Social networking online

Incredible spectrum for evangelism

The Web as a medium is so broad that for any person it can be ‘what you want it to be’. For some, it is merely best way of keeping in touch with friends and family by email. For others, it can be any or all of: finding new friends, seeking information and doing research, hearing news, playing online games, networking with others about a hobby or interest, sharing opinions, asking questions, making choices about purchasing, publishing their writing, photographs or videos, and much more. And so the opportunities for online evangelism are equally wide. And note, many of them need no technical skill. And it is, in many ways, an ideal mission field. If Facebook was a country, it would be the third largest (by population) in the world.

Web 2.0

Each new medium that is invented takes time to develop and mature. When TV started, it was perceived as ‘radio with pictures’. But it quickly transformed into a different medium, as its strengths, advantages, and limitations became understood.

The Web has been with us as a mainstream medium since the mid-90s. Over that time, it has developed from merely static ‘pages on a screen’ to something far more. This ‘grown-up Internet‘ is sometimes called Web 2.0. [http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Web_2] Although the ‘2.0’ concept includes best-practice design standards for webpage appearance and easy intuitive navigation, it embraces much more – a whole philosophy of communication. Just as the church is people, not buildings; the Web is essentially relationships, not computer screens. People want ‘connectedness’, the opportunity to share in a two-way conversation, to feel they belong, to share their lives. This is often called a sense of community, and is a key part of Web 2.0.

arrow diagram Traditionally, web evangelism has been seen as the creation of evangelistic web-pages, and that is certain to remain a strategic part of web outreach. If we can liken different aspects of web evangelism to the physical world, then normal outreach web-pages have similarities with both a reference library and an inquiry service, as shown in the ‘broadcast ministry’ diagram. Chat room outreach by contrast is similar to street evangelism – a direct way of up-front discussion with anyone who will listen. And social networking is more like hanging out in a cafe with friends.

Relationships

There are many web approaches which are the online equivalent of the ongoing networking relationships we build with neighbors, friends in school or college, or workmates. This is not the sort of direct preachy evangelism typified by street evangelism – you would lose all your friends within a week that way. It is the living out of a Christian life, being salt in your community, building up relationships with no ulterior motive, and taking opportunities to ask thought-provoking questions or share your faith when appropriate.

Most people who come to faith do so through an ongoing relationship with a praying Christian. And those whose spiritual journey starts through an outreach site usually need an email relationship with a mentor, before coming to commitment. This is just the same as in a non-web situation. It is unusual for example, that someone comes to faith through reading a tract alone, without previous or subsequent relationships with Christians. Likewise, websites do not usually hook non-seekers off the Internet, lead them through a gospel presentation and prayer of commitment, and see them march off to the nearest church the next Sunday. The most effective outreach sites offer faithful, consistent, ongoing email mentoring to inquirers, as these stories demonstrate. God can work sovereignly without human intervention, but it is the exception.

Social networking

arrow diagram There has been a huge growth in this ‘relational web’, with blogging and social networking [http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Social_network] sites being hugely popular. We can illustrate the webs of relationships with the diagram to the right. The attraction of blogs is that they are usually friendly and intimate. The readers of a personal blog will quickly feel they ‘know’ the writer, and will frequently share their reactions and ideas on the blog (if it is set up to allow readers’ comments). Social networking sites, especially Facebook, are among the most visited sites on the planet. They are a virtual meeting place at a whole range of levels. Users can contact other people, post blogs, videos, and pictures, or discuss issues and interact in many other ways. Of course, it has long been possible to do these things online – but a social networking site combines them together in an easy coherent whole. See this map [http://digital.leadnet.org/2008/04/map-of-social-n.html] of social networking sites usage in different countries, and this map [http://www.checkfacebook.com/] of Facebook users worldwide.

Thus we can meet people online in a variety of ways, and as we build relationships, we can share our hearts with them. In addition, there are many ways to make our FaceBook page into a non-preachy but question-posing environment, by adding links to appropriate outreach sites, blogs or video-clips.

Sharing faith on Facebook

Communication expert Cynthia Ware [www.thedigitalsanctuary.org] shares strategies for using Facebook and other networking sites to share your faith:
People who don’t understand the value of social media see no point in ‘wasting time’ connecting with others online. However, we have an opportunity to encourage believers to spread out and focus on sharing our faith with those who may need it most. All too often we’ve got too many ‘fellows in the same ship’ if you know what I mean. Online communication is really a modern-day parallel for getting to know your neighbors.

Since the Good News is meant to be shared, it will only serve the Kingdom if we use online means to augment our physical world relationships.

Facebook is a perfect example of an easy free way to connect with others and share your faith. If you think it’s costly in terms of time, you’re mistaken. It’s an investment. In fact, using online communication is the fastest, cheapest way to connect with large groups of people who you might never have a chance to keep in regular contact with were it not for your electronic link. This is old news to many people but sometimes Christians clump together instead of looking for inventive ways to spread out.

If you’ve avoided Facebook based on MySpace’s reputation, here are 10 simple steps to get you started:

  1. Repent! Realize you’ve been apathetic or cynical about social media because, well mainly because, people put down what they don’t understand. Rethink; go another way.
  2. Join Facebook. Signing up is easy and free. All you need is an email address and a desire to build relationships.
  3. Create your personal profile. This can be as simple or complex as you like. It can take as little as 5 minutes or you can get wordy.
  4. Invite your friends to add you. Searching for your friends is very easy, especially if someone you know has already added many of your acquaintances.
  5. Join groups that reflect parts of you, your interests, profession, education, geographic area, etc. Anything you find interesting will connect you with others.
  6. Feed your page. If you also blog, make sure you syndicate your content with RSS which for Facebook is easy to use. Try Blog RSS Feed Reader.
  7. Mingle on purpose. Remember you want to connect with friends but also stretch out beyond the familiar.
  8. Add events that you think others might be interested in hearing about or attending. Anything counts, seminars, financial classes, scrapbooking parties, etc.
  9. Create a group. The options are endless. I’ve seen unique examples including genealogy groups, reunion groups, memorial groups, etc.
  10. Check your page at regular intervals. Use it or lose it. If you don’t check in and respond, people will loose interest in their ability to connect with you. Plus, your home page is where the news feed lives. It’s how you get current information on all the people you want to be connected with.

More on Facebook evangelism

Sharing the good news on Facebook – our detailed guide page
Free e-books on social media and other recommended Christian and secular resources

Alternatives to secular networking sites

There have been attempts to make family-friendly or specifically Christian social networking sites. However, the value of a social networking site is that you can actually find all your friends there, which is why Facebook has won the race, and other competitors are in decline or closing. Belonging to an insular Christian ghetto is worrying from a biblical incarnational understanding of evangelism, though for children and young teens, a Christian alternative can be a far safer environment for them. Training for older Christian teens in appropriate use of Facebook is an ideal task for a youth group.

Other areas for social interaction

The Web offers a vast range of networking opportunities, to either enter discussions or build relationships. Here are a few:
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