Missions and the Web, By Tony Whittaker
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.
Please read these related posts:
 The Guide Network of Internet Evangelism Day, and Digital Japan
 An Open Letter about Web Ministry Training to Bible Colleges and Seminaries