The first thing I thought when I walked through the door was, Well, I guess I shouldn’t have worried about what to wear.
The place was New York City in a conference room at the Times Square Marriott where a writer’s conference (my first) was being held. I’d worried about dressing professionally and at least coming close to stylish, but relief kicked in as I realized that most writers exist close to my position on the fashion continuum. Ditto many editors. (Another confirmation that I work in the right industry. Yes!)
To get there, I had driven 13 hours from Ontario, Canada, across New York State and into New Jersey, where I left my car in a parking lot and took the train and subway into the city. Thankfully, my father had come along as company and to help me navigate the overwhelming experience that is NYC. We arrived with about 45 minutes to spare, so I tore through a shower, hopped into something I hoped looked professional and dashed downstairs in time to catch the opening address.
This particular conference majored not on the skill of writing but on the business. It included tracks for self-publishers and those who were going the trade route. Of particular interest was the concept of platform: building a niche, a reputation and an expert standing. Getting known. How does one build a platform these days? Easy, most presenters agreed. Get online.
According to Internet World Stats, there are 1,802,330,457 people online. I’m not a math whiz, but that’s close to a sixth of the world’s population. It’s more people than live in North America and Europe put together. And the continent with the most Internet users? Asia. The Internet is a virtual meeting place for people from every continent, speaking many different languages, interacting in a million different ways and congregating in a few key places. Among them: Facebook, Twitter, Amazon, YouTube and the Blogosphere.
The conference was not a Christian one, so it’s likely the presenters didn’t intend to impact my personal missionlogy. But they did. I had a significant “aha moment” while I sat in those uncomfortable hotel chairs clicking my bright green Writer’s Digest pen and wishing I could sneak a refill on tea.
For the first time, I recognized the Internet as a legitimate — and exciting — mission field.
This was simultaneously freeing and convicting. You see, as a writer, I have a history of entertaining guilt complexes that later turn out to be ridiculous. First there was the “writing is selfish because all you do is sit alone and type” complex, debunked when I realized that writing can be done: a) to glorify God, and b) to impact other people. Moreover, those were the reasons I was actually doing it.
Then came the “I spend so much time on the Internet because of work that I cannot reach out the world with the Gospel” complex. The conference challenged that complex by pointing out something obvious: The world is online. Right where I am.
Now, I am not advocating abandoning the physical world and face-to-face relationships for the sake of leaving evangelistic comments all over the web. That is neither sensible nor effective. The best witnesses are well-rounded people who exercise their faith in all arenas of life, not just the virtual one. Also, there are many people in the world who do not use the Internet — for example, my mother and most of the population of Africa. But for those of us who do spend a significant amount of time online, embracing Mission: Internet has the potential to help us be online as in the rest of the world, “as for the Lord” (Colossians 3:23).
How can we do that best?
Be Appropriate, Be Engaged
One of the most exciting things about the Internet as a mission field is that it’s a culturally appropriate place to share ideas, including ideas about God, worldview and how we live our lives. While I applaud those with the courage to go door-to-door or stand on street corners preaching, neither of those tactics is culturally appropriate. So we risk turning people off by our method before we can even get to the message.
The Internet, on the other hand, is the cultural equivalent of the Areopagus where Paul preached on the “unknown god” in Athens, or of the marketplaces where he taught in other cities. Sharing your thoughts online is just as culturally understood in our day as gathering a crowd and telling parables was in Jesus’ day. The Internet is a big free-for-all where everybody (theoretically, at least) gets an equal voice.
That said, it’s pretty obvious — and annoying — when people aren’t being appropriate online. (You don’t have to look farther than the average YouTube comment thread to see this is true.) At the writer’s conference, the experts told us that it doesn’t work just to hop on a zillion industry blogs and leave self-promoting comments. You’ll build a platform when you start engaging people in real conversation, listening to what they’re saying, and demonstrating your own expertise and professionalism in response.
The same holds true for being a witness online. Spamming every blog you can find with “Jesus saves!” comments won’t work. Engaging people in conversation, responding to their concerns, offering to pray for them — that’s where ministry happens.
Paul didn’t just sit in synagogues to preach. He taught in marketplaces. And Peter encourages us, in all areas of life, to be “prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and respect” (1 Peter 3:15). It follows, that to be a really effective witness, you don’t just hang out on Christian forums and blogs.
Do you write? Comment on writing and publishing blogs. Scrapbook? Check out sites for crafters. Discuss old cars? Toilet train toddlers? Debate philosophy? There’s an online community for almost every interest — a community where you legitimately have something to say — and an opportunity to be a witness.
My new goal online isn’t just to build a platform for myself as a writer, but to build a platform for Jesus — to bring Him honor, glory and respect through my words and actions in the virtual world.
Be Salt and Light
Christian witness has a couple of different facets. There’s the actual sharing of the Gospel, and then there’s just living life according to God’s truth in a way that affects those around us. You could call this the salt and light principle. It’s found in Matthew 5:13-16:
You are the salt of the earth . . . You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hidden. Nor do people light a lamp and put it under a basket, but on a stand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven.
A few ways to apply this principle to our online conversation come to mind: Be gracious. Be encouraging. Be informed. Think longer and harder before you leave a comment or send an email or type up a blog post than you would if you were in a face-to-face conversation. Writing is easier to misunderstand, and comments, emails and posts don’t disappear.
Remember that whatever you’re saying online doesn’t only represent you but also your Lord. Do your research. Avoid writing anything, be it a Facebook status or a Tweet or a blog post, that’s purely self-serving, bitter or whining. Involve yourself in virtual conversation with the same degree of fervency, integrity and grace you strive for in real life.
As for the overt sharing of the Gospel, that’s needed, too. Sometime soon I’m hoping to write up my own testimony and personal gospel tract to post on my website where clients, friends and surfers can easily find it. I already reference my faith on secular blogs when it applies to the topic. Don’t be afraid to mention God in your online interactions or to let your faith show through. And when someone asks a reason for the hope that is in you, run with it.
Expand the Mission
The Internet is a fantastic place for marketplace-style witness. But it’s also a great place for more targeted, outright ministry. For example, PowertoChange.org offers mentorship, prayer and chat for seekers and Christians alike, as well as a lot of ways to plug into ministry worldwide. TheRebelution.com uses a blog and forums to challenge teens to step up to a new standard (it’s impacted the lives of many teens and young people I know).
Maybe you don’t have the time to teach a Bible study in your house, but you could put together a Bible study blog or email course. Maybe you can produce podcasts, run a prayer chain or start an official theology debate or discussion forum.
The world is online. The Internet, whether we realize it or not, is a mission field. The more intentional we are about reaching it, the better impact we can all have.
Copyright 2010 Rachel Starr Thomson. All rights reserved.