Let’s take ourselves through an imaginary but quite realistic morning of a gospel-centered, well-read, pretty Online evangelical Christian:
[7:00am] Wake up, check phone. Read a newsletter about why Christians need to rethink their relationship with technology. Check Twitter and follow a link to a devotional about killing sin.
[7:30am] Private Bible reading. Psalm 23: “Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life.” This is probably only true for me if I take a break from social media. Or will I experience this if I finally confess that nagging sin to an accountability partner?
[8:30am] Check Twitter again. Reads why expressive individualism and wokeness are the biggest threats to the church. That’s probably true. Thank God I learned better than that. I’ll be OK.
[11:30am] Reading article from Facebook about why the key to the Christian life is contentment and gratitude. Follow this up with an article from a Christian ministry that explains the reason Christians don’t experience more joy: lack of Scripture reading.
[3:00pm] Re-reads Psalm 23. I really do need to feel more gratitude for everything God’s given me. I’ll work on that after I work on more regular Bible reading. Maybe it won’t do anything if I don’t call up that accountability partner? Gah, I’m so confused. I just need to take a break from the Internet.
In the span of merely 8 hours, our poor friend has mentally and spiritually bounced around the entire gamut of spiritual instruction. He will end the day with no fewer than 5-6 voices telling him that, actually, this is the key to experiencing victory in his Christian life. Every single article will be written with the same blood-earnestness, and every single Tweet will use words like “most important” and “absolutely fundamental.” By the end of the day he has a vague, fuzzy notion of what really matters, but he doesn’t realize that this notion has been calibrated by the volume level of the competing pieces of content. Next week he will embark on this same routine and come away with an entirely different perspective on what needs to change in his life. That might even happen tomorrow.
Before you say, “Well, this fellow’s problem is that he’s reading more articles than Scripture,” consider this: This same effect could happen over the course of a week rather than a day. Nobody would say this imaginary Christian values Internet pieces more than his Bible if he read 30 minutes every day in Scripture and only 1 internet article per day. But assuming he keeps up this routine, he will still end up with 7 different articles, from 7 different authors, written for 7 different publications with 7 different readerships, addressing 7 different spiritual crises with 7 different approaches, but with one uniting characteristic: Each of those 7 articles will promise meaningful transformation if you take it more seriously than anything else you read online.
There are two distinct reasons why this experience of the Online Christian matters. First, evangelicals who rightly give pride of place to the local church and to embodied Christian living need to realize that it’s possible for a person to be utterly convinced of this and yet experience what feels like spiritual formation primarily through online Christian content. How is that possible? Because there’s just so much. A lot of Christian publications publish new content every day. If you only ever read 3 solid Christian websites, that’s not very much, and the quality of you read will probably be controlled quite well. But assuming they publish new content ever day, you will receive what amounts to 9-10 sermons, 9-10 homilies, 9-10 devotionals every single day, and all of these will speak to you as if they are the only thing you can or need to read today. How could a 30 minute weekly sermon on Sunday, even combined with a home group discussion, clarify someone’s thinking against all that?
Second, and more importantly, this kind of experience is spiritually paralyzing. There’s simply no way to proceed further down the road of faithfulness if you think every voice in your head needs to be heeded immediately or else. There’s no way to grow healthily while agreeing with 10 different articles about the key to your spiritual life. This is a recipe for exhaustion, for the worst kind of persistent guilt, and for comparison.
There’s too much Christian content. I think we would see immediate returns if writers and publications made sure their content was written from a humble perspective and did not, even implicitly, try to trump some other piece of truth in the minds of readers. “The reason Christians do not grow more is X” is a bad sentence. “This is the biggest key to your spiritual growth” is a bad sentence. “If you’re struggling in this specific way, have you considered X, or possibly Y,” is much better. Editors may not like this kind of voice because it lacks clickable urgency. But isn’t not contributing to spiritual paralysis more important than SEO?
And Christian readers need to be aware that the white noise they hear in their heart after a day of consuming Christian content is not necessarily something that’s wrong with them. Get away from the content and look to what the Lord is telling you through your Bible, your pastor, your community. Clarify by cutting back.