Evangelism in a digital age - 2
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.
The previous reflection is here.
Let's hear some insights from John Drane, currently co-chair of the Mission Theology Advisory Group and he has taught in the universities of Stirling and Aberdeen and at Fuller Seminary in the US.
Twelve months ago I signed up for what I thought was going to be a very local volunteering group, which was asking for people to things like deliver groceries or prescriptions to people who are house bound. As well as doing my bit with that, I also suggested that I could offer spiritual support, thinking that, that would probably go down like a lead balloon with the organisers.
I'm not going to tell you the whole story but 12 months later, I've got a group of something like 2,000 unique individuals who've been referred to me through that group because it just went viral across the whole of Scotland, where I live, not just in my local area.
One of the things that I discovered in ministering online, is actually something I've known for a long time - that it's all about context, context, and context. I think one of the things I've realised over the last 12 months, is that in terms of evangelism and mission, we often start with the message and give very little thought at all, to the medium. Whereas in the online environment, the medium is absolutely where we need to start. It's something that's a challenge in relation to mission more generally, of course, but the reality is, that if the message has to be received, let alone acted upon and accepted, context and culture are absolutely dominant.
Websites have been around for a long time as have blogs. Then of course there's social media. It strikes me that a lot of Christians are happier in some contexts than they are in others. Partly because those three that I've just mentioned serve different purposes, and to a very large extent, I would suggest connect with different people groups. So, two different things, the media that we're going to use and the people groups that we think we might reasonably connect with. Knowing who we wish to communicate with and the most effective medium for doing that, is always going to be a starting point. It's about contextualization.
With social media, for example, if you wanted to evangelise or share the good news on TikTok, for example, you're going to need a completely different approach and totally different materials than if you're doing it on Facebook. Partly because of the nature of the medium, and also because of the nature of the people who are mostly connect with those two that I've chosen. Then of course, there's Instagram, WhatsApp, Twitter, etc. What I've discovered is that, these are actually different contexts, not just with different ways of presenting material and sharing your own story, but actually for the most part, connecting with different people groups. In order to communicate the gospel effectively in these different environments, the message needs to be different in each of them, because we want the same kind of impact to its challenge as people connect with us.
However, I think that regardless of these different platforms, the things that interest church people on the whole, are not going to connect missionally. A simple example of that, would be the way that if you look at any church website, for example, a great prominence is given to, "This is our statement of beliefs." Now, quite frankly, that is a tribal identification mark, that we're sending out from my church or your church to say, "This is where we belong in the grand scheme of Christian tradition." Frankly, nobody else that I've come across is the slightest bit interested in all of that. In fact, I've come across quite a few people who go to visit a church website, read the statements of belief and think, "Well, if that's the gospel, it's definitely not for me." We need to get our heads around the reality that the things we like to talk about on social media, they're not all that likely to connect with anyone other than probably disillusioned Christians.
But perhaps more important still, is if you're thinking about evangelism in the digital environment, do not underestimate the importance of simple things. I mentioned that I've been in touch with something like 2000 people. To be honest, I stopped counting after 800. So it's a guess that I must be up to 2000 now. But the top of the agenda with these people, has been simple, traditional, Christian disciplines about prayer and spirituality.
I lost count long ago that the number of people who were saying, "Teach me to pray. How can I pray? Is it okay to pray, if I don't know whether I have any faith? If I get it wrong, will the God I'm not sure I'd believe in, zap me? Or will some horrible things happen to me? Just teach me how to be in touch with somebody or something that is bigger than me."
The other thing I want to say, about communicating face online is this. Talk about God, not about yourself. By all means, share your personal stories, but talk about God, about prayer, about the spiritual life, and don't try to be too trendy because trendiness in this world, comes across as lack of authenticity. Don't try and be too clever, because in terms of people thinking about faith, they have read too many scare stories about people ripping them off, by being trendy. The most sophisticated you can look, the less likely, I think, you are to be believed. That's a bit of a challenge because we all want to do things to the best of our ability. Don't we?
Is your website designed for people who are not Christians - isn't that who you are there for - your audience? Are you using social media to connect to various audiences or are you just connected to a Christian audience?
Read the next article in this series.
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An online discussion hosted by Fresh Expressions, 06/04/2021