In 1996, a birth took place that dramatically affected many of that year’s other eighty million babies. After its gestation period as a minority “hobby,” the Internet emerged as a mainstream communication medium. It is now clear that the Web is becoming as significant as Gutenberg’s invention of the printing press—an invention that transformed society, communication, the Church, and the entire way the gospel was proclaimed.
Rex Miller, in The Millennium Matrix, proposes that we now live in a “digital communication culture,” rapidly superseding the previous “broadcast communication culture” (radio/television from mid-twentieth century) and the preceding “print communication culture” started by Gutenberg.
Children who have grown up with computers were born into this new “digital country.” People who were adults before the computer revolution are at best “immigrants” and perhaps only occasional “tourists” in this strange new land.
God-given Digital Tools
With over one billion current users, and “the second billion” expected to come online in the next few years (almost entirely in the non-Western world), the Web has enormous potential for pioneer evangelism (including in 10/40 Window countries), as well as for discipling believers.
Unlike previous communication media, it is not primarily a one-way linear medium (“print on a screen”), but is a powerful 2-way relationship builder that can target any affinity group and initiate relationships.
The number of mobile phones already exceeds half of the total population of the world. Increasingly, mobile phones are used to access the Web. Phones in Africa outnumber those in the United States and are seen as contributing to development, micro-finance, and improved local trading.
And there are growing opportunities to use mobiles in evangelism and discipleship. One pastor in India writes, “I am working as an ordinary pastor with the Church of North India in a rural area. It is good for me that I download your worship and outreach songs on my PC and through that to my mobile phone to show the rural people how to worship by heart.”
Radio ministries have a wonderful opportunity to create MP3-download web pages of selected past programs. These programs are especially helpful in cultures where there is little printed material. These pages can also explain how to place MP3 downloads into mobile devices and suggest ways to share them with others.
We thank God that some ministries and missions are already “seizing the day” and using the Web and other digital tools effectively for outreach. Unfortunately, these are still the exception rather than the rule. Although there are vast numbers of Christian websites and blogs, the overwhelming majority are only for Christians. In fact, many church websites can be very off-putting to outsiders.
The situation is even worse for non-English languages. Japan, for instance, has huge potential for digital evangelism; however, few ministries are involved in this area. In some languages, there are no evangelistic websites! The Middle East is an exception to this; indeed, remarkable things are happening online (without much publicity for security reasons).
Missions and the Web
Missions have enthusiastically adopted the Internet for mission communications and home-end publicity to existing or potential Christian supporters. The digital revolution has also significantly boosted Bible translation, audio and video editing, desktop publishing, networking, prayer information distribution, research, and many other aspects of mission.
But surprisingly few missions use the Web (and related digital media) for direct outreach. There may be several reasons for this:
Mission Web ministry has been perceived as belonging primarily to the publicity and communication departments, rather than for outreach teams on the ground. It may also be that some mission policymakers grew up before the days of computers and still have that sense of being uneasy “immigrants” in the digital world.
Missions have long known that real evangelism is costly, incarnational, and relational, and requires a deep understanding of and engagement with culture. (Incidentally, it is interesting to note that Western churches are realizing that these mission principles are needed in evangelism in the West also.) They are rightly suspicious of mediums or methods offered as a quick fix, especially if these bypass the creation of relationships. They may also worry that email is too impersonal and distant to build real relationships, or that Internet ministry requires technical knowledge.
Web ministry is not yet taught in most Bible colleges. Although some Web-related skills can be learned from journalism and communication courses, there is a big need for students to understand the nature of the Internet as a medium and the many different ways it can be used effectively.
The truth is the unique properties of the Web make it a valuable “fit” for evangelism on a worldwide basis. The Internet is now almost anything you want it to be—the largest encyclopedia in the world, a marketplace and “water cooler” meeting area, a twenty-first century version of the biblical “Roman Road” system which enabled travel and evangelism, a comprehensive news agency, a means of self-publishing and opinion-sharing, etc. At its heart is “connectedness.” By connecting one computer to another, it links people with ideas and builds relationships. Since evangelism is also based upon connecting and 2-way relationships, there is a perfect match.
Most missions proceed from the “provider” (e.g., the missionary) to the “recipient” (at whatever point he or she may be at on the Engel Scale (or its valuable modification, the Gray Matrix). In one sense, online evangelism often reverses this direction. Instead of our going out to “seek seekers,” they may come to us; Web users take the initiative to find online material that is of interest or helps them.
The Web has a unique ability to target specific affinity groups based upon their background, interests, and felt needs. Even very narrow segments of a population can be targeted. The Bridge Strategy is very significant in web evangelism. To reach someone who is not an active inquirer (by definition, active inquirers are a very small part of any population), we can offer web pages about the things they are interested in: hobbies, sport, culture, or life problems. (Note: Barna Group research suggests that one-third of people in any community are currently suffering a crisis.) “Bridge” or “felt need” sites can make an appropriate and ethical transition into engaging with spiritual issues. It is a vastly under-used strategy.
Incarnational social networking is another valuable approach. Some missions also teach IT skills. Relationships are a key to any web strategy. Websites are not like Tibetan prayer wheels, “spinning in the wind and mystically transmitting a spiritual message.” They are instead “connectors,” allowing someone to link with ideas and challenges, and then discuss more questions with a real person.
Such mentoring connections, whether they remain as email discussions or develop into face-to-face interaction with evangelists on the ground, are integral to effective evangelism. The “anonymous intimacy” of email often enables inquirers to be very open. Most stories of people finding Jesus online reveal a considerable period of relationship, discussion, and mentoring, leading to eventual faith.
There is growing potential for integration of different digital media—web, radio, literature, DVD, mobile phones, and SMS—into both evangelism and follow up. Several mentoring software applications have been developed which enable incoming email, voicemail, or SMS inquiries to be routed to volunteer email or telephone mentors, and/or follow-up on the ground by local teams. This follow-up synergy is hugely strategic.
Returned or retired missionaries can also be involved in mentoring or other web ministry to “their” country. Click here for vacancies. Technical knowledge is not required.
The Guide Network and Internet Evangelism Day
The Guide Network is an informal group of people involved in web, mobile phone, or digital outreach. It is linked with Internet Evangelism Day, the Lausanne Committee for World Evangelization, Internet Evangelism Coalition (IEC), visionSynergy, and the Global Christian Internet Alliance. We offer several smaller networks for digital ministry to specific areas of the world. We will gladly advise any mission wondering how to integrate the Web or mobile phones into their evangelism and explain the growing potential for involvement in computerized integration of follow-up ministry. Speakers are available for any mission consultation or conference.
Internet Evangelism Day is an initiative of the IEC, a grouping of ministries with a vision for online outreach. We encourage the worldwide Church to understand and employ this powerful new tool using a dual approach: an annual worldwide focus day on the last Sunday of April and a year-round training resource website.
Our site explains the nature of the Web as a medium and explores principles and strategies to reach non-seekers in both Western and non-Western countries. We believe that these are insights which any Christian in full-time ministry (whether pastor, evangelist, or missionary) needs. It also offers free downloads, such as: PowerPoint, video clips, drama scripts, music, discussion questions, and handouts. These enable a church, Bible college, or mission team to create a web awareness focus spot or seminar. Our free articles are available for reproduction in magazines and newsletters.
College Modules Needed
One major hope for the future is that many Bible colleges will begin to teach web ministry (click here for our Open Letter to Bible Colleges). Few yet do. Many of our resource pages provide seminar source material, including a possible curriculum and a book list. We also offer seminar speakers in person or via video-conferencing.
Is it time to think Web? Can we help?