This post is part of a series about sharing the gospel and new media. Check out other posts in this series, along with other blog series from the past, here.
By Nick Buck
We now live in a world with digital clergy, prayer apps, and social-networked churches. The proliferation of new internet tools is exciting and anxiety inducing at the same time. How do I keep up? How do I even know what to keep up on?
Without question, doing ministry in the contemporary digital context can seem daunting. Seemingly every day something new arrives on the digital scene, and while new tools and features will continue to emerge and platforms will continue to change, a very important truth is worth remembering: the gospel isn’t what is changing.
This is by no means to claim that our understanding of the gospel is ever perfect and complete, or even that there is a single and fully knowable insight that comprises "the gospel." It means that in the midst of the changes flying around us, the heart of the gospel remains with a certain endurance.
St. Francis of Assisi has been popularly credited with having said, “Preach the gospel, and if necessary, use words.” This attribution is most likely apocryphal, but these words have lasted because they communicate something very important.
In many ways, language is a technology, a tool for understanding and communicating. It allows for the exchange of ideas and the construction of arguments. Words are powerful, powerful enough to help overthrow governments and upend social orders. “The pen is mightier than the sword,” the adage goes. Words can be instrumentalized to accomplish tasks and they can be used artfully in rich and delicate ways to express the truest, noblest, and most beautiful aspects of human existence. To see language as a technology is not necessarily to limit its potency or reduce its capacity. Doing so helps us better understand its function.
The apocryphal phrase of St. Francis indicates that the gospel cannot be exhausted by words or language. It can perhaps be described, and in part articulated, but it remains something more, something that exceeds articulation. Whatever the gospel is – perhaps a way of being in the world, a commitment to God, a way of relating to others – it isn’t primarily or exclusively linguistic. This is the brilliant irony of using the word “preach” at the start of the phrase. Discerning what
technology is used and how
it is to be used are important questions for any ministry. But the why
of its use remains enduring across applications. Though Marshall McLuhan is correct that medium and message are mutually implicated, they do not fully collapse into one another. Insofar as they are related, the message ought to be the reason and guide for the use of a medium.
So the Saint advises, share the gospel and use technology when necessary. This is a valuable insight for all forms of ministry, especially digital ones. Technology is a tool, be it language or Snapchat, and it should be used when the situation and context calls for it. The use of digital technology – Facebook or Twitter or some other platform – is not itself ministry, but digital technology can be used for ministry. It is in or through the use of these technologies that the gospel might be shared. These technologies might present us with technical obstacles and learning curves, but they ought to be firstly seen as forms of new media, new channels, for the gospel.
By all means: share the gospel, and if necessary, use new media.
Nick Buck is the associate director of the New Media Project.
The New Media Project is a research project helping religious leaders become theologically savvy about technology. To request permission to repost this content, please contact email@example.com.