Fishing on the Other Side of the Boat
Making the most of online evangelism
Even before the pandemic and the accompanying transition to virtual ministry, times were changing for churches. Many young people were leaving, the ranks of the unaffiliated were growing, and fewer Christians were engaging in personal evangelism.
The old ways of doing church don’t always translate to a new generation. Perhaps it’s time to reframe evangelism so all Christians feel they have a role to play in helping their friends and family members come to Jesus.
I like this definition of evangelism by author Darrell Johnson: “Evangelism is joining a conversation the Holy Spirit is already having with another person.”
I believe the Holy Spirit is inviting today’s Church to join Him in digital evangelism. We saw the potential of online ministry during the pandemic. In the midst of multiple crises, people were asking the big questions about life, faith and God — some for the first time — and turning to online communities for answers.
In John 21:6, Jesus told His disciples to throw their net over the other side of the boat. When they did so, they brought in a huge haul of fish. We can think of this digital landscape as a new place to cast our nets.
It seems Jesus is telling us to try something different in our assignment as fishers of people. And if we open our eyes to what is happening around us, we’ll see where we can join the Holy Spirit in the work He has already begun and enter conversations He has already initiated. This perspective restores freedom and joy to the task of evangelism.
Our job is not to replicate what worked in the past. It is to follow where God leads and trust Him to maximize our gospel impact.
Churches already have many of the elements in place for successful online evangelism. In a recent report from Barna Group, 86% of churchgoers surveyed said their pastors articulated the gospel in ways nonbelievers could clearly understand. More than half (55%) said their pastors had preached a specific sermon focused on salvation in the previous month.
Over the past year, many unchurched individuals watched an online service, searching for hope in a time of fear and isolation. This may be the only way some people will hear the gospel. The Barna survey found that 16% of non-Christians prefer to engage in spiritual conversations online rather than in person.
However, even in digital spaces, relationships are vital. In fact, 45% of non-Christians dislike impersonal social media posts about Christianity, according to Barna. Yet 4 in 10 say they’re open to participating in faith conversations if the experience feels friendly. And among non-Christians who report having had a digital discussion about Christianity with a friend or family member, 90% say the exchange went well.
Can you imagine how many more people we could reach if we proactively engaged in evangelism using all the tools available to us today? Certainly, a great opportunity lies before us.
Here are four ways to expand online evangelism:
1. Cast the vision. Help your congregation understand that there are people in their digital networks who would be open to having a friendly spiritual conversation, if only someone approached them with love and a willingness to listen.
To skip digital evangelism is to miss a great moment in history to reach friends and family members who are geographically separated from us.
2. Be specific. Clarify what digital evangelism is — and what it is not. For example, merely posting a Bible verse or religious meme is unlikely to change lives. Encourage congregants instead to engage in gracious discussions with friends and welcome their questions.
3. Equip. Teach people how to pray, start organic spiritual conversations, and join the Holy Spirit in what He is doing online and in their communities.
4. Create space. Provide a place online where people can invite their friends. This can be a digital discussion area that accompanies the online church service or a virtual small group setting.
As more congregations move toward a hybrid model between traditional and digital church expressions, there are opportunities for both in-person and online evangelism. To skip digital evangelism is to miss a great moment in history to reach friends and family members who are geographically separated from us.
Among churchgoers who are extending invitations to digital church experiences, 17% have invited nonlocal friends, and 15% have invited nonlocal family members. We need to encourage more of this kind of interaction. After all, personal relationship is more vital to evangelism than physical proximity.
In recent months, I have invited friends from across the country to experience online Christian community with me. I have known some of them for more than 20 years and never previously had this kind of invitation opportunity. The pandemic helped pave the way for online evangelism, and I was able to witness firsthand the power of taking the gospel to the digital “highways and hedges” (Luke 14:23, ESV).
Not everyone I invited came, but many did, and I had the enormous pleasure of leading some of them to the Lord. Even my self-proclaimed atheist friend said, “The door is open to Jesus. I am just not there yet.”
The story continues with all of them, as Jesus continues to work in their hearts through online ministry and relational connections.
Cultivating friendly and safe digital environments for nonbelievers has never been easier. Amid the pandemic, people became accustomed to doing everything online — from work and school to grocery shopping.
From the comfort of their own homes, many are also willing to share their hearts with strangers like never before. In fact, 40% of respondents told Barna they are more open to talking online with people who have opposing views on controversial topics than they would be in person.
Providing an environment for these conversations can yield eternal results.
People today are used to going to the internet with their questions. And according to Barna, 1 in 3 non-Christians has unanswered spiritual questions. Many are looking not only for answers, but also for friends who will walk beside them on their journey.
What if the Church provided both? What if those who are searching encountered Christian friends on the internet who could point the way to the greatest Friend of all? What a gift it would be to meet them where they are, in the power and partnership of the Holy Spirit. Let’s not miss this opportunity to do just that.
As the Church, we have a calling to go wherever there are people in need of Jesus. It is evident that the Holy Spirit is already working in digital spaces. He is inviting us to participate with Him in the proclamation of the gospel. Are we willing to try new ways of reaching people for Christ in this changing landscape? Are we ready to fish on the other side of the boat?
This article appears in the Summer 2021 edition of Influence magazine.