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15 July 2019

Mission and the Internet

Synopsis:

The paper looks at the impact of the internet based on statistics for Southeast Asia, China, and Japan, and focuses on the development of an internet ministry in Thailand for evangelism and Christian nurture. It presents four stepping stones that can be used to develop an effective internet ministry and how this can be reproduced elsewhere. The article also looks at the challenges that internet ministry and outreach face as well as the great opportunity that the internet provides.

Reinout van Heiningen

Reinout joined OMF as an associate in 2004, serving with the Mekong field. After getting married in 2006 he studied with his wife Arenda in England for two years with New Tribes Mission. In early 2009 they returned to Thailand to serve as church planters in North East Thailand. In 2015 Reinout was asked to also develop a program for Internet Evangelism. Reinout and Arenda are currently serving as Admin and Finance managers for OMF Thailand, while still being responsible for Internet Evangelism.

Mission and the Internet

Mission Round Table Vol. 12 No. 1 (January-April 2017): 23-29

Arguably, nothing that has changed our world more in the last thirty years than the internet. The internet has turned our existence upside down. It has revolutionized communications to the extent that it is now our preferred medium of everyday communication. In almost everything we do, we use the internet.

Just think back to the time “back in the stone age” when a phone call, letter, or knock on the door was required to communicate with someone. Then you would have to wait for a reply to your letter or leave a message on someone’s answering machine if they weren’t home when you called.

Think back to the time when you had to go to a shop if you wanted to buy something. You had to depend on the salesman for advice; you had to visit several places to compare prices. And in the end you had to pay cash before walking out of the shop with your product.

Think back to the time when you had to go to a library to read books to find answers to your questions. If you wanted to travel you had to buy a travel guide for the particular country you were going to visit. Those were the days of waiting for the morning paper to hit your front porch so you could get your daily dose of news and weather. It was the time when you actually had to visit or call a bank in order to check your account balance. You had to wait in a long line on Friday afternoon to get cash or deposit your paycheck. In those days you had to go to a shop to rent a video and you had to look in the newspaper for advertisements if you needed another job. Do you still remember that you had to sit physically at a table with other people to play a game?

The internet has indeed changed our lives. The changes in social communication are of particular significance. Although analog tools still have their place in some contexts, new technologies continue to gain ground every day, transforming our communication practices and creating new possibilities—particularly among younger people. Communication barriers have largely been removed by the internet. Online, the conventional constraints of space and time disappear amid the dizzyingly wide range of communicative possibilities.

The internet has become embedded in every aspect of our day-to-day lives, changing the way we interact with others. Out of all the myriad communication opportunities that the internet has opened up, I will highlight the emergence of social media and the way they have intricately melded with our daily lives. Social media have changed our personal spaces, altering the way we interact with our loved ones, friends, and people we have never met; they have forced us to rethink even basic daily processes like studying and shopping; they have affected the economy by nurturing the business startup culture and electronic commerce; they have even given us new ways to start broad-based political movements.

The internet has clearly impacted all levels of education by providing unbounded possibilities for learning. Students can work interactively with one another, unrestricted by physical or time constraints. Today, you can use the internet to access libraries, encyclopedias, art galleries, news archives, and other information sources from anywhere in the world.

The internet revolution is not just technological; it also drives changes at a personal level and throughout the structure of society. The internet makes it possible for an unlimited number of people to communicate with one another freely and easily.

Fig. 1  The number of global internet users by year [1]

Some statistics

As we look into the topic of how the internet will impact the future of mission, it is important to first of all consider some statistics with regard to the access and use of the internet in the world, and specifically East Asia where most of OMF’s work is based. Figure 1 shows the worldwide growth of internet users from 2000 to 2016.[1] Figure 2 shows the number of users divided among the different regions of the world as of December 2016.[2]

As it is impossible to examine the statistics of every country, I have picked a few to show internet penetration and behavior on the internet.

Southeast Asia

Based on the We Are Social latest report released in February 2017, Southeast Asia has a total population of 644.1 million people. More than half of the population (339.2 million) in the region now have access to the internet and 305.9 million are active social media users. This number is growing rapidly. Since January 2016, the number of internet users grew by 80 million (31%) and the registered active social media accounts grew by 72 million (31%)[3].

The report by We Are Social noted that

Mobile internet use appears to be driving much of this growth, although mobile internet penetration hasn’t quite hit the halfway point yet. The current pace of growth suggests that we’ll likely pass that milestone in the next few months though, with most new internet users in the region now mobile-first, and often mobile-only.[4]

The report also noted that Facebook now has the greatest number of monthly active users in the region (305.9 million), with 89% of them accessing Facebook via mobile devices and 50% of them using Facebook daily. For Myanmar, the report highlighted that although barely one-quarter of the population are using social media, usage has skyrocketed. For example, Facebook recorded 14 million users since the restrictions on Facebook were lifted in the country and more than 6 million of them were new users in the previous 12 months—84% year-on-year growth!

An article in Tech in Asia that examined the changing landscape in 2015 also highlighted the following about young Facebook users:

Despite media click-bait suggesting that young people are leaving Facebook “in their droves,” the data suggest that Facebook remains hugely popular with Millennial audiences.

More than 70% of the platform’s users in the region are under 30 years of age, and . . . more than 63 million users under the age of 20 used facebook in the past 30 days.[5]

China

The latest figures reported by We Are Social for China are:

  • Active Internet Users: 688 million (out of a population of 1,379 million)
  • Active Social Media Users:653 million active users (penetration rate of 47%)
  • Active Mobile Social Media Users:577 million (penetration of 42%).[6]

A report by We Are Social in 2015 noted that roughly 100,000 people in China started using the internet per day (more than one every second) over the preceding year with a growing number of mobile-only internet users, especially in rural areas.  It added that internet usage wasn’t evenly distributed—a marked difference remained between urban and rural usage rates—almost two-thirds of China’s urban population used the internet every month, while only three in ten of the rural population did so. The report also noted that:

At 1 hour and 43 minutes per day, social media accounts for just under half of all the time that people spend online in China. The country’s social media users spend 23% longer using social media than they do watching TV each day, although it’s worth noting that much of this time overlaps, with many TV viewers engaging in ‘second-screen’ social media use at the same time.[7]

Japan

The latest statistics indicate that LINE is still the top social platform in Japan, with national penetration surpassing half of the population in 2016; LINE reports that it has 64 million monthly active users in Japan.[8]

According to a btrax report in 2015:

Japan has a very high internet penetration, at 86 percent—they are the fourth largest internet population in the world after China, USA, and India. Mobile penetration is 122 percent, which means on average, people own more than one mobile device. In terms of social media use, there are almost as many account accesses via mobile (22M) as the total number of active social media accounts, which is over 90% of all social media usage. This means that the majority of people who use social media use it on mobile as well as desktop.[9]

Figure 3, from the same report, shows the most popular social networks in Japan.

According to a 2015 study by eMarketer, half of all social network users in Japan use Twitter, and 26 million people were expected to be on the social media network in Japan in 2015, representing 20.5 percent of the Japanese population. Twitter usage was expected to rise in Japan, with a predicted 30.1 millions users in 2018.[10]

An article published by btrax in Jan 2016 cites reasons as to why Twitter was able to take off in Japan:

  • Anonymity: Privacy is important in Japan, and Twitter allows users to use fake names. Twitter serves as a platform for Japanese users to express emotion anonymously.
  • 140 Characters: In Japanese, you can say almost double what you can say in English with 140 characters.
  • Mobile: Twitter began to catch on in Japan as early as 2007 when it was gaining popularity in the States. Japanese feature phones at the time already had internet capability and there were various feature phone clients designed for Twitter.[11]

An earlier btrax article reported the following on Facebook in Japan:

Facebook has 22 million users in Japan as of January 2015. Initially, Facebook had trouble gaining traction because users had to provide their real names to register. However, in recent years, Japan began to warm to Facebook. The latest statistics show that Japan has around 25 million active Facebook users, which is almost 20% of the population.[12]

Forecast

As we noted before, the recent finding of a 2016 report is that more than half of the world’s population now uses the internet. What’s more, the growth of internet use continues to accelerate around the world, with global user numbers up by more than 80% in the past five years. It is expected that this growth will continue in the coming years.

Internet ministry in Thailand

In Thailand more than 38 million people still live in a sub-district without a church or single Christian. With less than 0.7% Christians the question is how the gospel will spread through the country, until the last person has had a chance to hear the good news of Jesus Christ. OMF Thailand’s mission is to glorify God by the urgent evangelization of Thailand. The question that we asked is how this can happen as soon as possible. With a slow growing church and fewer missionaries wanting to come long term we need to find ways to reach the unreached with the gospel.

My family lives in a small rural village in the northeast. Our village can only be reached by a dirt road. The closest 7-11 shop is more than a twenty-kilometer drive. I was very surprised though that, after coming back from a short home assignment at the beginning of 2015, my phone said that I had a 4G internet connection. This is something that most people in Europe still have no access to.

I soon found out that 40% of Thai people have internet access, mainly through mobile phones. Another interesting fact is that people spent on average four hours and six minutes per day accessing the internet from their mobile device. Out of this time they spent three hours and forty-six minutes on social media and just twenty minutes on browsing websites.

Putting all the above together, it is clear that there’s huge potential for internet ministry in Thailand. With over 66 million people who don’t know the Lord Jesus Christ as their Savior there’s a huge target audience. Internet ministry further supports all the evangelism and church planting efforts carried out by OMF Thailand, other mission agencies, and the Thai church. The reach goes beyond the borders of the country, as this ministry can be a help to Thai churches and diaspora ministry globally.

Jesus.net has a lot of experience and resources available that can be used in setting up internet ministry in Thailand.[13] They are willing to help us set up an internet ministry in Thailand and help us to grow the ministry in the future. Partnering with jesus.net will help us to lower the cost of development and also to be a blessing to other partners as internet ministry in Thailand grows and new things are developed.

To develop an effective ministry we will follow the four stepping stones from jesus.net: Access, Know, Grow, and Share.

1. ACCESS: Building bridges to people who need the gospel

In this phase, we focus on making connections to where people are in their lives. Often this is based on the things they search for in Google. Searches reveal the felt needs of people (such as: Does anyone love me? Who cares about me and my life? Does anyone know who I am? What is the secret to a good life?), life questions (such as: What is life all about? Why am I on earth? Why is there evil in the world?), worries/doubts/fears (such as: I am lonely. I want to die. I lost my job, so now what?). By connecting to people’s felt needs and their questions or worries about life, we have opportunities to recognize their need, show interest and understanding while offering them a broader perspective with hope in finding answers. In doing so, we try to bridge between the felt need and some element of faith in God through Jesus.

Digital strategy for ACCESS in Thailand:

Landing pages

Very few Thai “seekers” search on Google for words like “God” or “Jesus,” simply because they have never heard about God or Jesus. Therefore we need to connect with “seekers” through landing pages.

A landing page is a focused stand-alone web page with a single objective and very specific call to action. A landing page is like a bridge, connecting people from different points (paths) into a main website. Landing pages have proved to be relevant connections to users and are often more mobile friendly. It is important to make sure that landing pages are kept simple, using short sentences and simple words.

Facebook pages

With over 32 million social media users in Thailand, Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube will play an important part in connecting with our audience. One or more Facebook pages should be developed (preferably with the same name as a website). By using some money to promote this page people will start “liking” the page and interaction will start. Facebook pages that lead to the main website should be updated daily with one or more posts. These posts can be links to videos, challenging questions, links to courses, Bible verse, pictures, etc.

The current Prakhampee page can also be used to draw attention to the website. With 85,000 likes it will be a good start to make the website known. With a similar Twitter account we hope to reach a large audience. A YouTube channel with the same name will be created to post video clips, testimonies, etc.

2. KNOW: Presenting the gospel and inviting a response

In this phase, we share the gospel and offer an opportunity to respond to it. We share God’s love for people and his desire to be in a relationship with them. Additionally, we help people get to know Jesus through an online course in which participants are offered content and a personal e-coach to explore who Jesus is. During this phase, we also offer people the opportunity to respond to the gospel message by saying a prayer, sending in their questions and thoughts, or signing up for an online course or other resource. In this phase, we also encourage the new believers to take further steps to GROW in their faith.

Digital strategy for KNOW in Thailand:

The main page of the website will focus on getting to know God and Jesus. Work on the website is close to completion (www.knowgod.in.th). The text of some existing tracts will be put on the website as well (if copyright allows) so that the gospel will be presented from different angles. A few other videos will need to be translated into Thai for those who look around at the website but are not ready to start a course

3. GROW: Encouraging new Christians to strengthen their faith

In this phase, we assist (new) Christians to deepen their relationship with God through Jesus, encouraging and equipping them to apply their faith in everyday life. We do this by offering a growing number of online courses, tools, and resources on various topics (Bible-reading, prayer, dealing with finances, principles for a healthy marriage/counseling, etc.). During this growth process, we encourage the visitors and participants to take a next step and share their faith.

Digital strategy for GROW in Thailand:

Most of the courses and content will focus on helping Christians grow in their faith. This can be done through courses with a coach as well as courses without coaching. Jesus.net offers CODEX as a platform for the courses.

Courses with a coach that will be available include:

  • Bible courses currently available at kwamjing.net. This course has fifteen lessons and can be put into CODEX.
  • “Why Jesus?” This course is available and will be translated, including a one-minute video. The “Why Jesus?” course is all about knowing for oneself the truth about the person Jesus Christ. It introduces his birth, his wondrous miracles, and the profound teachings about the facts of his life, death, and eternity. It also helps people understand the way to life through him.
  • “Living in Christ.” This course is available in English and will be translated. The aim of this course is to help people know what it means to live as a Christian. It consists of four lessons based on verses from the Gospel of John and other books of the Bible.
  • Bible course for teenagers. We will try to work with CEF to develop an online course for teenagers to come to know God and to grow in faith.

Courses available without an e-coach include:

  • Basic Christian Living. A series of twelve video lessons to help people grow in their Christian life. These videos are available through FFPThailand and will be available on the website.
  • Discipleship series developed by CBN. An ongoing series of ten-minute lessons on questions about God, the Bible, the Christian life, etc.
  • A Bible correspondence course developed by Voice of Peace.

Some courses that need to be developed are:

  • A course on the marital roles of husband and wife.
  • A course on raising children as Christian parents.
  • A course on using and lending money as a Christian.
  • A course about different Thai or Buddhist ceremonies and festivals and what part Christians can or cannot play in these.
  • A course on the prosperity gospel and its dangers.

Biblword.net is an English blog that serves to answer many questions that both believers and non-believers have. We will create a copy of this website in Thai
(www.prakhampee.net), so there is no need to develop a new website. Articles from the blog that are relevant for Thai Christians and non-Christians will be translated into Thai and published. The same articles can be posted on the evangelistic website and the prakhampee.net website. The Bible.net website also has some devotionals and videos that will be translated. The website www.prakhampee.net is close to being launched as well.

4. SHARE: Mobilizing Christians to share their faith

In this phase, we assist and equip visitors to share their faith in God and lead others to Christ. They can share what they have experienced and learned in their relationship with him and help others step-by-step to follow Jesus. This sharing will result in opportunities for contact with other searchers who will be introduced to ACCESS to hear the gospel through the initiative of believers.

We encourage people to share their faith and story with other people. Life stories are important, especially for Thai people who still “believe” that Christianity is a foreign religion. Resources for sharing their faith through a personal story will be provided in several ways:

  • Video testimony. FFPThailand has produced a good number of four- to five-minute testimonies from Thai people. These videos will be made available at the website.
  • Written testimonies. Several Thai people will be approached to write their testimony in a very short form. These testimonies will be published at the website.
  • Testimonies of students. E-coaches will approach people who have finished courses to write a short impression or testimony to be posted on the website.
  • Training to give testimony. MyStory.me, a part of jesus.net, has a course for people to tell their own testimony and to film it with their cellphone or tablet. The course will have to be translated into Thai. These new testimonies will be published on YouTube and shared on the Facebook page and Twitter.

Offline Follow-up: Connecting inquirers to local churches

In all of the phases described above, we offer ways to connect offline to a local body of Christians—a local church—that offers an Alpha-course or some other form of offline connection with believers. This is because we believe the local church is the place where people can really grow spiritually. Most of the time, this transition from online to offline connection takes place in the KNOW or GROW phase. Each of the ministry partners works to provide a quality follow-up network for searchers and (new) believers in their respective language or geographical location.

Other ways to use the internet in reaching out in Thailand:

Periscope

Periscope is a live video streaming app for iOS and Android. Periscope users have the option to tweet out a link to their Live Stream. They can also choose whether or not to make their video public or viewable to only certain users.

Periscope gives a new dimension to internet ministry in Thailand. When there are enough followers on Twitter, live Bible studies could be broadcasted to the followers. This brings another kind of interaction with the audience. Since Periscope is not yet widely known in Thailand it will probably take a few years before this tool can be used effectively.

City Campaign

In the future, city-wide campaigns could be held throughout Thailand so that local churches can cooperate together to reach their city. Websites can be made specific for each city and billboards can be rented, with participating churches contributing to the cost. These outreach efforts help the churches to unify. Ideas include outreach at different places, concerts, flashmobs, etc. The idea will need to be developed.

E-Coach

In the whole process of introducing people to the gospel, an e-coach plays a vital role, helping them understand the gospel, grow in faith, and share their faith. An e-coach listens to people, comes alongside to help them find answers to their questions, helps them take (their first) steps in getting to know Jesus Christ and prays for them.

Missions and the Internet

Challenges

While many things are currently being done in internet ministry, most of it is done in the name of a particular church. One of the big challenges in making an internet ministry effective is to enlist the cooperation of various churches and other organizations. Internet ministry that only focuses on the growth of a local church is often not effective because the internet goes beyond the local community. It should be used to build God’s Kingdom.

Another challenge for internet outreach comes when websites and social media platforms are blocked. Where this is the case, more creativity is needed to reach people with the gospel. When developing strategies for outreach, it is good to keep a number of things in mind:

  • Good research has to be done on what may be effective ways to reach the target people in these countries. Website building, hosting, and e-coaching can be done and managed from abroad.
  • In internet ministry, a target group can be reached globally. This is particularly true when people from a particular country have migrated to another country where they can be reached in a very straightforward manner through the internet.
  • More people around the world have started using VPNs. Research done in late 2015 showed that 29% of all Chinese internet users make use of a VPN or proxy server to go online.
  • Whereas websites can be blocked, apps cannot be. Apps that explain the gospel and apps that help people share the gospel with others can play an important part in evangelization through the internet.

In doing research and talking to people who are involved in internet evangelism it was hard to get a lot of information on the digital strategies that they use. Extended research is needed to find the right ways to reach certain places via the internet.

Other challenges that continually impact internet ministry include:

  • Technology change: Every year new smartphones are introduced, bringing new possibilities in user experience. To exploit the functions of the devices effectively, those involved in internet ministry need to keep up to date with changes and new possibilities that these may bring.
  • Software change: Software is being continually developed. The challenge of being up to date is huge. A website or app is never a finished task!
  • Hypes and trends: New platforms and ways of communicating are introduced continually. In order to effectively reach a target audience, we need to be aware of the hypes and trends and changes in online behavior and act accordingly.

Testimonies

A couple of weeks ago I received a message via a response form at one of our websites:

“I am living in a season of addiction, disobedience, and serious sins. I’ve tried to repent and turn away but I find myself failing all the time. I know that I cannot fully surrender to God yet. Is there still hope for me? Will God still receive me and wait for me?”

When this conversation started I tried to help the person to not only understand God’s character, but also discover what was really going on. This conversation is still continuing and there are some serious issues in this person’s life. Steps are now being taken that I pray God will use to set the man free from addiction and restore him. In the last e-mail I received the person shared that he had been struggling for a long time, but didn’t dare to share it with someone he knew. He wanted to stay anonymous and the internet gave him that opportunity. Now, a couple of weeks later, he has started to share with his church leaders and he’s also facing the consequences for his lifestyle.

People’s lives are being changed through the internet all over the world. The team in India received this message last week. “Hello :) I am Hindu and I want to come in Christianity so how is this possible? – Gaurav

Below are some more testimonies that I received from our jesus.net partners all over the world:

  • Mr. Yee shared with us that his whole family turned to Christ through the website. Another seeker told us how she got to know our website a year ago when he visited his sister in Japan.
  • “Hello, KnowingGod-team. I’m fine, thank God. God is putting in my mind something that reduces my anxiety when we are afraid of everyone around us die and feel alone in the world. I go to church every week and pray to God every day. Thank you for caring about me. A big hug and be with God. Do not forget me.” (Mary, Brazil)
  • “Since I started the courses in this blessed site, I have learned great things. Uplifting! My contact with the Lord God has greatly improved and my relationship with Him has only made me grow a lot spiritually.” (Fabio)

Conclusion

There are many reasons for mission organizations to make internet ministry a vital part of their strategy.

  • A Great Need. The masses of unsaved millions are gathering on the internet. The peoples of all nations are converging, with open hearts seeking the knowledge of truth. There are also millions of Christians traveling the cyber highway, seeking encouragement, friendship, and discipleship. There is also evil there, which the church must counter with the light of God’s truth and presence.
  • A Great Mandate. The Lord’s Great Commission to the church is to evangelize by proclaiming the gospel to the world. As it was Christ’s purpose in coming to seek and save those who were lost, so must the church seek every way possible to follow Christ’s command and bring souls to him. With the hundreds of millions of East Asians who still have no access to the gospel or still don’t know God our task is not finished.
  • A Great Opportunity. Never has there been such availability and ease with such a form of mass communication. Web pages, which can convey any message of our choosing and cost almost nothing to create, can be launched from anyone’s bedroom. Hundreds of millions of people are spending time every day on social networks. E-mail to any person on the Web is global, instant, and free. Through the internet, hundreds of millions of people we couldn’t reach before have come within reach.

May God give us wisdom as we consider what role the internet should play for us as we work to complete the unfinished task.

[1] Internet Live Stats, http://www.internetlivestats.com/internet-users/#trend (accessed 16 February 2017). The values for 2015 and 2016 are based on estimates for 1 July 2016. An internet user is defined as an individual who can access the internet at home, via any device type and connection.

[2] Internet World Stats, http://www.internetworldstats.com/stats.htm (accessed 17 February 2017).

[3] Simon Kemp, “Digital in 2017: Southeast Asia: a study of internet, social media and mobile use throughout the region, We Are Social (15 February 2017), http://wearesocial.com/sg/blog/2017/02/digital-southeast-asia-2017 (accessed 9 March 2017).

[4] Simon Kemp, “Digital in 2017: Southeast Asia: a study of internet, social media and mobile use throughout the region, We Are Social (15 February 2017),

http://wearesocial.com/sg/blog/2017/02/digital-southeast-asia-2017 (accessed 9 March 2017).

[5] Simon Kemp, “Digital landscape of Southeast Asia in Q4 2015,” Tech in Asia (23 November 2015), https://www.techinasia.com/talk/digital-southeast-asia-q4-2015 (accessed 17 February 2017).

[6] We Are Social’s 2016 Digital Yearbook, https://www.techinasia.com/talk/digital-2016-data-trends-insights (accessed 9 March 2017), slide 47.

[7] Simon Kemp, “Digital, Social & Mobile in China in 2015” (18 August 2015), WeAreSocial – Special reports, http://wearesocial.com/sg/special-reports/digital-social-mobile-china-2015 (accessed 17 February 2017).

[8] Simon kemp, “Digital in 2017: Global Overview” (25 January 2017), http://wearesocial.com/sg/blog/2017/01/digital-in-2017-global-overview (accessed 9 March 2017).

[9] Kristie Wong, “Top Japanese Social Media Networks” (27 April 2015), freshtrax, http://blog.btrax.com/en/2015/04/27/2015-top-japanese-social-media-networks-2/ (accessed 17 February 2017).

[10] Shea Bennett, “Twitter Japan: 26 Million Users, Rising to 30 Million by 2018” (28 January 2015), Adweek, http://www.adweek.com/digital/twitter-japan-users-growth/ (accessed 16 February 2017). See report on the eMarketer study, “Japan, India Boast Largest Twitter Audiences in APAC” (27 January 2015), eMarketer,

https://www.emarketer.com/Article/Japan-India-Boast-Largest-Twitter-Audiences-APAC/1011917 (accessed 17 February 2017).

[11] Kristie Wong, “Japan’s Social Media Landscape in 2016” (26 Jan 2016), freshtrax, http://blog.btrax.com/en/2016/01/26/japans-social-media-landscape-in-2016/ (accessed 17 February 2017).

[12] Kristie Wong, “Top Japanese Social Media Networks” (27 April 2015), freshtrax, http://blog.btrax.com/en/2015/04/27/2015-top-japanese-social-media-networks-2/ (accessed 17 February 2017).

[13] Jesus.net, https://jesus.net/ (accessed 18 April 2016).