From November 19-21, 2013 I was a part of the Lausanne Global Consultation on the Gospel and Media. As part of the group tasked to think about social media, our group developed the following thoughts.
From our time together, it was very clear that digital and social media have an increasingly important role to play in evangelism. That role varies across three continuous stages: SOW, REAP, DISCIPLE. At any given moment, there are hundreds of millions of people globally at each stage with respect to their the Christian faith - from a lack of interest in Christianity to a mature believer growing deeper in their faith.
SOW - In this stage (that might be also referred to as pre-evangelism), individuals are not actively seeking Jesus. At this stage, digital and social media have a role to play in influencing the perception of Christianity and creating an environment that fosters openness and curiosity to engage.
REAP - For our purposes, the REAP stage extends from when an individual reaches a place where they are beginning to seek answers, through to a decision to follow Christ. Digital and social media provide a unique and safe environment for people to struggle and question, often more in more vulnerable ways because of the perceived anonymity and safety of technology.
DISCIPLE - After an individual becomes a believer, the lifelong journey truly begins. Digital and social media have a role to play in connecting the individual to a local church, in providing resources and connections to deepen in the faith, and can provide encouragement and tools to share Christ with others, thus completing a circle, looping back to SOW.
Key Aspects of Digital and Social Media
Following are some of the key aspects that we discussed with respect to the role digital and social media have to play in the work of evangelism.
Before the Father, we are Christian online as much as we are offline. We should live as Christians online so that our friends know that we are Christians even on Facebook.
Vulnerability and Perceived Anonymity
There is something deeply psychological that happens when an individual seeks answers to tough questions using digital or social media. They are often willing to be far more vulnerable and transparent than they might otherwise be in other settings (in person or on the phone, for example). Our hypothesis is that being behind the keyboard acts as a sort of perceived barrier with the world, even if the individual is engaged in a live chat with another person they don’t even know (Note: See An Anthropological Introduction to YouTube for a discussion of the phenomenon XXXXXXX 5:17 17:06 21:15).
Google has changed our world fundamentally. It may have started as an easy way to query information, but when searches begin to take on the form of existential questions like “who is jesus”, we can see that “Googling” has reached a new level of meaning. This makes findability critical in today’s world - by creating good content and using search engine optimization (SEO) techniques, we can make the Good News seconds away from any search globally.
Particularly in the SOW stage, it’s critical to note that the content doesn’t need to be explicitly evangelistic. In fact, one could argue that a bulk of the digital and social engagement in the SOW stage should not be explicitly evangelistic. Examples of indirect evangelism include a mom blogger with a massive following who doesn’t explicitly evangelize but is unapologetically Christian and occasionally posts Christian content. Or the stars of a reality television show about a family business that clearly live their faith in a winsome way.
In the REAP and DISCIPLE stages, platforms provide the tools to reach massive numbers of people. Technologies include web pages, chat rooms, instant messaging, videos, curriculum, location, and more. Jesus.net is an example of of one such platform. YesHeIs aggregates content that others can re-post across their various platforms.
Open Source Approach
Too many ministries approach technology and tools with a selfish mindset. They think in terms of proprietary technology. They turn internally to develop tools and technologies without considering what is available in the marketplace. They don’t collaborate and share with other ministries. Far too many resources are wasted in continually re-inventing the wheel of certain technologies, rather than sharing and collaborating and using existing technology to accomplish goals.
Leveraging World News / Cultural Moments / Memes
We live in a world where the news of the minute drives massive amounts of attention. Rather than trying to drum up our own attention and interest, we should leverage existing world events and cultural moments to evangelize, particularly in the SOW and REAP stages. For example, after singer Miley Cyrus gave a lewd performance at the MTV Music Awards this year, Focus on the Family chose to respond by blogging from the perspective of a father. That single post generated more traffic and attention in one day than the blog typically receives in a month. And as a non-evangelistic topic, it gave Focus on the Family the opportunity to introduce a winsome voice into the conversation that points to Jesus.
Today, quality content is king - it’s core to success in reaching and influencing people in digital and social media. Christianity has the greatest story ever told. The Bible gives us content on every issue facing the human condition. Wise and creative Christians need to be committed to creating and sharing evangelistic content for all three stages - SOW, REAP, DISCIPLE.