Engaging in the Digital Age: Harnessing Its Power for Good

Communication is the very heart of the gospel and evangelism. Just as Christ’s incarnation and work on earth was and continues to be God’s ultimate communication of his heart to love and redeem his people, the communication of God’s heart for people continues today through evangelism.

Over the centuries, the message has not changed; however, the means to communicate and deliver the message has changed. Although the communication of the gospel essentially takes place from one person to another through words and signs, over the last century, with the radical evolution of technology, the means by which this communication takes place has changed and multiplied exponentially.

We are now well in the throes of the digital age and the means by which to communicate to a mass audience at a mere blink of an eye continues to multiply. Not only can we communicate via print media, telephone, radio, and television, but through email, vmail, Gmail, Hotmail, and Redmail. We can follow updates from news sources, corporations, governments, and individuals through SMS, RSS, Twitter, Facebook, MySpace, as well as be endlessly entertained through CDs, DVDs, mp3s, and YouTube. Communication has become faster and more interactive than ever.

Utilizing and Adapting to Emerging Technologies
The challenge in evangelism now lies in how we can best utilize these different mediums effectively. Historically, the missionary movement has been quick to utilize and adapt emerging technologies (such as print materials, films, and mp3 players) to communicate the gospel. Currently, however, some traditionally-minded churches and mission organizations seem to approach emergent digital technologies with fear or reluctance. As a result, they often lag behind the creative work of businesses and people who have embraced these new mediums, seizing the opportunities to communicate to new audiences and to grow in innovative directions.

We must learn from our brothers and sisters around the world, particularly those from Pentecostal and Charismatic backgrounds, who are effectively harnessing the power of these new technologies, as well as from mission organizations who have already been creatively integrating the Internet in their evangelism and ministry. From counseling services, advocacy, interactive engagement, sharing, and witnessing, as well as resources for preaching and missions, to networking, discussion boards for new ideas, and low-cost audio and video broadcasting, the possibilities are endless!

Changing the Dynamic of Evangelism
Not only have these new technologies changed the methods by which we communicate and collaborate, they have also changed the dynamic of evangelism in the digital medium. It has given individuals the opportunity to take the initiative upon themselves to explore the message of the gospel rather than first waiting for the gospel to be shared. This necessitates a more individual approach to evangelism that is interactive, dynamic, and “user-based.”

No longer can we rely upon church websites with church service location and times to be effective. Instead, we need to actively seek to use current research on how to make websites more effective for churches to reach out to the community around them. What must be done to present the gospel effectively online so that non-Christian readers eagerly and effectively engage with the message? A good resource to help us do a better job is Internet Evangelism Day and its blog.

One such medium in which individuals take the initiative in communication and enter into dynamic interactive dialogue is through Twitter. Twitter is one of the fastest growing communities on the web with a growth rate of over one thousand percent in the twelve months leading up to February 2009. Interestingly enough, the largest group of users are not under age 18, but among 35 to 49-year olds.

Companies are using Twitter, realizing that conversation is both powerful and persuasive; currently, Twitter is where the conversation is taking place. But as Kaila Colbin, a social marketing agent in New Zealand, remarked, interactive tools such as Twitter are effective only if you are prepared to invest in relationships: “A Twitter presence requires constant two-way communication to be effective. It also requires a level of transparency and selÌøå‰Û_essness that most companies aren’t used to employing in their marketing efforts. You can’t pretend to be perfect, and you can’t talk only about yourself…. Would you like to be the one having that conversation with your customers, or would you rather your competition do it?”

Establishing Relationship
Missionaries have long understood that personal relationships are the key to winning hearts and minds, as people are less likely to listen to an unrelated stranger than to a friend. Indeed, establishing relationships are essential to effective communication, whether it is face-to-face, or on Skype, videochat, email, or Facebook.

Although face-to-face communication is most effective for evangelism as it allows participants to read nonverbal cues and vocal tones, even with the possibilities of being misunderstood, email, IM (real-time chatting), blogging, or Facebook networking are powerful tools for evangelism as they are based upon establishing relationships.

Dave Bennett, U.K national director of Bridge Builders (formerly Pocket Testament League) found in his study of lasting adult conversions that conversion took a “long time,” with an average of about two years. The biggest factor by far was ongoing relationships with Christians, seeing faith modeled in their lives. This far exceeded other factors such as reading books, tracts, the Bible, or watching videos. This highlights the importance of any digital evangelism to ultimately aim toward drawing people into relationship, rather than focusing solely on instantaneous gospel presentations.

Moving Forward in the Digital Age
As exciting as the possibilities are with digital media, we must also be mindful of its limitations, especially when we consider world evangelism, and that access to electronic media is limited. We must remember that overall, developed countries have the highest percentages of Internet users, and that seven of the ten countries with the lowest percentages of Internet users also have the lowest GDPs, lowest adult literacy rates, lowest school enrollments, and the highest levels of corruption. We must work harder in creatively utilizing these powerful tools of communication to reach the least of these with the life-changing message of the gospel.

It is in the spirit of cooperation and communication—the Spirit of Lausanne—that we must engage with the challenges of reaching all peoples with the powerful tools of the digital age. How must we increase creativity, cooperation, and communication for this global task?

It is my hope and prayer that as we examine and work toward finding solutions to the challenges of digital evangelism that we would be inspired and re-energized to work boldly and innovatively in new and unfamiliar territories and means to bring the good news to all.

Sandra S. K. Lee currently serves as a research associate with the Center for the Study of Global Christianity on the campus of Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary in Boston, Massachusetts, USA. She is also research assistant to Doug Birdsall, executive chair of the Lausanne Committee for World Evangelization.