It used to be a hobby and a curiosity; many derided it and its potential. Yet life in the twenty-first century is now shaped profoundly by digital technology. We must take digital technology into account when considering evangelism; we ought to seek to bring Jesus’ lordship to bear upon the online realm.
Digital evangelism involves the proclamation of the good news of Jesus’ life, death, resurrection, ascension, lordship, and imminent return on the Internet. The role of digital evangelism in the proclamation of the Gospel has grown significantly over the past two decades as the power and influence of the technology has increased over modern life. It was not that long ago when congregations could do quite well with an advertisement in the Yellow Pages, a Dial-a-Bible message, and perhaps posting some flyers in the community; now very few use a phone book, and the first place many people turn in order to find out information about faith, religion, or a church is the Internet. Therefore, if Christians would reach the people in their communities with the Gospel, a robust presence on the Internet is essential.
The rapid transformations in digital technology render any attempt to provide specific guidance unwise; it will likely prove irrelevant within a short time. Nevertheless, we do well to keep some general principles in mind as we consider how to effectively promote the Gospel on the Internet.
As Christians we tend to prize and prioritize what is tried, true, and is of lasting value and power, and for good reason; Jesus is the same yesterday, today, and forever, and the faith which we are to preach and embody has existed for almost two thousand years (Hebrews 13:8, Jude 1:3). In many respects the Internet is the exact opposite: it is a dynamic environment that constantly reinvents itself and changes continually. Bulletin boards gave way to platforms like America Online which gave way to blogging which gave way to social media; for years text was the primary means of communication online, but now audiovisual presentations are ascendant. A well-built website with a lot of information once gained credence by search engines; now it is all about targeted advertising and search engine optimization. Whenever a person begins to feel comfortable with their understanding of just about anything on the Internet, the whole paradigm will shift. As Christians, we must recognize our temptation to justify remaining behind the technological curve, and remain humble enough to seek out resources and people who can help us most effectively proclaim Christ with the technology presently available. This will often require the active involvement of younger people for whom the technology proves more intuitive and who often understand it better. We may be comfortable with copy and writing, and wish to inculcate strong book reading habits, but we must discern the post-literate culture we are entering and not become guilty of demanding a particular cultural expression of devotion to God and learning about the faith to the detriment of actually communicating about the faith. One can come to a knowledge of the faith and be saved through listening to podcasts, hearing the Bible read aloud, and watching videos regarding matters of the faith, and all without ever picking up a physical Bible. The important thing is for the message to be distributed so that it might be heard.
On account of digital technology we are witnessing a profound change in the relationship between humans and knowledge. In former times the primary challenge was access to information: finding books or other resources, receiving the training to understand what one would read, etc. Thanks to digital technology we now have access to the treasury of human knowledge at our fingertips at almost all times. Now humans face a very different challenge: what information to trust, and how to sort through all the information accessible on the Internet. There is no lack of content on the Internet in general and religious content in particular; who should be trusted, and who is spreading fake news? To this end we do well to embody the posture of the ambassador for Christ (2 Corinthians 5:20): we must prove to be trustworthy in how we promote the Gospel and embody Jesus on the Internet. We should preach the Gospel with excellent materials: we should quote reputable sources and faithfully represent the positions of those with whom we disagree, for if we do not prove fair and honest in such dealings, people will not trust us, and will seek information elsewhere. Furthermore, very little is ever really lost on the Internet; much may languish in obscurity, but whatever has been said and done on the Internet can be found and brought to light, for better or for worse. To this end Christians must remember that they always represent Jesus in whatever they say and do on the Internet. If they do not embody Jesus in how they express their views about politics, society, culture, etc., prove to be trolls in certain quarters of the Internet, or freely participate in moral hypocrisy through the pursuit of immorality online, they will be found out, and people will have no reason to trust in their witness for Jesus. Trust, more than distribution of knowledge, is the ultimate currency of an Internet awash in contradictory information, and the people of God should prove trustworthy (1 Corinthians 4:2, 1 Peter 4:10-11).
The major challenge of digital technology centers on the “virtual.” The “virtual” attempts to simulate the real in many respects, yet is never truly real. Everything on the Internet is virtual; real people may be behind other screens, but all online interaction is a simulation and a pretense to some degree or another. Just as digital technology should never overtake real life, so digital evangelism and virtual association should never replace or render irrelevant physical presence and physical participation together in life. If we put so much out on the Internet that people get the impression they have no need to come together to jointly participate in life with fellow Christians offline, we have seriously distorted and warped the Gospel message. There are those out and about who proclaim that online church will be the future of Christianity; they ought to be seen as false prophets, and should experience significant push back against that hype. Early Christians suffered and died bearing witness to Jesus as having substantively come in the flesh, not virtually or in any simulation (cf. 1 John 4:1-4, 2 John 1:6-10); life in relational unity demands the sharing of physical space. We must never sacrifice sharing in physical space in the name of digital technology, and part of our responsibility in the Gospel is to teach people today how God made us human in physical bodies to share in physical space together in life and much is lost when we cease doing so. In a very real way the Internet is all fake, all too easily made a Tower of Babel to human ingenuity and the attempt to overcome our natural limitations, and a source of idolatry (cf. Genesis 11:1-9).
Many people today who hear the Gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ, come to faith in Him, and come to share in joint participation in faith with a local congregation will have sought digital resources at some or many points in their faith journey. Congregations must assume that a good number of those who might visit them will first explore their website and might well want to watch a livestream of much of what they do in the assembly beforehand. If we do not put forth effort in digital evangelism, we can be assured that many others will, and thus will lead people astray. Nevertheless, digital evangelism is not the end all and be all of evangelism, just as digital technology is not the sum of life; we must never become so enraptured with technology that we neglect the power of what God has accomplished in Jesus and in His people. May we proclaim Jesus as Lord online and offline to the glory and praise of God!
Ethan R. Longhenry