What is the new environment of the world of social media like, and how can we fruitfully share faith in it? In some ways, there is no bigger question facing the church in the West, and it is key in our engagement with the under 40s, Generations Y and Z. And it is the subject of the latest Grove Evangelism booklet by Bryony Taylor, based in part on original research that she has undertaken:
The church is struggling to adjust to its new environment in the technological advances of the twenty-first century—we are no longer even in a postmodern age but something indescribably beyond even that. Most consider us to be living, in the West, in post-Christendom. This does not mean we are secular in the UK necessarily; we are simply ‘haunted,’ as Rowan Williams memorably put it, by the memory of Christianity. Along with all other large institutions the church seems to be losing its hold and authority. Into this we can insert the charge to all Christians, and particularly to the ordained in the Church of England, to ‘proclaim the gospel afresh in each generation.’
I am what might be described as an ‘early adopter’; I embraced with enthusiasm social media in all its forms when it emerged in the middle of the last decade. I have also always had a passion for evangelism and for finding new ways to share the faith that I hold so dear. This study seeks to understand something of the world in which we now live, where connection to the internet is seen by some to be a human right, and where it is an integral part of a lot of people’s lives and how this connects to our calling as Christians to become involved in the missio Dei, the mission of God, in the world.
This is an important task. Because of the fast pace of change, we must be careful not to sleepwalk into a new paradigm without taking the time to reflect theologically.
Bryony goes on to explore the range of responses to the rise of the internet, from those treat it with suspicion to those who embrace it as the answer to the challenge of evangelism. But she also helpfully explores how our understanding of mission and evangelism has been changing over the last one hundred years, which has an equally important bearing on what we think we are doing online.
The great mission movements of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries were birthed in the modern age and used techniques predicated on a modernist worldview. Many of these techniques have been imported into present times but now feel, particularly to younger people, like square pegs in round holes. We are moving from propositional evangelism, where a series of proofs are provided as to the truth claims of Christianity, to a more demonstrative evangelism where the gospel is revealed through the lives of Christians. Thomas Hawkins describes our age as ‘prefigurative,’ that is, that people are more willing than previously to live with unanswered questions. I believe that this is becoming true for both the evangelist and those with whom the gospel is shared. Gallagher calls evangelization a process of ‘double conversion’ where the evangelist is changed by the encounter as well as the evangelized, something that will be interesting to explore as we look at the data later in this study…
Stephen Cottrell comments that for many years the controlling biblical paradigm for evangelism was the story of Paul’s encounter on the road to Damascus. This gave rise to evangelism programmes (still very much used around the world) that see the sole goal as somebody praying the prayer of salvation, ie asking Jesus into their lives. Cottrell goes on to show that the more com- mon experience of people coming to faith is that it emulates not the dramatic Damascus road experience but rather the gentle warming of the heart story of the road to Emmaus. We can see this very much demonstrated in the pub- lication of a new evangelism resource, with the clue in the name, Pilgrim. Up against the popular older course Alpha (in its original format) it has a very different feel, focusing not on the beginnings of faith but on the whole Christian journey. Fascinatingly, when I was researching in 2013, the Alpha course had a clear strapline which I felt was very modernist: it purported to provide the ‘answers to life’s biggest questions.’ Looking at the Alpha course website now this strapline is nowhere to be found. The new strapline currently on the website is ‘Begin the greatest adventure.’ This shows very starkly the point I am making; people are no longer looking for ‘answers’ or ‘the truth’ but for something that makes life worth living. The Alpha and Pilgrim courses are responding to that.
But beyond the ‘Damascus’ and the ‘Emmaus’ paradigms, Bryony notices a change in on-line use which is built more around relationships and friendship, leading to an ‘Athens’ kind of personal engagement.
We have seen in recent years an emphasis on friendship and on networks (or community) in approaches to evangelism. In one of the earliest books on the internet and evangelism, Careaga states, ‘Electronic evangelism is friend- ship evangelism via the internet.’12 This was written way before the likes of Facebook, which take the concept even further. We are now networked with thousands of people like never before. I have friends that I only know through online interactions who are affected by what I share online. According to internet tool ‘Tweet Reach,’ I can reach 34,877 people with one tweet (given that I have 3,086 followers). Compare this with the numbers I might reach through an average Sunday service in a church! This kind of reach in networking was unimaginable even just ten years ago.
Bryony then offers the results of her own research, exploring how people talked about faith within the three paradigms of ‘Damascus’ (looking for conversion), ‘Emmaus’ (looking for a journey of realisation) and ‘Athens’ (looking for engagement in friendship). From this she then notes some key advantages that the online environment offers which we do not find elsewhere:
1. Privacy. It is significant that nearly half of the approaches made were via private one-to-one messaging. This reveals that people find it easy and more comfortable to ask questions about faith in a private space online. This is possibly the online equivalent of Nicodemus visiting Jesus ‘by night’ (John 3.2). People on social media are directly contactable in a way that has not previously been so easy; paradoxically there is a distance offered by the online environment akin to the screen in a confessional box. As a result, in a social media private message, proximity and distance are offered at the same time.
2. Trust. Many of the respondents referred to the fact that trust had already built up through a prior relationship before the approach was made. Few responses were out of the blue; most described a connection with someone they knew already. Asking a question about faith requires a level of trust in the relationship. The questioner needs to feel as if their question will be respected and answered graciously. Many survey respondents (especially in the Emmaus and Athens groups) were keen to share their faith in the mix of other things online, and this built up trust amongst their friends.
3. Availability. Connected to the themes of privacy and trust is availability. Many responded that they received the approach because everyone knew they were a Christian and they were easily accessible online. This reveals the importance of making it clear one is a Christian online; we must not hide our light under a bushel! (Matt 5.15). The online environment has made us more available and accessible than ever. People are now very likely to search not only Google for answers but search for a person that can answer their question. If they can find someone they know and trust then all the better! This raises the question of how available Christians should be to their friends on social media. What do we do about people who are not on social media? How easy is it for them to ask for help?
Bryony concludes with reflections on the nature of friendship, how it is expressed online, and how all of this relates to Jesus’ teaching on the kingdom of God. And she offers some practical guidelines for how to make the most of the opportunities for social media as individuals and within the local church.
This is vital reading in our contemporary context—especially if we are serious about reaching the next generation. You can order your copy post-free (in the UK) from the Grove website.
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