In the 21st century the first touch is nearly always a digital touch.
Long before most people ever meet an evangelical Christian they have heard about evangelicals in the media, seen their gospel Facebook posts, got their earnest emails, downloaded their crossover music and stumbled across their Christian websites. We evangelicals are sometimes present to them digitally, even if we do not know them personally.
Before someone attends your church they will check out your church website. Before they attend the Crusade they will accept the Facebook invitation and watch the brief video. Before they enroll their children in a Christian school they will look at peer reviews of the school online. The validity of your entire ministry (in the public eye) depends on the skill of your digital communication.
The unreached come with many cultural assumptions and very little accurate information. For them digital information is frequently the only information. They can only trust you on the basis of what they know; and what they know is what they find out about you on the Internet, TV, YouTube, Facebook, Twitter and local social media.
Many of the unreached live in urban areas and even in mega-cities surrounded by digital technology.Cybermissions will not reach every unreached person, however it can influence a decent percentage and we should use it in those areas where it will work.
THE FOUR GUIDING LIGHTS
The following four observations guide most of my work in digital ministry:
- Information Is Digital (all pure information can be put into digital formats)
- Impartation Is Spiritual (communion, baptism, the laying on of hands, prayer etc.)
- Formation is Personal (discipleship, mentoring, iron sharpening iron)
- Transformation Is Communal (flows from Spirit-filled communities of grace)
Having the correct Information is critical to all the others: accurate Scriptures, right doctrine, good bible-teaching, training, counsel and pastoral care. Much of this can be facilitated via the Internet and via digital distribution technologies such as SD cards or a BibleBox.
Impartation is a much more personal thing. It is obviously less desirable to serve communion online than face-to-face. Baptism cannot be done with pixels alone. There is much to be said for the laying on of hands and for prayer in loving community. However digital invitations to physical realities can be part of getting people to be included in such events.
Personal Formation tends to naturally be a blended mix of face-to-face meetings, phone calls, texts, Skype, emails and Facebook posts among others. We normally know which avenue to use. With some people I disciple I might meet personally only once every few months and use digital means in-between times because one or the other of us is on the road.
Transformation flows from Spirit-filled communities of grace and these can be digital, local or a blend of both. Quite a few conferences such as ICCM (International Conference of Computing and missions) meet annually and have frequent email exchanges in egroups and mailing lists in-between. Some Facebook groups have become specialized places of healing and refuge with prayer for all the members in times of need. The more specialized the group, and the more dispersed its members, the more likely that electronic community will be a good option.
This applies very much to the unreached, who can be a specialized sub-group, a dispersed sub-group or a group that cannot easily meet openly for fear of persecution.
Cybermissions can deliver information in huge quantities and also help facilitate impartation, formation and transformation through creative uses of digital communities. I recently taught a subject on Technology, Addiction and Life-Balance and was astonished at how readily the students bonded in the forums and how they were able to share details of life struggles. Quite a few students reported major life-change as a result of the assignments that got them to examine their personal use of the Internet and of media in their life. All this took place on an e-learning platform known as Moodle.
Most of the time we are not talking to robots online but to real people, with real spiritual needs. We are emailing, chatting with and encountering real people who are in search of the grace of God that is found in Jesus Christ our Savior. That means that the digital touch can be a real touch, a transformational moment in someone’s life.
THE DIGITAL PATHWAY VS. THE SOCIAL PATHWAY
The path from knowing absolutely nothing about the gospel, to being able to make an informed decision to follow Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior, is at least in part, a digital pathway. It might include the Jesus Film, a radio broadcast, a few texts and an article on a Christian website.
People make their socially risky searches online, and conversion is socially risky. Whether the socially risky search is for pornography, or for personal medical information, or for religious information, they open up a new incognito search tab and head to Google. The search for God often has a digital first step with a few words typed into a rectangular box on Google.
Seekers want a highly anonymous, private and expeditious digital pathway between their religious question and the right divine answer. This is especially true for seekers from UPGs who may face social ostracism, or worse.
The social pathway, which involve asking questions of people, talking to people and being discipled by people, is the traditional pathway. This pathway “needs a cross-cultural missionary if people are to hear”. But this method has a whole bunch of problems: a) missionaries are hard for all the seekers to find b) the missionaries are surrounded by existing believers with high needs c) the missionaries are culturally distant d) interacting with the missionaries is an action that can easily be socially observed and thus create tension.
The digital pathway is much easier for the unreached enquirer. It is instant, it is always available, it can be hidden (albeit with some effort), and it doesn’t involve joining a new social group. They can safely and conveniently learn about Christ and the Bible online and then join a church or cell group at a time of their own choosing.
This digital pathway is seen by some as inferior or even as totally invalid; as if a decision for Christ made while browsing a web page is far less “real” than the traditional one where the penitent sinner walks the sawdust trail at the tent meeting.
However, faith comes by hearing and hearing by the word of Christ and it does not matter whether that word of Christ comes via radio, TV, a book, a tract or via a web page or bible app on a mobile phone.
Salvation is not by the institutional church and its rituals alone. God also calls the outliers such as Abraham or the Ethiopian eunuch. People drawn by a sudden message in the middle of the desert.
The digital pathway is for the dispersed. It is for the scattered flock. For the lost, for the hurting, for those who cannot take another church service, and for those who have no church service in their area. The digital pathway is a very valid pathway for the unreached.
When I went to the jungles of Papua New Guinea as a young missionary in the early 1980’s we still paddled canoes, lived in compounds, had kerosene refrigerators and communicated via single-sideband high frequency radio. You had to be tough, you had to know how to fix things and you had to take risks with tropical diseases. All for a bible class of say twenty national pastors.
Today Cybermissions and its partner organization Harvestime International Network between them see about 1.2 million Christian lay leaders and pastors doing bible, ministry and church-planting training (mostly part-time) through Internet downloads, ebooks and online courses while also supplying curriculum (in 12 major languages) for thousands of church-run ministry training centers.
The cost of distributing the ebooks and courses is minimal, about five cents per student per annum. Admittedly, it is way less glamorous than landing on the airstrip at Mt. Bosavi in a tiny MAF Cessna and we do not feel like “real missionaries” as we are living in Los Angeles and Fresno California (though travelling extensively).
This takes us back to the initial four guiding lights of: Information, Impartation, Formation and Transformation.
The digital missionary does best at the Information part of the equation. It is easy for us to supply material which can be downloaded and distributed. The jungle bible college was much better at Impartation and personal Formation.
However, as a young foreign missionary on the field I quickly learned that I was limited to how deeply I could do impartation and formation. The national senior pastors were much more effective at these aspects with the bible students.
This leads to a blended strategy where the Internet ministry supplies the information, and local leadership do the impartation and formation, which leads to the development of a transformational community that impacts the culture. This blended model is the aim of both Cybermissions and Harvestime and we encourage people to teach our freely provided materials face-to-face in local churches, prisons and bible colleges for maximum impact.
So the digital missionary often exists in active cooperation with other ministries. This is where Phil Butler’s partnership ideas in Well Connected and other books are critical. We each bring to the table our key skills and then partner with a vast array of other ministries to reach the unreached.
The digital missionary has an additional skillset, not an entirely different skillset. They should still have bible college, and they should still be gifted cross-cultural communicators. They should also understand five additional areas:
- Appropriate web technologies and mobile apps
- Search engine optimization
- Content creation (in their preferred area)
- Basic computer hardware and especially what it will and will not do.
- Basic project planning esp. workflow, SWOT analysis and requirements statements
Most of this can be mastered with around six months of intensive training on a web tutorial site such as Lynda.com and will be like the “language learning” phase that most field missionaries go through. So digital missionaries are not short-term missionaries, though short-termers may be able to do a few specific digital tasks such as video editing.
Generally digital missionaries will need a good computer, internet access and high-end software such as the Adobe Creative Cloud suite. Time and quality issues make the investment in good software very worthwhile.
Other equipment will vary on the project. I find for smaller video projects such as “talking head” training videos a $300.00 Canon Vixia camcorder is quite sufficient and will take an audio input. Quite adequate sound gear can be bought online at sites such as musciansfriend.com and technical colleagues in missions can often show you how to set up a basic studio at an affordable cost.
Most digital ministry teams are small, between 1-6 people with some larger. On the whole, the larger the better, as it allows some to specialize. In some creative access areas you may need a full-time digital security person.
Your team has to suit your context. If your context is online learning in a bandwidth challenged area of Africa then a team based in San Francisco with high-end Apple devices producing high-bandwidth HD video is probably not optimal. The team should at least visit the field and have a deep understanding of the local challenges.
The constraints can often be severe and may include: bandwidth, security, finances, limited IT knowledge, harsh environments, rendering complex local language scripts, frequent power outages, internal politics over the project or its costs and equipment, and how technology is used among the target UPG.
The constraints need to be sourced from on-the ground local partners and listed at the outset as part of the project feasibility study and as part of a SWOT analysis (Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, Threats). Once they are listed then solutions may be found. Some rather idealistic projects some unglued because a failure to do this right at the beginning. This leads us straight into the next section on the contextualization of technology.
CONTEXTUALIZATION OF TECHNOLOGY
Contextualizing technology is the art of making your project workable and acceptable in the local environment with its unique constraints, beliefs, languages, social structures and its view of what is acceptable and unacceptable.
As John Dyer says “technology is never neutral”. Technology is a cultural artifact that is fitted into a person’s worldview, and which can even change that world-view. Books changed Europe, and TV changes many indigenous cultures. Missiologically speaking, technology needs to be “contextualized” so that Christ is made clear and any unnecessary offense is minimized. This is by no means obvious nor is it at all intuitive.
In 2001 I arrived in the Philippines carrying a Phillips Twist mobile phone that was seven years old and about half the size of a brick. My personal view of mobile phones was that they were ‘just a business tool’. I was a missionary, I didn’t spend money unnecessarily and I was quite happy with it. It would have worked in the Philippines as they used the same frequencies as Australia. I just wanted to change the SIM card. The Filipino salesman refused to sell me a SIM card. To him I was being socially shameful.
Not only that but all my Filipino friends all told me “John, you can’t use that old phone!” So I had to purchase a new Nokia phone that was considered socially acceptable in the Philippines. My good old faithful phone had become a cultural obstacle!
Any technology-in-missions project must be workable under local conditions, practical for folk to use without feeling awkward, and socially acceptable in that culture. In some locations we had to remove the game of Solitaire from Windows XP machines because card games were deemed offensive. And in privacy conscious cultures we had to set up screens around the computers.
Second-hand donated technology may be acceptable in a few places, however some contexts are deeply offended by it, and in yet others it is even considered as illegal dumping. So you have to have deep local knowledge BEFORE you even launch your project.
Since both technologies and cultures are changing rapidly there is simply no anthropology textbook that you can pick up and read and figure out instantly how to contextualize your website, app or computer center for people group X.
You and your team will have to do local on-the-ground research. Therefore I have compiled a list of possible survey questions that you might like to use to jump start the research process. Feel free to add questions of your own, these are merely a guide. You might also want to combine these questions with some qualitative research process such as participant observation. The questions need to be asked gently, respectfully and with a very open mind.
CONTEXTUALIZATION SURVEY QUESTIONS
“You” = the local population being surveyed “It” = the technology/project/software etc
- Will it (the technology you want to set up) work under these local conditions (voltage, dust, heat, power outages etc)?
- What activities would you use it for?
- Is it fun to use?
- Can you afford to use it? If so how often?
- How easy is it to for you to use? Is it confusing?
- What do you (the locals) think of its user interface?
- How does it work? (Testing what they think the technology does, you might be surprised!)
- What does it do? How does it function in this culture?
- What do other people here think about it?
- What do people here like? What makes them jump for joy? How can we incorporate that insight into this project?
- What do people here dislike? What makes them feel bad or annoyed? How can we avoid doing that in this project?
- Do you think that it will cause infertility or disease? (e.g. mobile phones being thought to cause brain tumors)
- Will it offend the deity, gods, or the religious leaders?
- How could it make things better?
- How could it make things worse?
- Does it need to be changed in some way? What do we need to be careful about?
- Tell me a story that you have heard about it.
- What sort of people here own it? (bad people, good people, only rich people etc)
- Who are the most likely people to use it? Men, women, children, students etc?
- Will people share it? How will they share it? Are there caste, clan or gender issues involved in sharing?
- How will it affect or facilitate social transactions and conversations?
- How will it affect or facilitate trade and financial transactions?
- Is there anything that annoys you or offends you about it?
- How does it make you feel?
- Is it socially acceptable for a person like you to own/use/be trained by it?
- Will it cause feelings of inequality, envy or resentment? Will it start fights?
- What social systems would use it? How will it integrate with village life, urban life, farming seasons etc.
PARTICIPANT OBSERVATION QUESTIONS
- How is it named, what is it called, what cultural categories does it fit in? (list of nouns)
- How is it described, what are its qualities? (list of adjectives)
- What are its functions? (list of verbs, adverbs and participles)
You may even discover that your project is not needed, or is not desired, will blow up under local conditions or even might be totally illegal and get you arrested. If so you have got some very useful information! You have saved a lot of money, and gained valuable time you can use to “go back to the drawing board” which you would eventually have had to do anyway.
Knowing that it won’t work in that particular location is not a defeat, nor is it a lack of faith. It is just God sending you to Macedonia instead of to Asia (Acts 16).
On the other hand if you do get the go ahead from your survey results then you have to be diligent to carry the project through to completion and that means working with a reliable, faithful and highly competent team of local Christians. Contextualizing technological solutions requires continual input from those who know the actual on-the-ground situation.
For instance in some cultures a large project may create a lot of envy and suspicion and hurt the church leaders in the area who are working with you because opponents of the gospel will be spreading spiteful rumors. In such a case every sensible person will tell you to start small. Listen to them!
WHO SHOULD BE ON YOUR LOCAL CONTEXTUALIZATION TEAM?
- Generally two or three very senior local Christian leaders who give their gravitas to the project and who can untangle major clashes with the community, these should be used sparingly as they are very busy people.
- Then you should have two of the best technical people you can find who know everything about what can and does go wrong in that area.
- Then you want some pastors and local businessmen who have their ear to the ground, and some workers who can make things happen. Businessmen will also know what people are prepared to pay if it is a business-as-mission project e.g. an Internet cafe.
- You may also require a translator or linguist and a local graphic artist.
One important point: do not have your graphic art done in the West. I learned this when consulting on websites in the Chinese context. The Chinese seem to like “noisy”, busy websites with many flashing icons. Only a Chinese graphic artist can understand the rules of Chinese website design!
So it is with every people group. The meaning of colors, pictures of people (esp. In Islamic contexts) how words are placed on a page and so on, is so varied that local input and local design is far and away the best choice (Even if you personally don’t like it!) Remember it is not about you it is about the clarity of the gospel.
Branding is another sensitive issue. Conspicuous branding is considered ostentatious and egotistical in many cultures. In Australia or England naming a ministry after yourself is a huge mistake and is only ever done by very “flaky” people. In Japan where self-effacement is a strong value one of the major retail companies there is called Muji which means “no brand” and they have a minimalist “no logo” policy. If there is considerable criticism of your image or brand then you may need to do a major rebranding exercise, or even have a no-brand policy.
Stay out of the way. Local contextualization, when done properly, greatly increases the feeling of community ownership which is key to participants caring about the technology project after you have gone home and back to the office. The more local input the better. The more that local input is listened to and appreciated, the better.
DIGITAL RESOURCES AND THE UNREACHED
Once the digital resource has been created and contextualized it then needs to be digitally distributed in ways appropriate to the community and to the security needs of the local pastors, missionaries and evangelists.
There are increasingly numerous ways of distributing transformational digital resources and they include: downloading them from a website on the Internet, social media sharing, filesharing via Torrent sites, using email attachments, including them in a mobile app, putting them on servers and bulletin boards, using flash media such as SD cards and USB drives, putting large collections of resources on portable hard drives, the use of kiosks, wireless hotspots, MP3 players, Bluetooth broadcasters and traditional digital media such as CDs and DVDs.
A good on-demand way of sharing a collection of digital resources such as tracts, ebooks and training materials is with a sequential email autoresponder such as Olam Autoresponder which will send out the resources by mail, at set intervals, to people who sign up.
The idea is to have a viral resource that can easily be transmitted between the devices that people own, without the need for giving them new technology. So the resource should be small enough to be easily passed around. Ebooks, PowerPoint presentations, and smaller audio files (less than (10MB) can be easily sent around by common technologies such as email and BlueTooth and readily downloaded from wireless broadcasters such as LightStream or the BibleBox..
Larger files ( such as a 4Gb video file) can be distributed on hard drives, USB flash drives and SD cards. These devices cost money and even though the financial barrier is minimal it still is a factor that reduces the viral nature of the resource in the UPG.
Many resources work better with a trained facilitator who explains the resource and its distribution method to key leaders. So the Jesus Film has facilitators that show the film and who help organize its distribution.
With training resources and bible courses (which are not as intuitive as just showing a film) the training of the facilitators may be the critical factor in ensuring the success of the resource distribution.
It is desirable to build a small movement around an excellent resource. When people get enthusiastic about something such as Super Book, the Jesus Film, the Way of Righteousness or a translation of the Scriptures then it is far more likely that a fruitful and established work will take place.
Building a movement around a digital resource may require a team with a passionate visionary motivator, conferences, training manuals and a method of building camaraderie and reinforcing positive results and feedback.
THE VALUE OF HAVING A SYSTEM
A management theory known as TQM (Total quality Management) tells us that the only way to achieve a consistently good result is with a good system. If you want a minimum of undesirable variance in output (whether you are washing dishes or landing a rocket on a comet) you require a consistent, repeatable, sustainable and workable system.
Good systems enable us to achieve the same good, desirable results (e.g. clean dishes) over and over again. So systems are essential to Cybermissions. The details are extremely important. It is very easy for technology-in-missions projects to fail and to waste a great deal of money if they are not thought through properly.
This is not to devalue the work of the Holy Spirit or the value of spontaneity is evangelism and discipleship. It is just that technology is, well, technical! You need to know both how it works and how to make it work for you rather than against you!
For instance, say you want a short video to go to all members of a UPG. You will have to sit down and work out how long it should be, what format it should be in, what language or sub-titling difficulties there may be, how many copies you will need to make, how you will distribute it digitally, and how you will distribute through people on the ground. This may seem like a lot of thinking but it can be done in just a few hours and will save you much grief later on.
You will need to have a planning person on your team who is familiar with concepts such as mind-mapping, SWOT analysis, critical pathway analysis, and designing project requirement statements.
The cost of failure can be high and include such things such as a major financial loss or even compromised team security. Cybermissions is certainly not for the badly organized.
SECURITY AND CYBERMISSIONS
Digital ministry has some major advantages and disadvantages when it comes to security. In some countries (e.g. North Korea) security is so pervasive that any electronic form of gospel witness would inevitably be discovered and place many persons at risk. In these areas digital ministry is simply not an option.
In other places digital ministry done from abroad can be a useful supplement when there are insufficient workers on the ground. For extra safety the workers abroad (say in the Philippines) should be completely separate from the workers on the ground (e.g. in the Middle East) and have no knowledge of their identity or exact location.
There are certain security procedures that greatly assist with security. Do not put personnel databases online or have them connected to the Internet in any way. Use hardened Linux servers with SELinux enforced. Use strong anti-malware and virus scanning and use intrusion detection software. Have strict password policies. Have definite rules about photographs, use of names, team identities, social media posts and so on.
The selection of digital distribution methods is critical to security. You may need a method that is easily erasable and leaves no trace of the content once a USB stick or SD card has been removed. Portable apps and the Biblebox would fit into this category.
There is no such thing as total security however cyber-security can be quite formidable when done correctly and keep out casual hackers and “bandit-level” hackers but it cannot defeat sophisticated hostile governments.
The question needs to be asked in each separate context: “Which is less insecure: local workers on the ground or digital missionaries overseas?”. There are positives and negatives to both and a combination may work well. There is no simple answer and security is very context dependent.
The first touch is often a digital touch so having high-level digital ministry skills is very important both for evangelism and pre-evangelism. While some UPGs will be only reached by local workers a significant number of unreached individuals can hear the gospel via their various digital devices, especially mobile phones.
A digital strategy should be in place for most UPGs. Such a strategy has to be a well-planned system that incorporates the four central insights: Information Is Digital, Impartation Is Spiritual, Formation Is Personal and Transformation Is Communal.
Quality drives virality and it is better to have one exceptional resource that spreads rapidly than one hundred mediocre resources that go “nowhere” in cyberspace. Quality is very dependent on correct contextualization so that the digital strategy is fully acceptable to members of the UPG.
There are numerous creative methods of digital distribution and selecting the correct method, that has suitable security is critical.
Digital ministry is very useful when you want to achieve large scale at low cost e.g. ebook distribution instead of printed book distribution. However digital missions needs to become incarnate and local at some point through teams of well-trained facilitators who train members of the UPG in how to best use the digital resource.
Ultimately Cybermissions becomes most effective when it becomes part of a movement, preferably a church-planting movement or a training movement.
Mr. John Edmiston is the CEO of Cybermissions and also teaches courses in Theology of Technology, Mobile Ministry and Emerging Media Ministry. John has been in Internet Ministry since 1991 and was one of the first to do full-time Christian ministry on the Internet. As an expert in technology in missions his projects are as diverse as: bible teaching websites, evangelistic Internet cafes, covert radio broadcasting, resource distribution through mobile devices, cybersecurity, internet radio stations and formal online learning. He is an Australian who has lived and ministered in Papua New Guinea, the Philippines, and South East Asia, And who now live in Los Angeles with his wife Minda.