June 2015 Feature Article
The world of communication has changed irrevocably. With the founding and rapid expansion of the Internet, the transnational flows of information, media and applications have never been so open and free. For most of us, we are only a few mouse clicks away from a wealth of knowledge and materials online. We also have the means at our fingertips to produce, publish and distribute through social networks, our own texts, images and viewpoints.
But there is also a darker side of the Internet and new media to consider. The availability and prevalence of questionable material (pornography, political and religious extremism, and violence etc.) is both a negative influence and constant temptation. Where, we might ask, are the moral and ethical digital gatekeepers when we need them the most?
Rather than rejecting or avoiding technology and media because they are sometimes put to disreputable uses, we could accept them cautiously and simply hope for the best in the name of liberty. But arguably, this exposes us, for example, to attacks on our privacy through spam (unwanted bulk email), phishing (email disguised as official correspondence in an attempt to trick us into revealing personal information) and surveillance (tracking our online activities without our knowledge or consent). We need to be more careful and proactive.
A different approach involves direct engagement. Crucially, from a Christian perspective, this requires discernment—knowing with assurance and following the will of the Holy Spirit (Matt. 16:21-23) and propriety—acting in ways that are “… worthy of the gospel of Christ” (Philippians 1:27). Consequently, instead of prohibition, discerning Christian Internet users would prefer to talk through differences believing this helps them defend and apply their faith. Further, they would advocate giving children media literacy skills, teaching them to evaluate and interpret popular culture (and its tools) within a Christian compass.
Given the rate of technological advancement, there is probably no best or optimal time to begin with Information Technology. If we Christians do not act, the ungodly will. I believe God’s purposes are best served on the Internet and with new media when we act in love and with distinctiveness. Above all, these are eternal truths relating to excellence in all spiritual things (cf. Philippians 4:8) and require taking on the mantle of servant-leadership (Mark 10:42-45).
To illustrate, there are several ways Christians can be a positive influence online by personally demonstrating certain principles.
- Be astute and observe the world with critical, God-fearing eyes. It is important for us to be mindful of the potential unintended consequences of our postings, status updates and other published material on social media. In this respect, we need to ask ourselves: Are we serving Christ or building up our own personal kingdom?
- Be a bold witness for God. In every respect, our online presence should be clear and explicit about who we are and how we are being continually transformed by the Holy Spirit. One way we can do this is to give our testimony online to glorify God and encourage others. Another way is to share our Christian resources and materials freely.
- Be available and communicate promptly. In the spirit of community building, we should strive to be accessible to others. It would also be useful to acknowledge and reply to email and other electronic correspondence within a set time. These actions show respect to others.
- Be a blessing. Our online presence should, whenever appropriate, minister to others’ needs.
- Be graceful. Harsh words are harmful and terseness on-line can often come across as rudeness. We need, therefore, not to be judgemental or critical in our viewpoints.
- Be prayerful and act with integrity. We would be well-advised to think carefully and prayerfully about the topics we address online. In addition, a wise move would be to consult with others frequently before acting in sensitive or important matters. Raise awareness not alarm. Make defensible claims.
- Be humble. Rather than being out front or above, an Internet and new media leader places him/herself in the midst of people and leads from within. This does not mean being weak or susceptible to physical or emotional attack or harm. Rather, it requires confidence and looking forward in faith (Hebrews 11:8).
Clearly, using the Internet and new media is not just a question about what we do and how we do it. It seems inevitable that our actions, in many respects, define who we are and what we are prepared to stand up for.
In closing, the effective communication of ideas and knowledge are as important and common today as they were 2,000 years ago. So too are the temptations we face (see 1 Cor. 10:13). Ultimately, I believe the problems that arise from technology relate to our misplaced and poorly understood values.
In contrast, my preference is to edify God’s Church; to embrace and engage technological and new media innovations rather than prohibit or restrict them. But this course of action requires knowing God’s will intimately and acting purposively to glorify Him. It also involves a very keen awareness of where we are situated and what we are up against. Let us be mindful that what we profess as Christians does not sit comfortably within the often competitive and individualistic environment of secular life where gaining the approval of one’s peers and superiors is crucial to gaining status, promotion and a good job. Alternatively, we are called to be channels of God’s blessings and love in an attitude that leaves a legacy for others to build on and follow. And so, our Internet and new media use are important and necessary sites for ministry action today.
Dr. Phillip A. Towndrow (Ed.D., Durham) is a church lay leader with extensive experience in small group work, discipling and Christian education. He is currently a teacher, teacher-educator, and educational researcher at a tertiary-level institution in Singapore where he specialises in New Media Literacies, Teacher Professional Learning, and Pedagogy and Classroom Practices. Phillip is also the author of the ETHOS Engagement Series booklet, ‘Education and Society: A Christian View of Education in Singapore‘. These are his personal views.
 New media represents any material in digital format that can be easily accessed, distributed, manipulated and consumed. For example, YouTube.
 For more information see Reynolds, J. M., & Overton, R. (Eds.) (2008). The new media frontier: Blogging, vlogging, and podcasting for Christ. Wheaton, Illinois: Crossway Books.