How Technology Is Changing, or Should Change, the Way the Gospel Is Shared

The German theologian Helmut Thielicke once commented, “The Gospel must be constantly forwarded to a new address because its recipient is repeatedly changing his place of residence.”1 This is a very challenging yet true observation about the nature of mission and evangelism.

One of the most significant Christian books of our era is Philip Jenkins’ The Next Christendom: The Coming of Global Christianity.2 Jenkins quotes Philip Yancey, who notes that:

As I travel, I have observed a pattern, a strange historical phenomenon of God “moving” geographically from the Middle East to Europe to North America to the developing world. My theory is this: God goes where he’s wanted.3

There is no doubt that the geographical movement of Christianity throughout history has radically changed the manner in which the gospel is shared—from its birth in Israel among disenfranchised Jewish peasants; to a state-sanctioned religion under the emperor Constantine; through Europe and the Reformation; taking a detour via the dominance of media and mega-church-driven North American Christianity of our recent history; to where Christianity seems to be finding its place among African, Asian, and South American believers. Each new context presents challenges and opportunities for the gospel and the faith.

The Next Shift in Global Christianity
But what if the next shift in Christendom is not merely a geographical shift, but in fact a shift into cyberspace—a movement of a completely different kind?

Let me qualify what I am suggesting. Yancey and Jenkins have suggested that Christianity is dominant where the Christian population is most present (numerically) and most influential. This shift can be traced throughout history as different people in different places (geographical locations) have gathered in communities of influence to develop the theology and strategy for sharing the gospel.

However, what if the next major gathering of believers is not bound to a single geographical location, but rather is characterized as some form of scattered “gathering”—a means of drawing together across geographical boundaries with a common mind and purpose? Up to fairly recently, such a shift was not possible.

The limits of effective communication in order to share ideas, create community, and develop influence were simply not possible via single direction broadcast mediums (written letters, messengers, even faxes and telegraphs). However, with the advent of fast, reliable, and pervasive communication technologies, the possibilities for communication and connection are changing. The globe is smaller!

Consider this amazing little fact—at the time of writing this article, the Internet social media website Facebook had just passed the 400 million user mark. If one were to compare the users of Facebook to the populations of countries across the world, you may be surprised to discover that Facebook has the third largest population in the world (bigger than the United States, Indonesia, and Brazil).4 If Facebook continues to grow at its current rate, it will soon be one of the most populace communities in the world.

That is significant! How many ministries and churches are taking this “scattered community” seriously? Are we sending the message of the gospel to places from which the recipients have already moved?

The Relationship between Technology, Evangelism, and the Apostles
For some years I used to teach an introductory course on the New Testament at the University of Pretoria. At the start of the year I would often ask the students, “Who was the most prominent apostle in the New Testament?” Theological critique aside, most of the students would reply, “Paul.” When I asked them why they thought this, their reasoning was most often because Paul wrote two-thirds of the letters and epistles in the New Testament.

Of course, it is historically and theologically more accurate to point out that Peter was the most prominent apostle; after all, it is upon Peter that Christ founded the Church (Matthew 16:18). However, there is little doubt that history has given Paul and his ministry a special place in Christendom.

Simply stated, Paul understood and used the dominant technology of his time (letter writing), and through this, his ministry has left a lasting legacy and impact. What this illustration suggests is that language and the medium of communication are as important as location of those with whom we wish to communicate. If you send a letter written in English to a village in Africa where the only person who can read has moved on, it doesn’t matter how eloquent the letter is, its effect will have been lost!

I would contend that the Internet and social media on the Internet are the most important communication (and community forming) technologies of our time. Not only are new media technologies like Facebook and Twitter giving us some indication of the location of the world’s population, they are also giving us an indication of the language this new location requires.

The New Language for the New Location
It is important to remember that geography is playing less of a formative role in the identity of emerging generations—for example, in South Africa there are many English-speaking children who have adopted American accents since their primary exposure to the English language comes through American cartoons and sitcoms, and of course YouTube. It is not strange to find African, European, and even Asian teenagers who have more in common with the youth of California than their native context. Media has an increasingly dominant role in the formation of cultural identity—such identity is no longer primarily dictated by geographic boundaries.

Thus, simply knowing the location of the population5 is not enough for truly effective evangelism and missions. We need to “listen” to the emerging language these platforms are generating. Just as earlier shifts in the gospel (from Jerusalem, to Rome, to England, to America) required a change in language, so this new shift will require the emergence of a new language through which the gospel is communicated. Below are some of the lessons we are learning from social networking tools and platforms.

  • Text remains an important form of communication. However, long-form text (books and articles) is much less effective than short-form text. For example, Twitter allows only 140 characters of text to be posted. Status updates on Facebook are seldom longer than one or two short sentences. The intention of textual communication is changing. Whereas text has always been used primarily as a means of communicating facts (i.e., statistics, ideas, findings, experiences), social networking is showing us that text is transformed from a broadcast medium (i.e., communicating facts) to a mechanism to solicit interaction. This leads to the next important linguistic shift that the new online location is showing.

  • Community is more important that communication. The average user on Facebook is connected to 130 persons. This allows for a far greater reach than was possible in previous generations. Only one hundred years ago the majority of the world’s population would not have had significant contact with a person in a different city or town, let alone a person on a different continent. Today such contacts are common.
  • There is a shift from data to wisdom. According to the “shift happens” team, there are thirty-one billion searches on www.google.com every month. In 2006, there were only 2.7 billion searches. It is estimated that a week’s worth of the New York Times newspaper contains more information than a person would come across in their whole lifetime in the eighteenth century.6 Data and information are no longer a commodity in a world where persons can find facts on the Internet. This has led to development of knowledge engines such as “Wolfram Alpha,” which takes information and applies complex computational processes to extract knowledge.7

In a more organic way, we have seen aggregated search results (such as “trending topics” on Twitter) become a valuable commodity for people to sift through the overabundance of data that is available. Social networking is showing that persons value trusted sources, authoritative voices, and services that can help them find what is necessary and valuable.

Concluding Thoughts
There are many other important things that can be learned from social media and social networking.8 However, it is my hope that these few insights would stimulate some thought around the “language” churches and ministry groups use to engage people with the unchanging and ever-powerful gospel of Christ.

Christians, and the Church, in every age have to make some necessary shifts in order to effectively communicate the gospel to a moving population. Just as Paul’s letters transformed and built the early Church, and the Guttenberg Press transformed the Church around the time of the Reformation, so I believe the Internet, and particularly social media, is challenging us to transform the way in which we engage the world with the love of Jesus.

Endnotes

1. 2007. In Mission Shaped Youth: Rethinking Young People and the Church. Eds. Tim Sudworth, Graham Cray, and Chris Russell. London: Church House Publishing, 11.

2. 2002. The Next Christendom: The Coming of Global Christianity. Oxford. Oxford University Press.

3. Ibid, 15.

4. See http://econsultancy.com/blog/5324-20+-mind-blowing-social-media-statistics-revisited for the number of registered users on Facebook as of 9 April 2010. For more up-to-date statistics on registered Facebook users, see www.facebook.com/press/info.php?statistics. Compare this to the population size of countries across the world at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_countries_by_population; also see this older article on the size of Facebook in relation to population numbers in various countries across the world www.readwriteweb.com/archives/how_big_is_facebook.php.

5. Statistics on user numbers for various popular social networking and new media platforms: Facebook (over 400 million users), Twitter (75 million user), and Linkedin (50 million users). See http://econsultancy.com/blog/5324-20+-mind-blowing-social-media-statistics-revisited and www.facebook.com/press/info.php?statistics.

6. http://theinspirationroom.com/daily/2009/shift-happens-updated-in-did-you-know-4-0/

7. See www.dionforster.com/blog/2009/7/13/moving-from-information-to-knowledge.html and www.dionforster.com/blog/2009/7/14/sustainable-economies-world-resources-and-wolframalpha.html for a brief discussion on this tool.

8. I have discussed the application of social media and social networking tools for ministry here: www.dionforster.com/blog/2009/10/27/a-superb-video-how-the-world-is-changing-new-media-and-minis.html and here www.dionforster.com/blog/2009/9/6/using-media-in-ministry-redux-facebook-twitter-blogs-youtube.html.


Dr. Dion Angus Forster is a minister and academic. He is the former dean of John Wesley College, the seminary of the Methodist Church of southern Africa, and a research associate and lecturer in systematic theology at the University of Stellenbosch (BUVTON). Forster serves as a chaplain to the Global Day of Prayer and the Power Group of companies in Cape Town, South Africa. His most recent book on ministry in the workplace is entitled Transform Your Work Life: Turn Your Ordinary Day into an Extraordinary Calling (Struik Christian Books, 2010).