The digital age has spawned an amazing spread of knowledge, and the younger generations in particular are drinking it up. Lots of people have written about this from a secular perspective, but a question that seems largely unexplored is: ‘What impact is this having on the local church?’ As we might expect, there are both opportunities and challenges. This article takes a preliminary look at some of these issues, mainly as they pertain to younger believers, to prompt church leadership and those believers who work closely with young people.
First, we have to be clear on the lay of the land that we are dealing with. The conforming effect of the world is subtle, and whilst we should avoid getting bogged down in over-analysis of human behaviour, a broad-brush grasp will help us obtain some perspective on how significant an inroad it may have made into the local church.
Older generations are not slow to concede that they are generally out of touch with the digital age, while younger generations may lack the necessary perspective to even know that anything is going on around them. If you grew up in the eighties, you have a good vantage point. Having seen the rise of the digital age you can provide some context on its transformative effect. We are looking at one piece of that transformation. There is nothing short of a deluge of information that is now accessible to each one of us. What was locked up in the minds of experts is now freely available, knowledge has been democratized. You can either view this as something empowering, or dangerous. For instance, in this new world, if you feel ill, in many cases your first thought will be to try and self-diagnose, and this offers you the chance of remedy within the convenience of your own home. This would have been far less likely just thirty years ago. To an ever lesser extent we consult a doctor now for a ‘second’ opinion. This may sound overstated to many, but it is definitely the developing trend. The problem is that by assessing and applying the information incorrectly you may be far worse off. What’s more, the underlying dynamics hint at a simultaneous demise of the authority figure, and a rise of self-importance, particularly of the up-and-coming generation. This is actually a systemic issue; we can only consider a very limited scope of its implications here.
Another aspect of the increased access to knowledge has to do with the range of different media. The Internet is a key driver, facilitating new media but also accelerating the proliferation of physical media such as books which have come into a whole new world of their own. The Internet is awash with digital content in the form of websites, audio and video, and other multimedia, all of which can be authored and consumed by anyone, anywhere.
Yet another facet is the ease with which one can share knowledge. Everyone is encouraged to share everything, even if it is not appropriate, or the means of sharing is not an ideal means. All the normal care taken to share knowledge is discarded in the spur-of-the-moment world we live in.
For our purposes, we will have to limit ourselves to one further observation, which is pivotal, that of policing or control. The primary medium, the Internet, is not policed, and that has deep implications on the knowledge-sharing process, but that is unlikely to change, so we have to unpick this subject in the light of that.
What impact is all this having on the local church? God has gifted the local church with teachers who can expound the truth of scripture, and a plurality of elders whose several and joint responsibilities include oversight of sound doctrine. However, outside of corporate gatherings, the believer has access to a range of Bible teaching and helps which amount to the same variety and enormity available in the secular world. The explosion of available content is being met by an equally high demand of thirsty believers who, in some cases, sense a vacuum of Bible teaching in their local context. What we are seeing could arguably be termed a ‘renaissance’, because the underlying significance of this explosion of knowledge, coupled with a generation hungry for it, is really quite huge. On the one hand, it is very refreshing, and the long-term effects could transform local churches for the better. But, if the doctor is only consulted now for a ‘second’ opinion, are our local elders and Bible teachers regarded with the same level of preference? Are there similar dangers involved if I incorrectly assess and apply the information available to me? Is the autonomy of the local church in demise whilst individual believers, especially young ones, become ever more self-directing? These are the provocative questions which we must be prepared to answer in order to ensure that the local church continues to fulfil its role as the ‘pillar and ground of truth’.
It is now possible to access Bible teaching from teachers who have a completely different hermeneutic to the one held by our local church. Recall that this new world is not policed. This offers us the opportunity to verse ourselves with an endless list of different ideas about biblical history, doctrine, and principle that can empower believers to defend their beliefs and/or challenge their understanding. Of course, a challenge to our understanding may be a profitable thing, if our own hermeneutic is askew in some way, and whose isn’t at some point? This being the case, it is essential for those choosing to tap into Bible teachers outside of the local church that they properly assess and apply the teaching, and this in turn requires the informed development of a sound hermeneutic. But this is exactly what most younger people do not have. They are the ones with the access to this new world; they have a great thirst but they are the very ones who do not, in general, have a developed sense of how to interpret scripture. Some are still child-like in their faith and will readily assimilate anything. How it behoves the local church to meet this thirst with sound teaching as much as possible, and to raise awareness of how to effectively study God’s word for oneself!
Even if young people are empowered with an ability to filter false doctrine, there is such a plethora of voices out there that it is very easy to find one voice that you particularly get along with, his hermeneutic, his style, his gift even, that you may hardly ever consult or listen to anyone else. It is not that this is a new problem just that it is made more prevalent. Your local church may not suffer from a ‘one man ministry’, but it’s possible that some of the flock are near enough experiencing a ‘one man ministry’ through his commentaries, topical books, audio ministry, even a daily devotional. As we have already reminded ourselves, one of the hallmarks of the local church, a plurality of elders, is in part a safeguard against false doctrine. History tells us that listening and reading the thoughts of one man ‘hook-line-and-sinker’ is unwise, and this is true in this new world just as much as it has ever been.
Finally, opinion and discussion about biblical truth is going on outside of the local church in every form possible, and, as with every other facet of this subject, on the surface this should only be a good thing. But scripture shows that Bible teaching is ideally done, even if not corporately, at least in a formal context, which allows those that are so gifted and called to be able to expound scripture. What is at stake here is quite simply the deference given to the gift of Bible teaching itself. This is somewhat ironic because the cause of the problem in some cases is the lack of Bible teaching, and the solution young people have found is to find that teaching elsewhere. But history is littered with examples like this where a solution has a semblance of hope and promise, only to be acknowledged later that it just ended up compounding the problem. We must once again give sound Bible teaching its proper place in the local church. Not to fill heads, but to allow the sound exposition of the quick and powerful word of God to transform believers and revive communities.
In conclusion, then, the enduring calling to ‘feed the flock’ has a particularly urgent relevance in our present day, and it is hoped that this broad-brush discussion will have encouraged church leadership accordingly. Failure to do so will leave open a vacuum which may be filled with things not helpful to individual believers or beneficial to the local church as a whole in the long term.
But we must also enable believers to understand the importance of, and the mechanisms by which, Bible teaching can be validated. With this in hand, the local church will be well placed to maintain its standing as ‘the pillar and the ground of truth’ amidst what we should pray will be a time of renewal and, perhaps in God’s grace, even revival.