The Challenge of Keeping Up with Technology for Ministry

For the past fourteen years, I’ve had the privilege of being involved in the exciting area of “digital ministry.” For a number of years, in my position with Gospel Communications, I worked alongside hundreds of ministries in many parts of the world to help them understand and utilize Internet technology for ministry. My association with the Internet Evangelism Network has provided me the opportunity to work alongside, and learn from, many of the pioneers in utilizing digital technology to present the unchanging truths of the gospel.

Changing at Breakneck Speeds
One of the foundational truths of working with technology is that technology changes, often at breakneck speeds. It often seems that we are just getting a feel for some new “cutting edge” technology when a new tool comes along to make what we are doing, if not obsolete, at least well off the radar screen. Depending upon your perspective, this can be extremely frustrating or very exciting.

One of the easy mistakes to make in today’s technology-driven culture is to put our focus on the wrong place…on the technology. I’m not saying the tools we use aren’t important, but we need to keep that part of the equation in proper perspective. We need to be very clear on who we are trying to reach and why we are trying to reach them before we begin to evaluate the best tools to accomplish that purpose.

It is vital for us to be conversant in new technologies and with how various segments of society are using them so we can make the best decisions possible regarding how to reach our intended audiences.

Let me illustrate from the arena of Internet evangelism. In the early days of the Internet the World Wide Web was primarily an information-driven media. A successful website was one which communicated static content. Many of the early Web evangelism sites were, in essence, Internet versions of previous evangelism tools like The Four Spiritual Laws or Peace with God. Over time, the driving force of the Web changed from information and entertainment to conversation and community. How well have ministries adapted to that change?

Adapting to the Changes in Communication
The addition of an “interactive element” like email was an early way to adapt to these changes. And for many “older” users of the Web, email is still an effective means of communication. But as new technologies have appeared and usage patterns have changed, many of us involved in Internet ministry have not kept pace. We need to ask whether our tools of choice are really the most effective in reaching our intended audiences.

A June 2009 report by The Nielsen Company entitled “How Teens Use Media” found that eighty-three percent of American teens between the ages of 13 and 17 used texting or SMS (Short Message Service), while only twenty-eight percent claimed to use email. If you take the research to the next level, you would find the disparity to be even greater. While the number of monthly emails sent or received by the average teen has been dropping steadily, the number of text messages is skyrocketing. The same Nielsen report states that the average U.S. “mobile teen” now sends or receives an average of 2,899 text messages per month. The numbers for technology users in their twenties would be similar.

Add to this the meteoric rise of use of social networking sites like Facebook or Twitter, and you have an almost totally changed digital landscape from that of just a few years ago. If our goal is to start a conversation about the gospel, we better know where people are actually talking.

Does that mean that we all need to abandon our previous tools for ministry and flock to Facebook, Twitter, or the iPhone? No, but if we want to have an effective tool for reaching a large (and quickly growing) slice of society, we better have a response mechanism that matches their current technology use. If I only offer a phone call or email as a means of responding to my ministry page, I am effectively excluding a significant nimber of people.

A New Kind of Missionary
We need a new set of “pioneer missionaries” who understand the culture and can use current media and technology to effectively communicate the gospel and engage people in conversation about a living Savior.

Many of our younger generation of Christians spend significant amounts of time immersed in these new technologies. We need to encourage (and equip) them to “be there with the gospel.” And we need to actively seek out their input, and leadership, in developing new initiatives to reach their generation for Christ.

Robby Richardson is executive director of the Internet Evangelism Network and a local pastor in Michigan (USA). He spent thirteen years as director of Internet ministries for Gospel Communications International. Robby and his wife, Karen, have three grown children.