Contextualizing Cyberspace – Missiology Still Matters When it Comes to Cybermissions and Internet Evangelism

[Cybermissions: The intentional front-line cross-cultural use of computers and the Internet to facilitate the Great Commission.]

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The Internet is being used worldwide to spread the gospel.

Search engines such as Google, Yahoo and MSN can help hundreds of millions of people who are interested in searching for faith to find the gospel. In fact, “God” is one of the top online search terms. For the first time in human history someone sitting at home can type in a spiritual query in their own language, (sixty percent of Google's searches are already in languages other than English) and be guided to an answer—if one is readily available online. The goal of cybermissions is to be there when these seekers ask questions and to lead them to faith and to integration in a local body of believers.

I have witnessed four phases of Internet evangelism since I first went online in 1991:

  1. Eccentric – (early 1990s) Newsgroups, bulletin boards and online “flame wars” between Christians and atheists were common.

  2. Enthusiastic – (mid 1990s) Online tracts with a gospel outline and a response form were available, but these were overwhelmingly in English.
  3. Evangelistic – (late 1990s to present) Online tracts with snippets of audio and video and testimonies and links to items of interest to Western non-Christians are available. These same post-modern, Western-oriented websites are translated into various major languages in an effort to “reach the world for Jesus.”
  4. Ethnically Aware – (2005 into the future) Indigenous missionaries and experienced Western missionaries combine to do highly contextualized and appropriate websites in their own languages and cultures without any corresponding English language website being established. These websites then link with on-the-ground efforts by those same agencies. The Western missionary may act as a technical and strategic adviser, but the design is done by national Christians who know that culture and its nuances.

The first three phases were good in their time and place but they occurred with little or no reference to modern missiological insights. Internet evangelists and cybermissionaries are beginning to understand the importance of learning language, culture and contextualization. Thus it is this last Ethnically Aware phase that is the true future of cybermissions.

This article will take a brief look at why mission agencies should be involved in Internet Evangelism (IE), how IE can be done and some of the ways that modern missiological insights can be applied to this field.

Why Missions Agencies Should Be Involved In Internet Evangelism
There are over one billion people online from nearly every country and from every unreached people group. According to a Pew Internet Survey, between twenty-five and forty percent of those people regularly search for religious topics online. The gospel has its own power and people can be converted simply by reading a Bible, browsing a tract or scanning a webpage. If missions is about spreading the message of the gospel, then cyberspace must be considered as a strategy.

If done properly, IE allows for very high levels of anonymity for both the missionary and the convert and is much safer than many conventional approaches. When people want to ask a private question, they go online. Questions that are embarrassing to ask in public (whether involving medicine, sexuality, politics or religion) will indeed be asked online. People with exploratory questions about Christianity will often first search online and missions agencies need to be there to respond.

Cybermissions allows for extensive use of volunteers and of people whose health does not permit them to be “on the field.” Some of these may indeed be highly effective cybermissionaries—such as nationals now living in the West or retired missionaries who have a deep knowledge of the language and culture but have come home for the education of their children or other factors.

With modern work-flow software, cybermissionaries can be seamlessly integrated with conventional missionary efforts—making for some very constructive synergies. Most indigenous missions movements have a substantial number of highly-qualified Christian Information Technology (IT) personnel who are not yet fully employed in that nation's IT sector. For instance, a Filipino Christian computer scientist can do excellent work for around US$300 a month. Outsourcing cybermissions-related IT work to indigenous Christian movements both strengthens those movements while also lowering costs for the mission agencies.

How Can We Do Cybermissions?
Many of the traditional missionary activities such as sharing the gospel, counseling, follow-up and training can be done online. Web pages can give a basic gospel outline and have a form attached allowing email feedback from the reader. This can be done anonymously if required. Follow-up lessons can be put online and forums and e-groups can be created for discussions between the missionary and any converts. With broadband becoming ever more available, audio and video feeds and Internet telephony are now possible. This further increases the possibilities for outreach. MP3 files of sermons and radio programs can be “podcast” to anyone with a computer.

Training of leadership can be done via an online Bible school or through CDs, VCDs and DVDs of material sent to them and played on their computers. Increasingly common, digital projector technology allows larger churches to train large groups via an Internet-connected laptop linked to an LCD projector. In Japan, with large numbers of Internet-enabled cell phones, training can be personally delivered via the leader's cell phone. (For more information on this, visit  http://cybermissions.org/articles/cybermissions.htm)

All this can occur while the missionary is safely asleep in another country, and the server is in yet another secure location. Email's asynchronous nature enables queries to be answered at a convenient time, and from anywhere in the world.

Each different people group will have different IT needs; some may have very little Internet connectivity, while others, such as those in China, have over one hundred million users online. The online outreach needs to be appropriate to the bandwidth and computer resources available to the target people group. If a people group has five thousand or more people connected to the Internet, cybermissions should be considered as a possible strategy, particularly if that people group is closed to traditional missionary approaches. (A list of the forty-three most suitable nations for a cybermissions approach can be found at: http://cybermissions.org/articles/cybermissions_target_nations.htm)

Cybermissions easily lends itself to tent-making because of the demand for IT services in most developing nations. A group of indigenous missionaries can be given recycled computers and set up to run an Internet cafe in an unreached people group. The Internet cafe provides revenue for the missions team, who then use the icafe as a community contact point for friendship evangelism. (More details on this approach can be found at: http://cybermissions.org/icafe/)

The response rate for online evangelism is about one decision per fifty page visits. This is about the same or higher than for traditional “crusade” evangelism. This is due to the fact that people tend to only go to websites when they have some existing curiosity about the material and have either clicked on a link or entered a query into a search engine. Alan Beeber from Campus Crusade for Christ International (CCCI) often says that CCCI will soon see more conversions online than by all other methods of CCCI evangelism combined. If open source software is used and a good pool of volunteers is created, IE is also extremely cost-effective, often at under US$10 per online decision for Christ.

Missiology Still Matters
Technology does not replace missiology and cybermissionaries still have to learn the language and the culture and still need to contextualize their message to the target audience.

We need to trust the emerging Church in the developing world and the highly-capable indigenous missionaries that it is producing (and the incredible IT talent that can be found everywhere from Bangalore to Botswana). The national believers know God, know computers and know the language and culture of their target groups and we need to advise them, fund them and then get out of the way!  For US$1,500 a month, a small team of three highly-trained, professional, national cybermissionaries can be fully funded. This includes software and hosting costs.

We cannot throw away the gains of missionary communication theory and the debates on contextualization by having Western websites simply translated into Chinese or Kiswahili and put online! The goal of missionary practice is to develop a culturally-sensitive, self-replicating, indigenous church and our cybermissions strategies should reflect this.

Cybermissionaries should be connected to the local church and be able to address deep worldview cultural issues such as spiritism, polygamy, shame and face, HIV/AIDS and the extended family. They should also be able to connect as cyber pen-pals and mentors, sharing the deep heartaches of those who come online and often share amazingly personal information with complete strangers. This requires genuine cultural affinity and the resources of local believers who know the language and culture.

Western website design criteria may be entirely inappropriate in another culture. Chinese like their websites to be very cluttered and visually active; Filipinos often distrust the color blue; and some groups dislike certain graphic images like playing cards. Images of attractive casually-dressed young Christian women that are acceptable in the West can actually be offensive in many cultures. Thus a cybermissions team has to design a unique website for each target group and list it in Google (or on a local search engine in, say, Mongolia) with corresponding tightly-targeted keywords. This requires an enormous amount of careful thinking and frequent website redesign and improvement. This is best done by a team of cybermissionaries who are familiar with the culture (though they may live in another country).

The question always comes up about how online contacts can join a local body of believers. The clearest answer to this question comes from the phenomenon of online dating which clearly proves that relationships begun online can turn into serious life commitments in the real world! Online contact merges into offline reality quite easily, especially now that search engines include the ability to do “local” searches. According to Tony Whittaker, postmodern churches see as many as eighty percent of their Sunday visitors come via a “first contact” at the church website (http://ied.gospelcom.net/). However, there are some very important questions that need to be explored about online ecclesiology and the nature of online support groups, e-groups and bulletin boards and whether cyber-church exists and whether it can successfully nurture home churches and secret believers.

In the developing world, computers are now viewed as a natural part of youth and professional culture and represent positive values such as prosperity, education and opportunity. In these nations, human aspirations and the Internet are closely connected. If we can use this moment to reach out to people who are preparing to change and who are seeking God online then we can reap a harvest of souls. But we must do it in line with missionary best practice, trusting the local believers and creating culturally-sensitive, deeply-contextualized and thought-through cyber-outreaches that create a truly independent and strong indigenous church.  


John Edmiston is chairman and CEO of the Asian Internet Bible Institute and www.Cybermissions.org.