My friend and fellow PneumaBlogger, Frank N. Johnson over at Strategic Digital Outreach, was recently highlighted on GospelCom’s GospelCon blog. In “Flawed Follow-Up or a Flawed Philosophy of Evangelism?” Frank writes:
[T]hose 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. … [W]e … are much too quick to assume that virtual community is just as ideal as face-to-face community. …
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. …
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. …
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.
Touching on issues I’ve blogged about previously (specifically, A/G church growth stats and our discpleship issues), Frank makes a good case for not placing too much value on Internet-based relationships without a face-to-face, meatspace component. In fact, Frank very says that without prior engagement with a local body of believers, conversion and discipleship may not occur at all. And we have our own statistics to demonstrate that without mentoring and discipleship, coverts don’t “stick.”
GospelCon puts a sharper point on it by asking GodBloggers about their online conversion strategy:
[I]f your website or ministry has an evangelistic focus–perhaps even an invitation for visitors to accept Christ and become a Christian–it’s worth asking yourself: what do we do after one of our visitors accepts Christ through our website? Are we equipping them to grow in Christ and plug into a local church community? If it’s not possible to do that (perhaps the convert lives in a country that is hostile to the Gospel), are we doing our best to provide the online equivalent of the community and discipleship that is normally found in a physical church family?
The upshot of all this is really the delicate question that must be asked: do we pursue virtual conversions at the cost of souls?
I’m not a huge fan of online evangelism, just as I’m not a huge fan of bar-evangelism. Solid, healthy decisions to believe in Christ and make him Lord, to follow him in discipleship and obedience, can only be made soberly, with the facts in hand, and in light of the costs of being an apprentice to Jesus.
That said, I’ve witnessed to drunks (“Waiting for the Harvest”). I’ve witnessed in a bar (once responding to the challenge to explain the Gospel in five minutes to a PI who felt he’d never heard a decent Gospel presentation), I’ve witnessed to skeptical co-workers at a housewarming party. I’ve done street-witnessing. I’m a huge fan of witnessing when the opportunity presents itself, but I’m realistic and pragmatic about the call for conversion—sometimes we really only have the opportunity to defend the Gospel, to plant seeds, to call for repentance, to provide aid and comfort, to be hospitable. Every interaction with a seeker doesn’t necessarily have to lead to an altar call. It didn’t for Jesus, and there’s no reason you have to see every opportunity to open your mouth as a call for the Sinner’s Prayer. Being born a second time is a lot like being born the first time: there’s a gestation period, and premature births aren’t always in the new believer’s best interest.
But is it possible to witness online? I mean, is it possible to lead another to Christ online?
Yes. When God orchestrates the encounter.
Let me give you a brief example. In July of 2000 I answered a technical email that had been languishing in a discussion group inbox in my mail client for a few months. I answered it for no better reason than I was compelled to one night before leaving the office— and it was only one call for help out of several hundred emails in my queue. The next day I was stunned to discover that my email had become a direct answer to a prayer uttered by Kathi Sharpe, a fully committed pagan Wiccan. You see, God had been working Kathi over in her dreams, appearing to her, calling her to serve him. When she had enough of it, she asked God to solve this one technical problem that had been plaguing her for months, and that if he would do that, she’d seriously consider his claim on her heart. That next morning, my email was waiting in her inbox. What followed was a year-long series of correspondences and IM chat sessions where Kathi voiced her frustrations, her questions, and her celebrations. She started out a troubled Wiccan, came to faith quickly, and began growing in faith and maturity immediately. Now Kathi leads an online ministry to Wiccans, blogs, and serves faithfully in her local church. (See the transcript log at The Sharpe Logs.)
In this case, Kathi had a local church resource she could turn to immediately after coming to faith, and at several points in our dialog I deflected her questions to her pastor, who could ultimately provide better counsel. In many ways this anecdote only demonstrates the wisdom of Frank’s charge: Successful conversions require (or at least are vastly improved by) a local community of believers for fellowship, instruction, and growth. But in some other ways it also demonstrates that online conversions and discipleship are possible when the seeker initiates the dialog.
I agree with Frank that witnessing and evangelism are inherently relational. I would not recommend that a church just post the sinners prayer online hoping that this will lead to conversions and discipleship. Yes, this practice has a long and colorful history rooted in the covert placement of nifty evangelism tracts on park benches and doctor’s waiting rooms. And, yes, such impersonal presentations of the Gospel can and do have an impact of sorts. But sometimes the impact is negative, and it really is important for people new to the faith to find a local church and get involved. And the person least likely to know this is exactly the person you’re trying to reach.
Rather than doing online evangelism, I suggest we simply focus on being faithful in everything we do, whether it’s online, offline, in-line at Starbucks, or as we recline at home. Our faithfulness and our own personal discipleship will help assure a ready response when a query comes in over the email transom or in the comments section of our blog. It’s not about doing evangelism, but being disciples and making disciples. And, frankly, web pages do not disciples make.
[tags]BlogRodent, born-again, Christianity, conversion, faith, frank-johnson, gospelcom, gospelcon, internet-evangelism, online-evangelism, pentecostal, strategic-digital-outreach, witnessing, witnessing online[/tags]