BCC Staff Note: In this Biblical Counseling Coalition author interview Q & A, we connected with Marie Notcheva to learn more about her new book, Plugged In: Proclaiming Christ in the Internet Age.
BCC: “Great to talk with you, Marie. Please share with our readers what gave you the idea to write Plugged In: Proclaiming Christ in the Internet Age.”
MN: “The idea came about gradually. I wrote my first book, Redeemed from the Pit, as a response to the many women who were writing to me online, looking for spiritual support and counsel for their eating disorders. Then, in 2011, after I returned from a short-term mission trip in Albania, I stayed in touch with a lot of teens there and we often talked about God. Some of the kids were coming to our staff with their questions much more via Facebook than they ever did in person, so I focused a lot of effort there. I hesitate to call our conversations “evangelism”, but within the limitations of the Internet, that’s what it was. And I learned a lot in the process. The then-head of our church’s Missions Committee encouraged me to keep building relationships in this way, and it made sense. I use the Internet a lot—partly for research as a writer; and also as an interpreter—so using it to share Christ with friends and somehow glorify God came naturally.
Simultaneously, we are seeing new issues (and an increase of old ones) in biblical counseling because of the Internet, especially in the younger generation. Writing about both the advantages and pitfalls of cyber-communication—especially for Christians in ministry—seemed like a logical idea. Plugged In came out of personal experience just as much as empirical research.”
BCC: “More than half the world now is online and most communication takes place that way. In light of this, who would you say is your target audience?”
MN: “That’s a tricky question, because to some extent all Christians are ‘evangelists.’ However, I can’t say ‘every believer with a computer or smartphone should see the Internet as a new mission field.’ In this book, I explain more effective ways to use technology for outreach and discipleship, largely in conjunction with a local church. So my primary audience is biblical counselors—several chapters are focused on the growing practice of ‘cyber-counseling’—and also people involved in youth ministry. The Internet (including any kind of communication through applications) is a huge part of how the younger members of their congregations live and relate, and anyone speaking into their lives needs to understand this. Additionally, I think Plugged In would be helpful to anyone using the Internet to communicate the Gospel—there’s a huge wealth of information online that most people (especially older adults) don’t realize is there.”
BCC: “A large part of your book deals with biblical counseling. Do you think it is feasible to have fruitful counseling sessions via communication means like Skype, or should counselor/counselee always meet face-to-face?”
MN: “I definitely think it is better to meet in the counseling office wherever possible, for a number of reasons: halo data (body language); the ‘feel’ of counseling being more serious; the fact that you don’t have to deal with technical issues. But in many cases where that’s not an option, there are things the counselor can do to make online counseling more successful. It is definitely more of a challenge.”
BCC: “You mention evangelism and online ministries that specifically focus on ‘decisions for Christ’ in the first chapter. How do you think that the Internet can be a useful tool in promoting the gospel?”
MN: “It definitely can—because it is an almost endless source of information. Anything you could need—apologetics, commentaries, church history, expository sermons—it’s all right there, ready to be shared. However, the key is in the word ‘tool’—electronic media is just that; a tool. It is a communication medium; nothing more. That is why I have a problem with a lot of the ‘outreach ministries’ that set up web pages and gauge new converts by clicking a button to indicate a ‘decision for Christ.’ The Holy Spirit can certainly work just through a believer picking up a Bible, but without human interaction, it is unlikely any real growth or regeneration is taking place. All of these para-church ministries—online or not—should be pointing seekers back to a local, gospel-preaching church. That is where real soul-care occurs.”
BCC: “How has life in the ‘Internet age’ affected biblical counseling? What new issues are we seeing as a result?”
MN: “Well, one obvious issue is so-called ‘gaming addiction.’ I didn’t specifically discuss gaming in my book, but Dr. Mark Shaw has written an excellent booklet on that. Another problem we’re seeing is a huge increase in porn use—including among women. And depression, especially among young people, has skyrocketed. There is a direct correlation between depression, narcissism, and social media. Social networking exists to glorify ‘self’—and that’s something Christians need to be on guard against. Depression and self-harm are actually glorified on some platforms—there’s a whole online underbelly that promotes self-destructive behavior. Most of it is more subtle than that, however. Teens are susceptible to the power of suggestion, and comparison of their lives with others’ perceived lives often leads to discontent.”
BCC: “You mention ‘information-sharing’ as opposed to seeing yourself as a ‘spiritual mentor’ when conversing with seekers online. Could you explain how that perspective ties in with effective ministry?”
MN: “Someone may sincerely be seeking to know more about following God, and goes online to have his questions answered. As I noted in the book, there are whole ministries devoted to this—with volunteer ‘missionaries’ who correspond with seekers. It also happens between friends; people you’ve met on the mission field; and so on. Whatever the relationship, you can certainly answer their questions thoroughly online, and send them supplemental links. But you cannot ‘disciple’ seekers or gauge their spiritual growth—they need to be part of a local church. So one of the important tasks of doing online ministry is pointing them to a gospel-preaching church, and encouraging them to attend. It’s in the real, live fellowship of believers that they will really come to know God, and grow in their faith.”
BCC: “You include a chapter intended for parents and people involved with youth ministry. What do those of us in the over-40 generation need to know?”
MN: “That our kids know more than us! There has been a lot written about the dangerous side of the Internet, and there are more Apps coming out all the time that leave kids vulnerable to predators. We all know about cyber-bullying and how social media can be used as a weapon. However, my focus is this: given that the Internet controls so much of young people’s communication, and social media is such an enormous part of their lives, how can we help them to use it in a way that glorifies Christ? In order to do this, we need to understand how it affects them. Our generation didn’t have Instagram, Facebook, or Snapchat. We weren’t controlled by the opinions of others nearly to the extent that young people today are. Adults need to understand how pervasive online communication is, and how it affects the way kids view themselves and interact with others. Young people themselves are in a better position to reach out to their peers who may be hurting than their parents are, but we can offer guidance. For example, my 15-year-old son often comes to me with his friends’ problems—some quite serious—for advice. Almost all of their communication is via text message.”
BCC: “What is the key to an effective ‘online ministry’?”
MN: “Investment in people, coupled with efficient time-management. Honestly, since I don’t do formal counseling sessions through Skype anymore, I don’t think of what I do online as ‘ministry.’ It’s just me being me. When you are trying to increase someone’s awareness of God, or help them understand things, you have to genuinely care about them. And the initiative needs to come from them—you cannot expect anyone to listen if you are on some online soapbox…it needs to be personal communication. That takes time, patience, and compassion. At the same time, you need to set boundaries—time management can be an issue when people are used to contacting you ‘round the clock.’ If you’re involved in counseling, especially, you want to respond as soon as possible. Last weekend, a 15-year-old girl in Albania asked me a question about fasting via WhatsApp while I was in the supermarket. I pulled my cart over and responded right away. Could it have waited? Sure. So that’s probably an example of something you should NOT do; but it’s typical of the way I multi-task. There’s a very fine balance you need to keep. You can’t solve everyone’s problems, and you need to be very organized with your time.
Also, don’t expect ‘instant results.’ A lot of us in Evangelicalism have had that ‘make a decision; pray a prayer’ mentality drilled into us, and it’s very easy to slip into online. A true understanding of the gospel usually happens within real relationship.”
BCC: “Thank you, Marie, for your contribution to a Christian view of ministry via the Internet.”