Imagine the miles Saint Paul could have shaved off his sandals if he had owned a mobile device with built-in Wi-Fi.
Nearly 2,000 years after Jesus commanded followers to go into all the world and make disciples, an increasing number of gospel messengers are doing their missionary travels by way of social media.
It is the latest trend: build a website by which, with the push of a button or click of a mouse, spiritual seekers from around the globe can hear and read about how to begin a personal relationship with Christ.
“We can spend how many millions of dollars to try to sneak someone into a country, and how many get led to Christ? Very few,” said John Essig, a pastor at Fellowship Church in Springfield, Ohio, who serves as part-time Ohio Director at Global Media Outreach, one of numerous international ministries with a goal of reaching the lost through the Internet.
“But by [them] having a cell phone you’re going to reach those who can’t otherwise get a missionary to come to them,” Essig said, adding that online/mobile outreach is effective in large part because it relies on response, not targeting.
“We know they’re seeking us, so there is not as much opposition,” he said, pausing. “It is amazing how God will find a way to find that lost person.”
The numbers reported by GMO are staggering.
“From 350,000 to two million people a day will read the gospel message, with about 15 percent of those clicking a button at the bottom of the page telling us they just gave their life to Christ,” Essig said, explaining that GMO’s vision is to give every person on earth multiple opportunities to hear about Jesus, with the goal of the Great Commission being fulfilled by 2020.
“How do you do that?” Essig said.
Easy. Just “click for Christ.” Those who do will receive from GMO an email that includes a note of encouragement and applicable Bible verse with a link to discipleship opportunities.
From there, one of GMO’s online missionaries connects with the seeker for what hopefully becomes more than a short-term discipling relationship.
“We’re not trying to replace the church,” Essig said. “But the idea is to get to them while they’re young [in the Lord] and feed them with the word so they can grow.”
Essig said studies show that those who commit to Christ via the Web read their Bible more often than the average American Christian and also more often share their faith, “which shows a genuine experience with Christ.”
One such GMO study reported that half of people who made a decision for Jesus over the Internet have subsequently shared their faith with others. Of the more than 100,000 surveyed around the world, 51 percent said they shared their faith three times or more and 37 percent said they shared their faith at least once or twice.
Some critics, however, wonder just how genuine that sharing experience can be if it takes place via satellites and cell towers. Those leery of social media evangelism and discipleship say a huge difference exists between growing in Christ via Facebook and using a face-to-face/by-the-book approach to relationship spiritual development.
Cynthia Ware, a noted Christian technology expert, cautions against turning evangelism/discipleship into a cast-the-nets exercise, because often those nets have holes.
“With the Internet, the gospel can be effective in a peer-to-peer way,” said Ware, adding that many of the social media outreach ministries she encounters are more about appealing more to the masses than the individual.
“It sounds like a broadcast modality,” she said. “It is the same mindset people took to broadcast media before the Internet. I think the Web should be used by Christians not so much for broadcasting but for listening. People are looking for answers ... and you have to take on a more conversational tone rather than spouting a message as someone might do on the street corner in 1900.”
That is not to say Ware is opposed to mixing social media with Christianity.
“How it can become something [effective] is if people go in with a predetermined idea of how to evangelize,” she said, citing the example of how her sister posted her adoption story online.
“The goal was not her story, but to see how many other like-minded people would show interest, so she could engage in the gospel with them,” Ware said. “The key is finding common ground, then letting Christianity spread by its very nature.”
That method, however, takes more time to reach more people, a luxury the unsaved world may not have, according to some online evangelistic ministries.
Plus, connecting by cell phone or home computer can be done in a personal, one-on-one manner that makes the seeker feel cared for, Essig said.
“Our system will generate a template for us, and we’ll guide them through it,” he said. “They may say, ‘I’m having doubts.’ Or their marriage is breaking up or they are depressed, so we send them to a spot on the site that meets their immediate needs.”
Finding sites that share the gospel is not a problem; dozens if not hundreds exist; but finding a specific site can be challenging, which gets to the financial end of Internet sites. The more money a ministry spends with a search engine, the higher its site moves to the top of the page where more seekers will see it.
For example, type “Jesus Christ” into Google and the first entry might be a Wikipedia article. Click Google again and a Catholic Encyclopedia reference site might pop up on top. It all depends on the contract terms between the search engine company and the site owner.
“It is bizarre reality that the more money GMO spends to promote its [125 different] sites the more people come to Christ,” Essig said, adding that Godlife.com is GMO’s most popular site. “When we spend $120,000 we can get more hits. If we don’t spend, people will go to other sites. That doesn’t mean you can’t go to other sites and give your life to Christ, but there may not be the follow-up. PeaceWithGod.net (affiliated with Billy Graham) does a great job. GMO does not have to be the only fulfillers of the Great Commission. The big-picture thought is there is a huge wave of people (online) giving their lives to Christ right now.”
Essig said there are elements of Internet evangelism that still need to be fine-tuned, including working with language barriers. Many Internet ministries offer different sites in multiple languages.
Then there is the general skepticism that stretches from one side of the world to the other.
“A big concern everyone has is ‘Is this real?’ Despite the giant numbers, is this really happening? The other suspicion is, ‘How are you going to reach people who don’t have a desktop computer or electricity?’ But GMO is in the early stages of developing its own cell phone that is solar powered, which will have applications in it.”
Some might see such technology as tearing at the essence of personal, “human touch” evangelism and discipleship. Essig does not. He turns to the Bible (Habakkuk 1:15) for assurance that God’s wonders have no limit:
“Look among the nations, and see; wonder and be astounded. For I am doing a work in your days that you would not believe if told.”
Robert Wayne is a contributing writer for Crosswalk.com.
Publication date: March 22, 2012