Is the Internet Replacing the Pastor?

July 15, 2019 at 5:15 am 1 comment


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Credit: Ben White on Unsplash

A new survey finds that fewer and fewer Americans are seeking guidance from clergy.  According to a poll released last week by the Associated Press and the NORC Center for Public Affairs Research:

Three-quarters of American adults rarely or never consult a clergy member or religious leader, while only about a quarter do so at least some of the time … While the poll finds a majority of Americans still identify with a specific faith, about half overall say they want religious leaders to have little influence in their lives.

According to Tim O’Malley, a theology professor at Notre Dame, part of the reason behind the reticence to speak with a clergy person can be traced to technology:

In American life, there has ultimately been a broad rejection of “experts” apart from the person searching for the answer on his or her own.  Think about the use of Google.  You can literally Google anything.  Should I have children?  What career should I have?  When should I make a will?  How do I deal with a difficult child?  In this sense, there has been a democratization of information based on the seeking self.  You can find the information more easily through a search engine than finding a member of a clergy.

Professor O’Malley’s observations are not only true culturally, they are also true for me personally.  When I have felt ill, I have Googled my symptoms to see what I might have, which according to my searches, usually turns out to be a dreaded and deadly disease.  When I have needed to fix something around the house, I have Googled how-to guides to walk me through a project step-by-step.  It is not surprising that many people would do the same thing on issues about which they used to consult clergy.

And yet, this trend away from clergy consultations is not necessarily always beneficial, nor is it inevitable or irreversible.  This same poll also notes:

Nearly half say they’re at least moderately likely to consult with a clergy member or religious leader about volunteering or charitable giving.  About 4 in 10 say they’re at least moderately likely to consult about marriage, divorce or relationships.

There are things for which people still seek out clergy.

As a member of the clergy myself, this research certainly piqued my interest.  For those reading who are also clergy, this poll should serve as a reminder that we must be faithful, biblical, caring, and compassionate in our callings.  If we are sloppy in our pastoral care, distant in our conversations, theologically vacuous and trite in our comforts, or harsh and unsympathetic in our guidance, we can and will be replaced by a search box and some algorithms, which may or may not turn up good results.  For those who are reading who are not clergy, my plea to you would be to remember that the Church is not just a dispenser of information, but a place for conversation.  The value of sitting down with a pastor is that he may invite you to ask questions of yourself you may not think to ask if you’re just typing terms into a search box.  He is also commissioned to share with you not just his wisdom, but God’s Word.

One of the people interviewed as a part of this study, Timothy Buchanan, notes that the move away from consulting clergy is part of a broader trend:

People don’t know how to have personal communications with other folks when you need to ask questions or need to get help.  For instance, we’ve got some issues with our health insurance plan, so I spent an hour today Googling … instead of just picking up the phone and calling somebody.

This is keen insight.  As access to information on a screen becomes increasingly easier, reaching out to find personal interaction can feel cumbersome and burdensome.  But even if googling stuff is faster and easier, this truth remains:  we need each other.  Internet searches cannot fix real world loneliness.

As a member of the clergy, then, my invitation to anyone who needs a pastor is this:  a pastor would love to be able to love and care for you.  That’s a big part of what got many pastors got into this business.  So, if you’re in need, don’t just read a blog – including this one – pick up the phone and schedule an appointment with your pastor, or, if you don’t have a pastor, with a pastor who is part of a biblically-based and Christ-centered congregation.  Your struggle or question or grief is important – because you are important.

Google may be able to tell you that.  But it can’t show you that.  So, reach out to a person who will.

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1 Comment Add your own

  • 1. Jon Trautman  |  July 16, 2019 at 3:47 pm

    Great perceptive Zach….thanks. From my perspective, there are several occasions that I have said ”ya know I ”oughta” talk to Zach about that. But then, I say again to myself; Zach is a busy dude and has much larger issues than some personal quandry of mine. Now, as you well know, I am not hesitant at all to ask you to clarify some Biblical confusion or even have you talk to the Dominion Bible Study group. Perhaps, a future ”post” could outline how a typical pastoral discussion unfolds and do the topics need to be BIG issues, like divorce,abuse,and addiction or have you experienced counseling for ”stuff” like how do I talk to a friend about lack of faith (other than giving him/her a copy of A REASON FOR GOD”, telling a buddy that he drinks too much, or he needs to be more polite to his spouse,etc?

    Reply

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