Many years ago a friend and work colleague gave me a copy of Jerald and Sandra Tanner's Mormonism, Shadow or Reality? It is a big, red hardback book which would have proved daunting for most people. But for me it became essential bedtime reading, a treasure trove I still reach for when researching.
I had no idea such a book existed. Indeed, here in the UK, I had barely heard of Jerald and Sandra Tanner. In the days before computers and the Internet, information was scarce if you lived remotely from the geographical/cultural centre of the organisation you had left. As a Mormon I had easy enough access to teaching manuals from the church but as a critic I had to send away for materials as I discovered them; and if you don't known what you're looking for how do you find it?
There was no Amazon, no browsing the Internet for the latest titles. There were no forums, or discussion groups. When you did find quality material you were in a small minority, becoming the one to whom others might look for a lead on what is 'out there' and how to obtain it. For many people, the only sight they got of good books and tapes (remember tapes?) was when attending conventions, where there might be a book table, or from reading about them in newsletters.
Today its all available, overwhelmingly, staggeringly, confusingly available. Through web sites, blogs, forums, social media, online book stores, self-publishing, paperbacks, PDF, E-publishing, the list seems endless. Where before the challenge was tracking down good material and reliable sources, today the challenge is sifting through the mountains of information, discerning the helpful from the hopeless. When you do find quality material you are still in a minority if you have gone the extra mile to find and identify it. Indeed, sifting and curating quality material is more than ever a major part of the work of information and teaching based ministry.
These developments have not changed the basic vision and purpose of ministry, but they have changed somewhat how ministry is delivered. Online newsletters are much easier and cheaper to produce, E-books have made materials more affordable. Web sites, blogs, and social media make the work more immediate. Ministries can respond almost instantly to breaking news, which news is itself readily accessible. Email makes 'conversations' more real time, as do social media and discussion forums.
Some things haven't changed. Nothing takes the place of speaking face-to-face, and nothing will ever take the place of the local church, where we find like-minded people and grow as disciples of Christ. When someone leaves a cult it is vital they find their way to a place where there is life, grace, and sound, reliable teaching from people you can come to know and trust.
The picture of Christian community painted for us in the Bible cannot be replaced but must be replicated. The writer to the Hebrews urged, 'Let us not give up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but let us encourage one another-and all the more as you see the Day approaching.' (Heb.10:25)
Luke, in his second letter, describes the New Testament Church:
'They devoted themselves to the apostles' teaching and to the fellowship, to the breaking of bread, and to prayer. Everyone was filled with awe, and many wonders and miraculous signs were done by the apostles. all the believers were together and had everything in common. Selling their possessions and goods, they gave to anyone as he had need. Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts. They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts, praising God and enjoying the favour of the people. And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved.' (Acts 2:42-47)
We must be more discerning than ever as we find and use the mountain of information available on the Internet. The best place to practice that discernment is among people with the experience and calling to teach and lead the church of Christ. By all means take advantage of the riches available to us today, but bring it to the test of Scripture, to the local church, and to prayer.