Digital Ministry in the 21st Century

Jonathan Alexander
April 5, 2021

After a year of travel restrictions, quarantines and lockdowns, international missionaries are learning that losing physical access doesn’t necessarily mean that we have lost gospel access. While nothing can replace face-to-face conversations over a cup of tea, the reality is that in this age of social media and digital communication, we must learn to take advantage of the tools that we have in our hands.

One recent study shows that 3.96 billion people use social media worldwide, up almost double from 2.07 billion in 2015. That is over half of the world’s 7.7 billion population. Wherever you go, you find men and women staring at the screens of their phones. We now have instant access to any and every kind of information we could desire. We can communicate with men and women in almost every country (or even town) in the world.

This presents an amazing opportunity for those who have an important message to communicate. The global pandemic has further highlighted the incredible resource that digital tools can be. And so, missionaries around the world are committing significant resources to getting the message of the gospel in front of the eyes of men and women everywhere. Facebook, Instagram, Telegram and WhatsApp have become significant tools in the toolbelts of most missionary teams.

Suddenly we find that we have access to people and places that we could only dream of reaching a decade or so ago. Several years ago, I was in a remote mountain village in Central Asia. The man we were visiting with had just made the life changing decision to become a follower of Jesus. The first snow of winter was supposed to arrive the next week. His village would be cut off from the rest of the country, as had been the case every winter for as long as that tiny village had existed. There was something different that year, though. This village had just received their first cell phone tower. Suddenly this isolated village was not so isolated anymore. That story is being repeated all around the globe. There are very few places that we cannot reach.

That begs the question, however, of what it is that we are going to offer through these new avenues of communication? There is so much digital noise out there, so much to compete with. Missionaries are confronted with the huge challenge of identifying and creating content that will serve their ultimate purpose of helping the nations understand the great love that God has for them, as seen in the death, burial and resurrection of Jesus Christ. What can we present that will compete against the noise? Obviously, there are countless answers to this question—Bible studies, correspondence courses, movies, songs—the list goes on and on. But I believe that central to any digital strategy must be the greatest resource that we have to offer—the Word of God, translated into a language that men and women can easily understand.

The Bible says of itself, “The word of God is alive and active. Sharper than any double-edged sword, it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart” (Heb. 4:12, NIV). Ultimately, God’s Word will be the medium through which the nations come to understand and cherish Jesus. And so, missionaries need to develop strategies that revolve around access to God’s Word. Solid translations need to be made available through digital means. Men and women stare at their phone screens all day long. The question we need to be asking is, “How do we get Scripture to be what they are seeing on their screens?”

In previous decades there was a strong emphasis in missiological circles on Church Planting Movements (CPMs). CPMs are marked by a rapid, exponential growth of the church among certain peoples or countries. A colleague pointed out to me that one fact that was not often highlighted when talking about CPMs was what he called “the left side of the curve.” In almost every situation of rapid growth, there is evidence that there had previously been about 100 years of exposure to God’s word. That is, foundational to the growth of the church was a solid foundation of sowing Scripture.

And so, as we look to take advantage of the opportunities that the 21stcentury presents us, let’s be sure that we are focusing our digital efforts on Scripture access.