American evangelist and Christian apologist Josh McDowell, author of a number of books including The Islam Debate and Evidence That Demands A Verdict, has been in the news recently for his statement that "the Internet is the greatest threat to Christians". According to this report on website The Christian Post, McDowell blames the decline in the number of Christian youth who "believe in the fundamentals of Christianity" and the increase in sexual immorality on the Internet.
In an address to the International Christian Retail Show at the Colorado Convention Center (sic) last month, McDowell stated that "[t]he Internet has given atheists, agnostics, skeptics, the people who like to destroy everything that you and I believe, the almost equal access to your kids as your youth pastor and you have ... whether you like it or not".
While not wanting to dismiss McDowell's concern, the indisputable fact is that material on all sorts of things has been available since time immemorial - the only difference is that the Internet makes access to such information a lot easier and faster.
Dissemination of content has also been made a lot more accessible. Twenty years ago I would have had to convince a newspaper editor that the stuff I write is worthy of publication. And while I do have a tax column that appears in two newspapers each week, most of what I write on this blog either chronicles my ministry journey or provides me with a soap box from which to rant. There may be a book in it someday - after all, Jeremy Clarkson has sold millions of copies of books in which he does little more than write about cars or bitch about life in general - but for the most part, this blog is more of a release valve than anything of profound literary value (although I hope that my theological reflections from time to time are beneficial to some).
The beauty of the Internet, though, is that I am able to write pieces such as this one, and with relatively little skill am able to publish them for the world to read. It has also revolutionised the way I look for information, whether for academic purposes, theological reflection, obtaining weather forecasts, looking up bus timetables, or solving the mystery of the Duckworth-Lewis method of determining a winner when a cricket match is rained out (well, okay - no-one has understood how that works other than Messrs Duckworth and Lewis themselves, but we keep searching...).
Internet banking has meant that I have not had to use a chequebook, or walk into a bank branch, for nearly 10 years. Anyone who has stood in the queues of one of the "Big 4" banks will understand what a relief this is! Buying certain items (books in particular) has never been easier, whether ordering locally or from around the globe. Bus trips and flights can be booked by using a few mouse clicks, right from the comfort of my desk.
But one of the biggest benefits of the Internet has been the way in which it facilitates Christian fellowship. I would have probably never come to know ministry colleagues such as John and Debbie van de Laar, Jenny and Kevin Sprong, Wessel Bentley, Lynita Conradie, Dion Forster, Pete Grassow, Delme Linscott, and many others were it not for blogs, e-mail, and online forums.
Granted, the Internet can be (and is) misused. I heard somewhere that pornography accounts for the bulk of Web traffic worldwide. And yes, I am concerned that my son can obtain access to such filth. But let's be realistic - if he wants to look at this kind of stuff, he can find it in magazines or on late-night e-tv just as easily. And realistically, there's not much I can do physically to prevent it.
What I can do as a Christian parent, however, is to teach him values that would obviate the need or desire to look at junk. I can do this through my own example (by avoiding such sites myself). I can also do this by ensuring that communication channels are open. By giving him the straightest possible answers to his questions - theological and otherwise (just as long as he doesn't ask me to explain Duckworth-Lewis). And most of all, by having a relationship with him, spending quality time and having a genuine interest in the things that interest him. By going to his sports games, and by being involved in his Scouts. By ensuring that "Boys' Day" is sacrosanct. And by including him (wherever possible) in my ministry work.
However, shielding him from "non-Christian" influences, as McDowell seems to suggest, is not the answer. He needs to know what's out there. How else will he be able to judge right from wrong. Now don't get me wrong - I'm not about to allow him to start experimenting with marijuana. But he does need to know what maarijuana is, how it can affect you, and why it is something that should be avoided. Some of these things I can tell him; most of them I can't. I don't know everything - no-one does. But if I have a relationship with him, he can feel free to ask the questions, and together we can try to find the answers.
So I need to encourage him to explore. And that means using the Internet, books, or any other source of information. But I also need to teach him Christian values, not to shelter him, but to enable him to discern what is good and what isn't. I owe that to him as a father. Anything less is just abdicating my responsibility as a parent.
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