Fulfilling the Great Commission… in the Internet Age

This article originally appeared in the Albanian magazine, “Ilira Revistë”. You can read the Albanian language version here.

 © Marie Notcheva

 How is Social Networking Changing Us?

 Despite the fact that we live in a society where it is now possible to contact someone across the world through a Skype call, instant message, or video chat, the technology that makes global communication possible now makes us less likely to interact in person.  A 2010 British study showed that one quarter of adults socialize more online than they do in person. Eleven percent of people choose to stay indoors and talk online, even when the opportunity to go out with friends arises. Many sociologists observe that social media is destroying our interpersonal skills.

I have also noticed that attention seeking, self-absorption, and depression increases among young women with their social media use. Social media, by definition, encourages self-promotion – or rather, promotion of a carefully-designed image one wants the world to see. I have seen girls as young as 13 dressed immodestly, striking provocative poses – to get positive feedback. Many young women, including Christians, fall into the trap of promoting a “bad girl” image online, which does not represent their true personalities. This presents an additional challenge to having spiritual conversations online: which “self” am I speaking with? The image that the young woman wants to present to the world (through her pouting “selfies” and tormented Tumblr pictures), or the hungry soul inside, seeking Christ?

 In 2011, a Christian website claimed: Online Evangelism Ministry Reaches 687,000 in One Day!” A ministry which records Gospel presentations based on website hits claimed that of that total number of “hearers”, 56,854 people indicated a decision for Jesus Christ by clicking a button. In total, the ministry said it presented the Gospel 112 million times in 2010.

Is this really what the Lord meant when He commanded His disciples to “go and make disciples of all nations”? Can we really reduce the Person, work and call of Jesus Christ to a digital page?

The goal of online outreach is ambitious. Using available technology to spread the Gospel is a worthy endeavor, and social media should be used for God’s glory. The fastest, most effective way of communicating a message is to use the Internet for transmission to the furthest corners of the globe. However, it is just this mindset – the fast-and-effective, “microwave” mentality – that is the undoing of online evangelism. We can’t pre-package the Gospel and expect instant converts.

The Importance of Relationship

 Church planters who have studied evangelism methods say that most people who have trusted Christ did so because of an influential Christian in their life. In 2013, my church surveyed members about their conversion. Many people cited a friend or relative’s personal witness; someone who cared and was willing to invest time and love in their life. Clearly, God’s plan to use His people as His ambassadors to a lost world has not changed.

The key to effective online evangelism – as well as ongoing discipleship and counsel – lies in establishing relationship. The relationship should be two-fold, however: both between the online “mentor” and seeker (or new believer); and subsequently, between the new believer and his/her local church. Establishing a connection in a local, doctrinally-sound church is a crucial part of “online ministry”. Without personal connection, a new believer is unlikely to grow – even if he has someone on the other end of a computer answering his doctrinal questions.

Cyber Discipleship and Biblical Counseling: Advantages and Pitfalls

 There is no greater joy than watching a friend accept Christ and grow in faith, especially if you have had a part in it. In fact, younger believers often find it easier to confide in someone online than to discuss their concerns with a pastor. But no virtual mentoring, no matter how solid, can replace in-person guidance. A good way to view “online discipleship” is simply to be there, as an encouraging friend, while helping new Christians get connected to a local church. Online discipleship cannot take place in a vacuum – believers may benefit from your contact greatly, but still need personal teaching, corporate worship, and fellowship (Hebrews 10:25).

Daniel, a Russian missionary, shared a story which demonstrates how social networking can be used as a springboard for effective evangelism. Twenty-year-old Dmitriy asked Daniel to teach him more about God and the Bible, which Daniel did, through Facebook. They had several exchanges before Daniel contacted a fellow believer in Dmitriy’s city and asked him to meet with him. Two weeks later, Daniel received a message from Dmitriy, saying that his “second birthday” had come…and thanking him for helping lead him to Christ.

Such stories are common in this age of global communication. A crucial component, however, was Daniel’s arranging for Dmitriy to meet with a local believer. Dmitriy’s needs and questions could be addressed in person. One difficulty in attempting to “disciple” online is not being able to determine when a professed Christian actually does not understand a spiritual concept. Often, someone will say “yes, I see” or agree without true comprehension. Later on, you may discover you are attempting to “disciple” someone who still lacks saving faith. Another difficulty is accountability – a necessary component of discipleship. You cannot really know what is going on in an internet friend’s life unless she chooses to share it with you; and she is free to reject your counsel or stop communicating.

Counseling is similar to discipleship, in that its goal is to equip believers to grow in obedience to Christ’s commands, but usually deals with a specific problem. Much of our training is in systematic theology, and our task is to then communicate truth that the Christian may apply to her life and solve the problem biblically (Romans 15:14). Many counselors now offer the option of “traditional” or “Skype” sessions. Although I have counseled many women around the world by Skype and e-mail, I believe it should only be used as a last resort when there is no other possibility.

Voice-over-IP programs such as Skype, instant message, and e-mail have made counseling possible to believers world-wide. Biblical counselors are somewhat scarce in most countries, and being able to provide Scriptural support to a struggling brother or sister abroad is a privilege.  When counseling sessions are done from a distance, the non-verbal cues we notice in personal conversation are now absent. Using a webcam helps, but meeting in person enables the counselor to pick up on subtle body language. Does the counselee understand what you are teaching? Does she agree? Is she telling the truth? If you are speaking through a computer, it is harder to determine!

One 18-year-old I counseled was from a Christian family. She had attended my church for several years and been baptized, but within the first 10 minutes of our initial session it became clear to me – from her hesitant answers and confusion in her eyes – that she did not understand salvation. It certainly would have been much harder to catch that confusion so early if the encounter had been through instant message (or even Skype). The “counseling session” then turned into a very successful evangelism encounter!

How, Then, Shall They Hear?

 The internet has made information sharing possible on a scale the early Church could not have imagined. As Gene Edward Veith Jr. writes in “Christians in a .Com World”, “Just as Christians latched on to the printing press, so should they grab hold of the Internet for the Kingdom of God. The whole universe is His domain, including the world of information translated into data packs, fed through high-speed routers, and sent off on fiber-optic lines. This new technology is a chance to exercise discernment, take some risks, and possibly change the world.”  The key to using it wisely is realizing its limits. Some questions to keep in mind when discussing the Gospel through a written medium include:

  • Is the person to whom you are witnessing a seeker? Is he asking questions, on his own initiative; or did you initiate the discussion?
  • Is the person willing attend a local church?
  • Do your friend’s questions, responses and contributions to the discussion indicate a true understanding of regeneration, is she simply “agreeing” with what you say?
  • Are your conversations two-way, or are you giving a theological monologue?

If you desire to impact your online friends for Christ, there are many ways to do so. Every situation is unique, and there is no right or wrong formula for a “successful” encounter. In all cases, avoid thinking of people as “projects” or strictly as potential converts. Relationship is of paramount importance. Remain faithful to the Gospel message and accept that you may be simply planting a seed, and may not be the one to see conversion or fruit in a new believer’s life. Be willing to point a believer to a local church for long-term discipleship. And above all, be prepared to love unconditionally – to stay involved in an online friend’s life, no matter what happens spiritually.

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