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online 246Evangelism in a digital age - 1

I recently listened in to an online discussion on evangelism in a digital age hosted by Fresh Expressions. Each guest presented some of their reflections on The Mission of God In A Digital Age. These have been captured in a book - Missio Dei in a Digital Age.

Let's first hear some insights from Steve Hollinghurst - Evangelism Enabler Lichfield Diocese, and a consultant and researcher in contemporary culture and evangelism and author of Mission-Shaped Evangelism.

Steve shared a video testimony from a Dutch girl called Kimberley. The video is here.
Kimberley was raised in a non-Christian family. They never went to church. They owned two Bibles, but they were never taken off the bookshelf. She went to university and around that time, she started asking herself questions. Questions like, "Who am I? What am I doing here? What is life worth living for? This is all meaningless."

At the same time, she began to notice some Christian friends. There was something they had that she admired, something that made her curious. She didn't know where to turn to. She was curious about the Christian faith and she had these important life questions. One Sunday, she was sitting at home and went on the internet. She googled "searching God". Immediately, Google gave some results. She clicked on a page and she read the things about God and Jesus. Even though she didn't understand everything, it looked like these were the things she had been searching for. She went to the last page. On that page, there was a prayer and she prayed.

The same night she visited the webpage, she signed up for an Alpha Course.
This story that illustrates some of the ways the internet can reach people. I approach this subject very much as a missiologist, working across cultures in an intercultural way. I start with the assumption that how we communicate always changes what we communicate. And therefore, discovering how digital media affects communication is key to thinking about it in evangelism. What we cannot do, is assume that digital media simply is the same as communicating face-to-face. Those questions are kind of key to me.

There's some interesting things in Kimberley's story. One of the things is the very normal human thing of at certain stages of life asking key important questions. Then there was the interaction between online and offline, if you can call them that way. And the way she was impressed by Christian friends, but didn't want to talk to them, but instead ended up researching faith online through a website.

One of the things that research tells us is that many people want to explore new things and new ideas, anonymously. If you've been running online church services during the recent pandemic, you may well have found, as many have, that you have people visiting your services, who do not normally go to your church. This is exactly the reason why they're doing that. That anonymity enables them to do something that will be quite scary for them in real life, stepping through the door of your church, when you're having a worship service.

Then after that, as well as finding a website that she found really helpful and helped her to understand more, she ended up signing up for an Alpha course and joining a local church rather than perhaps joining an internet faith community or an internet church. I think that shows the way our lives lived in the world, fit with what's going on in that digital communication.

I think this reflects some ways that thinking about the digital, has changed in those who explore this. When I was approaching this subject in the 1990s and 2000's,  I very much used to think of the internet as a place that one went to, to share faith and plant churches, rather like a new housing estate. I no longer think that's the case. I think the internet best seen as a communication tool between people in their local communities and contexts.

What it does do, I think very importantly, unlike broadcast media like TV, is it becomes highly interactive. That can happen whether you're in a social media group, a video conference, or indeed online gaming. That interactivity enables genuine conversation to happen. I think that's the key to what's going on, when we thinking about digital evangelism.

There are points about digital communication that I think are very important. That anonymity we were talking about also extends to social media groups. You always have to bear in mind, the hidden listeners as you communicate. Digital media puts us one stage removed as we communicate, it can become very easy to think that the people we're communicating with are not really there. It's very easy, therefore, to treat them differently to how you would face to face.

This can lead to some positive things. In some ways, it makes it easier to share faith online because actually, you don't have those same inhibitions to doing so. But also can make it possible to do so very offensively. You can do hit and run evangelism or get into aggressive arguments very easily online, in a way that you wouldn't in a face to face context.

As well as communicating with people, you're communicating with them in their local context and culture, and that has to be borne in mind as well. The internet has an ability to draw people from across the world, with particular local interests and worldviews. Therefore, it can sometimes create a new tribalism that can be divisive, but also means there are places where you can build deep relationships with people who share your interests.

The key to thinking about sharing faith through digital media is to build relationships within affinity groups, where you are at home and can share faith personally, with your personal story, rather than think of preaching on the internet platforms to people you do not know.

Lastly, I want to say that God goes ahead of us in mission. God is already working in the internet communities we join, before we get there. The key question is, where is God at work? Where do I hear God asking the questions and building the bridges through which we can share faith?

How many of your social media contacts are Christians? Another Christian bubble? Why not join other social media affinity groups and build relationships?

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An online discussion hosted by Fresh Expressions, 30/03/2021

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