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Internet mission and evangelism

4 August 2010

I’ve read lots of articles about how the church should use the Internet for mission and evangelism, and ways in which electronic communications can make life easier, or urging us to change the way we think to adapt to new media. But many of these articles are quite shallow.

Twenty years ago I was trying to convince people that using BBS networks could be an aid to communication, and one leader of a well-known evangelistic organisation had a problem with this. He couldn’t type. He could not function without a secretary-typist to do that stuff for him, so he couldn’t interact with people online. He could only dictate stuff and the secretary would take it down. There wasn’t the bandwidth to send large sound files in those days, but perhaps now that people are doing that, his 1950s way of doing things is coming into its own — now he can dictate to his heart’s content, and podcast his stuff to the world. And now I’m the Luddite, and he’s leapfrogged me. I don’t have speakers on my computer, and so I resist all invitations to Skype. I hate talking on the phone anyway, and can’t communicate that way. I far prefer e-mail, the 1990-style method of communication, and for that purpose the old Fidonet technology networks were actually more advanced than anything the Internet (with a capital I) had or has to offer.

But at last I’ve found an article that gets to the heart of the matter, and takes a serious look at some of the effects of data networking on the way people not only interact, but think. Lausanne World Pulse – Ten Ways the Internet Is Changing Evangelism and Missions:

People “think aloud” in cyberspace. The theology and practice (including ecclesiology and missiology) of most Christians is now primarily formed as a peer-to-peer online process with occasional expert input. There is less and less reference to decisions promulgated by the central governing ecclesiastical bodies of the major world religions. People do their own thinking, and they do so increasingly online through sources such as Wikipedia; out-of-copyright commentaries; and through browsing various websites, e-groups, and postings on social networks. Those ministries who wish to influence opinion need to start doing so in cyberspace, because that is where Christian opinion is now largely being formed.

That’s the best description I’ve seen of why people blog, for example, or at least why I blog. It’s what I’ve said about the aim of this blog elsewhere on this site: Khanya Blog:

The main aim of this blog is to interpret the Christian Order in the light of current affairs, philosophy, literature and the arts — and vice versa. So it’s about ideas. Social, political and religious comment. Links, notes on people, places, events, books, movies etc. And mainly a place where I can post half-baked ideas in the hope that other people, or the passing of time, will help me to bake them.

If the Internet is where people are turning for information, it is important that they should be able to find it there. This has been recognised by some church leaders. Church to enhance its influence through blogging: Voice of Russia:

Patriarch of Moscow and All Russia Kirill has urged the clergy to use Internet blogs for missionary work. The head of the Russian Orthodox Church warned against idle talk or passing one’s own thoughts for the postulates of the church. The Patriarch was speaking ahead of his second pastoral visit to Ukraine.

This recent appeal by His Holiness Patriarch Kirill, aimed at enhancing the church’s influence through blogging and networking, made the headlines throughout the Runet. IT-analyst Alexander Mitrofanov believes that the Internet is a good vehicle to carry the live language of the church to the people.

‘Many priests and church hierarchs have their own blogs in the global network,’ he says. ‘It helps people seeking their paths in life. Jesus Christ taught His apostles to attract people by the word. High technology and the Internet should serve the same purpose.’

I really began doing this when I was working on my doctoral thesis on Orthodox mission methods in 1995-1997. Back then there was no Wikipedia for a quick fact check (“When was the reign of Svyatoslav?”) but there were BBS conferences, newsgroups, and mailing lists, which one could use for an interpretation check. Newsgroups have deteriorated a lot since then — now all you are likely to get is a load of personal abuse — but back then there were some knowledgeable people, who would say things like “Have you considered …?” and suggest a new source, a new avenue of research.

And perhaps even more important, people I “met” in those forums helped me when I travelled for field research. They arranged for me to meet interesting people in Russia, America, Greece and Bulgaria. The electronic “meetings” enhanced and enabled the face-to-face ones. And that continues, as I in turn am able to help others — in the next couple of months I’m hoping to meet some missiological researchers I’ve only been in touch with electronically before. I hope to be able to help them with some of their fieldwork. How do they know that I know anything about their fields? Well, they read my blogs, for one thing. Word of keyboard has enhanced word of mouth.That doesn’t mean that all knowledge can be transmitted in this way, but it certainly enhances and shortens the search for sources.

The Lausanne article I quoted above headed that section “ratiocination”, which I had to look up in a dictionary. But another section is headed “exploration”, which is not quite so difficult. Lausanne World Pulse – Ten Ways the Internet Is Changing Evangelism and Missions:

People do their private, personal, and controversial thinking online. If a person wants to find out about a suspected medical matter or investigate a forbidden political opinion, they first check it out online. A Muslim wishing to find out about Christianity is not likely to ask his or her family or imam; rather, he or she will look at Christian websites. About one-quarter of all Internet users make regular queries about religious matters. They are exploring their own and other faiths. The Church needs to have an evangelistic, apologetic, and missionary presence in this new global marketplace of ideas.

There are some things in the article that I don’t fully agree with, however, such as this: Lausanne World Pulse – Ten Ways the Internet Is Changing Evangelism and Missions:

The Internet is facilitating collaboration across denominational boundaries and across national borders. Experts are now able to link up with other experts in fields such as church planting and theological education. This collaboration is making the denomination almost obsolete. Most Christian workers now operate in networks rather than in denominational silos. People are partnering with like-minded specialists in their area of interest rather than with people who totally agree with their formal belief system.

Yes, the Internet certainly facilitates collaboration across denominational boundaries and national borders. But it also helps to make one more quickly and more acutely aware of differences.

This happens with other media too, of course. I remember listening to a radio broadcast several decades ago, Herbert W. Armstrong and the World Tomorrow in which the speaker spent quite a long time denouncing “rapture” and saying that rapture was unbiblical, and inviting listeners to write to the address given for a free booklet on why rapture was unbiblical. As far as I knew, “rapture” meant great happiness, and I saw no need to write for a booklet that would show me how the Bible wanted me to be miserable. About 15 years later I was browsing in a bookshop and came across a booklet that had Dispensationalism in the title. I picked it up and paged through it and discovered what Herbert W. Armstrong meant by “rapture”, other than that he was agin’ it. The booklet was against it too, though for reasons different from Herbert W. Armstrong’s, but at least I knew what it was against, and had a name for the system of thought it was part of. But instead of 15 years, Wikipedia could give me the information I lacked within 15 seconds. And bird it certainly weren’t, neither skylark nor wise thrush .

I’d never heard of the “emerging church” movement until I clicked on missiology among the Interests on my Blogger profile page, and discovered about half the people who were interested in missiology were also interested in something called “emerging church”, which seemed to exist entirely in the blogosphere.

There is also a down side — people can now bore people worldwide, instead of just those in their own immediate circle. They can spread their anger, hatred and vitriol all over the globe, for the Internet is truly ecumenical. It is a tool equally well adapted to communicating the love of God or the hatred of man. Here’s a sample of recent subject headers from some Christian newsgroups:

  • Praying a 3rd time here for Ken’s perishing soul …
  • Insane Bullcrap from a Mentally Defective QUACK
  • THIS is who Donna Kupp is…
  • Greg lies and claims “Dan rides the napper crapper, obsessively  posting non answers.”
  • Daniel J Sullivan III of Patchogue rides the NAPPER CRAPPER!
  • Kent and the ominous “”secret weapon”” information – why hold back,  Kent?
  • Greg’s usual dreck
  • greg shows his trolling & corpophagia
  • more kupp hypocrisy
  • PHONY-pastor Dave REMINDS Us that He and His Hateful Ilk are CLUELESS About the SCIENCE of Evolution.
  • Praying a 5th time here for Ken’s perishing soul …

The Internet may be a tool for evangelism, but here it is being used for kakangelism, spreading the bad news. There is nothing more boring than reading ad hominem attacks on people one has never met, written by people one has never met. This is also often coupled with infantile misspellings of names. Spelling Tony Blair’s name “Bliar” was faintly amusing the first 5000 times one read it, but it eventually begins to pall. A lot of them aren’t even funny the first time. As literature, Vogon poetry scintillates by comparison.

But it’s not all bad. As the author of the article says, “The Internet is not the be-all and end-all of ministry; however, it is quickly becoming the starting point for most ministry. I used to think of the Internet as a tool for outreach, much like having your own radio program. Now I see it as an ocean in which we must sink or swim.” It’s not a matter of adapting our way of thinking to new media. The new media are changing the way we think, and will continue to do so in future.

4 Comments leave one →
  1. Mark Pearson permalink
    5 August 2010 12:51 am

    >As literature, Vogon poetry scintillates by comparison.

    Wonderful simile! I shall have to use this as a quote.
    Blog’s good too.

    A fellow Orthodox traveller

  2. 5 August 2010 11:29 am

    Good posting.

    I guess I should start praying for Ken’s perishing soul.

    I too have resisted Skype — I use phones as little as possible.

  3. 5 August 2010 3:52 pm

    Good article Steve

  4. Deborah Chupp permalink
    8 August 2010 12:04 am

    I enjoyed your article. With most people connected through facebook and myspace, sharing thoughts with blogs, tweets etc, I have found that it is important to use any way we enjoy online to share our heart and the heart of Jesus with others. They can view our lives through our posts. You can share your thoughts on their wall and contribute to helping “bake” their ideas. Some “unbaked” ideas can be re-directed to a Godly “bake.” And that is good because we can share the wisdom of the One… who in Him, are the all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge. Building up one another, sharing encouragement, scripture, prayer, similar experiences, words of knowledge, words of wisdom, faith, kindness etc. The fruit of the Spirit of God and the gifts of the Spirit flowing out even in our writing.

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