This post is excerpted from Dr. Jim Hamilton’s paper, “Spiritual Formation and the New Media: Making Good Use of the Mammon of Unrighteousness,” presented at the national meeting of the Evangelical Theological Society in November 2007, and is posted here with his permission. The whole article is available online from a link at this page. Dr. James M. Hamilton, Jr. is the assistant professor of biblical studies, Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, Houston Park Place Campus, and the preaching pastor at Baptist Church of the Redeemer in Sugar Land, Texas. He is also the author of God’s Indwelling Presence: The Holy Spirit in the Old & New Testaments (B&H, 2006). Visit his blog at www.jimhamilton.info.
Part 3 of 3
How, then, do we come to the new media with an attitude that will make good use of the mammon of unrighteousness? The most basic answer to this question is that we must come to our computers seeking to serve the church for the glory of God.
First a comment on how we should not pursue this. We should not tolerate any attempt to allow some form of online “community” to take the place of a real, live, local church made up of real, live people whom we actually see face to face. It almost seems absurd that this even has to be written, but Google the words “Internet Church” and you will find that this really is being attempted. Anyone who has participated in the life of a church knows how difficult it is to cultivate the vulnerability and authenticity necessary for church members to walk together in holy intimacy. When we approach this kind of love for one another, we enjoy true community. A church that only meets online will never accomplish this. We were not made to hide behind keyboards and monitors.
Followers of Jesus are commanded to make disciples, and this goal has as its end the glory of God. The New Testament program for disciple making is the church. When the New Testament describes people coming to faith, it also describes them being incorporated into the church by means of Baptism. When the New Testament describes people growing in the Lord, the context in which this happens is always a local church. Individual members of the church are members of the body of Christ, united to him by faith, joined to other believers who also enjoy union with Christ by faith. This is the group of people who are to practice the “one another’s” of the New Testament.
This is why Christians exist: for the glory of God in the church. Everything that Christians do should be somehow related to the ultimate end of serving the church for the glory of God. Is this why you make use of the new media? Is this why you surf the web? Is this what you are looking for as you stare at your screen?
The new media will not give us hearts that seek the glory of God through the proclamation of Christ for the transformation of people. We will only come to the internet with the mindset of glorifying God in service to the church if the following is true of us:
1) We must be born again. Those who have not experienced the miracle of regeneration are unable to live by faith for the glory of God in service to the church. If, however, by the power of the Spirit we have been made alive (John 6:63; Eph 2:45) and given the gift of faith (Phil 1:29; Eph 2:89) that comes in the hearing of the word of Christ (Rom 10:17), we have been lifted out of deadness in trespasses and sins (Eph 2:13) and have a new ability. This new ability allows us to perceive the glory of God in the face of Christ (2 Cor 3:18). Whereas the unregenerate see Christ and the Gospel and perceive it only as folly (1 Cor 2:14), those who have experienced regeneration are taught by the Spirit and enabled to understand the wisdom and power of God in the Gospel (1 Cor 1:24; 2:614).
2) We must abide in Christ. Jesus tells his disciples in John 15:5 that they can do nothing apart from him. Do we believe this? As he exhorts his disciples to remain in him (15:46), he tells them how to remain in him in verse 7 when he refers to his word abiding in them. Insofar as we are conscious of the words of Christ, we are abiding in him. God mediates his presence to us through his word. The word is made active in our hearts by the power of the Spirit. In order to abide in Christ, we must be mindful of his word by the power of the Spirit. It is tragically possible to go, almost instantaneously, from thinking about the Bible to thinking about sinif we are thinking about the Bible in the power of the flesh. We abide in Christ as we are empowered by the Spirit to proceed through life with the Bible as the frontlet on our forehead, filtering what we see and do, think and say through the word of God.
3) We must be walking in the Spirit. Paul explains in Romans 8 that those who walk according to the flesh will die, while those who walk according to the Spirit will live (8:56). We must put to death the deeds of the body, which is dead because of sin (8:10), by the power of the Spirit (8:13). We do this by deriving our understanding of who we are, what life is about, and what we should do with our time from the Bible, taught by the Spirit, and abiding in Christ as we go through our days conscious of biblical reality. This is what it means to walk by the Spirit.
Born again people who abide in Christ by remaining in his words and walking by the Spirit will approach the internet and the new media in distinctly Christian ways. The following is only a sample:
1) We are not our own. We were bought with a price (1 Cor 6:1920). We do not live for ourselves but for God (Rom 14:78). This means that we do not access the internet and the new media for our own-personal-private-compartmentalized-selfish interests. Rather, we live for God. We think for God. We exist for his glory and the advancement of his Kingdom in the good of his church.
2) The fact that we are not our own implies that we do not access the new media merely for our own benefit. We approach these new outlets of information seeking to grow in our knowledge of God and our serviceability to the local body of believers with whom we are seeking to advance God’s Kingdom. At least, we should approach it this way. If we ask ourselves whether what we are doing is helping us know God and better serve his people, we might filter out some ways we are failing to redeem time in these evil days (Eph 5:16).
3) Our lives have purpose. Jesus commissioned his people to make disciples. The Spirit gifts believers for the common good of the church (1 Cor 12:7). Our task is to discern what we are called to contribute to the glory of God in service to the church. Once we have identified what it is God has given us to do, or how he has called us to serve in his Name, if we know him we will plunge into that task with holy urgency. Preserving this urgency in the long, slow obedience of life’s daily grind, not forsaking kindness and patience, is one of the great challenges we face in this life.
The church is God’s program for spiritual formation, and the new media is a mammon of unrighteousness that can be used for good or ill. Having argued that everything depends on the state of one’s soul, how might the internet and the new media be used for glorifying God in service to the church?
When we pause to consider the possibilities offered by the new media, we should be astonished at the opportunities it provides. Before I say anything else, though, I begin with the assertion that the internet and the new media, with all their promise, are not the Holy Spirit. Apart from the Spirit, the access to information available through the new media as well as the opportunities it yields to disseminate the truth are only sounding gongs and clanging cymbals.
With that caveat, consider where we find ourselves in world history. Never before has it been easier to connect with like-minded people. This connectivity affords mutual encouragement, mutual instruction, mutual benefit. Never before have people been more connected not only to one another but also to truly staggering amounts of information. Google any topicwhat formerly required a visit to a library, stacks of books, encyclopedias, journals, magazines, newspapers, and other reference toolsis suddenly on screen. Never before has help in understanding the Bible been easier to access. And it isn’t just print media.
No longer must one travel to where some brilliant preacher or teacher is expostulating to listen and learn. Many of the most stimulating teachers and preachers in the world today have posted hours and hours of sermons and lectures online. It is possible to allow this availability to cut us off from people, making us less connected to real people, less involved in real churches, and more privatized and selfish. But wise use can be made of these truckloads of information to supplement one’s ordinary diet of instruction.
The instructional possibilities of the new media hold out profound help for those seeking the glory of God in the church. For those who think that education will cure the ills of society, the new media could be the great hope. For those who know that information is only truly beneficial to the wise in heart, the new media is an opportunity to exercise discretion. Never before has it been possible to be so informed about so many situations across the globe. The wise heart will be spurred to prayer by this information: prayer for those in difficult situations, and prayer for insight to hear wisdom crying out in the streets and on the webpages. Never before has it been so easy to find reliable book reviews and helpful interaction with key ideas. The wise heart will not be bamboozled by this easy access. There is a difference between knowledge and wisdom, just as there is a difference between image and character.
Character comes from endurance that grows out of rejoicing through affliction in the hope of the glory of God being revealed. Such character produces hope, which is empowered by the love of God being poured out in the heart by the Holy Spirit whom God has given to us (Rom 5:15). We should not look to the new media to produce character. Used wisely, it can strengthen existing character. Those who come to it without virtue are like soldiers without training marching into battle. The fight is not the place to train.
If, on the other hand, we come to new media with mortified flesh, mindful of the One who searches minds and hearts, wielding the sharp sword of the Spirit, seeking the glory of God in the up-building of the church, the internet and new media can provide us with many helpful resources that can aid spiritual formation. Everything depends on the state of one’s soul. The task of making disciples was given to the followers of Jesus, and it requires teaching everything Jesus commanded. Jesus taught his followers to make good use of unrighteous mammon, and from this teaching we learn how to deal with the new media. Unrighteous mammon does not conform people to the image of Christ. The church is God’s program for doing that. Those conformed to the image of Christ, however, will use unrighteous mammon well.