The internet is making me a lazy thinker. I let Google think for me. I turn to Facebook for quick and easy answers to complex questions. And I feel accomplished if I read an entire online article.
I only recently became aware of my internet induced indolence. Let me explain.
A few weeks ago, I was traveling with my family. We were in an unfamiliar city. It was dinnertime, and the children were hangry (hungry-angry). It was a trifecta of trouble. Trying to make a fast decision about where to eat, I used the navigation app on my phone and searched for “restaurant” along the route. Thirty options instantly appeared.
I found a taco place and clicked the link to the restaurant’s website. Scrolling through the website and scanning the menu, I knew we had found our place: Nearby—Check! Mesquite-smoked brisket burnt ends taco—Check! Kid’s menu—Check! This restaurant research took all of 30 seconds. And my assessment was accurate. It was the perfect place to assuage hangry children and get us back on the road.
Compare my taco research with a different research experience: I was recently trying to learn about online churches. Like we all do, I did an internet search of some keywords and followed the first link. Scrolling through the website and scanning the content, I formed my thoughts: “So, this is what online church is all about. Interesting. Good to know.”
However, I had a nagging suspicion that my quick search may not have given me a complete picture. So, I decided to do some more exploring. I found other examples of online church that did not fit my initial assessment. I went to several other online church websites. I observed online church worship services. I asked more questions. I talked with people involved in these communities. I waited for patterns to emerge. And, in the end, I came away with insights that could not have happened through a quick internet search.
This experience taught me a valuable ministry lesson: The internet is full of information, but only interaction leads to insight.
INFORMATION ≠ INSIGHT
Back in the 1990s the web was known as the “information superhighway” and the “infobahn.” As these nicknames suggest, the early worldwide web was a storehouse of static information. People would upload information so others could download information. In this first phase of the web—known as Web 1.0—There was little person-to-person interaction.
Web 2.0 began around the early 2000s. This marked a shift in how people used the web. Instead of the worldwide web being a bunch of static webpages, person-to-person interaction became much more prevalent. This is when social media, blogs and wikis started to appear. The internet became a place for personal interaction, not just information.
Many people have speculated about the next phase of the worldwide web. While nobody knows exactly what to expect from Web 3.0, artificial intelligence will likely make searching the web easier and more effective. Smart devices will lead to greater connectivity between smartphones, refrigerators, thermostats and cars. And it is safe to say the web will continue to get bigger, smarter and faster.
The internet has lots of information. However, information does not always result in insight. As the word suggests, insight goes beyond a surface glance, and offers a deep look at something. Insight is understanding something inside and out, accounting for all its complexity and nuance. Insight can only come through interaction.
MINISTRY NEEDS INSIGHT, NOT JUST INFORMATION
Sometimes all you need is information. When I searched for a restaurant, all I needed was information about the menu, location and hours.
Ministry, however, needs more than just information. Ministry raises complex questions: How can our church do effective outreach to the community? How can we engage our neighborhood with the gospel? What challenges are people in our congregation facing? Why is worship attendance declining? These questions require insight, not just information.
Living in the information age, it can be very hard to move beyond information and into the realm of insight. I have learned four practical ways to go beyond information and obtain insight. These methods come from the discipline of ethnography (the study of cultures and communities of people).
Observe: One of the worst things that a pastor, church planter or missionary can do is fail to observe. Without taking time to observe, you will never gain insight into your community, culture or church. You will end up having answers to questions that no one is asking. Observing means simply watching what you are researching. This may mean watching what people do in a worship service or watching people interact in a coffee shop. You can obtain powerful insights by simply observing people.
Ask: As you observe, questions will arise. Why do they do that? What does this mean? How does this happen? Insight comes from asking good questions. However, asking questions can be a wonderfully frustrating experience. It is wonderful because it expands your thinking and leads to new understanding. And it is frustrating because it always leads to more questions.
Talk: Insight comes through interaction. And interaction cannot occur without dialogue. Effective pastors and church planters do more than just observe and ask questions; these individuals also talk with people about their observations and questions. They talk with people to find out their perspective and values, and discuss how and why they do what they do.
Wait: All of this takes time. It is not as easy as doing a quick internet search. Insight is formed slowly over many interactions, conversations and months. Wait for patterns to form. Reflect on what you have observed and heard. Dwell on the questions that remain unanswered.
INTERACTION ON THE INTERNET
If complex ministry questions cannot be answered by a quick internet search, does that mean it is useless for outreach? No.
The internet is a powerful tool for interaction. Social media is a tremendous platform for engaging people, asking questions and talking with others. Key insights can come from doing virtual observation on the internet. Pastors, missionaries and church planters would be remiss to neglect this great resource.
We must, however, resist letting the internet turn us into lazy thinkers. We have to do the hard work of gaining insight rather than settling for quick and easy information. We still have to observe carefully, ask good questions, and talk with people. It is a challenge to think well in the digital age. Yet, effective outreach and sharing the good news of Jesus is far too important to be thwarted by lazy thinking.