“You’re the only Christian I know.”
Those were Anon’s words to me during an online Bible study chat. That’s when it hit me—online may be the only way some people have to find out about Jesus and grow in their spiritual journey. This way of sharing the Gospel called Digital Evangelism and Discipleship continues to grow worldwide despite government crackdowns, bandwidth issues and access around the globe.
Anon is from India but lives in Pakistan. Working on an oil rig, he only sees his family once or twice a year. At the time, he knew no Christians and was likely afraid to talk about it after coming to faith in a 98 percent Muslim country. But there we were on the Internet, chatting and learning together. Over time, I found out I was the only Christian he talked to on a regular basis. As his faith grew, he began talking to a few other Christians and was able to meet occasionally, but in the beginning, I was it.
A Big Responsibility
I felt like most people would after I heard that: scared to death. What if I said the wrong thing? What if he said the wrong thing and got in trouble for his beliefs? There was a safe distance doing this over the internet, but it sure didn’t make me feel better with the responsibility.
In the U.S., we talk to people, and there is no danger of dying for being a Christian. I had to trust God that He would protect Anon. This feeling of safety and the ability to share things is often called “anonymous intimacy” in Digital Evangelism. Thousands of volunteers (we call them online missionaries) provide that area of safety for seekers all over the world every day, praying for people, answering questions and connecting them to churches close to where they live.
One powerful example of this idea comes from one of Global Media Outreach’s online missionaries, Sarah. She has cerebral palsy and can’t speak or even feed herself, yet she is helping people each day online. She uses a stylus on her head and a customized computer to communicate as she helps people grow spiritually. Sarah has helped 2,522 people, including 31 in Middle Eastern countries. She has helped disciple 13 people in Iran alone, one of the most dangerous countries for Christians on Earth.
We can track a seeker’s city and country when they contact us, but personal information such as their email address is kept “walled off” for security reasons. So the seeker can feel comfortable sharing. Neither our volunteers nor the seeker can see each other’s email address. All of that information is kept secure.
A Changing ‘Mission Field’
Social media has changed the way people all over the world organize and build community. Think of the uprisings in Egypt where Facebook and other social media tools were used to communicate where to meet and when to protest.
At times, the ability to reach out from behind the curtain allows people to search for God safely. What we call “anonymous intimacy” gives a seeker a way to deal with the issues in an environment of freedom.
But is anonymous intimacy, one of the hallmarks of Digital Evangelism, in danger? One of the advantages of helping people online is the ability to build trust without the bias of how you look, how you sound, your economic background or geographic location. In many countries, it’s just not safe to talk to others about spiritual issues, especially if you are looking at different religions.
One of the reasons Digital Evangelism has been so successful is this environment of safety. Today’s environment of fake news, social media bullying and hacking may be affecting our ability to continue to trust online. As more people use social media and the internet, we have seen new ways to build relationships.
Who would have imagined 30 years ago how easy it would be to have conversations daily with people you would never meet face to face? But with those new abilities, along with an increase in cyber-attacks, hacking and government surveillance of citizens’ online communications comes a great deal of fear.
Pew Research just released a fascinating study on the future of online trust for the next decade. They noted that, “Those who are hopeful that trust will grow expect technical and regulatory change will combat users’ concerns about security and privacy.” Of those surveyed, 48 percent chose the option that trust will be strengthened; 28 percent of these particular respondents believe that trust will stay the same and 24 percent predicted that trust will be diminished.
As communication channels and methods change, businesses and organizations have to think through both technology and approaches to building trust.
We have found that protecting the security of the people you talk to online is key. From the beginning of the ministry, we’ve had a “black box” approach to make sure personal data is secure for both our volunteers and the people who are searching online to protect their identities. W
hen a seeker responds to a volunteer, they aren’t connecting to that volunteer’s personal email account, nor is the information they share publicly available. Now, of course, new technologies are quickly developed to beef up online privacy, and we continue to look at ways to protect shared information.
Unfortunately, as Pew notes in their study, “the internet serves as a conduit for the public’s privacy to be compromised through surveillance and cyberattacks and additional techniques for them to fall victim to scams and bad actors.” Most organizations have some policy, but I would recommend reviewing it at least once a year and testing it for holes.
Transparency is also the key to building trust. People can easily see through clickbait, and even inbound marketing techniques have to be focused on providing value because prospects do not want to feel like sold to. Providing upfront who you are as an organization and what you do goes a long way to building relationships. Online missionaries are trained to share what God is doing in their lives personally, yet not reveal so much personal information that we compromise their safety.
Trust often takes a long time to build but can be lost in a moment. We should all be mindful of the trust someone is giving us when we post on social media or respond to an email. It can be easy to forget you we are still a witness online because our posts may feel “safe.” Our personal witness crosses from face-to-face to an online environment, but we are still representing Jesus.
serves as Executive Director for Christian Digital Research Group, part of Global Media Outreach. Leading the Digital Research effort, Michelle brings with her 20 years of high-tech know-how and is a master at blending the cultures of ministry and business.