When living overseas, it often occurred to me how jealous the apostle Paul would be of me. When he needed his cloak, he had to write his friend Timothy and ask him to bring it. Many months later, and probably after some shivering, he finally had his cloak. But when I lived in the Middle East and needed something or just missed family or friends, we Skyped. How Paul would have loved a little FaceTime with Barnabas from time to time.
The internet (and ease of travel) has dramatically increased what global evangelists can do quickly. We can organize ourselves across many countries, manage budgets from a home office, and stay in close touch with supporters. If Paul could reach so many in his lifetime without such technological marvels, imagine what God can do through us with them.
Yet as Christians we still lag behind when it comes to the use of technology in missions. We’re doing fine at home; I can donate to my church using my phone during the service. But overseas, we notice the lack of “modernity” and assume it implies a lack of tech savviness. We’re wrong.
There is no starker illustration than what ISIS has managed to accomplish from their desert foxholes using the internet.
ISIS, Technology, and Us
While ISIS may seem like a group straight out of the Middle Ages, they use social media and marketing as ubiquitously as Coca-Cola does.
Only in terms of communication, Christian mission in the Muslim world has something in common with ISIS. We both have to use covert methods to get our message out. We both labor to reach the same people in geographic areas that have limited access to electricity and the internet. And we both believe in the eternal nature of our work.
Unlike ISIS, however, Christians aim to draw people into a loving family rather than train people to cast themselves out to self-destruction. Also unlike ISIS, we have yet to fully embrace and make bold use of technology—a move that’d enable us to better communicate our message to a wide swath of the people we hope to reach.
ISIS makes use of technology in such a rapid and effective manner that even the CIA can’t keep up. For example, ISIS techies figured out how to engineer “twitterstorms.” Using automated Twitter accounts linked to each other, they boosted the number of retweets and thereby launched their satanic message to the top of the trending list. While the initial activity was automated rather than personal, the publicity garnered ISIS tens of thousands of legitimate followers who would retweet their propoganda. As Twitter cracked down, ISIS quickly adapted and began broadcasting using an app called Telegram, known for its encryption features. When one channel is shut down, they immediately start another one.
Not coincidentally, when I hear of a tool ISIS is using, I suddenly discover my Arab friends are also on that medium. ISIS goes where the people are. And even with the world’s governments and private social media companies working with some level of cooperation to shut them down, they cannot be silenced.
Further, ISIS is not just tweeting pithy sayings. They’re constantly crafting slick new video and audio messages. They stay current and give a sense of urgent mission to all who watch and listen. Conversely, while serving in a Middle Eastern country, we were still using The Jesus Film—shot 37 years ago—since it was the only media we could find in the dialect of our Arabic-speaking people.
Needless to say, our media content in Christian mission is admirable but still anemic in light of what’s possible.
Naturally, ISIS uses technology to share their message with those who’ve not yet been converted. But, perhaps more powerfully, they use it to train and cast vision to those already likeminded but separated by geography. As with many Western Christians, ISIS cannot just drop into a country hostile to their aims and recruit members. But they can still reach into those target countries through technology and welcome new members into their organization. They encourage, embolden, and train partners without ever meeting face to face. I am aware of secret Christians in Muslim countries who are desperately hungry for godly encouragement, emboldening, and training. But because so many Christian workers lag behind ISIS in understanding encryption measures that protect communication online, we hesitate to be as bold.
Call for Gospel-Centered Techies
There is phenomenal potential for missionaries among Muslims to channel the Shepherd’s voice into the wilderness, summoning the lost through their cell phones and computers. The fields are white for harvest, and we have tools Paul could never have imagined.
Thankfully, there are organizations already deeply entrenched in the mission-technology effort. We can look to them for leadership and partner with them in our church planting.
In order to more fully embrace this area for growth, let us embrace the techies among us. Mission agencies and churches ought to seek out and deeply invest in those with the technical talent and heart to shine light into the cyberdarkness ISIS spreads using the internet and phones. In fact, today’s Paul may well be sitting in his mother’s basement with a crumpled bag of Cheetos and a Bible next to his computer.
Here are several steps toward such an investment:
- If you’re a worker among Muslims, be sure to make technological communication a major piece of your engagement strategy, since it’s likely a major piece of the lives you hope to reach.
- If you’re a church, identify the technologically savvy members in your midst. Build them into a team to research and develop technology and software (such as apps) for those you partner with on the field. As you build that team, reach out to a tech-missions ministry for guidance, training, and collaboration.
- Facilitate a partnership between the media-minded in your fellowship and Arabic-speaking fellowships. Collaborate to create gospel content in culturally appropriate ways for distribution on YouTube and other social media outlets.
- Check out a tool developed by Arab World Media called “Media to Movements,” an initiative to assist workers with the use of relevant media methods online and on the ground—in order to support the launch and growth of church plants.
- Donate to or volunteer with groups like 100 Fold, Arab World Media, and Global Media Outreach.
- If you’re a younger Christian, consider offering your services to train more seasoned missionaries and national believers in the use of social media.
- Pray for the Lord to use any and every communication method to proclaim the good news among the nations.
Editors’ note: TGC International Outreach has just released the Arabic edition of The Gospel as Center, edited by Tim Keller and Don Carson. This volume aims to mobilize a movement dedicated to a Scripture-based reformation of ministry practices and the centrality of the gospel—so that we can stand united under the conviction that what holds us together is worth fighting for. Free eBook versions are available in ePub and mobi file versions. You can order print copies through Amazon, and free cases are available for equipping church leaders in the Mideast and North Africa.
— Bill Walsh, director of International Outreach