What does Romans say about preaching and online learning?

From my journal this morning:

First, I thank my God through Jesus Christ for all of you, because your faith is being reported all over the world. God, whom I serve in my spirit in preaching the gospel of his Son, is my witness how constantly I remember you in my prayers at all times; and I pray that now at last by God’s will the way may be opened for me to come to you. I long to see you so that I may impart to you some spiritual gift to make you strong—that is, that you and I may be mutually encouraged by each other’s faith. I do not want you to be unaware, brothers and sisters, that I planned many times to come to you (but have been prevented from doing so until now) in order that I might have a harvest among you, just as I have had among the other Gentiles. – Romans 1:8–13

Observation: Paul has heard about the faith of the Romans, and it encourages him (Rom 1:8). He prays for the church regularly (Rom 1:9-10). But he really wants to visit them, so that he can make them strong through his ministry of the Spirit in their midst, so that he and the church can be mutually encouraged by one another’s faith (Rom 1:12), and so that he can have a harvest among these Gentiles (Rom 1:13). Why does he need to come to Rome in order to minister to them? His epistle to them is obviously already an encouragement and a help to the Romans to make them strong. It is Paul’s most complete explanation of the Gospel. Why could possibly be still lacking in his ministry to them?  Why does he need to go to Rome when he can send this excellent, inspiring and doctrinally sound “sermon” or article to them?   Paul apparently does not know much about them specific problems and needs in the church, and wants to interact with the Roman Christians to get to know them, and then address their situation more specifically. He wants to enjoy their company (Rom 15:24); he wants to be refreshed in their company (Rom 15:32).  In order to do so, he needs to see them.

Application: Here in the greatest doctrinal treatise ever written, Paul argues for the importance of two-way interaction and mutual participation for effective ministry.  The book of Romans is much like a sermon, but right at the beginning, the sermon itself says that real ministry will only happen once two-way communication has been established.   I do not believe that Paul’s words necessarily can be used to conclude that face-to-face interaction is always necessary for effective ministry, for live interaction can happen today in ways that were not possible for Paul. But we need to hear from the people to whom we are ministering before we can impart some spiritual gift to them to make them strong. Ministry needs to be mutual – we receive as well as give. We respond to what we see and hear, and allow them to respond to what they see and hear in us.   This is much easier in a face-to-face conversation, where we can read body language and facial expressions, and where the give-and-take of conversation is natural and instantaneous.

I am beginning my online course for team leaders this week, and I have structured the course so that there will be lots of interaction, both between me and the learners, but even more so between the learners themselves. We will not see each other, since the training is all asynchronous (participants are not required to be logged in at the same time). But we do need to hear one another in order for us to be able to impart some spiritual gift or insight to one another, and so that we as leaders can become strong.   Each person needs to participate, and participate regularly and frequently, for learning will happen in the context of a two-way conversation.

Prayer: Lord, I want this course to result in stronger leaders for our ministry teams. I want to be able to give encouragement and spiritual blessing and insight to these leaders, and I also want to receive encouragement and blessing and insight from them. I pray that despite the geographical distances and the limitations of virtual and written communication, we might be able to connect and really “see” and hear one another.

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