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The “New Normal” and the Same Old Story: Evangelism in a Virtual World

First appeared on The Gospel Coalition Australia website:

“I just want to see my friends!” This was the frustrated—and completely understandable—cry from one of our teenagers as we entered another week of isolation with no clear end in sight. Although these friends had been chatting (and gaming) online, they knew it was a far cry from seeing each other. Yet this is the “new normal” under COVID-19. By necessity rather than choice, online interactions are rapidly taking the place of physical contact. And this is all happening in the midst of other serious challenges: uncertainty about finances, job loss, unfulfilled dreams, loneliness, increased anxiety, depression, bereavement, and the ever-present fear of sickness and death itself.

In one sense, this “new normal” is not entirely new. Throughout history, humans have been subject to sickness, sadness, sin, futility, frustration and the looming prospect of death. In modern times we’ve often been able to ignore this reality and pretend we’re invincible and immortal, but this sense of self-sufficiency has now been shattered. A Christian friend of mine, who had a baby close to the start of the COVID-19 restrictions, has been chatting via Zoom with her new mums’ group. She’s discovered that many who had originally identified as atheists, or didn’t want to talk about God, are now thinking and talking openly about God, religion, life, and death.

So the “new normal” presents us with a real opportunity to share the same old story: the gospel of Jesus Christ. This gospel proclaims that Jesus Christ is Lord of all, who has come to save us from sin, death, and God’s judgment by his death and resurrection. And right now, we don’t have to work especially hard to convince people they need saving. People know there’s something deeply wrong with the world and our lives. Into this situation of shattered illusions, we have a wonderful gospel to speak and share. And communication technology, for all its frustrations and challenges, gives us many opportunities to bring the gospel into people’s lives in new and creative ways.

The Challenges of Online Evangelism

Now there are real challenges when it comes to online evangelism. Evangelism is about sharing a message about a person: Jesus Christ, who is Lord and Saviour. This is best done in the context of relationships—as real people to real people about a real person. Relationships work most naturally when we’re physically present. Of course, relationships can be established and fostered online. But it’s not exactly the same. While it’s amazingly efficient—you can connect instantly with anyone in the world—the nuance, depth and richness of the interaction is far lower. Online relationships are (often literally) two-dimensional rather than three-dimensional: instant and efficient, but “thinner”, less satisfying, and less natural.

As many have discovered recently, online video conversations can be exhausting. Text-based interaction (e.g. Facebook) is even more fraught: there are fewer face-to-face cues, and so more potential for wrongly assuming motives, misunderstanding, anger, polarisation, envy and anxiety. So we shouldn’t be surprised when we feel frustrated or strung out by online communication. We all need to be disciplined about resting and limiting our time online. In fact, some people have realised they need to pull back on their online communication during these times. Maybe you’ve decided just to pick up the phone and chat to friends more often. If so, that’s fantastic!

The Opportunities of Online Communication

But even with the challenges, there are amazing opportunities in online evangelism. We can instantly reach many people at once with the gospel—not just friends, but people whom we might never meet this side of eternity. And right now, people really are listening. My church is finding that many people from different places and backgrounds are connecting with our online “church” events and evangelistic courses. My own personal blog, which includes a series of reflections about the gospel (based on Ephesians) and an associated podcast, has had a significant, sustained increase in visits and downloads since the COVID-19 crisis started. So people are open to the gospel, and they’re listening.

Of course, online evangelism isn’t just about big church events or blogs or podcasts. It can also happen in individual, simple ways. For example, at the start of the isolation period, we decided to upload some regular YouTube videos of our family eating meals, having fun and talking about how we’re coping and what we’re struggling with—and of course how our trust and hope in Jesus Christ makes a difference in our lives. This helps people to connect, and enables us to share Jesus in a natural way, in the context of real life.

Some Simple Ideas

Maybe there is something you could do to share Jesus online? Life might already be full of challenges, so I’m not suggesting you add to the burden. Perhaps you could simply look at what kinds of online connections you already have, and try to be more deliberate about sharing the gospel within those connections?

This can be as simple as going onto a social media platform, sharing something you’re enjoying in life, and how you’re thankful to God for it. Or, perhaps you could decide to share what you find hard right now, and relate that to your faith and hope in Jesus. Don’t underestimate how powerful this is: at a time when many people are finding little joy and hope, it shows how Jesus makes a difference in your life. Perhaps you might simply decide to “like” and “share” more links that communicate the gospel in some way—videos, articles, online church events, etc.—along with a brief comment about why you like it yourself. If you have the capacity, you might try something completely new. Some friends filmed their family cooking for a church event, posted this to social media and invited viewers to a church activity. A colleague has decided to read and reflect on a Psalm a day and share this online.

In all this, keep remembering that God is at work in his world through his Spirit and his word, bringing salvation and changing lives. This gives us confidence to take up online opportunities to speak the gospel into the lives of others, even when life is hard. It also gives us a reason to be disciplined, to rest, and to pray: recognising our limits, repenting of our sin, resting securely in his grace, and reflecting on his love for us in Jesus Christ.

Want to Read More?

I explore some of these ideas in two of my books: Gospel Speech: A Fresh Look at the Relationship Between Every Christian and Evangelism (Matthias Media, 2015) and Gospel Speech Online: Speaking the Truth in Love in a Digital World (Matthias Media, 2017).

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