In New Testament times, the Roman Road system was strategic in God’s plan. It enabled the spread of the gospel throughout the then-known world. In the same way today, the Internet is a worldwide network that can facilitate effective gospel communication.
Mainstream Internet usage has been with us for more than ten years. Christians have been quick to use it for communication with other Christians. But relatively few have found ways to effectively reach non-Christians online. Surprisingly few cross-cultural missions are using it for their primary reason of existence. Yet the potential is enormous.
New Annual Focus Day for Churches
The Internet Evangelism Coalition, an umbrella group of major organizations involved in web ministry, has helped initiate an annual worldwide web awareness focus called Internet Evangelism Day to be held this year on 7 May 2006.
The Internet Evangelism Day website offers resources for Christians at two levels.
First, it explains the nature of the web, and the strategies we can use for evangelism. The site showcases examples of effective outreach sites, shares testimonies of people who found God online and tells the stories of Christians who use the web for outreach. There are tips on building a church website to reach out to the local community. One emphasis on the site is that web evangelism is for anyone, not just the technically gifted. The site lists spare-time and full-time web evangelism opportunities, one of which is email mentoring that can be done by nearly everyone: retirees, returned missionaries, mums at home and others. Self-training options are also listed. Because only a few training institutions offer modules in web evangelism, you can also find suggested college curriculum at http://ied.gospelcom.net/training.php.
Second, the website offers downloadable resources for churches, mission teams, conference organizers or Bible colleges to create their own focus day program. This might be anything from a five-minute slot within a church service to a two-hour seminar or anything in between. Ready-made resources include a PowerPoint presentation, video clips, drama sketches, witness-challenge music, posters, handouts and discussion materials. Everything can be customized to suit the individual needs of the participating group. Video clips include five-minute testimonies from two young women who found God online.
Churches who staged an IE Day last year were enthusiastic. “People were challenged and inspired!” wrote a church leader in Australia. “This is a huge help for small churches such as ours,” said a church leader in the United States. Read more stories of how different churches and groups created an IE Day program last year at http://ied.gospelcom.net/examples.php.
The Nature of This New Medium
The web’s explosive growth has been remarkable. In ten short years, as David Hackett points out in another article in this issue, it has jumped from being a minority hobby for computer enthusiasts to a communication medium used by over one billion people worldwide. If this article takes you ten minutes to read, in that time interval 460 people will have used the web for their very first time. The global impact of the Internet and the digital revolution will be as far-reaching as the invention of the printing press.
To use the web effectively, we must understand its nature as a medium. Each time a new means of communication is invented, people initially think of it in terms of a previous medium. Thus, television began as radio with pictures, but quickly developed into a different medium in its own right. Christians have sometimes been slow to make the conceptual jump. How many supposedly evangelistic radio programs still use the hymn/prayer/sermon “church medium” that few non-Christians can easily relate to?
Linear Versus Non-linear, Push Versus Pull
Many mediums are linear—they communicate a single sequential message. Radio and television are essentially linear, as are fiction books, videos and tracts. However, a newspaper is non-linear—it contains multiple messages not linked together sequentially. Readers can move around as they choose. Likewise, the web is non-linear. A website is not normally a single page of text, but offers a range of interactive choices. We must not think of it as merely “text on a screen.”
We must also distinguish between “pull” and “push” mediums. Outreach literature is largely a push medium. For instance, people put tracts into others’ hands. Radio is mostly a push medium. There are a limited range of stations that the user either listens to or turns off.
The Internet, however, is a pull medium. It draws people in—but only within the areas in which they wish to be drawn. It is therefore more like a reference library than a literature distribution program. There is no automatic audience for a website, no magical trickle-down effect. How many non-Christians visit the religion section of their local library even once in their life? This is why we need the “Bridge Strategy,” or another advertising method, to pull non-seekers into outreach websites.
The Ninety-nine Percent Problem–A Mismatch of Resources
“Some want to live within the sound of a church or chapel bell. I want to run a rescue shop within a yard of hell.” – Pioneer evangelist C. T. Studd
It’s almost like there is a rule when it comes to published Christian material: ninety-nine percent is for Christians, one percent is for non-Christians. We can see it reflected in Christian bookshops, where a quick analysis of books and videos reveals that the vast majority of material is produced entirely for Christians in terms of language, content and underlying assumptions. How many books and videos are truly evangelistic and accessible to unchurched people who do not know the language and the concepts? Try checking them using the “X-Spectrum” tool (see article by Hackett). The same situation can be seen for Christian websites. Perhaps ninety-nine percent are written mainly for Christians.1 Sites often take no account of where someone is on their spiritual journey. The “Gray Matrix” helps us visualize this.
Opportunities for Outreach Online
How can we attract the attention of someone who is not an active seeker? One method is to integrate web evangelism within a multiple-media outreach to a town or area. This is being effectively used in Australia’s 2005-2006 campaign.
The EveryStudent.com site receives non-web publicity on campuses, being promoted by Campus Crusade staffers and Christian students using T-shirts, contact cards and word of mouth. Kristi is one of many who found Christ at this site.
The other main option is to use the “Bridge Strategy,” which focuses on building websites around a starting point of secular interest or felt need. This is a major biblical key to reaching the millions who would never dream of searching for Christian content and it enables Christians to target any affinity group of people.2
It is an application of the biblical principle of 1 Corinthians 9:19-23, and illustrates the Schram concept of effective communication.
The Bridge Strategy can apply to almost any topic. For instance, WomenTodayMagazine.com addresses many life issues that women face. Because the same team produces an outwardly similar site called ChristianWomenToday.com, we have a powerful case study. At first glance some Christians might assume this to be an outreach site—with its homepage links to Bible study and prayer. In fact, the site is designed primarily for Christians. By comparing the communication methods of each site, we can learn many lessons.3
Editor Claire Colvin of the TruthMedia.com team shares,
It seems so obvious that a Christian site is not necessarily an evangelistic site. One of the biggest barriers that stops a site from being truly evangelistic is language. One thing you’ll notice on the Women Today site is a lack of Christian terminology. You don’t see words like church, pray, salvation, holy, sanctified, born again or repent. Instead, you find articles written from a Christian perspective but presented in regular English.
Colvin goes on, “How can you expect people to hear your message if you speak a language they don’t understand? I think this is hard for many of us who were raised in the church because these words are so familiar. It’s important to remember that an evangelistic website is not about us, or what is comfortable and familiar to us. An outreach site is all about helping the gospel make sense to our audience, using the words and examples, format and tone that make it easy for them to listen and understand. I think we have a great example of this in Christ (big surprise!). When he preached he could have pulled out every theology term in the book and made himself sound very learned in the process, but that’s not what he did. He told stories, he used simple parables to explain the wonders of God to human beings. He didn't change the truth; he spoke it plainly. And people responded. This is why we have two separate websites. On Christian Women Today we can have a section called Prayer and Online Bible Studies and it’s very effective because we are speaking to an audience for whom these terms have meaning. In Women Today Magazine we approach things differently. We give people a reason to want to listen to us, to speak to them where they are and as we are speaking to their situation we will tell them about Christ in words that they understand.”
Blogs and Other Innovations
Blogs are a specialized diary-style of website, rarely used for evangelism, yet potentially very effective. Check three outreach examples at http://ied.gospelcom.net/blogging.php.
In the future we may see short evangelistic video clips for mobile phones passed “virally” from friend to friend. And the invention of “electronic paper” promises new options for sharing presentations.
Church Sites–Another Missed Opportunity
Church websites outnumber other Christian sites by about five to one. They therefore have huge outreach potential. Sadly the vast majority of church sites are written in churchy, insider language mainly for their members. Few have built on a foundation of user-friendliness to outsiders. However, those who do are finding success. “Week in, week out, more visitors turn up at our church on a Sunday because of the website, than anything else,” said a church leader in Kingston (UK) which uses this insight.
A church website is an extension of its public face to the community. Its primary role is to demonstrate that visiting the church could be a positive and friendly experience. View a seeker sensitive church website paper. Church website resources can be found at http://ied.gospelcom.net/church.php.
Needs in Unreached Countries
Many web users don’t speak English. Outreach sites for these non-English speakers are tragically few. In Japan for example, English is not widely spoken, yet most households are wired for the Internet. Furthermore, it is a country where few people are likely to know a believer personally, visit a church or see Christianity as having any relevance to them. The potential for outreach to Japan is enormous, yet there are almost no Japanese evangelistic sites. Pray that God will call individuals and teams to work in other languages.
Across Africa and Asia, we see similar potential. Current usage statistics can be found at www.clickz.com/stats/sectors/geographics/article.php/5911_151151. An article on forty-three hard-to-reach countries and the potential for web evangelism can be found at http://aibi.gospelcom.net/missions/cybermissions_target_nations.htm. Some European countries also have tiny percentages of believers, often lower than typical “mission field” countries. For the first time, non-Christians in these countries have an anonymous and relatively safe place to ask questions.
Mission Web Integration
There are many situations where a local outreach team could integrate an evangelistic website into their strategy using a locally-oriented “entry page” that is added to an existing larger outreach site. EveryStudent.com is working with local teams to achieve this in a campus context.4 PowertoChange.com has participated in multi-media localized campaigns in major Western cities. But few have used this approach in a local non-Western context. Teaching computer use also has outreach potential.5
It’s only beginning! “You ain’t heard nothin’ yet!” said Al Jolson in the first talking movie. We are only at the start of understanding and using God’s harvesting strategies for the digital age.