Changes over the Past Forty Years of Ministry – Has This All Been Worth It?

by | Aug 20, 2021 | Spiritual Reflections | 3 comments

It’s been forty-three years since I graduated from Bible school, and forty years since I began my formal ministry. I was ordained in Madison, Indiana, in the fall of 1981, shortly before my wife and I moved to Manitoba to begin our first ministry. Forty years! It hardly seems possible. Forty years ago, I was sending out missionary correspondence on a manual typewriter, a modern invention in the 1870s. These were in use into the 1980s—I had one and used it to communicate with my supporting churches during our first term.

By our second term, electric typewriters with memory were in vogue. I bought a Sharp memory writer that would do mail merge and I was in hog heaven. No more laboring over the keyboard to “hunt and peck” out a letter to a supporter. I could preprogram the machine to type a letter, stop at a spot to insert person-specific information and finish the letter, without errors, assuming the master had been properly proofread. At the time, my wife suggested we buy a computer. My father-in-law had an IBM PC Jr. He loved it. He had been working for IBM, Honeywell and other places and was in the vanguard of those using the new technology. Why do we NEED a computer, I asked my wife? I won the day, and we bought the memory writer typewriter.

Boy was I wrong. Soon my father-in-law graduated to a better PC and donated the PC Jr. to me for my ministry. I was soon hooked, though all I had at the time was a thermal printer. My sermons notes were on that paper. Needless to say, I cannot read those outlines today, nor would I want to read my early sermons notes, weak as I am sure they were.

By the time I entered the doctoral program at Southern, I was using a laptop (why use anything else?) but the internet was young and inefficient with its dial-up modem. No Google Books, Archive.org or social media. How did we survive? As I began my teaching career in 2004, things were rapidly changing in the technological world. I had a flip phone, a PDA and a laptop on which I ran Logos! Wow! Now I could study the Word with resources at my fingertips! Today, I am using an Apple MacBook Pro with Logos’s latest version including a digital library of more than 7500 books, including most of the major conservative commentary series available! Plus, I have a digital PDF collection of about as many Baptist resources stored in the Cloud. Wow, who would of thought that I could study from anywhere and produce a decent, exegetical sermon (to the limits of my capabilities) without cracking the first printed book! Plus, I have an iPad Mini from which I preach completing my technologically proficient expertise. I have never used sermon prep helps that allow me to tap into another man’s outline or illustrations. I learned to prepare sermons the old-fashioned way (through study), so I just never felt the need to “borrow” someone else’s stuff. Once I started using the computer to produce sermons, my sermon preparation became 25-30% more efficient. I could do more in less time which meant that I had more time to put into sermon prep resulting in better sermons (which sometimes happened) or more time to do other things, often not as important (which also happened, all too often).

The first half of my ministry was in the world without the internet. How I managed, I’m not quite sure. But I did. Occasionally, my mother-in-law would send me sermons from a guy in Panorama City, CA by the name of MacArthur. The first series she sent was on the armor of the Christian. There were about a dozen tapes in the set which I listened to eagerly, multiple times. I didn’t know much about the preacher, only that he had a larger church and a radio ministry. But living in northern Canada, we couldn’t get his preaching on radio, so I only heard the occasional messages my mother-in-law forwarded.

However, students today have far more technological resources that are free and just a mouse clip away. A former student sent me a link to the Joshua Harris episode of the Rise and Fall of Mars Hill which dropped recently. It was an interesting series—seven episodes about Mark Driscoll’s meteoric rise and stunning fall, followed by a one-hour discussion of Josh Harris, I Kissed Dating Goodbye. I had a bookstore ministry in Canada and sold more than a few of the million plus copies that were printed! As I reflected on the legacy of Driscoll/Harris today, I wonder if all the technological advance has helped or hindered the Church?

In my first paragraphs of this essay, I explain how my personal technological growth has contributed to my ministry. But with the advent of the internet, I am not sure that things improved on the whole. First there was the issue of pornography. As a pastor, I began to deal with men in the church who were having major problems with internet porn. I remember a man calling my home late one night stressed out. He thought he was going to have a heart attack. At the time, I hardly had email, much less the internet but I was aware of the growing problem. I knew that his son had been expelled from Bible college over porn on his computer and I knew that the man was in IT at a local college. I asked him if he was having problems on the internet. “Everyday, at lunch” was his reply. For the first time in my ministry, I became aware of the ravages of porn on the internet. I wish I could say that things have gotten better, but they have become profoundly worse since that early 1990s experience. I once went to use my PC at home after a visiting family had come for lunch only to discover that one of the teenagers who asked to use my computer for “homework,” had visited somewhere he should not and left an image on my machine! I’m not sure the church is better off in today’s world when it comes to sexual purity. Modern technology has made things drastically more difficult!

Second, the rise of the Christian celebrity is something for which we have modern technology to thank. If you’ve listened to the Rise and Fall of Mars Hill, the excellent podcast series from Christianity Today, the Driscoll celebrity cult was only possible in recent years thanks in no small part to the internet, social media, etc. In fact, all the big celebrity guys from Driscoll to Piper to Macarthur wouldn’t be where they are today without the internet. I hate putting all three guys into the same category, but each man is a celebrity in his own way and thanks in no small part to the internet and social media. Many doubtless will argue that these men were well on their way to celebrity status before the internet, but who can doubt that effect that social media and the internet has had on their status? MacArthur, at least, objected to Driscoll, while Piper defended him and, to this day, apparently remains unrepentant. Is this too strong a comment? Perhaps if Piper, Danny Akin and others had shown greater discernment Mark might be in a better place today.

What is interesting to watch is that the same medium that catapulted them into such celebrities may be the very vehicle that reduces them to a footnote in Christian history. Charles Haddon Spurgeon was a “celebrity” preacher in his day but on an entirely different level. I wonder if Spurgeon’s weaknesses, of which he surely had, were placed on display on the internet, if his ministry would have endured? I wonder how many mega-ministries will ultimately crash and burn because they are held together by the glue of a charismatic (non-Pentecostal sense) celebrity who is a one-off individual and simply cannot be replaced? Whatever else Jason Meyer was, he was no John Piper . . . not a criticism, just an observation. Who will fill the enormous shoes of MacArthur? He has to retire at some point. Who can fill his shoes? The internet has helped to produce these larger-than-life Christian celebrities. The internet may well be the medium that brings them crashing down, thanks to “discernment” or watchdog ministries that report on the happenings of these heroes in real time. Don’t like Julie et al? Don’t give her anything to write about. She might not get everything right. But there’s enough right to be troubling. She’s only as good as her sources. Somebody gave her the Bethlehem stuff. Likely multiple people.

Driscoll is gone and so is Mars Hill. But he is starting all over again in Scottsdale, apparently with the same issues. Piper is gone and Bethlehem is in crisis. Time would fail me to speak of Bill Hybels, James MacDonald, and a host of other prominent “Christian” leaders who have fallen victim to their own success. Sermongate? Again thanks to the internet, preaching another man’s sermon is just a click away. Jesus said that he would build his church and the gates of hell wouldn’t prevail against it. Does this mean that when we see a church that has exploded or imploded that it wasn’t actually his church? What Jesus builds, Jesus maintains. Maybe we should concentrate more on seeking his approval than that of our constituents.

Has modern technology been our friend or our foe? I wonder if Jesus was training twelve today, would he use social media to make his point? Maybe this essay is an exercise in futility? WWJD? Maranatha!  (Image borrowed)

Jeff Straub

Jeff Straub

Church Historian

Jeff is an experienced professor of Christian history and theology. He regularly travels internationally to train Christian leaders. When stateside, he publishes in the field of American religion. Research interests include Baptists and slavery, racism, Pentecostalism, and global Christianity. Jeff has taught around the world including Canada where he resided with his family for his first nineteen years of ministry; Romania, Russia and the Ukraine in Europe; India and a limited access country in Asia; and Zambia and Kenya in Africa.

3 Comments

  1. Filip Pacurar

    Interesting dilemma about the internet, but I know episodes from the Bible when miracles happened and they had no internet. Also John the Baptiser was a celebrity somehow because a lot of people wanted to be baptised by him, so I guess we always had Christian figures as celebrities.

    Reply
  2. Bob Meredith

    I laughed almost 3/4 of the way through this internet produced and marketed piece. You should go into business with Babylon Bee. Your insight and clarity and unabashed in-your-face truth telling are refreshing.

    Reply
    • Jeff

      Ironic isn’t it? Critiquing technological advance with advanced technology! LOL! God bless you brother!

      Reply

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