On January 8, 2009, the Bible’s most well-known verse, John 3:16, was searched online to an unparalleled degree. This was a direct result of a highly televised US college football championship game between the Florida Gators and the Oklahoma Sooners. Before kickoff, Gators star quarterback Tim Tebow had painted “John 3:16” under his eyes. Over the course of the game, 94 million people googled the verse as Florida went on to win the big game.
North Americans’ response to Tebow’s biblical message is a great example of the way the media’s impact on Christianity has grown over the last decade.
In an increasingly instantaneous age marked by smartphones and social media, Canadian philosopher Marshall McLuhan’s assessment of media has in many ways held true: “The medium is the message.”
Discovery is no longer arduous. Search engines like Google and social media platforms like Facebook allow users to resolve their questions immediately. You can easily find tutorial videos online for things like cooking or mechanical repairs.
But the promotion of self-dependence through the media does not necessarily guarantee that any of this knowledge will be retained.
In the latter half of the twentieth century, the late Welsh preacher Dr. Martyn Lloyd-Jones encouraged his congregation to refrain from using Bible concordances for this reason. He saw it as a way around understanding the source—the Bible itself.
Today’s practice of searching verses online is an even easier shortcut. Not only does it limit biblical literacy, but it distances the verse from its Holy Book, as in the case of Tebow’s imprint. As technology further advances, the Bible as a physical medium may no longer be distinguishable from a smartphone app. And while the words remain identical, the dangers of reading primarily from a screen include taking verses out of their original context and not reading the Bible in its entirety.
In fact, an argument could further be made for how this correlates to the decline in Bible reading among Christians.
On the other hand, the media has also enhanced Christianity and broadened its reach.
The rise of megachurches has been made possible largely through sermon rebroadcasting to multiple sites. Christian radio and podcasts make helpful teaching, music, and dialogue readily available beyond just Sunday morning.
Even the role of screen presentations during church worship helps in some ways to foster a greater oneness, with worshippers united in reading music from one screen, as opposed to individual hymnals.
Still, it comes as no surprise that many of these contemporary media advancements in Christianity are met with upheaval. The line between progression and reform in the church is forever blurry.
For example, radio sermons were revolutionized by the late Billy Graham. His weekly program Hour of Decision began in 1950, less than 30 years after radio was adopted in the USA.
This usage of radio was originally opposed for being too worldly;however, the philosophy of “America’s Pastor” was never just to see how many people he could cram into a stadium, but rather how many people he could reach with the Word.
Years later in the early 1980s, Graham’s protégé Rick Warren innovated the use of a fax machine as a means of evangelism with devotions that he would send out from Saddleback Church in California. Even before Internet Explorer and Safari, Saddleback was the first church on the internet.
Today it would be unthinkable for a church not to have their own website, and even if a pastor’s sermons don’t air on the radio, the recording is often available shortly after the service for anyone who missed it or wants to hear it again.
Rick Warren and Billy Graham were both visionaries for how the media could further advance God’s kingdom.
So where does this leave the trajectory of the church in the 21st century?
In 2018, what role should the media play in engaging our contemporary culture with the Good News of Jesus?
The Apostle Paul boldly said, “I have become all things to all people so that by all possible means I might save some. I do all this for the sake of the gospel, that I may share in its blessings” (1 Cor. 9:22-23).
The repercussions and benefits of media in the church are evident: There is a danger of our message becoming shallow and flippant, but also an excitement of our message being maximized in reach and relevance.
As we aim to navigate this discussion with wisdom, it is essential that biblical truth not be compromised, and that we carefully heed the direction of our Lord, who is, after all, the Creator of creativity.