by Tom Kuster, CMI Executive Director
As I prepare for a Home Missionary Pastors’ Workshop to explore outreach strategies, I know that the importance of a congregation’s internet presence is sure to come up – this at a time when the negative aspects of being online, simmering for a long time, are coming to a rolling boil all around us.
Today’s issue of The Technology 202, a regular supplement from the Washington Post, is almost entirely negative. On this same day the Minneapolis Star-Tribune published a how-to article about getting off Facebook altogether (it’s not easy but can be done).
Here are some of the major headings in the “202” article:
- Bad actors exploited technology to amplify the ugliest aspects of humanity.
- Trust in technology giants has been eroded.
- We began to grapple with the wide-ranging pain points technology can introduce in our daily lives — from constant spam to online pressure on mental health.
- Advances presented new privacy and bias concerns.
These points were elaborated by details like these:
“Washington and Silicon Valley crashed into each other in 2018: Fears about the growing influence of technology and its negative effects on society and democratic institutions replaced the enthusiasm that once fueled the rise of Silicon Valley titans.”
“The Parkland story showed that many of the disturbing things that happen in plain view on the Internet are not the inevitable consequence of lots of people merely being online, sharing their views. The worst stuff typically is the product of well-coordinated, malicious efforts to reshape how we understand the world — inevitably for the worse.”
“How merchants use Facebook to flood Amazon with fake reviews: The story reflects our efforts across the year to show how the online systems we take for granted are heavily gamed — by Russian operatives, profiteers, or even the companies themselves — and how tech platforms have become too big to control their dark side.”
“From Silicon Valley elite to social media hate: The radicalization that led to Gab – The founder of the social media platform, which has been linked to the Pittsburgh synagogue shooting suspect, created the site after he felt alienated by liberal Silicon Valley.”
“Quitting Instagram: She’s one of the millions disillusioned with social media. But she also helped create it. – Bailey Richardson, one of Instagram’s original 13 employees, says the company has lost its identity.”
“Hands off my data! 15 default privacy settings you should change right now. Say no to defaults. A clickable guide to fixing the complicated privacy settings from Facebook, Google, Amazon, Microsoft and Apple.”
The disillusion crisis is world-wide:
“Facebook said it is cracking down on fake news outlets in Bangladesh as the country readies for national elections.”
Challenges from technology range from the supremely annoying to perhaps the most frightening of all:
“Nearly half of cellphone calls will be scams by 2019, report says.”
“‘I’m in your baby’s room: a hacker took over a baby monitor and broadcast threats, parents say.”
Of course, there is much more.
What are we to make of all this when we consider using this technology in the Lord’s work?
First, we are not surprised that sinful humankind seeks evil uses for any technological advancement. It has always happened. The remarkable advanced roads the Romans built in order better to extend cruel and oppressive imperial control became part of the “fulness of time” enabling Christians to carry the gospel message far and wide. God can and will still enable Christians to use these things for his purposes.
Second, the internet, and in particular social media, are not going away. A relative few may resolve to give it up, but when you observe your friends, your kids, perhaps yourself, it becomes clear that being online will remain an important part of most lives.
Third, the current flood of negative publicity, while it won’t drive most people offline, should make them more skeptical of what they find there, and more careful about the information they consume. That is a good thing.
And so, for our church work, the following principles become more important than before:
Your congregation’s online presence remains important to maintain. Most of your “prospects” will explore your website before responding to any of your invitations.
We must be as careful as ever to model the “good side” of the internet – producing high quality materials, observing copyright, and all the rest. Key characteristics of our online presence will include transparency, and an honest portrayal of what a visitor will find when actually setting foot in church.
Above all, the message of a church’s website should convey sincerely what Jim Aderman calls “a grace-prompted willingness to help, to provide for, and to strengthen its audiences’ spiritual life.” He elaborates: “Since ‘God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting people’s sins against them,’ a church’s online presence will proclaim that God ‘has committed to us the message of reconciliation’ (2 Corinthians 5:18,19). Its posts will highlight how that reconciliation came to be, but also the results of not having sins counted against us: the loving fellowship Christians have with each other, their joyful determination to listen to and live out God’s Word, and their desire for everyone to share in these blessings. A church will expend great effort so everyone who meets it online will find free access to an abundance of helpful resources that meet their needs, answer their questions, and invite them to explore a relationship with Jesus.” *
Then let God the Holy Spirit bless that message, overcoming the skepticism in the hearts of those who visit your church’s online presence.
* James A. Aderman, Sharegrace: A Philosophy to Guide a Church’s Online Communication, unpublished MPT thesis, Wisconsin Lutheran Seminary, Mequon WI, 2016, p. 30.