One of the most powerful and strategic ways God is at work right now building his church is not in any one location – it’s online.
The constant access we have to everything offered online can be viewed negatively. The enemy is certainly using it for evil, particularly through the increase of internet pornography, public shaming, and criticism. It can also affect how we experience relationships and view ourselves. Yet, for all that is detrimental, there is a great opportunity for the church in it.
It is estimated that by 2020, 70 percent of people in the world will use smartphones and 90 percent of them will have access to digital networks. Never before have we had such access to so many resources. The world has never been more within our reach. Whether we like it or not, the whole world is online.
What does this mean for the church?
The Local Church Is Changing
This past weekend, my husband and I trekked two hours to our daughter’s soccer game. We were frustrated to miss church, but thankful that, because our church posts sermons online, we could still receive input.
Digital access does not (and should not) replace personal engagement in the church, but it does present opportunities for people to stay connected more than ever before. For those who are traveling, or home bound (or soccer bound), it means a way to still be fed spiritually.
Not only that, but the abundance of sermons, podcasts, and other resources for spiritual growth accessible online means we have more than we need to grow at our fingertips. The downside is that it encourages us to be spiritual consumers—people able to pick and choose whose voices we hear. If we don’t like what our pastor is saying, we don’t have to change churches—we can just find a different website.
Social media is also changing how we interact with each other and the world we’re trying to reach. C3 Church in Orlando, Florida, is one of many that actively uses social media to draw people to them. A few years ago, they began using Facebook ads to promote their services and noticed an increase not only in attendance but also engagement on their social media platforms. Each week, they ask their congregation to “check in” on Facebook so that people see where they are. For every person who checks in, the church donates $1 to a different ministry each month, making the interaction not only a way to spread the word about their church, but a meaningful way to support others.
Some churches have fully embraced the fact that people are online and are capitalizing on it. Life.Church, based here in the U.S., says, “In order to reach people no one is reaching, we’ll have to do things no one is doing.” In light of that, they have embraced the fact that people are online and seek to reach them there. While they do have actual locations, they also offer multiple streamed services every week, accessible anywhere. You can join in a service, chat with volunteers, take notes, and even pray with someone from anywhere in the world.
Inspired by Life.Church, TalmazaOnline.com (“Talmaza” means “discipleship”) is based in the Middle East. It is filled with discipleship resources in Arabic as well as opportunities to serve and connect with others. The leaders pre-record church services and rebroadcast them over a couple month period. Through the chat options, local believers have been able to find each other and join together in small groups to discuss materials together. It is providing people in a place where meeting publicly is nearly impossible, and dangerous, a way to connect to other believers and grow in their faith.
One member stated, “The study I did just opened my eyes in how to share my faith with others, and it opened my eyes to see what will be my role to the world and who is in it. It benefitted me that I am called to be an evangelist even in my small home.”
The Mission Field Just Got Closer
Not only is digital shifting how we relate within the church, it’s changing how we reach the world.
At lunch recently, a friend of mine engaged his server, Kazi, in conversation. She grew up Muslim, in Bangladesh, speaking Bengali. My friend pulled up an app on his phone called GodTools, which has an easy gospel presentation in several languages and opened Bengali. He asked if Kazi would like to read what Jesus taught in the New Testament. After reading it, she asked if he would send it to her. As she walked away, she had already loaded it on her phone.
This did not happen in a foreign country; it happened in Charlotte, North Carolina. More and more there are tools at our fingertips that can help us share our faith in multiple languages with people next door.
A woman who saw opportunities to reach non-believers online started everystudent.com in 2000. The website offers articles on a variety of Christian topics, as well as the opportunity to dialogue with someone about issues of faith. In 2004, they launched the site in French then Arabic. Today, it is in 42 languages and 200 countries, and 65,000 people per day visit the sites. Daily an average of nearly 1,000 indicate that they’ve made a decision to follow Christ.
In truth, there is really no such thing as a “closed” country anymore. Through digital tools, we can go places we couldn’t go otherwise because of security. Akram, a student in the Middle East, was trying to get a scholarship for his Ph.D. when he typed “Arab student” into Google’s online search engine, and EveryArabStudent.com was a top result.
Although a Muslim, Akram found himself reading article after article describing the Christian God, a personal, loving, and forgiving God. This is true. This is true, Akram thought.
Wanting to learn more, Akram submitted his contact information to the website and then met face-to-face with someone who could answer more of his questions. Soon after, Akram made a decision to follow Jesus. Excited to share his faith, Akram began to share EveryArabStudent.com with his friends. Today, Akram has five generations of disciples, new believers who grew and are now helping others grow in their Christian faith.
So what can you and your church do to engage in what God is doing online?
- Consider how you could use social media to create awareness about your church and what it is doing in the community.
- Make sermons and other resources available online. Not only is this a way for people to get to know your church, it’s also a way for people who are house bound or even just traveling stay connected and equipped.
- Check out apps like The Jesus Film Project or GodTools, which are useful for evangelism in a variety of languages. Having these on your phone makes it easy to engage in spiritual conversations with people no matter where you are, and to share content with people you don’t see on a regular basis. You can be a missionary from the palm of your hand.
- Consider doing a digital day of outreach. This is a day when as a church, you make a concerted effort to share evangelistic content or even just start spiritual conversations with people through social media.
At the end of the day, the gospel remains the same. People’s need for Jesus remains the same. What continues to change are the avenues in which we can communicate them. So how will we make the most of the opportunities we have through digital tools to reach the world and make disciples?
God saw this day before it happened. He knew how this digital era would be used for evil, but he also knew how he planned to use it for good, to bring the gospel to places that have never heard, to equip his people for ministry, and to bring people together in new and transformational ways.