Feb 07, 2001
Each week pastors experience exhilarating opportunities and make agonizing decisions. Often the moments of decision erupt unexpectedly. There is no time to prepare. That was the case for Pastor Charlotte Robinson last fall at her church in Almond Springs, California.
The emergence of the Internet and the World Wide Web as a source of information, a venue for publishing, and a forum for dialogue now defines libraries nearly as much as the more familiar milieu of printed texts. The technological dimensions of this shift are less intriguing than the cultural ones. And from where I sit, the developments are a decidedly mixed blessing.
Seminaries that use computers in teaching are often tempted in one of two directions. They either oversell the importance of the technology or underutilize it. They either promise the congregational equivalent of a flight simulator, or else use PowerPoint as a glorified overhead projector.
Has the advent of the Internet and computer technology led congregations toward the “virtual church,” undermining the face-to-face relationships that have long characterized congregational life? Two recent studies, one supported by the Pew Charitable Trusts, the other by the Indianapolis Center for Congregations, suggest not. The vast majority of congregations using and experimenting with computer technology and the Internet are not promoting aberrations of Christian or congregational life.
A few years ago a technology consultant told a group of seminary deans and presidents that computer-based information technology is like a fast-moving train. “It doesn’t matter whether you are in first class or third class, but it is essential that you get on the train.” One of the deans commented, “Now I know what it feels like to be a ticketless hobo riding the rods.”
Churches with Web sites and pastors using e-mail are praising how the electronic media keeps them in touch and enriches congregational life, a recent foundation-funded study discovered. But in a good news–bad news scenario, the authors of a separate survey warn that having a Web site designed chiefly to attract newcomers to the brick-and-mortar site is worse than having no Internet presence at all.
Not long ago I went to visit my mother at a busy New York hospital where she was recovering from heart-valve surgery. The elevators were so crowded that I had to go down to the basement to claim a place for the trip up to the sixth-floor coronary care unit. At each floor the doors opened in front of identical signs: “No cell phones. No laptops.” At the fifth floor, the opened doors revealed a different sign: “Pediatric Intensive Care. Neonatal Intensive Care.” It was only a sign, but my heart dropped back down to the basement.