ecosystem of devices and software and technologies that fill our lives. On one side: some people see the beginnings of a technological utopia forming. They believe that every problem can be solved by technology. When they encounter an issue, their first thought is: “there’s an app for that” or there ought to be an app for that. Every new release of the next device or model fills them with excitement, and they race to be the first one to have it. On the other side: other people see the beginnings of a technological dystopia taking shape. They see technological change as an evil, in the ways that it limits in-person human interactions, replaces what used to be steady jobs, and leaves us spending our days flooded with notifications and distractions from the devices that originally promised to save us time and connect us to people.
As followers of Christ, I don’t think we necessarily need to fit into either camp. We know that no device or technology is going to solve all the world’s problems. That’s because the world’s greatest problem is not technological, it’s anthropological. It’s inside us—the sin that infects every human heart. It can only be eradicated by the saving power of Jesus Christ. Technology provides us with tools; but unless we have hearts and minds transformed by Christ, we’ll inevitably misuse the tools. They’ll end up facilitating our sin rather than delivering us from it.
But we also want to recognize the good things that technology can make possible when it’s used well. The fact that you’re watching this video right now is a good example of that. We made these videos to encourage you in your faith. We wanted you to be able to watch them from anywhere in the world at any time of day—and now here you are. So the tools can be used for good, too!
The key thing we want to do here is not to blindly accept or blindly reject all technological advances. Instead, we want to use each tool rightly to help us grow in our knowledge of the Lord and help us follow Him in every area of our lives. If we use a tool in such a way that it increases our love for God and others, that’s a good sign that we’re using it well.
So I want us to think together about what the opportunities and limits are for discipleship online. What can the iCampus (or any other online form of ministry) be for you? And what are the limits of what it can be? What kinds of things in the Christian life need to happen in person?
Mass Adoption of Online Tools:
On this question of technology and its proper place in our lives, the pandemic was like a giant experiment. The logistics of the pandemic required all of us to rapidly adopt and get up to speed on how to use digital platforms for nearly everything in our lives. Most learning went completely online. Many corporations and organizations began doing their work remotely. “Zoom” became the verb of the year. Tools that we used to tinker with became tools that we relied on every day just to function. The same was true for the church. The Sunday livestream went from being an afterthought or an extra to becoming the lifeline, the only option available. We learned what it would be like if nearly everyone and everything went online. I think that time period clarified both the incredible opportunities offered for online ministry, and it also exposed the inherent limits that digital platforms have.
Discovering Possibilities & Limits of Online:
We all discovered that a lot could happen online. A lot of great content was produced and shared during that time. We were able to talk to each other, pray with each other, and minister to one another online. Lockdowns in previous eras would have resulted in complete isolation. But we were able to communicate digitally. We were able to maintain a sense of connection through online means that was very meaningful and encouraging during that season in 2020.
At the same time, we got to experience for a few months what it would be like if our lives were completely online. What used to be only in the imaginings of science fiction novelists became our daily reality. And there were limits. It got old. The fascination with video meetings wore off quickly, and within a few months “Zoom” became a dirty word. Our attention spans got shorter. Our focus waned. Discussions were harder to have. It was difficult to share deeper things when someone’s mic was unmuted with their dog barking in the background, or with little kids bursting into your office or crawling under your desk.
We missed seeing people and being with them in physical proximity. We all missed giving a friend a hug or shaking a mentor’s hand. We missed grabbing a cup of coffee or sitting down to a nice meal at a restaurant. We also missed the church and the in-person experience of worship. We missed hearing the choir’s voices reverberating off the walls, greeting friends in the hallways, and spontaneous conversations. We missed taking the Lord’s Supper together and seeing someone be baptized. Online services were good as a temporary supplement, but they weren’t anything close to a substitute for the real presence of the gathered congregation worshipping together.
Rediscovering the Joy of In-Person Community:
This hit home to so many of us in a visceral way when we finally got to come back together. I heard from so many people how, in their first time back in corporate worship after months away, they couldn’t hold back tears when the worship began and they could see people around them engaging with the Lord in the church. Such a rich experience can’t be reduced down to a screen. You need to go, be in the presence of other believers, sit in the pew, and engage with God and His people. You need to meet with a class or small group and discuss the Scriptures together. It’s how God designed His church to work and it’s how He designed us to worship Him.
So we were left with these two seemingly opposite impulses. We saw the remarkable growth of online media and the expansion of the possibilities for online engagement. People were clearly hungry for good, biblical teaching. At the same, we saw the clear inadequacy of online media to replace in-person worship and community.
Biblical Examples of Distance and Presence:
Let’s look to Scripture to see if we can find some examples and principles that can guide our thinking on these issues. There might be more there than we realize.
Scripture is very clear—we are embodied beings. We know, from the first chapter of the Bible, that God created us not as disembodied spirits but with soul and body. We have physical bodies that reflect His design. God pronounced this “good.” And despite the entrance of sin into the world, God signaled His commitment to renew the physical creation by sending His Son into it. Jesus Christ became incarnate, which means that He took on physical flesh. Physical presence is important to God. Just as He didn’t create us as ghosts, He didn’t come to save us as a ghost. He came in the flesh to be with us. The Gospels feature this and insist on it. Jesus traveled around to visit people, He touched and healed people, children ran to him. He ate with people and taught them in person. When we look at what it means to be a “disciple” of Jesus in the Bible, it involves life on life physical connection, a regular presence for both teacher and student. This is certainly the ideal.
Presence and absence are major themes in the ministry of the apostle Paul. Paul went to great lengths to make three missionary journeys recorded in the book of Acts. Such extensive travel was, in his day, a risky endeavor. Not only was he often without daily necessities and enduring the discomforts of being on the road, we know Paul was arrested and even shipwrecked at one point. But Paul did this all with joy. He knew this is what it took to plant churches. It meant going there in person and spending time with people. With only a few exceptions, most of Paul’s letters were to people or churches with whom he had already built an in-person relationship. He used the “technology” of that day (i.e., writing letters) primarily to keep up existing relationships when it was not possible to be together in person.
For example, we learn at the beginning of Acts 17 that Paul had to leave the town of Thessalonica just a few weeks after arriving there. Some were angered by his preaching, so the church smuggled Paul out of town in the middle of the night. When he writes to them in 1 Thessalonians, Paul is clear just how much he wanted to be back with them in person. He says, “we were torn away from you, brothers, for a short time, in person not in heart” and ever since then he has “endeavored the more eagerly with great desire to see you face to face” (1 Thessalonians 2:17). He goes on in the next verse, saying, “we wanted to come to you—I, Paul, again and again—but Satan hindered us” (1 Thessalonians 2:18). Paul wanted that face-to-face contact with the young church that he had planted. Even after escaping under dangerous conditions, he tried repeatedly, at risk to his own life, to get back to them. He attributes his inability to get to them directly to Satan!
Paul says later in the letter, “we pray most earnestly night and day that we may see you face to face and supply what is lacking in your faith” (1 Thessalonians 3:10). So Paul prays multiple times each day, throughout each day, that he will get back to the church in Thessalonica and be able to minister to them face to face. This will allow him to “supply what is lacking” in their faith because he will be able to teach them further, answer their questions, and model the way of Christ to them. This is something that he does not think can happen fully through one of his letters—he thinks it needs to happen in person.
Now this is not to denigrate what can happen remotely. We know that four of Paul’s letters—Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians, and Philemon—were written from prison. Paul was in his own personal “lockdown” courtesy of the Roman government. And yet this did not stop his ministry. He continued to encourage and guide the churches. He talks about his remote “presence” in 1 Corinthians 5. In the passage, he is answering a question about someone in the church who had committed a grievous sin. He tells the church: “For though absent in body, I am present in spirit; and as if present, I have already pronounced judgment on the one who did such a thing” (1 Corinthians 5:3). So Paul is able to exercise authority and render judgments—to be “present” with them—remotely.
So in Scripture I think we see first that in-person gathering is the ideal under normal circumstances. Discipleship and the work of the church should happen in the flesh, in person. But we also see examples where ministry continues through less-than-ideal circumstances by using available technologies and methods. Paul didn’t believe letters could replace his physical presence or substitute for in-person discipleship; but he used them to do what they could do. They could supplement in-person discipleship and encourage people when the Lord had him elsewhere.
So here are the two kinds of circumstances where we see online ministry playing a role in your life. Sometimes, the reality of this world infringes on the ideal. We get sick. We have to travel or move to new places. We get detained for reasons beyond our control. Digital ministry can be a lifeline in these circumstances, keeping us connected when we might otherwise be completely isolated and alone. This is where digital discipleship can supplement for what we can’t get due to the circumstances.
At other times, we’re facing a decision or a new life circumstance, and we realize we need some help. We’re reading Scripture and don’t quite understand how to fit the pieces together. We’re struggling as we try to teach spiritual truth to our kids. We want to grow deeper in our relationship with the Lord. The world is conforming us to its image 167 hours a week, and we realize that one hour at church per week is not going to cut it. Our culture is confused, growing darker, and advocates for things that are antithetical to the gospel and to what we know is good and true and beautiful. So we need additional formation, to conform our minds and hearts to Christ and to make our lives a true living sacrifice to Him. This is where digital discipleship can enhance our walk with Christ, offering a way to keep learning and growing at any time of the day, wherever we are.
What the iCampus is and is not:
So the iCampus can supplement and enhance the work of the in-person local church, but it is not intended to replace it. Every single disciple of Jesus Christ needs to be a member of a local church, worshipping in the local church, in fellowship and community at a local church, and serving in the local church. The local church is God’s Plan A… and there is no Plan B! In recent years, we have had a number of people who have caught this vision and have decided to move to Dallas in order to join First Baptist Dallas. That may sound crazy to you at first, but think about it. If your relationship with Christ is the most important part of your life and the local church is essential to the Christian life, then shouldn’t that be a consideration in where you live? People move across town or across the country to find a good or find a good school—it seems just as reasonable to prioritize moving where there is a great church that will help you grow and flourish in your walk with Christ.
So we don’t want the iCampus to be a replacement for church. That is the limit of digital discipleship. And yet, we want to leverage the medium of online ministry to create great opportunities for discipleship. We want to take advantage of what this medium makes possible. We can learn and grow from engaging with these online resources, become more like Christ, think in a more faithfully Christian way, and have our lives changed. These are the opportunities for digital discipleship in the contemporary world.
So with the iCampus now, we want to acknowledge the theological and practical limits of what an online community can be, while at the same time investing in the opportunity that it presents to us for discipleship and growth in Christ. So that’s what the iCampus will be going forward. A hub for discipleship, with great teaching that will equip you to thrive as a Christian in a complex world. I pray that by God’s grace this will benefit you!
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