Five hundred years ago, Martin Luther’s skilled use of media propelled the reformation of the church.
Luther exploited printing technology not merely as a way to disseminate his writing, but to project his view of the gospel through graphic design. The explosion of pamphlets, theological treatises, and translations of the Bible used images as well as rhetoric to weaken Roman Catholic authority. No longer dependent on hand-copied books, Luther could send his ideas across Europe at a speed that was inconceivable before. Technology destroyed Rome’s control of information.
Luther’s evangelical heirs see themselves as media innovators. But today’s media cast the evangelical establishment in a role that is uncomfortably papal.
Thirty years ago, theological and spiritual information was copious. There were bookstores, catalogs, and magazines. Television and radio ministries filled the airwaves. But this information was expensive to produce, and remained under the control of large organizations.
Another system of information was growing that was more localized. Ministries distributed tapes, CDs, and newsletters. The burgeoning homeschool movement published curricula cheaply and built informal networks that were invisible to institutions. Like Rome, evangelical institutions were losing control of information.
As a result, the most passionate ministry debates of the 1990s happened outside of seminaries and denominations.
Today, the Internet has made distribution costs almost nothing. Anyone can deliver his views to millions without any institution noticing his influence. The sudden prominence of David Meade, who predicted the end of the world based on astrology, is only the most recent example of what crawls of the Web swamps. Groups saying that the Bible teaches a flat earth are growing. So are those that have a prayer command to lengthen your short leg, or who’ve discovered a diet based on Mosaic law.
All they need is a You Tube channel.
Today’s evangelical establishment has some of Luther’s media savvy but little of his depth. Churches have abandoned their mission to educate people, preferring to entertain them into righteousness. Genuine biblical teaching empowers a person to think rigorously, but many evangelical leaders apparently believe the average person isn’t able to learn. Churches have lost intellectual influence over their own people by sheer sloth.
The new media revolution among Christians will not lead to a reformation. We are sliding into superstition.