Noor (name changed for security reasons) was used to dangerous living after several decades in a highly volatile region he likes to call the ‘Middle Earth’ of Central Asia. Now back in Canada with his wife, he did not want his years of experience and insight to go to waste and fade into retirement. Why not put a new strategy for the kingdom in place using Facebook, something his adopted people group use in great numbers?
Now Noor found himself back on the familiar dusty streets of the bazaar on a short visit, looking to meet up face to face with Ahmad (name changed), a new friend who had contacted him via the Facebook page saying ‘I am like you, let us meet!’
Naturally, suspicions were running high on both sides, but the obvious risks were worth it. There was no doubt Ahmad knew that Noor was a follower of Isa al Masih and was using his online presence to share Jesus and his teachings with members of a people group who are particularly hard to engage with the gospel still in their home country, as well as countless others displaced abroad.
Via Facebook Messenger voice and text chats, the plan had been set in motion for Noor to meet Ahmad at his shop located in one of the busiest markets in the entire nation. Now the time had come, and Noor was barely noticeable, bearded and dressed in the local way, as he looked across the street at the place Ahmad had arranged.
‘Ahmad?’, he asked of the gentleman in the local language as he stepped into the small, poorly lit shop. A young man looked up and replied, ‘No. What can I do for you?’ ‘Just tell Ahmad that the old guy came by to say hi. The guy that does the Facebook.’
With that, Noor took his leave and could not help but notice the assistant’s eyes following his every move. Was he recognized as a foreigner? Did the assistant suspect ill intention against his employer? Was this stranger simply just crazy?
A half hour passed until Ahmad phoned with further instructions. ‘Let us meet in the tea shop; it is not good to meet in my shop.’ A fascinating hour of deep, spiritual discussion ensued, partly from Scripture. Eighteen months later, Ahmad began to testify, ‘I believe what you say about Jesus.’
What joy it is for Noor and Ahmad to be journeying together, as well as with hundreds of others in various stages of exploring the claims of Jesus. Noor sees himself as a simple servant and messenger of God who risks his life and is willing to forego his sleep schedule and comfort to post, engage, and eventually meet those who appear most interested in the Good News in a time zone that could not be more opposite.
Frustrations and mixed messages
However, despite the good success he is seeing with men, efforts to engage women through a page he helped his wife set up are stalled. Facebook policies have bumped up against his desire and need to not be completely public with his identity; and ongoing changes to algorithms and advertising efforts targeted at specific religious adherents lend further confusion to the arena.
As digital natives enter overseas ministry and even older generations become more familiar with online activity, the potential to find and impact people for eternity seems to be outweighing the risks.
To add to Noor’s challenges, the international organisation he belongs to has been encouraging its workers actively to disengage from social media and online presence before heading overseas in order to protect themselves from potential targeting, which could lead to imprisonment, expulsion, or even death. His organisation is not alone in its desire to keep its workers safe, while at the same time encouraging them to pioneer new work and think ‘outside the box’ in order to reach people with the gospel. This presents very mixed messages.
However, it feels as if the tide is now beginning to turn. As digital natives enter overseas ministry and even older generations become more familiar with online activity, the potential to find and impact people for eternity seems to be outweighing the risks.
Training and coaching 101
Another long-term effort situated in an Arab country also leverages Facebook to find ‘people of peace’. Now through the initial testing phases, its refinement has moved it towards a sophisticated tracking and rating system (using Customer Relationship Management software) that has brought in teams of church planters whose sole focus is to follow up on leads brought in through social media channels. They now offer an online training and coaching platform, attempting to document what they have learned and help others formulate a 10-step process toward using media to fuel a Disciple Making Movement.
of Saudi teens use Snapchat
of all internet users globally use YouTube
While Facebook certainly controls most of the social media market, Snapchat offers an enticing profile to those who focus on Saudi Arabia and the Arabian Peninsula. The kingdom tops the world in Snapchat usage globally. A 2015 study revealed that 26 percent of Saudi teens used the app. Yet it is largely unexplored in the ministry realm, and its reputation originally as a ‘sexting’ app continues to scare the ministry-minded away.
The video revolution
YouTube is used by nearly a third of all internet users globally. It is localised in 88 countries and can be accessed in 76 different languages. The potential influence and reach for anyone with a smartphone and a plan is unprecedented in human history. By 2019, global consumer internet video traffic will account for 80 percent of all consumer internet traffic.
Recognizing this, one forward-thinking media project based in the Caucasus region released a series of short films focusing on the theme of forgiveness. Their strategy leaned heavily on Facebook and YouTube with strategically located ‘forgiveness principles discussion groups’. Coupled with local film showings, over 400 have attended these groups and feel engaged and empowered to talk about the difficulties of forgiving, how to reconcile and how to find peace with each other. From these groups, 40 have moved on to become volunteers for the movement with about a 50/50 split of believers versus seekers, with the seekers moving closer to knowing the Prince of Peace and forgiveness.
These statistics are simply staggering when you think about the sheer potential for reaching those who do not yet know about Jesus around the world. Even in remote offline areas, mobile devices have become commonplace. Yet unaffordable data rates and poor coverage mean that any good strategy must include an offline component, taking into account media sharing strategies including microSD cards, Bluetooth or even wi-fi routers ready to beam gospel-centered content to passersby.
Where to start?
Christians engaged in outreach efforts are certainly beginning to recognise the potential but many simply do not know where or how to start. That is where groups such as the Mobile Ministry Forum can help. This collaboration of ministry practitioners from various mission agencies has put together free downloadable guides and affordable online courses to help; and on-site training opportunities are available if one knows who to ask and where to look.
Many ministries are beginning to take note of an annual media/missions conference that just passed its seventh year. While they prefer to be unknown to the public, word of mouth has certainly been getting around, resulting in 725 participants from 193 organizations and 63 countries in April 2018.
In one southeast Asian nation, a local group of Christians spanning denominations and ministries focuses on finding those who report having dreams of a man dressed in dazzling white, a phenomenon being reported throughout the Muslim world in which Jesus often appears and speaks to Muslims giving them Scripture or instructing them to do certain things that lead them to him. Their campaign has drawn probably over 1,000 seekers through a few combined campaigns.
When another practitioner heard of this while at the media conference mentioned above, an attempt to duplicate something similar was created for a Middle Eastern audience. However, the response (including the promising and the not-so-promising) was so overwhelming that it had to be shut down until a later time when more infrastructure, including working together with local believers, could be put in place.
Foreigners in a host country often struggle to respond in a natural, local way and often have differing views on media style and local taste. In sensitive areas the local populace that can be included in these outreach efforts is also much better at determining who is serious and who may be a threat.
It is important to recognise that a social media strategy for outreach is not one-size-fits-all. What works in one place could easily fail in another. Local media habits must be studied as much as possible.
Local media habits
It is important to recognise that a social media strategy for outreach is not one-size-fits-all. What works in one place could easily fail in another. Local media habits must be studied as much as possible. A ‘digital media fact sheet’ or ‘mobile assessment’ outlining factors such as internet usage, top apps downloaded per country, and most popular social media channels and messaging apps will help to narrow down the platforms that are most worth focusing on. That, coupled with plenty of observation from local friends, will help to determine the most advantageous avenues to pursue.
As messaging apps such as WhatsApp, Messenger, WeChat, Line and others continue to blur the lines between social media and messaging, untold numbers of groups are emerging daily that encourage one another in the Word even in places where the gospel cannot legally go. The Persian church is exploding within the borders of Iran thanks in part to Telegram and pervasive use of Virtual Private Networks (VPNs) intended to shield online activity from prying government eyes. It will certainly be interesting to see how the Christian community there deals with an official government ban on Telegram (the telecommunications minister is quoted as saying 40 million Iranians use Telegram – half of the population). There always seems to be a workaround.
As social media ramp up in the majority world especially, many in the West are finding themselves increasingly disillusioned. Some are convinced that nothing good can possibly come of social media usage based on the fracturing and division it brings, especially amid recent political differences. While Facebook has unprecedented potential to bring people, ideas and groups together, it just as equally can degenerate into a soapbox that rarely changes anyone’s opinions.
God is at work, and working through the technology that man invents and sometimes stumbles through.
However, God is at work, and working through the technology that man invents and sometimes stumbles through. As evangelicals around the world, my hope is that we can work to redeem more of this digital space. Kingdom outcomes are only just beginning to be evident here on earth. We will never know the true impact in this life, and as with the rapid pace of technology, this article will feel dated in short order as followers of Jesus press on to experiment with modern tools at their disposal.