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Searching for God on the Internet

Ryan Denison is the Senior Fellow for Theology at Denison Forum, where he contributes writing and research to many of the ministry’s productions.

He is in the final stages of earning his PhD in church history at BH Carroll Theological Institute after having earned his MDiv at Truett Seminary. Ryan has also taught at BH Carroll and Dallas Baptist University.

He and his wife, Candice, live in East Texas and have two children.

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In a recent article for the New York Times, Seth Stephens-Davidowitz examines God’s popularity on the internet. He describes how Google searches for churches decreased 15 percent in the last five years when compared with the latter half of the 2000s. Over that same period, searches questioning God’s existence have risen while pornography searches have increased by 83 percent and heroin searches by 32 percent. “Love thy neighbor” is still the most popular search with the word “neighbor” in it, but “neighbor porn” is a close second.

Perhaps that information is somewhat misleading. After all, as the author notes, “While the usual sources are biased in favor of wholesome activities, Internet data is probably biased in favor of debauched activities.” However, people’s search habits can still inform us regarding the topics in which they are most interested. With that in mind, the number one question in every state regarding God is, “Who created God?” with the second most popular asking why he allows suffering. Sadly, “Why does God hate me?” was the third most common, with the top three answers to “Why did God make me ___?” being ugly, gay, and black.

While Stephens-Davidowitz warns that “we should be careful not to draw overarching conclusions about religion from what people search for on Google,” clearly people are asking very personal and important questions in what is often a very impersonal forum. But that should not come as a surprise. As the author points out, “People may not share their doubts with friends, relatives, rabbis, pastors or imams. They inevitably share them with Google.”

Does it have to be that way though? Do our churches, families, and circles of friends create environments where people are more or less likely to ask difficult questions about God? One of the most important parts about Jesus’s ministry for us to exemplify in our lives is that he made people feel like they could ask him anything if they came with honest and sincere motivations. The only people whose questions were dealt with harshly were those not asking out of curiosity or need but in an effort to entrap him.

How much of a difference could it make if people felt comfortable coming to the church or, even better, to individual Christians with whom they already had a relationship to ask these questions instead of turning to the Internet? With that in mind, what are some things we can do to help people feel more comfortable asking us these kinds of questions?

The first thing we can do is to stop hiding our own doubts. People are far more likely to ask another person if they know that they are not the only ones who are struggling or have struggled with such doubts and questions. It can be easy to want to play the part of the devout Christian who has never questioned his or her faith. However, such a charade seldom serves God’s purposes. So be open about the doubts you’ve faced in the past, even if you still have them. Maybe such honesty will not only help the other person but you as well.

In a similar vein, we can also help people feel more comfortable approaching us with their questions when we realize that we don’t always have to have the answers. That may seem counterintuitive, but often times simply being willing to explore issues of the faith with other people can help them feel more confident about their own relationship with God. And by seeking those answers in God’s word with them, we also help them realize that they don’t have to have all the answers to be close with the Lord. Moreover, it can also help to strengthen your relationship with that person so that when the next question comes or the doubts begin to gnaw at them once again, they might turn to you rather than the Internet or other potentially misleading sources.

Finally, realize that many of the questions people ask hint at a deeper issue than what is expressed on the surface. Questions about why God made someone as he did or why there is suffering are often motivated by deeper issues of mistrust and inadequacy. Answering those cries for help in Jesus’s name is one of our most important callings in this world, but we will only get the chance to do that if we are aware of the issues. That is why it is so important that we give validity to people’s questions, or at least the motivations behind them, rather than writing them off as insignificant or better answered by someone else. If God gives you the chance to minister to another person by helping them walk through issues with their faith, do not let those opportunities pass by. And if you do need to get help from someone else in answering those questions, don’t just send the other person along, but go with them and continue to walk through that process by his or her side. Chances are that you will both grow stronger in your walk with the Lord as a result.

Ultimately, there is nothing we can do to make people turn to us rather than to the Internet to answer their questions of faith. And that’s alright. God does not hold us accountable for another person’s decision. However, he does hold us accountable for our own, and if we are putting up barriers that drive people away from the Lord when they are honestly seeking him, well let’s just say that’s a matter he takes very seriously (Matthew 18:6). So pray and ask God to help you honestly assess whether or not you are living in such a way that people would feel comfortable coming to you with their questions. Then commit to making whatever changes the Lord deems necessary. God will give you incredible opportunities to help others draw closer to him if you make yourself available. Will you be ready when he does?

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