by Richard A. Jensen (November / December 1999 — Volume 15, Number 6)
How the Internet may impact the art and practice of preaching
Marshall McLuhan always told us that modern communication technology would create a "global village." When I first read McLuhan in the 60's and 70's, I thought it was all very interesting, but my imagination couldn't visualize what he was talking about.
Today every school child can tell you about the "global village" made available to them through cell phone and Internet. Any person in the world can be in contact with any other person in the world at any time, anywhere. The global village has arrived!
One of the key tools in the communication revolution of our time is the Internet. The Internet has been with us for precious few years but it is already shaping in radical fashion the way we find information (including many sermon help sites!), conduct our business, stay in touch with family and friends, meet with strangers and talk with them on-line, and so on.
The Internet is an incredible communication tool. We can be thankful for the tool! It is helpful for us all.
Tools are neutral, of course. They can be used for good or ill. We've seen that, too. Data on the use of the Internet tells us that the number one reason people go on-line is for material related to sex. That's not so good.
The number two reason people go on line, however, is for material related to God! That's better.
The Internet is about communication. As church workers we should perk up our ears at the thought. We, too, are in the communication business. Preaching, for example, is a central communicative event for the Christian community.
Down through the ages preaching has always been shaped in its form and content by the dominant communication modes of the time. In early oral/aural cultures, communication took place primarily by word of mouth addressed to people's ears. Oral communication, communication geared primarily for ears, is characterized by repetition, rhythm, images for the right brain, and storytelling that invites the participation of the hearer in the life of the story.
When the printed word replaced oral communication as a defining power, preaching changed its shape and became characterized by ideas developed in linear fashion (i.e., "three points and a poem"), stories told to support ideas, propositions as central, the left brain as target. These activities were all geared to help the hearer better understand the faith. (For a further discussion of this matter see Richard Jensen, Thinking In Story: Preaching In A Postliterate Age.)
What then of preaching intended for a new kind of people shaped by the Internet? That is our question.
Quick and Easy Answers
One of the main reasons people turn to the Internet is to find quick and easy solutions to a myriad of possible questions from sex and God to health and finance. More often than not, the Internet obliges. The answers are there. Right now.
Could not this eagerness for quick and easy answers begin to shape the persons who fill our pews on Sunday mornings? "Give it to me quick, pastor. And make it practical. Make my life work better, now."
We all recognize, of course, that the gospel message of God's love for us in Christ Jesus is not the kind of message that works like that. It takes the Holy Spirit our entire lifetime to bring the preached Word from ear to heart. Ear to heart. Surely that is the longest journey in the world. No quick answers here.
|The fact that God is the second most sought after reality on the Internet is a reminder that humans know that they need somehow to be plugged into something more important than the Internet.|
But people are also asking us to give them practical answers about how to live their lives in the world. The "gospel" may take a lifetime to journey from ear to heart. The "law" works much more quickly.
The First Use of the Law, we remember, is called the civil or political use of the law. For Luther this use of the law was based on Romans 2.15: the Gentiles show, "...that what the law requires is written on their hearts...."
The law written on human hearts is what enables humans all over the globe in all ages to create civil societies in which to live. God has written on our hearts the kind of vital information we need to make and keep human life, human. No special revelation is required here! God has written on human hearts; God has liberally distributed instincts for human life on every human heart.
All of us hope that life can be good and civil. The Internet has a lot of very good information (first use of the law) on how life can be civil and good. At this point, at least, we ought to praise the Internet and not bury it. The Internet can be a great instrument of political use of God's law. The Internet can be a great instrument of civility. The Internet can be seen as a good and gracious gift of God which better enables the human project.
When the Internet functions as a good instrument of God's Law, our preaching can rejoice at its effectiveness as we all learn from the manifold wisdom it makes available to us.
"It is not good for humans to be alone" (Gen. 2:15). As humans we seek community and companionship. Life alone can be dreadful. Many in our land today seek for this community on the Internet. All kinds of dialogues take place daily on the Internet as people seek out people to chat with. A kind of community is established. The lonely are electronically linked with one another.
The dark side of this is the reality that some enter these conversations to prey on people. Let the seeker beware.
Does it work? Do new communities form? Surely some do. The data, however, is not encouraging. It suggests that people who form primary communities on the Internet are and remain some of the most depressed people in our land. "Virtual community" is not, after all, real community.
The church of which we are a part, on the other hand, is a community of real flesh and blood people. Insofar as preaching nurtures and builds the church, it needs to invite people into its flesh and blood reality of people.
Welcome to the body of Christ. Welcome to this peculiar people. Welcome to this global family. Join us on our way. It is not good to be alone.
Tom Beaudoin has written an excellent book on the spiritual quest of Generation X — a generation that has grown up on-line. The book is titled: Virtual Faith: The Irreverent Spiritual Quest of Generation X.
Beaudoin writes that his introduction to the Internet in 1988 was for him a revolution of Copernican proportions. He became immediately addicted to the new medium, going on-line constantly to chat with a variety of folk. He notes that the anonymity of the Internet enabled him and others to adopt any persona they wished.
One day he was chatting with "Debbie" who engaged him in a conversation loaded with sexual innuendo. Come to find out, however, "Debbie" was not "Debbie" at all. Debbie was a male, a minister no less, a person who confessed on-line that "his spirit was willing but his flesh was weak."
This got Beaudoin's attention, and he immediately committed "virtual suicide." That is, he put an end to his many on-line personas. In his virtual suicide note, he wrote: "There is something profoundly absent from our knowledge of each other in this meeting. I want and need something more real." [Emphasis mine.]
Beaudoin, however, was so addicted to the medium that he had to commit "virtual suicide" several times before it took. Finally the fragmentation of self got to be too much for him. He worried about his real identity and the identities of his Gen X soulmates. He worried that they are never fixed or final. Identity is only a series of possibilities. He describes this as "psychic fragmentation."
Upon further reflection, he began to see that so much about his generation was fragmented.
That is why I boil down the religious quest of GenX pop culture to one question that begins on the most intimate level possible and in the midst of profound ambiguity. Our most fundamental question is, "Will you be there for me?" We ask this of our selves, bodies, parents, friends, partners, society, religions, leaders, nation, and even God. The frailty that we perceive threatening all of these relationships continually provokes us to ask this question. (Beaudoin, Virtual Faith, p. 140)
"Will you be there for me?" That's what one observer, of the generation brought up on the Internet, understands to be his generation's most fundamental question. We might note here that the theme song of the TV show Friends, a Gen X-oriented series, sings, "I will be there for you."
There is clear direction for our preaching here. To a fragmented generation, we announce the reality of a God who says, "I will be there for you. I was there to hear your borning cry. I'll be there when you are old. I'll be there for you for all eternity." If Beaudoin is right, this message in all its biblical varieties of expression is a message well suited for many of those who ply the Internet.
While we are on the subject of Generation X, it is worth noting that analysis after analysis of our "postmodern," "Gen X" culture recommends story as the most appropriate communicative tool in reaching this generation through preaching.
Our preaching needs to be story-oriented. Some of our sermons should probably be oriented more specifically to the telling of biblical stories. Most of our Bible contains stories stitched together. Our gospel writers, according to the new narrative critics, intend their individual story units to be understood in the context of larger story units.
This is another charge to tell stories, biblical stories, in our preaching. Such story telling is vital in a culture that is no longer familiar with the old, old story.
By Whose Authority?
We turn to the Internet daily for information on all sorts of matters. The Internet obliges. More often than not it gives answers to our questions. If we are not careful, the Internet will arise as a new source of untested but trusted authority among us. We must be very careful here.
An example of the problems we face is a problem related to some drug companies. They are hiring doctors to write prescriptions for their wares in response to our online medical inquiries. This is risky business. Who is in charge here? Are they interested in our health or our dollars? This is one example of many which apprise us to use caution when we grant authority to the Internet.
People, perhaps many, will find their ways into our pews who have learned to invest the Internet with great authority in their lives. The Internet could easily become for people the true fountain of human wisdom and power.
At that point the authority of the Internet and the authority of the One invested with all authority in heaven and earth come into conflict with each other. The Internet has great penultimate value for our lives. It does not have ultimate value. Jesus Christ alone grants ultimate value to human lives.
We need to continue to lift before our people the ultimate authority of the Crucified. The cross of Jesus Christ stands among us as the foolishness of God which upends all human wisdom and the weakness of God that undoes all human strength, authority, and power.
St. Paul's ancient claim for authority to the Corinthians still stands as our calling: "When I came to you, brothers and sisters, I did not come proclaiming the mystery of God to you in lofty words or wisdom. I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ, and him crucified" (1 Cor. 2.1-2). No new aegis of authority must shake us from this central claim.
A Prophetic Word
Computer ownership in the United States closely parallels the annual income level of a household. The more money we make, the more likely we are to have a computer with its offer of instant access to the Internet. The Internet remains an important tool for us in the living of our lives. But an information gap yawns before us.
In our recent past, we talked more of a "resource gap" between rich and poor. Information has now become our most valuable resource. People at the lower end of the economic reward system, however, often have no access to the new sources of information. There is, therefore, an information gap among us in this land and an even greater information gap between rich and poor nations.
This information gap presents us with a matter of injustice. The biblical prophets spoke out strongly against all forms of injustice. The prophetic tradition nourishes and informs us. It calls upon us to live with eyes wide open to injustice in our time.
The computer information gap is perhaps the latest form of injustice to come our way. In our teaching — and perhaps at times in our preaching as well — we need to help make people aware of this information injustice.
We can invite people to work for ways to counter this injustice by spreading the technology to the poor in every land. A call for our communities to see to it that our school systems are plugged into the Internet so that every school child has an "information" chance is one way we can raise a voice for justice in our land.
"Sex is first; God is second...on the Internet!" The insatiable appetite for sex in a variety of forms on the Internet is a reminder of the dark side of humanity. It reminds us that the free access to the Internet is not always good for our children nor for us.
The fact that God is the second most sought after reality on the Internet is a reminder that humans know that they need somehow to be plugged into something more important than the Internet. They need to be plugged into divine reality. This is the bright side of the Internet statistics.
This reminder of the human search for the divine is probably the most important thing we learn about preaching in a cursory look at the Internet. People hunger for God. This reality surfaces in new forms in every generation.
It is very important that we look at the Internet and ask how it is shaping the persons who enter our sanctuaries. We've looked at a number of ways in which our preaching might respond to people massaged by the Internet.
Finally, however, we need to understand that our most important task for preaching in the age of the Internet — or in any other age for that matter — is preaching the gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ. Hurting people still need the balm of the gospel. Hungry people still need the bread and wine of grace. Quenched souls still need the over flowing streams of baptismal nourishment.
People massaged and over-massaged by the words of the Internet still need to hear the Word that sets all free for a life full of living in God's wonderfully created universe.
The Internet is wonderfully dialogical. We've begun here to ask how the Internet might shape our preaching. We've addressed you. Now, what do you think? How would you answer the question of the impact of the Internet on preaching?
It's now your turn to address us. Go on line and e-mail your suggestions to us at email@example.com. Please indicate whether you wish your comments to be considered as a letter to the editor. As with other letters to the editor, keep your letters to no more than 600 words (shorter letters are preferred).
Let an Internet dialog begin!
Richard A. Jensen is the Carlson Professor of Homiletics, Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago.