Rescuing the Church from the Arms of Digital Deity – Returning to the Authority of Scripture

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By Dr. Dave Garner

Editor’s note: Dr. Dave Garner is professor of theology at Westminster Theological Seminary Philadelphia. He has been very much in the forefront of challenging the church to maintain its commitment to the sufficiency, inerrancy, and authority of Scripture. We asked him to write on this topic.

They thought they were going to die. Already begrudging the outdated notion of wilderness camp hundreds of miles from home, the vanload of teenagers was jolted by the ground rules at their non-virtual form of distance education. Posted at the wilderness camp’s entrance gate was the media bouncer barking authoritatively, “No MP3 players. No I-Pods. No DVD players. No cell phones. No laptops. No kidding.” The prehistoric demands aroused sleepy youth from their digital slumbers. Disappointment heated into outrage; outrage ignited panic, and I-Pod toting teens banded into a digitally mastered surround-sound symphony: “How can we possibly survive for 10 days without our music?!”

Does this camping scenario manifest a harmless reality of twenty-first century adolescents? Is it merely laughable that these Generation Next-ers see no possibility of survival apart from their electronic gadgetry? Is it a negligible trend that the digital world has created virtual friends with virtually no social skills, that texting and sexting are now components of daily life, and that I-Phone apps, Facebook, and On-Demand video are no longer conveniences but expectations?

Child and adolescent psychologists, socio-logists, and cultural analysts are now speaking openly of quantifiable effects of the Digital Age. Their concerns are largely clinical, as they present trends, expectations, and the measurable effects of media upon the minds of the post-Millennials. Others perceive the longings of the I-generations as watershed cultural shifts that beg for creative solutions educationally, socially, economically, and technologically. But what of the Church, what of Scripture, what of the hearts and souls of those in the pews whose eyes, ears, and hearts thump with digital expectations? Electronic media trends raise serious questions for the life of the Church, and the lack of deep, thorough, critical and immediate analysis may tangle us in a worldwide web of irrelevance.

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Let’s remove our earphones for a moment and reflect quietly. Is it merely a dismissible fact that many flourishing churches flourish because they keep up with technological longings of their congregations, which expect, no demand, multi-media impulses to keep their attention? Should the demands of our congregations and culture shape twenty-first century ministry?

Can such shaping be done without weakening the authority of Christ and his Word? Knowing that the youth in our congregations now average 7 hours and 38 minutes per day (53 hours per week!) of entertainment media,[1]is it any surprise that their expectations of church worship center on their own desires?

computer.jpgI don’t mean to sound overdramatic, but we simply cannot bury our heads in our X-Boxes. As numerous studies attest, the relentless acquisition of cutting edge digital technology now lords over the Western cultural heart, extending across ethnic, gender, economic, and social boundaries. We must pause between texts, emails, and Seinfeld episodes to face the fact that technological lordship vies for the worship of God’s people in ourchurches. For too many, the knee is already bowed.

Neil Postman warned us in 1985. Bravely extending Huxley’s prophetic analysis of a new world shaped by technological, social and moral change, Postman delivered his own package of warning, alerting us that we were well on the way to Amusing Ourselves to Death. But blind to his foresight and deaf to his alarm bell, our eyes and ears greedily sought more media. We got what we wanted. And now the media playground is anything but frivolous, as instant, downloadable, and streamlined access to media has crept (in same cases, leapt) from servant to lord. Our new god is killing us. Oh, our souls may not yet have died, but the morgue musicians are warming up… or is it cooling down? Whatever the case, they are tuning their instruments, because barring repentance from our multimedia idolatry, we may soon die, drowning in our pool of instantaneous media pleasure.

Like a ping-pong ball in a raffle machine, we bounce from CSI-Miami to a rerun of Hogan’s Heroes, from Madonna to Mozart, and from Amazon to Facebook. We pay the electric company with e-pay, donate ten bucks to Haiti, download Star Wars from Netflix, stream Kenny Chesney on Pandora, and choose the news anchor we want to expose the sex and lies, and videotape of our choice… all with the effortless flick of a single finger. Yes, we choose the news, the noise, and the narcissism. This buffet of choices confirms the cultural conviction clutched deeply within our collective souls: “I am that I am. I am Lord. I am the god of my instantly-gratifying world.” The enticing image of the media goddess has also captivated the Western church with a sweetly persuasive vengeance: her voluptuous digital body overpowering, her kisses sweet, and her embrace irresistible. We got what we wanted, but so did she. She now owns us. Our seductive embrace of the media goddess has cast us into her suffocating vice-grip.

At the Reformation, Protestants enthusiastically esteemed the Word of God as the Word of God. From architectural changes which centered the preached Word in the life of the Church to Bible translation, which delivered the Scriptures to peoples’ heart languages, at the core of Protestantism is its love, respect, and elevation of the Scriptures. In the sixteenth century, the fresh recognition of Scripture as truly God’s Word, as the veryrevelation of the Triune God of heaven, promoted a countercultural movement that dismantled the idolatrous religious establishment of its day. As the Reformers grappled with the claims of the Bible about itself, they recognized that the Church sat under the Scripture’s authority rather than as its final judge and interpreter. The Reformation mantra sola Scriptura turned its culture upside down, and shaped the ministry of the Church in many ways against the culture, even the religious one.

In the twentieth century, liberal Protestants put the Bible on trial and found it guilty of error, abandoned their dependence upon God’s Word, and replaced it with the lifeless lyrics of their own wisdom. What social Gospel theorist Walter Rauschenbusch preached, Charles Sheldon popularized; “What did Jesus do?” became “What would Jesus do?”Morality and social justice supplanted redemption, and the living Christ died again, this time buried beneath unbelieving, yet captivating rhetoric. He was not to rise again in the liberal Protestant Church.

The dangerous irony of the twenty-first century Church is that while most Reformed and evangelical leaders contend vigorously for the concept of Scriptural authority, the sights and sounds of the Digital Age have lured many unsuspectingly from implementing the message and the methodsof the Gospel for this generation. While our hindsight on twentieth century liberalism is 20/20, our current blindness to the spiritual and idolatrous power of the Digital Age is pressing our ministries into a media-shaped, culturally determined mold. We need a fresh Reformation, in which we take seriously the authority of the Gospel as God’s revealed Word to our culture. We need a fresh Reformation, in which we take seriously the implications of the authority of the Gospel as God’s revealed Word in our ministries. We need a fresh Reformation, in which we take conscious reassessment of the lordship of the resurrected Christ, pondering repentantly how His authority bears upon our work of ministry in the face of the media temptress.

To that end, let me pose some non-virtual questions.

To start, let’s be pragmatic. Can we really keep up? Can our churches and our budgets stay on course with Google search, Avatar graphics, Super Bowl commercial humor, and 3-D flat screen entertainment? As many churches are discovering, digital technology moves at warp speed. By the time we emptied our banks to purchase cutting edge technology for our churches, better technology has dulled our edge to oh, so last year. Most have neither the financial resources nor the collective cultural savvy to keep up with the digital Joneses.

But let’s move closer toward the mirror. To what degree has the authoritative voice of the culture – “Entertain me or lose me!” – drowned out the authoritative voice of Scripture? In what ways are we basing the what and how of our ministry on the media-intoxicated culture in which we live? Are not digitally captivated hearts the contemporary version of Paul’s itching ears syndrome (2 Tim 4:4)? If so, only a sober-minded response will do. Running the technology race may simply cascade us into the arms of the digital deity, which most in our congregations blindly assume exists for their full and safe consumption. Does our ministry in its content and method affirm their hearts’ idolatrous affections or draw them to the idol-crushing, freedom-bearing, divinely authoritative Gospel of Jesus Christ?

What about the Wii-wielding, Internet-savvy youngsters of our congregations? Do these children believe that Bible “stories” are any different than Harry Potter, Sponge Bob, and Alvin and the Chipmunks? Do not surf quickly over this question. Publications of Noah and the Ark, David and Goliath, Moses and the Ten Commandments, and Jesus and His disciples, employ cartoon characters and riveting animation, complete with catchy tunes and for-purchase figurines. Vacation Bible School curricula explore biblical stories from outer space, jungles, and wilderness adventures. At what point does the imaginative medium eclipse the transcendent truth? Does our simplifying and dramatizing of Bible accounts into modern themes reinforce the Scripture’s authority in the minds of our children or undermine it? Do moralistic cartoons, including the animation of vegetables singing silly songs, reinforce the uniqueness of Scripture or lower children’s view of the Bible to something indistinguishable from Aesop’s fables?

What about preaching? How has the self-consuming, self-centering instant gratification of the entertainment media shaped preaching, the preacher, and our congregations? Of course, certain American churches have essentially, if not entirely, replaced preaching with drama and video. These mega-hip mega-church ‘worship services’ frequently prize performance over worship; the attendee is spectator, not participant. Entertainment is why he comes, and entertainment he gets. In this theater, the larger-than-life actors on stage carry out their frenzy-inducing feel-good magic, giving the digital junkies their religious fix.

But what of the more conservative or traditional models of worship, where the regulative principle prevails and preachers monitor.jpgactually seek to preach the Bible? Recently in a worship service I attended at a Reformed church, which staunchly defends the inerrancy and sufficiency of Scripture, the preacher apologized two times for reading the Bible to the congregation. He was serious. The very Word he heralded as both authoritative and relevant required pardon from the congregation for its reading! Why? Perhaps because he knows his Blackberry and YouTube crowd might get bored listening to biblical texts. Or perhaps because he subconsciously doubts the power of the Word of God to do what God claims – to accomplish its purpose even in the heart of one in the embrace of the digital goddess. Whatever the case, in one tragic moment, he affirmed what many media-drunk churchgoers have come to believe: that public reading of Scripture, which the Apostle Paul alerts Timothy not to neglect (1 Tim 4:13), is a necessary boredom to endure; that preaching Scripture is an irrelevant part of our church experience.

Do we really believe in the power of God’s Word read and preached? Or do we believe Paul was simply clueless to twenty-first century culture when he exhorted Timothy to preach the word in season and out (2 Tim 4:2)? Was his notion of Scripture read publicly and preached persistently a mere contextualized protocol for the first century? Does the media-saturated church really need something else?

We must tolerate neither laziness nor neglect to self-critical questions, because without conscious and deliberate address, media idolatry will shape our ministry at 3-G speed. If Scripture itself really is divinely authoritative, then decisions about how we worship and minister need scrupulous biblical reflection for twenty-first century ministry. Make no mistake. The tools of technology are extremely valuable to the kingdom of Christ and its mission; computer and Internet technology enable us to deliver the Gospel and ministry resources literally all over the world! However, the engagement of technology must occur with rigorous, conscious, and humble consideration: the benefits, the pitfalls, the consequences (immediate and long-term), and the heart-level costs.

We must reopen the package Postman delivered: medium and message are simply not disconnected. The how and what of ministry are joined at the hip. Paul’s recurring expression of Gospel ministry was by the Word preached, not by the Word dramatized, the Word PowerPointed, the Word YouTubed. We have no rightto minimize, marginalize, or moderate the biblical method of delivery. Preaching Christ crucified may be pass

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