Has the digital revolution changed anything fundamental about ministry?

When I entered ministry in 1982, I began by using an array of gadgets taht were not state-of-the-art but were typical of what a congregation of modest means could supply at the time. I typed my sermons on a Smith-Corona typewriter. For small numbers of copies we used a mimeograph machine. For larger projects like the newsletter and the order of service, we used a Gestattner duplicating machine, which—as I recall—produced copies by the controlled oozing of ink through a stencil. We made labels with a system that employed a metal embossed plate for each address. When we needed to add people or change addresses we sent to a company for new address plates and—until they arrived—handwrote the new addresses. Our audiovisual equipment consisted of a filmstrip projector, an overhead projector, and a Bell and Howell 16-mm movie projector.

In the ensuing two decades, a parade of new digital inventions has entered the life of ministers and congregations and has turned what seemed to me a passably adequate set of tools into museum artifacts (though some may argue about the overhead projector). The parade was led by desktop computers (my first was a Kaypro, with 9.5-inch floppies, a CPM operating system, and a WordStar word processor), followed by dot-matrix printers, faster computers, affordable copiers, modems, e-mail, fax machines, yet faster computers, pagers, cell phones, database programs, read-only CDs for data storage, Web sites, the Internet, PowerPoint, PageMaker, dedicated lines for Internet access, read-write CDs, and even faster computers.

What’s Really Changed?
The Internet has opened a world of resources. Want an idea for a newsletter column? Review the latest religion news at the Religion News Service (www.religionnews.com). Looking for a place to chat about your struggles as a clergy spouse? Try the “Neither Fish Nor Fowl” chat group at Ecunet (www.ecunet.org). Are you a student of the Islamic faith at a college with no Islamic group? Access www.ummah.com/chat. Do you need, at 4 A.M., the words of Hildegard of Bingen’s hymns? A quick Internet trip to the University of Mainz (www.uni-mainz.de/~horst/hildegard) will locate them, in either English or German. Would you like a Biblical commentary on 1 Corinthians? Bible.crosswalk.com/commentaries give you a number of options, but only those old enough (50 years) to be in the public domain. Want to know what the Talmud says about angels or anthing else? Check www.aishdas.org. Curious whether the word “religion” really comes from roots meaning “to bind together”? Try “religion etymology” in your favorite search engine. Need assistance in your study of the lectionary portion for the week? Try www.satucket.com/lectionary. Truly desperate for a sermon about that lectionary portion? See “Sermon and Sermon-Lectionary Resources.”

Yet, as impressive as all this might be, one might still ask whether these innovations have changed anything fundamental. It could be argued that for the most part, they are changing the “how” of ministry more than the “what.” After the online assist in sermon preparation, almost all clergy preach before a physically gathered congregation. What’s more, even with all the benefits online religion may hold out for some, are we not to be judged by how we serve those who have least? So far, those who have the least are a long way from being able to afford computers or fax machines or cell phones.

As if to add an exclamation point to this more sober assessment of the digital revolution, many of those who made the largest claims for its significance for religion have recently been caught in the dot-com crash. Crosswalk.com, a site that promised to bring about a “dramatic improvement” in the integration of life and faith, announced a layoff of 23 percent of its employees in January.

What Does the Future Hold?
Where does the truth lie? It seems clear that many of the most sweeping claims for the significance of the digital—and especially Internet—revolution are as yet unproven and that many of the rest of us will need to try hard not to indulge in the singular satisfaction of watching the prideful eat humble pie. And yet it would be equally blind to take the current troubles of the dot-com economy as justification for minimizing the significance of the changes that have taken place.

While these changes have so far been greatest on the administrative side of congregational life, they continue to extend themselves in every direction. Microsoft stock may be down, but nobody is contemplating bringing back the mimeograph. Each new computer will be far more capable than the one it replaces.

It is true that the digital revolution is disproportionately a revolution by and for the prosperous. Yet easy generalizations can mask important realities. The prospect of free online resources may be especially important to those who live in inner cities, rural areas, and developing nations. These are groups for whom the cost and limited availability of traditional print resources may be barriers.

Furthermore, the changes that have already taken place are laying the groundwork for greater ones. In general, when computer use for groups reaches a critical level (two-thirds to three-fourths) the tendency is for it to quickly become nearly universal. While e-mail and Internet use in congregations has lagged, in the last year it has increased strongly. These media are set to become a primary means of communication in many ministries and many congregations. They won’t replace face-to-face meetings, but they may replace the telephone tree and the postal service.

What will happen then? Whatever it is, it is yet to be invented by congregations and by those leading ministries. But when it is invented, it may yet change fundamental things about ministry.