A recent episode of Grey’s Anatomy entitled “Stand By Me” included a fascinating storyline involving a controversial face transplant surgery. The patient’s name was David, but some of the hospital staff nicknamed him “Blowhole” because of the grotesque facial disfigurement he suffered in an unfortunate car accident. In the years following the crash, David became a recluse. Hidden behind a computer, his only meaningful relationships were those he found and maintained online.
In an ironic twist, the medical ethics board required David have a community of support present with him at the hospital before he could have the surgery. He has no choice but to ask his online friends to join him at Seattle Grace Hospital, but then David is faced with a dilemma. He can either reveal his disfigurement to his online community when they come to the hospital to support him as he undergoes the surgery, or he can push them away, remain in his deformed state, and attempt to maintain the somewhat anonymous nature of the community’s relationships.
David’s dilemma engenders a profound moment when the online community sees David for the first time. He blurts out, “I didn’t want you to see this ugliness … If I reject the donor face, I’ll be even uglier than I am right now.” But they don’t flinch. They don’t turn away. Instead, they all approach the bed slowly. An older woman from the community responds to him by saying, “Please don’t call my dear friend ugly. You’re a survivor, and it’s written all over you face.” She bends over and gently kisses his cheek, a gesture of love and acceptance that is both powerful and moving.
Although the writers of Grey’s Anatomy probably did not have the concept of Christian ministry in mind when they composed this script, this scene raises significant questions about the relationship of technology and ministry. Why do physical presence and physical touch carry monumental weight in a situation like this? Why must the support group be physically present at the hospital? Why are Skype, IM, and/or email insufficient?
When it comes to ministry, technology has changed the game. In the last decade, we have witnessed many types of ministry jump on the technological treadmill, trying to keep pace with the latest and greatest gadget. The implications of this are manifold. Modern technology is, after all, not neutral. As Marshall McLuhan’s well known maxim reminds us, “The medium is the message.”
Thus, it seems to me this ecclesiastical high-tech revolution raises some fundamental questions about the nature of ministry and technology. In other words, can we truly minister, in the proper sense of the term, exclusively through technology? If a pastor in Texas streams his sermon over the Internet and someone in Auckland, New Zealand watches, is the pastor truly ministering to the viewer? If a church in California establishes a prayer ministry and accepts prayers through anonymous online postings, are they truly ministering to these people? If a church establishes a service composed of online members, are they truly ministering to one another?
Obviously different Christian traditions have different understandings of the term “ministry,” many of which are highly specific. In the evangelical context, however, the priesthood of the believer is highly valued, which renders a much more Communication understanding of ministry. It is not unusual to hear evangelical pastors chant the mantra “Every member is a minister!” This implies that every member performs the duties of the ministry and every Christian, in some sense, bears the title of “minister.”
Toward a Definition of Ministry
In light of these technology and ministry questions, it seems appropriate to return to the Holy Scriptures and plow the depths of the sacred pages so as to be reminded of the biblical nature of ministry.
The Greek term typically translated as “servant” or “minister” (dikonos) is found extensively throughout the New Testament. It can be used both subjectively and objectively to describe a person functioning in an intermediary capacity or to describe an act itself (i.e., “a servant” or “a service”). It is also used as a verb to express the act of ministering or serving. A survey of these uses of “ministry” and “service” (dikonos) in the New Testament reveals several aspects of the biblical nature of ministry.
First, ministry is personal. That is to say, ministry does not exist detached and independent of the person (or people) ministering and receiving the ministry. Luke describes how, at around the age of 30, Jesus began “his ministry.” Paul speaks of how he himself received a ministry from Christ (Acts 20:24). Beyond this, Ephesians 4:12 describes how all the members of the Body of Christ are equipped for service or ministry for the sake of the community. Thus, we cannot escape the fact that ministry is personal and, in some sense, conferred upon people by God.
Second, ministry is interpersonal. Ministry does not flow uniformly from subject to object; Paul does not only minister to the churches of the New Testament, but receives ministry from them as well (Romans 1:12). Scripture consistently relates the notion that ministry involves interaction. This is emphasized by the simple fact that “ministry” and “service” are translations of the same Greek term. To minister is to serve another, as evidenced in Matthew 23:11: “… but the greatest among you shall be your servant.”
Third, while ministry involves people, the content or purpose of ministry is the communi¬cation (in word and deed) of the gospel (2 Corinthians 9:13, Colossians 1:23, 1 Peter 4:10). Just as Christ has reconciled us to himself, we also have the “ministry of reconciliation” (2 Corinthians 5:18), where God uses us to reconcile the world to himself through Christ. Naturally this may include a host of different ministries, but the point to emphasize, as Paul does in 1 Corinthians 12:5, is that “there are varieties of ministries, but the same Lord.” Therefore, amid the diversity of people ministering, the content of ministry centers upon the gospel of Jesus Christ and everything that message entails.
Fourth, ministry is hard work. We know Christ’s ministry was not warmly received by everyone, and neither was Paul’s, for that matter (2 Corinthians 11:23). This is why Paul implores Timothy to fulfill his ministry even in the face of hardships (2 Timothy 4:5). If the ministries of Christ, Paul, and others were demanding, why should we expect anything different in our ministries? To be sure, ministry can be joyful, but we should not mistake this joy for the absence of hardship (2 Corinthians 4:1).
Drawing these aspects together, a biblical definition of “ministry” might be defined as: a personal commission from God that labors toward the reconciliation of others to Christ through the gospel.
This is not a far cry from the definition in Fahlbusch’s (et al) Encyclopedia of Christianity: “Ministry, carrying forth Christ’s mission in the world, is fundamentally the task of the Church, the whole people of God, and is conferred on each Christian in baptism” (Eerdmans, 3.540). Most of the essential components listed above are evident: ministry is personal, interpersonal, and centered upon the person and work
Ministry and Modern Technocracy
Therefore, if I have presented the biblical notion of “ministry” correctly, it becomes apparent that modern technology disturbs this definition in every aspect.
First, modern technology alters the notions of “personal.” For example, on social networking sites we catalog our various interests or characteristics, thereby narrowing the notion of personhood to attributes. Many of us frequent blogs where we acquire factual or anecdotal knowledge of a person, but does this imply that we know them “personally”? The more important question is, how do we communicate that ministry embodies our entire person beyond a mere list of attributes? What element of Paul was his ministry? Would he classify it under “interests” or “activities” on his Facebook page? This kind of technology pushes us to conceive of ministry as an attribute rather than something wholly personal. In other words, we are not merely performing the duties of ministry on particular occasions; we are ministers.
Second, modern communication technologies have diminished the interpersonal nature of ministry. We listen to sermons while driving alone in our cars or we attend church on the Internet while sitting alone at our computers. Thus, ministry is no longer fully interpersonal in the sense that it necessitates physical bodily presence. We can cite passages such as Colossians 2:5, “For even though I am absent in body, nevertheless I am with you in spirit,” but I doubt Paul envisioned this situation as the normative understanding of ministry. If it were normative, why would Jesus commission his apostles to minister in his bodily absence? Why would Paul send Epaphroditus and Timothy in his stead? The point is that what is often touted as technology’s benefit in ministry is contrary to the nature of ministry itself; it seemingly eliminates the need for bodily presence, thereby separating ministry from physical bodies, physical needs, and physical compassion. Thus technology, while apparently connecting us, is actually pushing us physically apart. Who, lying in a hospital bed, would prefer a sympathy e-card to someone sitting bedside holding his or her hand? Because he was not just fully God, but also fully human, physical presence characterized Christ’s incarnational ministry. It seems reasonable to infer that he asks the same of our ministries.
Third, the rise of information technology produces a gospel that is information-based. The communication of the gospel becomes information that may be posted on a blog, website, or Wikipedia entry for unseen and anonymous visitors to stumble upon. Framing the gospel in propositions is right and good, but divorcing the communication of the gospel from the person of faith dilutes the potency of the message and appears contradictory to what Jesus established in his incarnation. He is not only the Word, but the Word made flesh! Furthermore, reducing the gospel to propositions turns aside the work of Christ’s life and the way God constantly uses people in Scripture to bring out the physical restoration of his creatures. No doubt, the gospel calls for verbal proclamation, but it also calls for so much more.
Fourth, in some ways, technology actually makes the hard work of ministry more challenging. To be sure, the evangelical community has made great advances with the use of modern technology, but does this quasi-personal, quasi-interpersonal, reductionist gospel actually make the work of ministry easier on us? If the personal aspects of ministry mentioned above are distorted, how much more work will it take to overcome these issues? Email may be an “easier” form of communication, but face-to-face conversations can be deeper and more effective. In my experience, email can actually frustrate an issue. There is no doubt that getting involved in the lives of others is messy and challenging, but I’m dubious about the extent to which technology can make ministry easier or even more effective.
Perhaps a personal example would be helpful at this point. My wife and I currently live in Scotland with our one-year-old little girl, Isla. Skype has become the lifeline to our extended family back in the States. All of Isla’s special “firsts” have been caught on Skype as we have tried to share our joy with grandparents, aunts and uncles, and cousins thousands of miles away.
For my father-in-law, however, Skype has become torture. Not because the technology isn’t wonderful, but because it is just too difficult to see his granddaughter and yet be physically separated from her. He can hear Isla say “banana,” but he can’t feed her. He can watch her play with blocks, but he cannot build anything with her. He can see her take her first steps, but he cannot lift her up in celebration. He can watch her tumble down, but he cannot catch her. He can say goodnight, but he cannot gently kiss her forehead.
Now, imagine if my father-in-law actually tried to grandparent her over Skype. If he attempted to discipline her, is it likely she would listen to the person on the computer screen? If he tried to impart wisdom, would she take heed of his words? If technology presents this many challenges to their grandfather-granddaughter relationship, what kind of challenges does it present in ministry?
The influx of modern technology is redefining ministry for the evangelical community. I return to my original question—can Christians truly minister, in the proper biblical sense of the term, through technology? No doubt there are ways to utilize technology for ministry purposes, but I can’t help but conclude that when technology replaces real, physical, personal relationships, the resulting ministry is tainted, or at least lacking something vital, something tangible.
Stephen Presley is a PhD student at University of St. Andrews, where he plays golf (and occasionally studies). He is looking for a good job for next year, so anyone hiring people with too much education and too little experience should contact him immediately.