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Blogging - State of the Blogosphere

This is the third article in a series dealing with blogging. The first article is available here and the second here. In this series I am discussing not only blogging but also some of the wider societal trends that have led to the blog’s popularity. This is a bit of a long article and I do apologize for its length (which is a tad ironic since in this article I comment on the fact that most people won’t read long blog posts).

As I thought about leading a seminar dealing with this subject I was challenged to think about what the Christian blogosphere is actually accomplishing. How can it justify its existence? Are we, as Christian bloggers, really doing anything that may contribute to the church? When someone writes the history of the church of the 21st century, are there any accomplishments that will look back to the blogosphere? When people speak of the accomplishments of the blogosphere in general, they often point to the John Kerry Swift Boat scandal and how bloggers managed to bring the truth to light when it came to Kerry’s adventures in Cambodia. They may point to Dan Rather who saw the blogosphere mobilize and prove that his team at 60 Minutes 2 had used fraudulent documents as evidence of President Bush’s service record in the National Guard. These stories, and many like them, have proven the value of blogs at least in the political sphere. But what about Christian blogs? It is, of course, too early to tell definitively, but I do think bloggers are playing a valuable role. I’d like to give you five things the Christian blogosphere is doing well—five ways in which it is making a valuable contribution to the Christian church. If you are considering beginning a blog of your own, these are areas you may find your blog can make an immediate contribution.

Community - A short time ago Christianity Today ran an article called “Young, Restless, Reformed” in which they argued that we are seeing a resurgence of Reformed theology in the church today. They showed how men like John Piper, Joshua Harris and the four pastors who organized the Together for the Gospel conference are taking leading roles in recovering Reformed theology in the church. There are many factors that have led to this resurgence, but I am convinced that the Internet in general and the blogosphere in particular have played an important role. Blogs have been invaluable in coordinating the Young, Restless, Reformed movement we see in the church today. One of the oldest successes of the Internet is in bringing unity to people with similar interests. This can be good or bad. The Net has brought together groups of Christians but has also brought together groups of child pornographers as well as enthusiasts of every other seedy and evil interest. Blogs, like bulletin boards before them, are bringing community to people who share common interests. In the case of the Young, Restless, Reformed movement, blogs have united Reformed believers who may have always felt like a minority in their evangelical churches. They may feel isolated by their theology, but by turning to blogs they are able to find others who think like them, who share their passion for the doctrines of grace, and who can become part of their community of friends. There is much more that could be said about this and perhaps some day I will look at this in more detail.

It is perhaps ironic that just as the Reformed resurgence has been promoted through the blogosphere, so has the Emerging Church. While it remains to be seen whether the emerging church will ever be more than a brief footnote in the history of the church, its history will also surely be incomplete if it excludes the role of blogs.

Sanctification - I mentioned earlier that I see blogging as an aspect of my spiritual disciplines. Where five years ago I tended to write my thoughts in a journal, today I write my thoughts on my web site. I may have lost the ability to be as deeply personal as I might like, but I have gained the ability to challenge others with these thoughts and to have others weigh in on them. In return the readers provide the accountability to keep writing and to write content that is both valuable and theologically correct. You would not have to look far to find many other bloggers who will testify that they have benefited in the same way.

Teaching - The blogosphere has proven itself to be a good means of teaching others and when what is taught is consistent with Scripture this is a valuable contribution to the church. The challenge for those of us who write blogs is that blogs are not very credible in most people’s eyes. While people enjoy reading them, they do not trust them in the way they may trust books or sermons and this is usually for good reason. Blogs are also limited by the fact that, where people may read a book of 200 pages, the limit for what people will read on a blog is usually only one or two thousand words. This leaves bloggers having to limit themselves and thus limit the teaching they can successfully bring. For the time being, while the blogosphere can be a good and valuable teaching tool, it is limited in its scope.

Information - The blogosphere is nearly unparalleled in its ability to convey information quickly. This can, of course, be bad. But it can also be very good. In speaking to those who organize major Christian conferences, I’ve been able to confirm something I have suspected for a while now. In the last few years we’ve seen a significant increase in the attendance at Reformed conferences. I am quite sure this has happened because blogs are uniting Christians and stirring excitement about both past and upcoming conferences. When there is information to convey, whether about conferences, prayer requests, sales on books, and so on, the blogosphere is able to mobilize and to get the information out quickly. Publishers and marketers are learning this as evidenced by the number of books, albums, and DVDs they offer to people who will review them on their sites.

Unity - Blogs serve as a great platform to learn about each other, to learn what makes us different and to learn what unites us. I think the blogosphere has been instrumental in bringing together groups that, though united by the gospel, have in the past been divided by finer points of theology. I think Reformed cessationists and Reformed charismatics are a good example of this—groups that once distrusted each other but have lately grown much closer.

So there is lots of good news coming from the blogosphere. I think we are making a valuable contribution and that we can continue to do so as we hurtle towards the future. But there are also areas that require work. What do we need to work on? Here are five areas in which Christian bloggers need to improve. And again, if you already blog or are considering blogging, here is the challenge for us.

Evangelism - The nature of blogs is such that people gravitate to blogs that interest them and away from those that don’t. Thus the best Christian blogs are read primarily by Christians. I have yet to see a blog that has been really successful in any kind of evangelism. If people are only likely to read blogs that interest them, and the hearts of those who are unsaved are opposed to God, it makes sense that they would flee from Christian blogs. And even when unbelievers do show an interest in a Christian blog and leave a comment, they are often quickly bowled over by Christians who are, for some reason, upset when unbelievers act like unbelievers and express unbiblical sentiments. I think that, if Christians are to make a mark in evangelism in this medium, they will have to do what they have always done in society and that is, they will need to filter outwards to blogs dealing with other subjects and try to shine a light there. Rather than beginning a blog dealing with overtly Christian subject matter, they can allow a Christian worldview to inform their efforts to blog about other subjects that are of particular interest to them.

Filtering - One of the drawbacks to the rise of the amateur is that it has led to a dramatic rise in the amount of information available to us. While information is good and valuable, too much of it can become a liability. The signal to noise ratio in our society has gone all out of whack and it is increasingly difficult for us to filter what is garbage from what is valuable. With countless millions of blogs, we could spend our entire lives reading them and still not stay ahead. People need to use care and discernment in ensuring that they do not give undue time and attention to blogs, especially if they do so at the expense of good books or, even more importantly, prayer and Scripture. We can also filter poorly and become too narrow in our reading. Because people gravitate towards blogs that interest them, it is easy to become entranced with only a narrow slice of the Christian experience. For example, Reformed folk could read only Reformed blogs and miss out on other important sites, both by other Christians and by non-Christians.

Control - Because blogs seem to empower the amateur, it is easy to think that just because you can say something, you have to say something. Of course this isn’t true. And even more importantly, Christian bloggers need to learn that just because you can say something this does not mean that you should. What is posted on the Internet is available to the entire world and may be for a good long time. Both those who write blogs and those who read blogs need to exercise caution in how they read and in what they read. The Christian blogosphere has already seen occasions where malicious gossip has been spread like wildfire. We have seen plenty of occasions when false news has spread as well. It may not have been malicious gossip, but it was still false and this led to a lessening of the blogosphere’s credibility. We need to be careful not to abuse this medium.

Replacement - A temptation many bloggers face is to find their most treasured and important relationships in the virtual world of the Web. Too many bloggers ignore the privilege and responsibility of dedicating themselves to finding and forming friendships in the local church. They find their sense of community online rather than face-to-face. There are certain cases where this may be an unfortunate necessity but Christians should largely dedicate more time to real friendships than virtual ones. There are also people who substitute the teaching of the local church for teaching they find on blogs or find elsewhere online and this ignores the ordinary means of grace God has provided in the form of the local church.

Controversy - People who are new to the blogosphere learn very quickly that nothing generates traffic like controversy. This is, really, a rather cutting indictment of both bloggers and those who read blogs. A person who writes a blog that seeks only to dwell on what is true, just, pure and lovely will probably not see his traffic increase as quickly or radically as a person who dwells on what is false or half true, what is scandalous and hurtful. We love controversy and, for some reason, are drawn to it. The challenge to Christian bloggers is to avoid falling into this trap of dwelling on what is controversial and to avoid becoming specialists in discouragement and gossip.

The reason I told you my story to begin this series is simply that this story is not entirely a-typical for this strange new world we live in. Some of the most important figures in the sphere of the political blogs are people who have an interest in politics, but no background in politics. They are not politicians but merely enthusiasts. The same is true of people who write blogs about technology, sports or any other area. And this is the question I bring in this series is this: what does it mean to the church that the little guy, the amateur, can now have a voice and can have a voice that can span the globe? Christians are increasingly heading online to find teaching, daily reading, and fellowship. When they do this, they find teaching that is being provided by the ranks of the amateurs.

If you want to have a book published, you typically have to prove to a publisher and an editor that you have something worth saying-something that is unique and interesting and, in theory, theologically-correct. No book proposal is complete without an examination of similar books and a defense of a new book in a crowded field. When I signed a contract to write my book, I had to sign a statement that I would be consistent with the essential teachings of the Bible as affirmed by the historic stream of orthodox evangelical doctrine. But there were no such guarantees when I began a blog. If you want to be in a position of church leadership you should, again in theory, have to prove to a group of trusted men that you are qualified to take that position of leadership. To begin a blog you only need an email address and the ability to type.

I am convinced that it is not necessarily a bad thing that amateurs are increasingly able to have a voice within the church. However, if we are to help the cause of Christ rather than hinder it, those of us who write must be careful that we are teaching only that which aligns with Scripture. People who read must ensure that they are exceedingly careful with what they read and how they read it. If people are to ensure that they are not led astray by false doctrine, they must be able to exercise spiritual, biblical discernment. This is one of the reasons I felt the burden to write a book on spiritual discernment. With vastly more information available to us than ever before, and with much of this information coming from outside of the context of trusted teachers and the local church, Christians will need to be more discerning then ever as they attempt to filter the good from the bad. I truly feel that spiritual discernment is the real need of our day and that this need will only grow more plain, more critical, as time goes on.

There are some who would seek to downplay the distinction between laity and clergy, between amateurs and professionals within the church. While these people usually have pure motives, it seems clear from Scripture that it is good and right for the church to have both. Of course pastors or theologians are different from other vocations in that they are to share the work of ministry among their people, equipping others to teach, evangelize, lead and do the work of the church. But I think it is valuable to maintain the distinction between those who have been specially called and equipped by God to work in the ministry and those who have been called and equipped to serve elsewhere. I realize that there is not always a perfectly clear distinction between amateurs and professionals in ministry. But bear with me.

All of this begs the question: What can the amateur offer that the professional may not? What is the value in having amateurs begin to gain prominence within the church through blogs? Having considered this, I think we will find there are several benefits.

Perspective - The amateur can offer a ground-level perspective that may be lost by many professional theologians. He can offer a perspective that is different from the perspective of those who are seminary-trained and who are scholars. I have spoken to many pastors and theologians who have bemoaned the fact that their profession leads them to become disconnected from the society around them. The demands on their time forces them to dedicate more time to Christians and their profession and less time to the unbelieving man or woman on the street. The amateur, though, is the person who works in an office from 9 to 5 and then returns home to reflect on his day and the people he has interacted with. He will be specially equipped to understand what people think, how people think, and how we can best share the gospel with them. He will know where the church has opportunities to serve and bless others. He may be able to raise questions or concerns that can be addressed by those with more training and more expertise.

Credibility - While the blogosphere as a whole has struggled with credibility, there are individuals within the blogosphere who have gained a great deal of it. This has been difficult to win but it has proven valuable. Some Christians are intimidated by scholars where they may have greater confidence in the word of someone who is more like them-just an ordinary person and not a brilliant scholar or a prominent theologian. The legitimate understanding that there are both amateurs and clergy within the church leads some people to conclude that doctrine and theology are the realm only of the professional. But as they see the amateur seek hard after God, living out the life of a Christian in a normal setting, they will see that this is the calling of all who believe. So while amateurs do not have more credibility than professionals, they certainly have a different kind of credibility.

Availability - Many of the foremost theologians are unavailable to us. Because of their popularity and the demands on their time, they are unable to make time for most of those who would like to speak with them and get to know them. They minister to people but are unable to follow up with them. Because their audiences tend to be smaller, amateurs may have more time to spend with those who appreciate their ministry; more time to engage with them and interact with them.

I would suggest people in vocational ministry have the opportunity to embrace and support what is happening among amateurs. While they could easily regard amateurs as competition, it would be far better to embrace and support and seek to equip, realizing that this is the new reality, at least for the time being. It is not a development that needs to be feared or squelched. Rather, it can be celebrated and shepherded.

Meanwhile, amateurs should seek to serve humbly, being eager to remain under the duly-appointed authority of their churches and deferring, when necessary, to those with greater expertise.

I will attempt to conclude this series tomorrow.