You’re Already Doing Internet Evangelism, so Do It Well: An Interview with Tony Whittaker
If you’re a Christian and you’re online, you’re engaging in Internet evangelism. For some, this may be an inconvenient truth. But if we are honest with ourselves, regardless of how explicitly Christian the content is that we share, our online activity—pages we Like, photos we Instagram, articles we tweet, and all other interests, opinions, and personal details we make publicly available—is a depiction of our lives in Christ and serves as a witness. While some Christian netizens are more intentional in their efforts to use their digital reach as a mission field, it is always worthwhile to be mindful of how we are presenting our virtual selves. Undoubtedly, we’ve seen both the best and worst of Internet evangelism: the Christian friend who likes and shares every picture asking others to like and share if they love Jesus, and the Christian friend who—amidst church service check-ins and daily Bible verse posts—quietly pops up on the Facebook ticker for having “liked” Hooters, Waterbabies Bikinis, and The Girls Next Door all in the same ten-second period. The point is—and it probably won’t take too much to convince you—our online behavior matters for evangelism.
Tony Whittaker, coordinator of Internet Evangelism Day—which was celebrated for the first time this year on June 1—suggests that it matters even more than we might think. The Internet offers the potential for the Gospel to reach nearly every inch of the globe with just a click. And, as sharing your voice online requires no credentials or institutional or financial backing, every one of us has no excuses and no roadblocks from sharing the Gospel in as effective and purposeful a way as possible.
Internet Evangelism Day was inaugurated by the Internet Evangelism Coalition, an umbrella group of evangelical Christian groups, including the American Tract Society, the Billy Graham Center, CRU, Christianity Today, and a variety of others. It was created to draw international attention to the potential of the Internet for evangelism and to offer information and strategies on how we might better improve our online witness.
I had the opportunity to interview Tony Whittaker about the first Internet Evangelism Day. His answers were helpful and, in some cases, surprising. His honesty about the challenges of getting Christians involved with Internet Evangelism Day is refreshing, as are the examples he provides of fascinating and wonderfully successful work that is being done online. His words will hopefully direct us to determining and working better at our own contributions to digital ministry.
How did IE day go this year? Tell us a little bit about the highlights, challenges, and your role in the event.
When IE Day started (i.e., in 2005) it was all so new, and people had time to give feedback. In fact, I actually asked people to register an interest, and then after the event, say what they’d done in their church! And got some good encouraging stories. Well, that tailed off to almost nothing over the years. I think it was as much for the reason that people don’t have the time or inclination to give feedback, as that no churches were doing anything. I gave up asking, in the bulletin or elsewhere, for people to share any good stories. A couple of times, several years back, I had the time to put together a package of genuinely free ebooks for people to download on or around IE Day, and the first time that went particularly well, I was able to track the approaching 1,000 downloads for at least two of the titles. Unless you have a specific measurable metric like this you can quantify, it is hard to know what people may actually be doing on the ground. Or to what extent just having a focus day increases profile for individuals to find out more. In principle, having a specific focus day is a probably still a good strategy. In fact, as it happens this month, there were effectively 4 focus days, sort of: 1 June was IE Day; 8 June was when www.yesheis.com asked everyone to Thunderclap-distribute their evangelistic video short on social media; 29 June has been designated by one group Social Media Sunday; and 14 June was designated Global Outreach Day, more of a face-to-face emphasis, but digital also included. June 12 was also the day that Indigitous asked people to Thunderclap their World Cup video, which was the day of the first World Cup match….[T]here certainly is a challenge—in that it is harder and harder to get your voice heard in a noisier and noisier digital world. There was a time when much less was happening, and digital evangelism advocacy was not addressed very much by others. IE Day would get blogged about by many other people. Now, there are many teams, voices, advocates, sharing the potential in various ways. For instance www.internetoolboxforchurches.com is a vital source of wisdom on making church websites, and church social media strategy, outsider-friendly. And social media is increasingly being seen as an integral part of church communications. www.mobileministryforum.org and mobileadvance.org are advocating for mobile phone ministry especially in the majority world.
How has IE day changed (in terms of focus, methods, goals, etc.) since its inception, and where do you see it heading in future years?
Well, before IE Day, I produced the Web Evangelism Guide. Essentially, I migrated and merged and updated that information into the IE Day site, once the concept of an annual focus day had been settled….The focus back then, and since, has really been in part as a news portal—to point to various options that are available to Christians, churches, and ministries, where possible to share specific stories, and to point to as many third-party resources that will also help. Latterly, as you know—and thank you for your reviews—these third-party resources have included books. These have all been shared through the newsletter, blog, and social media. It has also involved education about what the web is really like as a medium, why/how it differs from other mediums, and should therefore be used differently. Of course, as digital options have multiplied—blogs, social media, and video shorts, along with mobiles—the options have changed and developed. Mobile ownership across the world is now quite incredible, and the opportunities in the majority world are quite remarkable. The YouVersion app and the multiple languages now available free is remarkable. The potential for apps and mobile-related software is huge and just beginning to be used. Where IE Day is heading is the big question. Maybe you have ideas! With other voices and resources around, is there still a need? Where are the gaps? Do I just continue to try and be a maven—pointing to things I think will help someone, somewhere. Of course, if this wasn’t just me, doing it part time, but was several of us with a budget, things could look very different.
In terms of Internet Evangelism more broadly, why do you feel that this type of ministry deserves special attention and focus? Besides the medium of choice, how is Internet Evangelism unique?
The unique thing about digital, especially for people with mobile phones, is that it is available 24/7. And digital is largely a relational tool rather than a static preaching platform. People who see it as just another way to preach are limiting its potential effectiveness for themselves. Digital can be a standalone sort of ministry, unlimited by geographical location, or else it can leverage an existing face-to-face ministry (e.g., that of a local church). It can work on many levels. So an inquirer can do a Google search and find an evangelistic presentation site such as www.powertochange.com and will ideally get linked up with a trained volunteer mentor who will answer their questions. This is, I guess, roughly equivalent to an attractional strategy that a church might use—come and see. It may or may not attract them directly with spiritual answers, or indirectly through help with life issues. But equally strategic, maybe more so, is the relational opportunity that social media provide. Missional, if you will. Research shows that most lasting adult conversions result from a period of 2+ years in which the most significant factor is a relationship with a Jesus-follower. Because if (and it is a big if), a Jesus follower has numerous not-yet-followers as Facebook friends (or Twitter/other social media followers) and another if (and also a big if) that person is aware that social media is not a platform to preach at people, but a cafe for conversation, then it becomes possible to share faith naturally from time to time, especially by posting occasional links, or, often better, video shorts. If these posts posit questions, elicit discussion, rather than stating answers, so much the better. For that is exactly what Jesus did, often leaving the meanings of stories hanging, for people to think about, and ask about. And the ability to post video shorts is also very significant, because visual stories are usually much more memorable than paragraphs of text. And genuine short stories (as compared with preaching-head presentations) are also much more likely to be effective. We are now in a digital communication era, where storytelling, visual, video, discussion, interaction are vital. We have left behind the print communication culture where communication tended to be one-way, left-brain and codified, often consumed by the individual alone. Social media, video shorts, and mobile phones (on which social media is most frequently used) can be said to make up a significant and strategic threefold cord, reflecting Ecclesiastes 4:12. You can easily conceive of the situation in a local community whereby if a majority of Christians living there have Facebook and other social media accounts, and are outgoing people with FB friends who are not also Christians, then you could very possibly have a situation where a very significant and large percentage of town may be FB friends with a Jesus-follower.
For those of us who’d like to use our own spheres of personal online influence for evangelism, do you have any tips? Are there any “mistakes” you see being regularly made that we might be able to avoid?
1. Faith tends to follow relationships. We take more account of things our friends think and say, than total strangers. IF those friends aren’t always preaching at us. IF those friends are genuine friends who accept us as we are. IF those friends are not just choosing us as as a project.
2. Storytelling trumps most things, because it is so memorable. When someone says, “May I tell you a story?”, it pulls a switch in our brains. This is one of the points made in the excellent book Made to Stick—have you seen it? Discussion about themes in movies and tv shows is also connecting with storytelling.
3. Likewise, visual imagery, specially a video short, is more likely to be effective than text.
4. It was a British comedian who commented that, “If you can fake sincerity, you’ve got it made [as a comedian].” Of course, most people have a very sharp nose for insincerity, cant, and general prejudice. I think it is remarkable how much we can tell about someone else, just by the way they string a few words together in a Facebook or even Twitter post.
5. I guess there are many mistakes we all make, and they’d include on social media:
- Using Christian jargon when something could have been expressed much more clearly in neutral language.
- Discussing controversial social or political questions on a Facebook page (or other social media forum) where many of the participants are not Jesus-followers. We are not, somehow, being unfaithful to God’s truth by not entering a dog into every fight. Many Christians find it hard to perceive that we are no longer living in Christendom—a society which acknowledged at some level the primacy of Christian belief, even if it practiced a fairly sub-Christian form of civic religion. So they continue to feel they have a sense of entitlement to try and hold onto Christendom. In reality, in most parts of the west, we are in a post-Christendom, secular, and multicultural society. As Ed Stetzer put it recently, in asking different SB leaders, do we perceive ourselves as living in Jerusalem or Babylon. Because if we realize we are in Babylon, the way we do almost everything, not least online, will be radically different.
- Not being transparent, not admitting to failings, being (in the original meaning of the Greek word) a hypocrite (i.e., someone acting a part).
- Giving answers when it would have been better to ask questions.
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