Global Internet Users Present Vast Opportunities for Online Evangelism

The world zipped past an unnoticed milestone as 2006 arrived. Over one billion people were online. Roughly 15.7% of the world's people connected through the fastest communication service ever devised.1

Are Evangelistic Websites Drawing Visitors?

The following is a sample list of sites divided by language.

Arabic: http://www.maarifa.org/. Called the most popular Arabic-only Christian site on the web, this site has been online for five years. In the last two years the number of visitors to the site has more than doubled. Nearly nine thousand visitors come to the site each month. Forty-four thousand files and thirty-two thousand pages are downloaded each month.

Arabic: http://www.everyarabstudent.com/. Since the site became operational in November 2004, over three thousand people have made a decision for Christ.

French: http://www.topchretien.com/. This premier Christian site records over five million visitors per year. Since 2000 more than eight million people have visited the site. The ministry has 1,800 volunteers and counselors are always available via chat, though most follow-up is done through email. Nearly fifteen thousand people have emailed to say they want to come to Christ after visiting the site.

French: http://www.connaitredieu.com/. In a recent eight-month period, several hundred thousand people visited and over forty-five thousand people indicated a personal decision for Christ through this French-language website. About 2.5% of its visitors have Muslim backgrounds. The ministry has a network of seven hundred counselors to offer email mentoring to contacts.

Dutch: http://www.thelife.nl/. This Netherlands site had over twenty thousand unique visitors in a recent three-week period.

Polish: http://www.podprad.pl/. Drawn by the content in Polish, this site has some twenty-five thousand visitors per month.

Romanian: http://www.fitzuica.ro/. Leaders of this site say that the most-read stories are translations of Bible stories related to college life. Over twelve thousand users are registered with the site and more than forty percent use the site to access its articles.

Contrary to an easy assumption, most of the Internet does not operate in English. Just one third of the web uses English,2 leaving two-thirds of the seventeen billion web pages of content3 to be in languages other than English. Only twenty percent of the top fifteen Internet-using countries are English-speaking,4 leaving fast-growing user countries such as China, Japan and India to supply almost a quarter of the world's people online. Compare the United State's portion with the rest of the world's web users and we are forced to ask this question: How are Christians preparing to present Christ in this massive medium?

According to Tony Whittaker, a leading proponent of web evangelism who has an article elsewhere in this publication, “The web/digital revolution is changing how we think and communicate in ways we are only starting to see.”

Christian web evangelism pioneers are already making advances into this new frontier. Missionaries and national ministries are using a variety of approaches, some of which are described below, in their innovative efforts to harness the communicational power of the web to share the gospel of Christ.

Even now, years after the Internet has become mainstream media in the West, there are relatively few effective outreach sites in the English language. Most Christian websites have been written purely for Christians.

In other languages, the opportunities have hardly been plumbed. For instance, a highly web-literate country like Japan (with seventy-eight million Internet users; 37.4 million of them active users) only has a tiny handful of outreach websites. The potential to reach the 119 million web users in mainland China is vast. And the web offers a vital route to reach many of the 10/40 Window, hard-to-reach countries in the Islamic world, Africa and Asia.

John Edmiston, who coordinates a twelve-week course in cybermissions and Internet evangelism with the Asian Internet Bible Institute, has compiled a list of forty-three high-potential nations for Internet evangelism.5 The opportunities are clear, the technology is available and the first generation of Internet evangelism pioneers is plowing new ground. Initial reports from many quarters around the world show unexpectedly strong and willing responses by those seeking a relationship with Christ and his people.

International Internet Evangelism Network
In light of these developments, the International Internet Evangelism Network (IIEN) is a hopeful initiative being promoted by a partnership between the US-focused Internet Evangelism Coalition (IEC) and visionSynergy. The aim of the IIEN is to provide an international forum for non-English pioneers of web evangelism to come together, share what they have learned and explore collaboration.

This writer, David Hackett of visionSynergy, is leading the effort to get IIEN off the ground. Hackett has been explaining the non-English Internet evangelism opportunities—and the benefits of creating an international network to help advance such efforts—before meetings of the IEC and the Global Christian Internet Alliance (GCIA) and other international gatherings. Language-specific groups are showing interest in Internet evangelism for their languages. Included in these are the Reaching Japanese for Christ conference and a newly forming Arabic-language Internet evangelism network that held its first meeting last year in Europe.

Prime goals of the IIEN effort are to draw together an initial group of practitioners and secure the commitment of an on-going facilitator to carry forward the project to its next level. Discussions are underway with a potential facilitator. Individuals interested in the IIEN are welcome to email Hackett at [email protected]t.

Directory of Non-English Evangelism Websites
As part of the effort to understand “who is doing what” in non-English Internet evangelism, Hackett is compiling an ever-growing directory of non-English evangelistic websites. This directory now has listings of over 1,250 non-English evangelistic websites.

The embryonic directory is not ready for public distribution. But already it is clear there are two main types of evangelism websites: (1) those that are multiple language versions of basically the same content and (2) what might be called “boutique” sites created precisely for one culture or language group. The directory has several collections of the former and long lists of the latter.

The largest effort of all to provide evangelistic content online appears to be Campus Crusade for Christ’s JESUS Film presented for online viewing. The JESUS Film website lists about eight hundred language versions of the film viewable anywhere on the web.

Another large evangelistic website collection is Campus Crusade’s “Four Laws” presentation. These sites are nearly identical versions of the same content offered in at least 175 different languages. Campus Crusade’s “Who is Jesus, Really?” set is produced in almost forty languages. Its “Life Agape” series comes in eleven languages, as does its “Every Student” series. 

The group “Films for Christ” (Eden Communications) has prepared its “Christian answers” outreach site  in thirty languages. Campus Crusade for Christ, Canada runs a collection called “Power to Change” (for example, www.powertochange.org/it) in ten languages, and it appears these sites have considerable freedom to contextualize for their target audiences.

Minute Factionalization
Many of the “boutique” evangelistic sites are examples of what Web Evangelism Guide's Tony Whittaker and others identify as specific targeting of a tightly-defined affinity group. The ability to customize a website for a demographic group by a combination of language, interest, colors and geographical references is a kind of  “minute factionalization,” or segmenting, that is an increasing trend in evangelistic websites.

According to Whittaker, “The more specific the target group, the better. Also, the more obscure the group, the greater the chance to get a high-ranking website about Jesus Christ. For instance, if yours is the only site on the web in a given language—say, Polish—then every webmaster will link to you; you’ll have an automatic audience. The novelty factor grabs the audience.”

Singular evangelistic websites are often adept at connecting with the particular culture in ways that can convey to the reader that “this site is just for us in our culture.” We're beginning to see the large scale, bigger-team efforts tailor their sites to more specific target groups, as well.

But such tight identification can come with a price. Many boutique evangelistic sites make identification of the persons or ministry behind the sites more difficult and each site has the cost of being custom-built. Sometimes the sites are in persecuted Church situations and so want to shield their affiliations.

Many sites do not want to be identified as an evangelistic effort at all to make their sites more effective and contextualized. One site in Japan, for instance, relates deeply to those wrestling with suicide, and it is only in the context of dealing thoroughly with suicide-related topics is faith in Christ presented. These have been described as “bridge strategies” to connect with the felt needs of web viewers.

Another trend is toward mini-presentations of content—tighter and smaller segments that pack an evangelistic punch. Dan Henrich, assistant professor of communications at Liberty University (Virginia, USA), is experimenting with one-minute video clips for viral transmission—that is, clips that people will want to forward to their friends. Walt Wilson of Global Media Outreach also predicts that online gospel video spots will become more popular, but will shrink to the one-minute length. These may foreshadow Internet integration with cell phone evangelism as transfer speeds increase.

In an effort to connect with youth and children, another approach gaining ground is creating online and electronic games for evangelism. The thought is that a website’s games can provide a fun and attractive environment to convey spiritual truths. Games offer a new opportunity to engage youth and children as well as adults seeking simple presentations in a notably relaxed and receptive atmosphere. (For an example, visit http://guide.gospelcom.net/resources/games.php.)

Fitting In: The X-Spectrum
Internet evangelism’s first generation pioneers are approaching this new medium in a variety of ways.

Some sites are explicitly Christian, designed for those who are well toward the seeking end of the evangelism continuum. These sites are clearly for Christians but hope that non-Christians will visit special areas on a website meant to help them understand faith and even lead them to make a decision for Christ.

Some sites are more implicitly Christian, delving into their general interest topics from a Christian worldview. Their evangelistic purpose may be so contextualized within a felt need that the casual visitor would not recognize this until captivated by the quality of the site’s content, and follow links to other sites that are more explicit.

Yet other ministries are successfully using instant messenger software such as Paltalk to attract non-Christian inquirers to chat rooms where Christians are trained to engage in evangelistic chat. These may be the real frontier, harnessing the large-scale attraction of sites and tools established and maintained by others that already draw significant traffic.

Calvin Conkey of Australia and Whittaker have created the “X-Spectrum” to define the contextual positioning of Christian websites. Their X1 to X6 scale is meant to suggest that different approaches and styles have advantages and disadvantages and can reach different target audiences. The scale is very useful for categorizing the various types of evangelistic websites.

An X1 site has a target audience that is in practice entirely Christian. It assumes knowledge about Christ and salvation and uses a high degree of insider Christian jargon and concepts. “These characteristics,” say Conkey and Whittaker, “are entirely appropriate for a site which is ‘in reach'—edification and teaching of Christians.”

An X6 site has an entirely non-Christian target audience. According to Conkey and Whittaker, “Such a site assumes visitors have no prior Christian knowledge, and may be indifferent or hostile to the Christian message. [The gospel is] presented in highly-contextualized or creative terms appropriate to target audience, in a non-formulaic non-religious non-Western style. [The] site may give little clue as to its Christian nature.”

While non-Christians who are very open to the Christian message may be receptive to websites at the lower end of the X-Scale, Whittaker sees far more potential in websites positioned at the X5 and X6 end of the scale.

Internet evangelism opportunities on the web will only increase. The number of Internet users is expected to hit the two billion milestone by 2011,6 and most of this growth will come in the majority world which contains untold millions of unreached cultures. The online interests and technological capacities of youth will power this first wave of web-based evangelism. However, older audiences of seekers will come close on their heels, looking to ask their secret questions about faith, forgiveness, healing and grace. Many hope the global Church will be there to meet them as they come.

Endnotes
1. World Internet Users and Population Stats
2. http://global-reach.biz/globstats/
3. www.metamend.com/internet-growth.html
4. http://www.c-i-a.com/
5. http://aibi.gospelcom.net/missions/cybermissions_target_nations.htm 
6. http://www.c-i-a.com/ 


Rev. David Hackett is associate director at visionSynergy, a ministry developing strategic international Christian networks focused on high impact opportunities for world evangelization. See www.powerofconnecting.net for more information.