by Tony Whittaker
“Online outreach is an innovative response to today’s high-tech world. It is possible to evangelize one billion people through this medium.”
—Tetsunao Yamamori, International Director, Lausanne Committee for World Evangelization
“Online outreach is an innovative response to today’s high-tech world. It is possible to evangelize one billion people through this medium." —Tetsunao Yamamori, International Director, Lausanne Committee for World Evangelization
WHY DON’T MORE MISSION AGENCIES DO WEB EVANGELISM?
Almost all of the missionary and evangelistic agencies in the West, and increasing numbers of indigenous non-Western missions in Africa, Asia and Latin America, use the Web—but only to promote their ministries to Christians. Very few missions harness the Internet to fulfill their calling to evangelize and disciple. The following are several reasons why this is the case.
• Publicity and promotions usage. Mission agencies usually understand how using the Web can promote their organization to the Christian public and develop relationships with supporters. They view the Internet as an extension of their publicity departments, offering online equivalents of magazine features, newsletters and brochures. Thus, webmasters and web designers are typically employed within mission publicity departments. Their gifts and job descriptions are for mission advocacy to Christians.
• Lack of Web experience. Many mission executives and staff in home-end administration tend to be older and may have limited experience using the Web apart from email.
• Lack of experienced Web designers. There are relatively few Christian designers available, especially those prepared to take a salary cut in order to work with a mission agency or face the challenges of support raising. It is harder to gain support for staff doing home-end computer ministry than for overseas placements, even though the Web can facilitate front-line evangelism. And with a limited budget for Web design, missions may want a direct financial return on their Internet investment in terms of building the support base.
• Lack of understanding of Web usage among nationals. Some mission agencies may not realize the potential for web evangelism in the non-Western world—or do not know how to achieve it. Many may not be aware of the increasing numbers of nationals using the Web. China now has over 100 million users. The lack of outreach to the eighty million online Japanese is a tragedy. Many millions in the Islamic world use the Web. Examples of potential for web outreach in the 10/40 countries can be found at http://aibi.gospelcom.net/missions/cybermissions_target_nations.htm.
• Lack of demographic information. Even where Web users are a small percentage of a country’s population, they are in the student, business and administrative strata of society, who may be difficult to reach in other ways, yet have an influence on their country all out of proportion to their numbers. There are also many opportunities for missions to teach computer use in the same way we have traditionally taught English (http://guide.gospelcom.net/resources/teach-it.php).
• The new frontier. Web evangelism is a young discipline and has barely appeared in training institution curriculum. Mission applicants have not had the opportunity to study it in college.
HELPING MISSIONS MOVE INTO WEB EVANGELISM
The following are eight ways to lead ministries and missions into using the Web to fulfill the Great Commission:
1. Encourage mission executives and researchers to investigate the potential for web evangelism within the agency’s fields of operation. There is a ten-minute audio introduction at http://guide.gospelcom.net/rd?echurch-essentials.
2. Encourage group discussion by holding an introductory staff seminar based on the PowerPoint offered at www.InternetEvangelismDay.com. Internal mission newsletters can feature web evangelism issues to stimulate discussion and vision. Missions could also invite a web evangelism specialist to address in-house staff.
3. Consider starting a cybermissions department with a mandate for web evangelism and online discipleship or teaching of converts. This department may be either based at headquarters or on the field, and should not report to any existing Web publicity team, but should be created as a direct outreach ministry, responsible to the leadership and integrated into the evangelistic strategies of the mission. For more information, go to www.cybermissions.org/articles/index.html.
4. Facilitate in-house training on Cybermissions for mission staff. Here is an example of a week-long mission training course: http://guide.gospelcom. net/docs/seminars.zip. Online training resources can be found at http://ied.gospelcom.net/training.php.
5. Encourage Bible colleges and other training institutions to offer web evangelism modules within training courses. A proposed curriculum can be found at http://guide.gospelcom.net/docs/proposal.rtf. A shortage of both trainers and training is stifling the growth of online outreach.
6. Involve returned or retired missionaries in some aspect of web evangelism or online discipleship, perhaps email counseling or mentoring. Chat room evangelism is also useful in reaching specific countries. Those with experience in witnessing to Muslims can even visit Islamic chat rooms and bulletin boards. More on chat evangelism at: http://guide.gospelcom.net/resources/chat.php.
7. Integrate outreach websites with on-the-spot ministry. Content Management can enable a local team to operate a website without previous technical knowledge.
8. Take seriously concerns about staff viewing inappropriate material online (see Hodge and Lindquist). Some organizations encourage or require their staff to install an accountability program such as: www.covenanteyes.com or the free www.x3watch.com.
Technical experience is not needed to do web evangelism. For non-technical opportunities, go to http://ied.gospelcom.net/vacancies.php or read stories of web evangelists at http://ied.gospelcom.net/evangelists.php.
COMBINING A WEBSITE WITH LOCAL OUTREACH
Although an outreach site can operate in a stand-alone context, it can also be incorporated into a mission agency’s outreach strategy on the field. When a missions team does local outreach in a country, a related website can greatly enhance its effectiveness. However, it is unlikely that a small team will have someone with the gifts or time to build a site from scratch. There is an alternate way forward.
• A Cybermissions team in the mission headquarters can build a culturally-contextual core evangelistic website. The gospel can be presented appropriately through Q&As, answers to problems, testimonies (“http://guide.gospelcom.net/resources angie.php”) and “Bridge Strategy” pages.
• Central to the concept is a gateway “front-end” section with localized content, designed for the particular town or area of outreach. There can be multiple front-ends to the core material if outreach is taking place in a number of places. These front-end sections may carry an introduction to the team, news of activities and related pages—all designed entirely for non-Christian readers. Information can be as specific as next week’s house-meeting or can contain Bridge Strategy pages of local or community interest (http://guide.gospelcom.net/resources/community.php”). Communicating news about the ministry to the mission’s Christians supporters is not the purpose of the site and should not be attempted. In some countries, it may not be wise for the mission’s name to appear on the website. It might be better positioned to the public as a national/local initiative.
• The front-end pages can be built and updated using Content Management (CM) by local team members. CM enables text to be added or changed on the site using a password-protected browser interface. This is done by typing or pasting material into text boxes. Photographs can easily be uploaded too. A CM training session can prepare team members to use this tool.
• The front-end gateway section should have a memorable, enticing, neutral-sounding URL which may relate to the town or area, and can be publicized through contact cards, newspaper advertising, radio interviews, shirts, car stickers and other means. If the town of outreach is, for example, Bangalore, the URL might be www.findinghelp.com/bangalore or a subdomain (a web address with a prefix word followed by a point), such as http://bangalore.isfindinganswers.com. Subdomains make seamless navigation between local content and core material easier.
• From the user’s viewpoint, they see only one unified website—that which they enter through their local gateway. The transition to the core material should be seamless and unnoticed. This is best achieved if a subdomain URL is used and remains in the Web address of all core pages.
• A “Contact Us” webpage within the local front-end will enable people to email the team and ask questions in relative anonymity. The page should be an online form instead of a clickable mailto email link, allowing people to send a message from any computer. It even allows a message to be sent by an individual who does not have an email address. It also largely prevents the team from receiving spam. (In closed countries, an “SSL” secure form can keep an inquirer’s email hidden from scrutiny.) A bulletin board may also provide a forum for visitors to discuss issues and ask questions.
• An alternative application of this model is for a mission to partner with another ministry’s existing core website. For instance, the world-class outreach site www.PowertoChange.com (produced by Campus Crusade for Christ International Canada) has partnered with different groups to coordinate local outreach strategies.
The Web’s great potential for outreach is vastly under-used. Cross-cultural missions can use it for outreach and discipleship, and we must begin by investigating how to integrate web evangelism into overall mission outreach strategy. Sadly, the majority of Christian websites are written purely for Christians. Of the tiny percentage that aims to be evangelistic, their effectiveness is often diluted by "churchy" language and lack of appropriate contextualization. The X-Spectrum (see below) is designed to clarify issues for effective targeting and communication by websites and other media.
This spectrum can also analyze and classify other media—videos, DVDs, tracts, books or radio programs. The creation of sites which target other religious groupings is a specialist area and have been designated R within categories X4-X6. There are less than twenty R sites effectively ministering to Muslims and even fewer seeking to reach Hindus, Buddhists, Parsees and New Agers. Of the ones that do, most are presented in English. Few church sites are written in a style helpful to non-Christians, yet because church sites outnumber other Christian sites by five to one, they have great potential. In parts of Indonesia, almost every church has a website (see http://ied.gospelcom.net/church-growth.php).
A good communicator asks two questions: "Who is my audience?" and "What do they want to know?" For the first time in history, the Web enables us to target a precisely-defined worldwide audience by interest, felt need, age, ethnicity, gender, religion or geographical location. But because the Web is a pull medium (http://guide.gospelcom.net/resources/medium.php), there is no automatic audience within any target group. To draw target readers in—and keep them reading when they arrive—websites must be carefully positioned and contextualized. See http://guide.gospelcom.net/resources/context.php.
Training is vital to success. We need to develop models for delivering in-house training, distance learning and formal web evangelism modules within training institutions. Missions can integrate web evangelism with their teams on the ground, or as a stand-alone outreach. Retired and returned missionaries can use their gifts and experience through the Web. Many aspects of web evangelism do not need technical knowledge.
Your fingers on a computer can reach the nations. “Praise be to the Lord my Rock, who trains my hands for war, my fingers for battle” (Ps. 144:1).
Hodge, Robert and Brent Lindquist. 2003. “The Dark Side of the Internet.” Evangelical Missions Quarterly, 39(1): 52-60.
THE X SPECTRUM
Description: Target audience is entirely Christian. Knowledge of way of salvation is assumed, not explained. High level of insider Christian jargon and concepts. Christian graphics may be used. (These characteristics are appropriate for sites that seek to simply edify and teach Christians.)
Comments: Majority of Christian and church websites are X1. Non-Christians may visit by chance, and seekers by intention. Some may find spiritual help,which leads site owners to believe the site is evangelistic.
Description: Target audience is Christian, but a way of salvation page/section is offered for non-Christians who may visit. Remainder of site remains X1 in approach.
Comments:All Christian websites should consider including at least one page or external link for non-Christians. The Web Evangelism Guide is X2.
Description: Target audience is both Christians and non-Christians, within the same set of pages. Considerable use of Christian language and concepts, with some accommodation to the needs of non-Christians.
Comments:Sites which offer relatively-segregated and targeted material for Christians and non-Christians are better defined as X1/X4 hybrids. Seekers or non-Christians with a Christian background may be comfortable within X3 sites.
Description:Target audience is informed non-Christian. Assumes visitors have considerable prior Christian understanding. Gospel may be presented in Western, formulaic terms. May have Christian graphics, a preachy style, or a rapid and unexplained use of scripture verses. Testimonies, if used, may unwittingly be written using language only of interest to Christians.
Comments: Outreach sites originating in a country with a high level of church-going and Christian knowledge may instinctively be written at X4 level. They may reach seekers and once-churched people successfully, but will not reach the non-churched.
Description:Uses X4 style to explain Christianity to a target religious group. May attempt to modify or contextualize language and may be confrontational or critical. (R in the code denotes Religion.)
Comments: Upfront X4R debate-style or comparison sites may work well with debaters in the target group.
Description: Target audience is non-Christian. Assumes visitors have limited Christian understanding. Gospel presented in relevant terms and minimal jargon. Unlikely to use Christian graphics. Will probably use Bridge Strategy to draw visitors, identify with interests and address felt needs. Additional communication barriers may be broken by writing in the heart language of the audience.
Comments: X5 sites work hard to understand and accommodate how non-Christians think, and how to bypass or defuse their misconceptions or hostility. It is possible to write a church site at X5 level, but very few do this.
Type: X5R Subset
Description: Uses X5 style to explain Christianity to a target religious group. Considerable contextualized language and identification with target group’s religious concepts.
Comments: X5R sites can add Bridge Strategy gateway pages on cultural, general interest and felt need topics.
Description: Target audience is strongly non-Christian. Assumes visitors have no prior Christian knowledge, and may be indifferent or hostile to the Christian message. Gospel presented in highly-contextualized or creative terms, with a non-formulaic, non-Western style. Homepage of site may give little clue as to its Christian nature. Probably uses Bridge Strategy to draw visitors and identify with their interests and needs. May target specific affinity groups.
Commments: X6 sites aim to identify with the visitor’s current interests and lack of spiritual understanding, if possible, in their heart language. Can target affinity groups by occupation, ethnicity, hobby or interest, popular culture, felt need, humor and other subjects.
Type: X6R Subset
Description: Uses X6 style to target a religious group. High degree of contextualization, using religious words and concepts from the target group, in preference to Christian words. Seeks to identify with, and build upon, elements of truth within the target group’s beliefs and scriptures, and demonstrate their true fulfillment within the full revelation of Jesus. May use a progressive “layered approach” with few clues as to Christian content on the homepage.
Comments:X6R sites are at the creative end of the spectrum in targeting other religions. May be seen as controversial, yet can identify with individuals within other religions who would not consider visiting an overtly Christian site. X6R sites can also use Bridge Strategy pages to draw people in to the rest of the site.
Tony Whittaker is editor of the Web Evangelism Guide and accompanying twice-monthly newsletter, Web Evangelism Bulletin. He is part of SOON Ministries (a branch of WEC International) which produces outreach literature in English, French, Fula, African-Portuguese and Swahili.
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