Commenting on the relative strengths and weaknesses of the Internet in relation to building up one’s faith (that is, imparting sound biblical teaching on passages, publishing articles on contemporary issues facing Christians or on tackling difficult theological questions) the Australian preacher Philip Jensen noted, in recent Q+A session that the greatest strength of the Internet in regard to the above was that ‘it’s free and easy to use’. Concerning the greatest weakness of the Internet in this area he said, again, without hesitation ‘it’s free and easy to use.’1
This, I believe, captures the crux of the issue that faces many Christians today. The Internet has opened up and expanded boundaries in all sorts of ways, the amount of information on issues which affect us all is immense and churches from all over the developed World now have their sermons online and backed up, so that if we so desired, we could listen to a sermon on tithing from 1956! Yet does an increase in material claiming to be Christian, and seeking to be helpful necessarily mean it’s a good thing? This is what I wish to tackle in this article.
We live in an age now where the transfer and digestion of information is becoming ever more instant and where answers to burning questions are seemingly easily available to us at the click of a button. Whilst this isn’t necessarily a bad thing, I want to begin by asking us whether our discernment suffers as a result of this, that is, do we simply click on the first link that comes up when we type in ‘Why does God allow suffering’ without necessarily considering whether this first link holds to scripture? As the book of Hebrews says ‘For the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and of spirit, of joints and of marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart’ (Hebrews 4:12-13).
Indeed, this verse is interesting in that it reveals where primarily we should go to seek to discernment, and ultimately what we should test any Internet article, sermon, podcast, tweet against, that is, the Bible itself. This challenges me in a number of ways, not least in regard to what was noted above. In this age of instant communication, do we test what we read and listen to on the internet against God’s revealed word to man? If I’m honest with myself, I probably don’t do this as much as I should, and I’m guessing that many others don’t either.
Interlinked with this point is the vital question ‘Do I like what I’m reading or listening to because it confirms what I already initially thought, or does it confirm what I want to be the case?’ Indeed, with the wealth of information available, I believe it can be the case that we can keep looking for that article, or sermon until it confirms what we want, rather than questioning our own preconceptions to start with. That is, how useful is the internet when all it potentially does is reinforce our own wrong thoughts? With this in mind, it is worthwhile to think about our own thinking about an issue or passage and whether it is faithful to scripture before going to the internet for guidance. This of course is not to say that we should never go the internet, but that we should be careful about our own motives for doing so. To this effect, it is worth remembering that even the most biblically faithful websites or articles are only in essence someone’s impression, thoughts or reflections on a passage or issue and not equal to the source material itself. ‘Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God, for many false prophets have gone out into the world’ (1 John 4:1).
So far, I have shaped my article in terms of looking at the helpfulness of the internet in relation to the individual, but I now want to briefly look at the more corporate uses of the internet, particularly in regard to Christians who for whatever reason do not have access to Bible focussed resources. Indeed, as many churches have attested, many of the downloads from their websites have been from parts of the World where there is not access to the good quality resources that we enjoy in the Western World and where at times significant persecution is present. Consequently, it is easy to see how (whilst taking the above caveats into account) the internet can be extremely helpful in this way, in that it has given previously hard to reach areas of the World access to helpful resources which have the potential to encourage and strengthen in times of great difficulty.
To conclude then, I believe that the Internet does have the potential to be helpful for the Christian, and there is certainly no need to rule it out carte Blanche. However, it is also true that we should be aware of the dangers of potential pitfalls of the internet, not least in that it can potentially make the Christian abandon discernment, making it easy for us to seek resources that suit our viewpoint, regardless of whether that view is a helpful one or not. Thirdly, due to the sheer ease of access we can sometimes be too quick to go to the internet, rather than spend time seeking what the original source document, the Bible, says. What I am arguing for then, is for two fundamental things. The first is that before consulting the internet, we should be consulting the Bible, trying to work out what it says regarding a certain passage, issue or doctrine. The second thing I believe we should do is to test whatever we see on the web against the Bible. If we do these two things then I believe the answer to the question ‘Is the Internet a helpful place for building up ones faith?’ can be ‘Yes!’
Phillip Jensen, St Helens Church Bishopsgate, 29th January 2012.