I had the privilege of spending all day with about twenty-five pastors last week to discuss the topic of Internet ministry. These men were all students in the Doctor of Ministry program at Talbot Theological Seminary, attending a two-week intensive course on site at Biola. Dr. Kent Edwards, the professor, offered me a day with them to discuss Internet ministry. It was a blessing for me to be able to share my insights on the Internet with them and also for them to discuss their insights on the Internet and ministry with me. After opening up with some background on the Internet and the evolution of the web (all the way up to that buzzword “web 2.0″), we switched gears and spent some time discussing two questions: “What is ministry?” and “How can the Internet be used for ministry?”.
What is ministry?
When I asked “What is ministry?”, the class immediately began tossing out responses. Most could be summarized by simply stating “love your neighbor as yourself”: serving others, meeting the needs of others, caring, helping others grow in grace, glorifying God. What became clear was that there was no single definition of ministry; one must look around them and see what is needed and then minister to the needs that arise. We also agreed that ministry is inherently physical: most of these things require, at some point, face to face contact.
How can the Internet be used for ministry?
The discussion then turned to the Internet. To do ministry on the Internet is straightfoward: take the answers to “what is ministry?” and do it on the Internet. We discussed several ways that this could be done, but we kept coming back to the idea of a physical presence being required at some point. We then agreed that some of the elements of ministry could be done online, but not all of them.
Three categories of Internet ministry
During our discussion, Dr. Edwards worked to help organize our thinking. He suggested that the use of the Internet for ministry could be divided into three categories:
- missions/outreach: using the Internet to reach the unreached, to spread the news about the gospel. For example: putting up a web page that shared the gospel to a targeted group and encourages them to attend your church or find a church body for themselves.
- augmenting existing ministry: leveraging the Internet to enhance current ministry tasks and to make them more efficient. For example: starting a prayer blog to better communicate both prayer requests and answers to prayer.
- replacing existing ministry: to completely move a ministry task to the Internet and not do it physically. For example: doing small groups online via Skype or IM.
The class agreed that the first two categories were definitely useful, but that the third category was problematic. In fact, as the discussion turned from “what is Internet ministry?” to “what is effective Internet ministry?”, the class agreed that effective Internet ministry should always encourage face-to-face fellowship and should never replace the physical gathering.
I responded to the class that not everyone would agree with them. I know several churches who are willing to do some of the third category of ministry, with the idea that it is the only way to reach some people.
What do you think? Is it a good use of the Internet to completely replace some aspects of physical ministry with online ministry? Are we being presumptuous in assuming that one can fully fellowship with other believers online? Or should there always be the intention to bring them to a physical church body? In future blog posts, I will explore this further and look at a couple of examples of how some churches are handling Internet ministry in that third category.