The following was something I wrote to an internet evangelism mailing list in which I participate, in response to some comments made on the list regarding this article by Dr. Stephanie Bennett.
In many ways, I live in a digital realm. My day job is completely concerned with the web and ways it can be used for business. The overwhelming focus of my ministry is in finding ways to use the internet and other digital means to spread the gospel. I am “in the digital realm” in some form at least 10-12 hours per day Monday through Friday (somewhat less on the weekends), whether that means actually “surfing the web” or spending long hours formulating strategies for the use of digital means to further either God’s purposes or the corporation’s business.
I have spent years on the web, developing virtual relationships with many people. Some I have gone on to meet face-to-face, but many of these relationships remain completely virtual.
And yet, Stephanie’s article rings very true to me. While I might not go quite as far as she seems to (in almost seeming to say that we should abandon the internet for face-to-face relationships only), I do believe strongly that those of us involved in internet evangelism in the West have, in many cases, devalued face-to-face relationships and neglected (or even abandoned) the local aspect of Christian community.
Perhaps my thinking is colored by the couple of years I lived in West Africa earlier in my life (where face-to-face community among the brethren is part of the essence of the Christian life and where the depth of community experienced by believers has reached a level which is generally unknown in the Western church, at least that part of the Western church I can observe), but I do believe we in the West are much too quick to assume that virtual community is just as ideal as face-to-face community.
I do believe in using digital means for kingdom purposes, but I think that whenever possible, the goal of our digital efforts should be to use digital means to facilitate face-to-face relationships between believers and unbelievers and to introduce unbelievers to local Christian community. Those things then can become the foundation of effective outreach.
It is my strong conviction that the unbeliever must be immersed into Christian community prior to conversion in order for the unbeliever to understand that God loves him/her and to understand the purpose of Jesus’ mission on earth (that’s the point, I think, of Jesus’ statements in John 17:21-23). I don’t think that such immersion into Christian community is possible in the worldwide digital realm to the same extent that it is in the local physical realm.
Most internet evangelism efforts seem to focus on local Christian community only as a means for follow-up. Actually, that’s not true only in internet evangelism circles, but in crusade evangelism, television evangelism, etc. I believe that the failure to understand the need for immersion into Christian community prior to conversion causes serious problems with the effectiveness of our follow-up.
In the denomination I’m part of, there were more than 4 million converts in the 1990s, and yet Sunday morning attendance increased less than 240,000 during that time. 94% of new converts can’t be found. They may be in other churches, they may have become part of house churches which are more difficult to quantify, etc. But I suspect that the vast majority simply are not leading what we would think of as a life of discipleship, most likely because they were never converted in the first place (if they don’t know that God loves them and don’t understand Jesus’ mission on earth, things which Jesus suggests are understood through immersion into Christian community prior to conversion, how can they be truly converted?).
Church strategists tend to point to insufficient or flawed follow-up, but I tend to think that our basic philosophy of evangelism is flawed. If our approach was to encourage unbelievers to be immersed into Christian community prior to conversion, we would find that our “follow-up” would be much more effective.
I fear that internet evangelism falls into this trap more than most forms of evangelism. The ease with which we can “share the gospel” online can actually short-circuit the God-ordained process by which unbelievers are brought to faith. If someone comes to a website and reads a gospel message and responds by “praying the sinner’s prayer,” but never truly understood the love of God nor the mission of Jesus (because they had not been immersed into Christian community prior to conversion), do we not run the risk of that person thinking, “Oh I tried the Christian way and it didn’t work for me” (it didn’t work because they were never truly converted)?
Does that mean we shouldn’t use the internet for kingdom purposes? Of course not. But I think our strategy is, in many cases, flawed. Our goal with the internet and other digital means should not be primarily to gain new converts, but to facilitate the introduction of unbelievers into local Christian communities, which are the most effective context for outreach.