How can this be? The answer lies somewhere in cyberspace.
Digital platforms and social media have played an increasingly key role in evangelism and ministry, as exemplified by the church in Iran. Iran is part of a recent growth of churches in the Majority World, where the most number of Christians now reside. It turns out that the Majority World is also where social media is used most—in fact, with the exception of the US, the top ten countries with the most Facebook users today are all in the Majority World.
But digital ministry comes in a mixed bag. Everywhere the true gospel is spreading, false gospels are also running rampant.
Nam Vo, a youth leader in Ho Chi Minh City, says that 17% of youth in Vietnam use social media more than four hours a day.
He sees online spaces as a window into knowing and connecting with youth, and a space where generation gaps can quickly shrink when adults engage with young people in caring ways.
‘When I served as a youth worker at a local church, I found that Facebook was a good opportunity to get to know and interact more with young people,’ says Vo. He ministered to young people who had dropped out of school due to online game addiction—a dark side to the increasing presence of the internet—befriending them at the youth service, small group Bible study, and other face-to-face activities. But he didn’t stop there. He also friended them on Facebook.
‘Digital technology makes it possible to reach out and care for young people who are immersed in cyberspace,’ says Vo. ‘As Christ went into the far country to seek the outcast, the church is called to reach out to the outcast in cyberspace.’
‘The church needs to provide true discipleship where Christians can experience and be transformed by the true gospel,’ he continues.
Vo sees the pattern of youth disciple-making as a clear example of how discipleship, both on and offline, multiplies. He says as youth workers and pastors disciple and care for the youth, proclaiming the gospel in word, deed, and lifestyle, the youth in turn begin to invite their friends to church. In his own church, Vo has been intrigued with how active the youth have been in bringing their friends to church and sharing their faith.
‘It’s not that the youth today find the Bible or Jesus irrelevant,’ says Vo. Rather, we have to present the gospel so that they can understand and relate to it.
Across the world in Ghana, Femi B. Adeleye, director of Langham Preaching Africa, is convinced that ‘even that which is meant for evil can be turned for good’.
‘We can actually seize technology and social media as tools of engagement, tools of witness,’ he says. Adeleye knows many young people in Ghana who are doing Bible study by Zoom or Skype and preachers—including himself—who are meeting monthly on WhatsApp to reflect on and discuss difficult texts in preparation for preaching.
Last year, Adeleye was pleasantly surprised when a young man, an African living in Australia, wrote to say he had turned parts of Adeleye’s book, Preachers of a Different Gospel, into rap music that he then shared on social media. He wanted to share the concepts in the book more widely with his friends. ‘Now I’m not into rap, but apparently many of his colleagues and friends got attracted to the message he was sharing through rap music,’ says Adeleye.
Conrad Mbewe, speaking from Zambia as pastor of Kabwata Baptist Church, adds that many young people today are able to encounter reformed views of faith through the Internet and social media.
‘A number of them are in churches where they’ve been listening to basically fake news, and they had no idea that in the same city, in the same country, there were those that were teaching the Bible,’ he says. ‘So as they are listening to teachings from the internet and seeing how it’s tying in with the Bible right in front of them, they begin to realize, “Hey, I’ve been duped. Let me begin looking for the truth.”’
However, digital discipleship and ministry cannot become shortcuts—a point that is particularly important for Adeleye.
‘It seems to me that there is significant pressure to take shortcuts. You know fake news thrives on shortcuts and the louder they are the more attractive they tend to be,’ he says. Sadly some churches have adopted ‘shortcuts’, reducing the gospel to be user-friendly, in order to attract crowds.
Adeleye says that in several parts of Africa, preaching tends to prepare people to go to heaven but not how to live out and bear witness to the gospel in this life. Scripture, on the other hand, speaks to all spheres and aspects of life. He continues:
‘It was interesting—some days ago, I was reflecting on how toilet habits are found in Deuteronomy chapter 23. God gave instructions even concerning toilet habits in relation to the environment. I think we need to equip people to diligently study Scripture enough to proclaim the holistic gospel that does not become so user-friendly as to reduce the gospel to what it is not. If we don’t do that, the attraction to shortcuts, to fake news, will continue to predominate over what is true and what is sound.’
As a student, Adeleye grew up being told that preachers don’t need any training, only a reliance on the Holy Spirit. But he quickly realized the shortcomings and dangers of such an approach. He says to be able to tell the story, we need to learn it accurately first through sound discipline, preparation, study, and accountability. ‘There is no shortcut to being equipped for biblical preaching. No shortcut,’ he says.
In Iran, where the church is growing at an astounding rate, Merhdad Fatehi, founder and president of the Pars Theological Center in the UK, sees similarly reductionistic, ‘shortcut’ versions of the gospel being spread across TV and social media. These false versions of the gospel grow in tandem with the true gospel—like weeds among the wheat.
‘In a sense, many of what we call “distorted” gospels are created by taking a neglected or under-emphasized truth and overemphasizing it,’ says Fatehi.
Some of the most prevalent versions of these false gospels in Iran according to Fatehi are:
But Fatehi says we must try our best not to alienate those who fall into one of these camps, who are emphasizing only one dimension of the truth.
‘I think confrontational strategies, so far as we can, should be avoided. Because I believe that many of these distorted gospels have an element of truth which has been overemphasized and taken to the extreme,’ he says. Rather, we should lovingly try our best to be inclusive of these reductionistic views, as we open the vista wider to the whole gospel truth. ‘I feel that a loving and inclusive approach works better than polarization.’
One of the reasons distorted gospels often get the upper hand is that we preach a sometimes-irrelevant gospel—or at least our gospel when it is preached is not addressing some of the very important and urgent needs of our context. Fatehi points to the shift of the center of Christianity to the Majority World as actually helping people globally to see a more contextualized gospel. As believers encounter and hear about experiences different from—or perhaps similar to—their own, they become more sensitive to the different aspects of the gospel, rather than just hearing and receiving the parts that speak to their own contexts and problems.
Despite the prevalence of distorted gospels, Iran is a very clear example of the positive impact that social media can make. Fatehi says most of the evangelism, teaching, and preaching in Iran is actually happening through satellite TV, social media, and digital technology. One-to-one texts, digital and virtual training of pastors and house church leaders, and virtual gatherings are among the many ways that technology is aiding the gospel boom in Iran.
‘Satellite TV and social media have become the lifeline,’ says Fatehi. ‘And if in Iran, where there is hardly any other available channels, social media and satellite TV have made such an impact that we have so much growth in the church—why shouldn’t we use these same channels in a better and more effective way in other contexts?’
‘It’s fairly evident that wherever you are in the world, one of the obvious challenges is that by the time the true gospel has tied its bootlaces in order to begin running through the field, that which is false has already done its rounds quite a few times,’ remarks Mbewe. ‘Fake news is loudest—it’s attractive, it’s reductionistic, it’s sort of tainted with a lot of honey. And so it’s important that that which is true is given an ongoing platform as much as possible.’
How then will the church continue to reach the ends of the world wide web?
Editor’s Note: This article is based on a Lausanne Theology Working Group webinar titled, ‘The Good News in a World of Fake News: Part 3’, which took place on 19 November 2021. Conrad Mbewe moderated the discussion with Mehrdad Fatehi, Nam Vo, and Femi B. Adeleye. Watch the full recording.
Sara Kyoungah White is the Communications Editor for the Lausanne Movement. She currently lives in Grand Rapids, Michigan.