When Internet Authority Trumps Church Authority
“Someone wrote ‘Jesus Saves’ on the bathroom wall,” I chimed, retaking my seat in the back of my parent’s van. “Who thinks that people are going to follow Jesus ‘cause they saw His name next to a toilet?”
My mother glanced back. Of all the vulgar scrawls and graphic pictorials I’d encountered in the grimy stalls of less-than-sanitary public bathrooms, this line about Jesus was the only one I could communicate to my parents without a fair amount of censoring and embarrassment.
My mother responded with a predictable talk about the kind of world we would live in if everyone scribbled their unedited thoughts onto public walls whenever they felt like it. It was a sentiment that most people would have agreed with — until the Internet was created.
Like one great big public-bathroom wall, the Internet has become a place where anybody can communicate whatever they want, whenever they want. And, like the bathroom walls of eras past, there is even room for a sort of “Jesus Saves” religion. But as my still-preteen mind was able to comprehend, there is a dubious authority to words that are written in a forum where there are no editors or gatekeepers, no arbiters of taste and civility, where even the rules of grammar and spelling do not necessarily apply.
Before the Internet, churches, denominations and Christian leaders largely controlled and directed discussions of theology and orthodoxy. If one wished to reform a local church body or a denominational gathering, they first had to find a way to gain access to the platforms, pulpits and power structures of those institutions. Even if they wrote treatises or books, would-be-reformers were likely to find their ideas locked out by the constraints of the publishing industry. Consequently, popes, priests, pastors and denominationally certified theologians had almost exclusive influence in forming and reforming church practices.
But in the Internet age, there has been a distinct shift in how individuals receive religious information. Where previous generations would have sought counsel through the local church, denominational edicts and recommended religious texts, the modern Christian hunts for meaning through Google searches, Facebook shares, retweets and – increasingly — in the plentiful writings of celebrity Christian bloggers.
Donald Miller is one example of this new category of religious authority, one whose respected status derives not from church hierarchy, but from popularity achieved on the Internet. Miller initially rose to prominence as the author of books such as Blue Like Jazz, but he has since been able to build a platform that goes far beyond the books he has authored.
With over 200,000 Twitter followers, over 100,000 Facebook likes and several websites to promote his conferences, books and ministry endeavors, Miller has managed to create a presence that is no longer dependent upon the approval or endorsement of any traditional church or denominational structures.
In fact, Miller has not only bypassed historical church structures, but he has also actively communicated his own indifference to those structures. Last year, Miller wrote a couple of pieces explaining why he did not find church attendance to be of much value. In defending his position, he wrote the following words about a growing sect of individuals unencumbered by the need for the local church:
“I’d say half of the most impactful people I know, who love Jesus and tear up at the mention of His name, who reach out to the poor and lonely and are fundamentally sound in their theology, who create institutions that feed hundreds of thousands, do not attend a traditional church service. Many of them even speak at churches, but they have no home church and don’t long for one.”
Miller is pointing to the new reality made possible by the Internet Age: Christians are able to broadcast their personal truths without having to go through traditional church structures. No longer does an individual need the certification of a denomination or the relational accountability of abiding in a local church. Instead, they simply need an Internet platform, along with engaging content.
Certainly, there have always been church outsiders who’ve influenced church dialogue. However, the Internet Age has opened the door to increasing numbers of spiritual celebrities: bloggers, podcasters, and Christian social media experts who can speak to- or on behalf-of the church without having to abide within the churches or communities of believers that they are leading.
This divide matters, because it means that leaders are increasingly able to give advice without having to pastor the consequences that arise from following that advice. The result is an Internet that overflows with Christian horror stories, penned by believers who took one-size-fits-all advice from some distant and disconnected spiritual authority.
To be fair, a similar separation has all-too-often existed between pastors and parishioners within the local church. But while some Christian Internet voices have actively decried this divide — with some even going so far as to highlight it as one of the primary reasons they no longer participate in traditional church gatherings — these online critics of the divided church are, ironically, participating in an uncomfortably similar form of separation. Consider: Except for the limited possibility of a brief (and usually voluntary) social media interaction, Internet leaders can completely separate themselves from the people they are leading.
This lack of personal accountability should give pause to all believers.
Anyone can write “Jesus Saves” on the great big bathroom wall of the Internet. Anyone can communicate this truth without permission or even much relational accountability. All they need is a thought and an Internet connection. As believers it is up to us to decide whether, when it comes to changing the course of Christianity, page views, retweets and shares will ultimately trump the authority of even the most venerable institutions, structures, and leaders.
Written by: Doug Bursch