The ever-changing Google Earth image at https://witnesstoall.com/ is intriguing – perhaps even startling. Faster than every second, markers appear in blue (“gospel visits”), orange (“indicated decisions by those coming to faith in Jesus”), and green (“discipleship activity”). The responses pepper the screen in real-time.
Welcome to the online discipleship era, where faith emerges and blossoms through digital connections between online disciples and online workers in a massive integration of technology and old-school relationships.
Visionary minds are meshing technology with deep devotion to evangelism and discipleship with a reach never before seen. As this writer checked in on the site mentioned above, on just this one day in April 2021, with eight hours yet left in the day, over 280 thousand people had visited one of Global Media Outreach (GMO)’s evangelistic websites. Over 45 thousand people had clicked to indicate that they had made an overt decision to follow Christ. And almost 65 thousand new believers had conducted at least one of the online discipleship activities that GMO provides.
And to think that GMO is only one of hundreds of online outreach sites of faith-driven communities!
BEHIND THE TECHNOLOGY
What lies behind this use of technology to foster disciples online – many of them fresh from their online conversion experience?
This article will take a look at two large online communities applying sophisticated technology to the age-old work of spiritually connecting with those seeking religious faith and renewal, and then moving them on down the path of discipleship to a more mature faith. Finally, we look to the new horizons of virtual churches — collections of people finding and growing in faith together virtually, sometimes in the very most difficult of circumstances.
GLOBAL MEDIA OUTREACH
Global Media Outreach realized years ago that people are searching and open to the Gospel right now, every minute of every day, online. GMO says, “Each day, millions of people search online for spiritual help or are open to the Gospel. We are able to present the Gospel message online in text, video, mobile in multiple languages. New believers connect directly with volunteer Online Missionaries and begin growing in Christ through discipleship materials and Christian communities.”
In GMO’s case, its developers devised technologies to enable thousands of “online missionaries” to offer mere hours per week, logging in at their own desks at home, to provide person-to-person follow-up to those seeking growth in their faith journey.
Its follow-up software is easy to learn, and instantly provides the means for an online missionary to get in line to receive incoming inquiries from people connecting to the site and wanting discipleship. The software channels the same language speakers together and provides a way for them to keep in touch so that ongoing care can be offered.
“Our Online Missionaries are the back-bone of our ministry, thanks to their selfless love for the lost, thousands of people can know about the Good News of Jesus. Become part of our network of thousands of Online Missionaries and share your faith with the lost.” — GMO
GMO says that “online missionaries” are the backbone of its ministry. It invites newcomers to join this Great Community and “share your faith with the lost.” In fact, the invitation to get involved is given right on its website at https://globalmediaoutreach.com/get-involved/join-us/
Online missionaries are recruited in a wide variety of languages – Indonesian, Hindi, Russian, Arabic, French, Spanish, and Portuguese are featured for applicants on this April day.
When online seekers click that “I Prayed This Prayer”, they are presented with the opportunity to connect with one of GMO’s Online Missionaries. Once a connection has been made, via email, GMO describes how “Online Missionaries answer some of life’s most important questions to new believers from all around the globe” in a heavily-resourced discipleship effort.
Both online missionaries and seekers appreciate the ministry and its approach. Dennis, an online missionary since 2011, writes, “I am so privileged to be able to share the gospel with folk from around the world and not have to leave my home. One of my greatest joys is to disciple these new believers and then to see how God is working in their lives. Changing them by the power of his word. Doing this has made me dig into the word for answers that are being asked.”
An unrelated stable of outreach sites gathers around the banner of Jesus.net. This site, as well, offers a stunning visualization of real-time spiritual activity and response, at https://jesus.net/steps-to-jesus/.
Steps to Jesus zips on Google Earth from precise location to precise location, following real-time responses indicated on any of Jesus.net’s many outreach and discipleship sites.
Jesus.net has a variety of activities and courses to move faith seekers along in their spiritual growth. It writes, “With more than 18.7 million steps to Jesus and 2.7 million contact forms filled out worldwide, almost 5000 people make this decision every single day. The impact of a seemingly small act can change the world.”
Jesus.net’s approach is to use what it calls “e-coaches.” E-coaches are trained volunteers who accompany people in their search for God for one of Jesus.net’s many websites, online courses, chat or social media. People can indicate interest in becoming an e-coach on the website at https://jesus.net/vacature/e-coach/
“E-coaches are trained volunteers who accompany people in their search for God for one of our websites, online courses, chat or social media.” –Jesus.net
This multi-language set of evangelistic and discipleship websites has organized its e-coaches to talk to visitors of the website or social media channels or guide participants in the online courses.
The site tells e-coaches, “The reactions you will have to deal with as an e-coach are very different. There are visitors who commit their lives to God for the first time or again. Others have all kinds of (life) questions that cannot be answered immediately. In other cases you may accompany someone for a longer period of time in one of the online courses. Or you have contact through the chat.”
A quickly rising tech-fueled faith movement is found in the rise of what’s known as the “Virtual Church.”
A recent unpublished research project by a foundation makes several observations about virtual churches. For centuries, it notes, pastors have said to people, “Come to church!” Virtual church offers an alternative. Its principles and practices allow pastors to say, “Church has come to you. Join in.”
The report looks forward to the day when individuals from Morocco to Pakistan can readily join a community, and experience worship, teaching, prayer, fellowship, and deep joy. This will be on their screen, at their fingertips, the very place where they meet and communicate with friends every day.
Behind all this, the report states, is that people may accept Christ, but it is difficult for them to attend church, or if they attend a small house church, and the leader himself may be an untrained new believer. These new believers should be able to actively participate in a church community, and that to do so, church must come to them.
The report sees this as a timely response that fits with what the Global Church has been adapting to with online services. The report notes that it is obvious that so much in the world is going virtual. This multiplied rapidly with the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020, and the accompanying demand by governments and businesses to work from home. We believe, the report says, that the Church should fully enter this virtual age enabled by digital technology.
And it is doing so.
One virtual church fellowship with which this author is familiar has been meeting online, twice a week, for over six years. It holds together a worldwide spread of the diaspora from a certain non-Christian majority country in the Middle East and North Africa region. There is no indigenous Church within the country, yet this diaspora calls itself the “Church of Our Country” and holds three-to-five hour fellowship, worship, and study of the Bible together. The group is even creating new hymns and songs in the indigenous style, drawing on the book of Psalms. They share their situation, stories, and concerns. They hold extensive times of prayer together. This mature virtual church convinces this writer that in actual performance, virtual churches can be just as significant and long-lasting as traditional, in-person church fellowships.
Another non-Christian majority country in the Middle East and North Africa has several dozen small virtual churches, most forming without any missionary or expat involvement at all.
Incredibly — yet somehow, we may realize that it is inevitable and logical — that in this technological era we can observe the richness of movements going online to foster believers and disciples. And the points on the map continue to shower down. The future is bright for this form of fostering disciples online.