It seems the dot-com revolution is coming to the church. Congregations everywhere are rushing to develop interesting Web sites. Denominations strive to connect. And Christian periodicals laud all of these efforts. The ecclesiastical dot-org movement breezily promises great things: vast information, easy communication, and outreach to the unchurched. Strikingly, the excitement transcends denominational boundaries. From the conservative Church of Christ to the liberal United Church of Christ, my own denomination, everyone is caught up in the Internet buzz. Why is the church so committed to this technology, and might we be losing anything in pursuing it?
Why must the church be Internet-savvy? In the United Church of Christ, pastors have largely embraced Paul Tillich’s imperative to make theology relevant. The result is a continual effort to adopt the ways of our contemporary culture. The impulse toward theological relevance becomes expressed in the desire for technological sophistication. When the average age of clergy is in the high fifties, we may feel a pressing need to relate to the next generation by taking up their technology. The danger is that we will uncritically embrace the internet out of our own need for a place in our society. The solution to our anxiety is not to don a tie-dyed shirt and ask the youth group what “groovy” things they’d like to do.
Meanwhile, the few young clergy in the United Church of Christ might be motivated by a similar desire to appear current. The discrepancy between the position of young adults in our wider culture and in the church is glaring. From Wall Street to Silicon Valley, young adults are launching e-businesses and captivating the attention of all. Their inventions and ideas drove much of the prosperity of the last few years. Yet in congregations across the country, we young pastors are being asked whether, at 29, we are mature enough to pastor a church of 50 all by ourselves. So participating in the tech boom may offer us a way to prove ourselves to secular peers and demonstrate our importance to the Church.
I suspect the desire of the Church to be Internet-savvy has less to do with technology than with our own feelings of anxiety about our place in the culture at large. We worry about being left behind in the dot-org revolution because we’ve already been left behind in so many other ways. As the mainline denominations become sidelined, we want to be “hip” and “with-it.” We need to discern the motivation behind our desire.
Consumption, Not Connection
The value of what we desire is also questionable. Internet technology promises greater access to useful knowledge. The vision is quite grand: the contents of the Library of Congress just a click away. The problem with this vision is twofold.
First, in my experience, Internet sites just do not provide amazing information. Recently, in an effort to understand what the fuss was all about, I prepared for a sermon using various Internet sites. The most cogent material came from republished magazine articles. Since I already subscribed to the magazines, little was new. The bulk of the other commentaries I found were shallow and trite. For my next sermon I returned to my bound John Calvin Commentaries, the promise of stunning cyber-information as yet unfulfilled.
The Internet is still maturing, and it may one day provide access to unique and insightful perspectives on Scripture. But the second problem with Internet technology is unlikely to go away—the social cost of acquiring information on the Web.
The Internet provides information easily, but at the expense of more engaging ways of learning. We are spared the burdensome work of attending clergy study groups, opening up dusty volumes at the library, or undertaking the almost unheard-of task of freshly translating a passage from Greek or Hebrew. The Internet aspires to provide a product, in this case quality biblical insight, without the engagement of burdensome practices. The first concern, the quality of information, may be resolved in the future. But the second concern, the loss of engagement, is likely to become even more pressing.
In my own Internet experiment, there was much that did not happen. I skipped the library, both my own and the local university’s, because the information was coming through my phone line. More important, I missed sitting with my local clergy group and talking with them about the text. It may be that the Internet provided greater insights than my colleagues could muster, but I simply consumed them without exchanging, deepening, or furthering the ideas. The clergy group is a far richer experience.
Four or five of us pastors meet for breakfast at a greasy local diner called Schultz’s Deli. The food is unremarkable, but the service is friendly. Sue, our waitress, knows our eating habits and asks about our children. The room is decorated with an American flag, beer signs, and pictures of duck hunting. Schultz’s is not sophisticated and glamorous, but it is more real and socially rich than any Web site.
The breakfast conversation ranges from Scripture to local events to the difficulty someone is having with an organist. We talk about the concerns our congregations will have with a text and what song we might sing before the gospel reading. We talk about how the week went and share stories from Sunday school. One of us is planning a regional confirmation retreat and another is going on a denomination-sponsored mission trip.
As breakfast arrives—corned beef hash, eggs over easy, Tabasco sauce on the side—I brag about my son walking for the first time. Someone else shares pictures her three-year-old took. Invariably, we name to each other our worries and delights. We tell each other how to pray for us and our ministries.
In a sense, the clergy group is a burdensome activity. I must rouse myself to attend. I must commit to participating. I must listen to interpretations of Scripture that do not directly help me prepare a sermon. But the clergy group engages me in ways the Internet never can, feeding my body and tending my soul.
Most important, the practice of attending a clergy group grounds me in my local community. Our commitment to each other becomes the way in which the Body of Christ is knit together. I have only a virtual connection to the folks on a Web site. But the pastors and people at Schultz’s Deli offer a type of engagement that no amount of clicking will provide. In this specific, local setting I find the links that matter for my ministry.
Writers need to disclose their own biases and entanglements, so I need to admit that I am working with friends to launch an Internet site (www.christclarionfellowship.org). Here, young clergy can find information relevant to their ministries. More important, they can use the site to find peers in their part of the country. The site’s mission is to make sure young clergy find their way to the Schultz’s Deli in their neighborhoods. In this case, the Internet does not replace local gatherings but helps to facilitate the formation of such groups.
As the Church moves forward with technology, we need to ask ourselves why the Internet is so appealing. What lack are we compensating for in the rush to be knowing and sophisticated? What may be lost in using the Internet? I would hope we do not use it to replace the clergy breakfast at Schultz’s Deli. Our menu choices may not always benefit our bodies, but the engagement is wonderful for the Body of Christ. Perhaps we should be rushing to be connected with each other at the greasy spoon.