I was recently talking to a friend, Jim Stovall, who teaches journalism at the University of Tennessee and is a pioneer in developing and teaching web journalism.

In our conversation about how the internet is changing newspapers and journalism, Jim said: “I tell my students to start now, to become entrepreneur journalists, by using the internet to build an audience. Then, when they graduate, they’ll carry that audience with them wherever they work.”

Jim’s statement got me to thinking about churches and what seminary does to prepare you for ministry. While seminary does give students the opportunity to “try out” ministry through internships and “field work,” it usually ends there.

But, if Jim is right (and I know he is about journalism), why shouldn’t ministerial students begin to gather their congregations now – online?

Here’s what I believe an internet presence does for those preparing for vocational ministry:

1. Provides valuable experience in writing, editing and communicating. Pastors are primarily in the communication business. OK, business may not be a good description, but what we do is communicate – well or poorly – the Gospel. We preach, teach, counsel, pray, encourage and lead – all of those actions are types of communication. Maintaining a consistent, quality web presence is good training for anyone, but especially for communicators.

2. Creates opportunities for handling both criticism and praise. Many of my conversations with pastors deal with pastors who have handled either criticism or praise inappropriately. Consistent bloggers learn to tone down the temptation to “flame” their critics and also receive praise with humble restraint. Learning to handle both in real-life ministry situations is invaluable to successful ministry.

3. Helps sharpen your message. Jim also said that people go to specific websites to find information they cannot find anywhere else. When you’re thinking about your online message, ask yourself, “What am I trying to convey to my audience, and how is that different from what’s out there now?” Obviously, my niche is small churches and small-church leaders. Narrowing your focus to families, singles, parents, youth, music and so on, and becoming an authority in your field will help sharpen your ministry and focus your energy.

4. Gathers your community. The big point is that now, before you graduate from seminary, take a church staff position, become a pastor or plant a church, you can gather an online community. That community can help shape your ministry and even lead to opportunities for ministry itself, such as a conference speaker, author, spiritual director or consultant.

Of course, even those of us who are serving churches can enjoy the same benefits, and I have in the six years I have been writing “Confessions of a Small-Church Pastor.”

Both ministry and journalism are changing, and the internet is disrupting our notions of what a newspaper is and what constitutes a congregation. We have never before lived in an age where anyone can have access to everyone.

Not even Billy Graham, who has preached to more people in more countries than anyone in history, had the opportunity for communication that we do today.

Chuck Warnock is pastor of Chatham Baptist Church in Chatham, Va. He blogs at Confessions of a Small-Church Pastor, where this column first appeared.

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