By Hauna Ondrey
In 1929 Olga Lindborg, assistant Sunday-school secretary for the Covenant, suggested that the new media of film “carries the future in its bosom” and so should be “sanctified” for use in the church, rather than condemned in Annual Meeting resolutions.
She received taunting responses from Covenant pastors. John E. Melin wrote incredulously, “It will be a sad discovery for many that Miss Lindborg is so blind that she insists that we must sanctify the film. Sanctify the movie!” Covenant pastor and editor Joel Fridfelt mocked the idea that the church might “save the movies from the power of darkness and establish them where the Lord surely wants them in the kingdom of righteousness!…How do you like that intention, brother? She is going to introduce movies into our mission houses, and she is going to win out over the old-fashioned läsare [readers].” (See Karl Olsson’s By One Spirit, pp. 546–49, for an account of these exchanges.)
Though today’s readers may find those responses humorous, we must address the underlying question: How do various media and the call to Christian discipleship intersect? Consider Godwin’s Law, the most famous of “Internet laws,” dating back to 1990: “As a Usenet discussion grows longer, the probability of a comparison involving Nazis or Hitler approaches one.” Sadly, the truth of his theory will resonate with anyone who has spent more than a minute immersed in the comments section of online articles.
So what does Christian discipleship look like online? What dangers and opportunities exist in these spaces for Christian disciples? The question is hardly new, but it is perhaps particularly important for us to reconsider at this point in our life together as a Covenant family.
“So what does Christian discipleship look like online? What dangers and opportunities exist in these spaces for Christian disciples?”
From the writing of the New Testament texts to the proliferation of devotional literature through the printing press, the written word has always played a prominent role in Christian discipleship. The Evangelical Covenant Church is no exception. We were founded by Mission Friends who were called “readers” in Sweden—because of their commitment not only to Scripture but also to sermons and devotional texts circulated through the publication Pietisten (The Pietist).
In those communities discipleship was paramount. It was done in community—in conventicles and mission meetings—and it was done around the printed word. The history of the ECC could be told through a history of its publications, tracing their vital role in strengthening, challenging, and interpreting the Covenant.
Media theorists have contrasted the characteristics of communication within predominantly oral cultures and cultures in which written forms of communication dominate. Within oral culture words are ephemeral: once spoken they no longer exist, except in memory and by repetition borne of memory. Thus communication within oral culture requires the physical presence of two people and is highly dialogical. By contrast, once words are committed to writing, they take a more stable form, and communication may occur between two people across time and space.
With the rise of electronic media, communications scholars have observed a “secondary orality” (see especially the work of Walter Ong)—a hybrid communication culture that blurs the line between orality and literacy, combining characteristics of both. This is increasingly the case as the printed word is used in oral patterns on Twitter and other social media. Some see this “digital orality” as a return to the orality that dominated much of human history—considering the 500-year period between the invention of movable type and the invention of the web as the “Gutenberg parenthesis.”
How do these new media, and the new communication patterns they generate, impact the role of the digitally printed word within Christian discipleship?
“These online spaces offer opportunities for communal discipleship, to learn from one another, and to live out Christ’s call to love and mutual submission.”
The Covenant has long used the Internet as a medium for transmitting print-based discipleship materials. But increasingly we make use of the web as a space for communal dialogue. We need only reference the myriad Facebook groups for ECC conferences, ministries, and churches. In this way we might say the web not only publishes The Pietist but, more and more, hosts the conventicle as well. These online spaces offer opportunities for communal discipleship, to learn from one another, and to live out Christ’s call to love and mutual submission.
How then does the call to discipleship inform our participation in these online spaces, whether that participation is active or passive? Internet communication is increasingly communal and interactive, and it matters how we interact. Are our comments and responses marked by the fruits of the Holy Spirit? Are we extending Christian charity and hospitality in the ways we both occupy online space and make space for others? Are we becoming more or less Christlike? Online spaces are not ethically neutral. Rather, they are opportunities to engage in the ongoing process of Christian discipleship. The words of David Nyvall to Otto Högfeldt, editor of Missions-Wännen, an early Swedish-American newspaper, challenge us here:
“May you be given, not only a sharp pen, but above everything else more and more of a burning and loving heart….Encourage more than criticize. It is through the good that we do that we recommend ourselves, not through the evil that others do. The faults of others never become our merits. Others’ sins never become our virtues. It is a sin to criticize when it does not happen in a spirit of pure and guileless love—a love which aims to help. Let us remember that the language of the New Testament has only one word for exhortation as well as encouragement. These things must always go hand in hand” (quoted in By One Spirit, by Karl Olsson, p. 348).
As we occupy online space together, may it be a path of communal discipleship as we grow up into him who is our head, “for we are all baptized by one Spirit so as to form one body” (1 Corinthians 12:13). Paul tells us that “the most excellent way” of exercising our gifts for the good of Christ’s body is love. Prophetic posts and clever comments are only resounding gongs or clanging cymbals if not written in love. Therefore, whatever we do, let us do it all in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ, to God’s glory, and for neighbor’s good.
Beginning in August, the Covenant Quarterly (the theological journal of the ECC, edited through North Park Seminary) will be moving online. It will be joined there by a complementary site, Forum: Dialoguing with the Covenant Quarterly. The two sites will together endeavor to generate thoughtful, communal reflection on Christian ministry and life. We invite you to join this conversation.