by Seth Hinz
Tom’s shadow hadn’t darkened a church door in 15 years.
Throughout those 15 years, the Holy Spirit had never stopped working in his life. But before he could even imagine returning to church, he had questions that needed answers.
Answers to those questions finally began to emerge late one night as he carefully typed each letter into his iPad: “What does Jesus say about … ?” Soon a red circle with a “2” shone out brightly. Two people had responded! He clicked. He read every word. And after a deep breath, he typed back.
A few months after this initial exchange, Tom entered church quietly. He sat in the fourth row from the back. During the first hymn, muscle memory pushed his mouth open to sing the words. Following the absolution, tears welled up in his eyes. The sermon was familiar, a story he’d heard countless times as a child about a father who came running when his son was still a long way from home. While the offering was collected, he waved at a child who was facing backwards. His chest swelled, and he stood taller during the benediction. After the service, he was greeted by an elder and a young couple. Before this, it had been half a year since he’d shaken someone’s hand. He left the building knowing he’d be returning soon.
Though Tom is fictional, his story feels familiar to many of us in a technological age. At its heart, however, this story is not about technology. It’s about connection.
We are connecting creatures. From Earth’s first week on, we have known that it is not good to be alone. Two decades ago, it’s not entirely clear how the Church would have found Tom in his isolation. Now, however, social networks can provide a needed outlet for burning questions — questions that spark online conversations, which can lead to emails, phone calls and finally, visits.
Many Christians are trying to figure out how the internet can be used to share the Gospel, but they often overlook one key detail: What the internet does best is connect people. And when Christians are using the internet most effectively — to supplement rather than supplant real-life relationship building — it tends to look a lot like Tom’s experience.
Meredith Gould, in her book The Social Media Gospel, refers to this movement from online to offline relationships as the “Trajectory of Engagement.” People connect online, and when something sparks, whether intellectually or otherwise, there is often a progression toward face-to-face connection. These trajectories can lead to in-store purchases or in-person coffee dates, but they can also serve as pathways to caring communities of faith.
It is incumbent upon us as Christians to think long and hard about how we can construct and smooth out those pathways. Dr. Bernard Bull, in his new book Digitized: Spiritual Implications of Technology, asks an important set of questions that we must address: If millions are spending an increasing amount of their lives in the digital world and immersed in digital culture, and if Christians are either silent, unrecognizable, or absent from that world, then where will others learn about Jesus? How can we be salt and light, not only in the physical world in which we live, but also in the digital ones?
It’s clear that online connections can play a role in leading people to the Church and to the saving Word of God. What does the initial connection look like, though? How can we be intentional about building pathways that draw people toward caring communities of faith?
How outreach-focused organizations are using digital technology
Admittedly, we Lutherans may have some ground to make up when it comes to utilizing digital technology in our evangelism efforts. Consider what the following (non-Lutheran) outreach-oriented organizations are currently doing:
Focus on the Family built and has dedicated time and resources to a “Digital Engagement Center.” The critical tool in the center of this initiative is a social listening tool called Radian6 that combs through blogs and public forums “to identify people who are asking for advice, join online conversations where appropriate and proactively engage with individuals to meet their needs.” Conversations are struck up; resources, empathy and encouragement are shared. Focus on the Family also enlists the help of digital volunteers and equips them to be Online Mentors, which helps in the large task of connecting with the hurting online.
Saddleback Church hosts an online campus with a live stream and group connection portal. When Pastor Rick Warren is interviewed or otherwise connecting with the media, he invites the public to visit their online campus to watch the weekly livestreamed service. Upon arrival, online attendees are encouraged to respond by filling out a form to “Take the Next Step” and asked if they are interested in hosting or joining a small group, locally or online. By gathering locations as well as names and emails, Saddleback can work on the back end to connect individuals with groups, creating in-person community. Instigated by technology, people are guided into community. Location data may also inform decisions on future church plant sites.
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints launched online-only Mormon missionaries in 2008, when they began staffing an online chat service to correct misconceptions about their faith. Visitors to Mormon.org can click “Chat” and be immediately connected with live missionaries, ready to respond. Online missionaries are trained to “teach and prepare investigators (potential converts)” and then connect them with local members and missionaries, who would then help them take the next steps in their faith journey. By their count, during the first two years, the chat service led to 250 conversions in 21 different countries and 41 different states.
How Lutherans are using digital technology to make connections
All this is not to say, however, that Lutherans aren’t also faithfully carrying the Gospel into the digital evangelism frontier.
THRED®, for example, is a new digital project of Lutheran Hour Ministries (LHM). Its goal, according to the Rev. Dr. Tony Cook, LHM director of United States Ministries, “is to create opportunities for an open and honest conversation, with people of different backgrounds, about life, faith, and Jesus.” THRED creates conversations around society, relationships, personal care, and God and Christianity. Cook states, “Speaking to the dechurched is a growing field for us. We do it by means of dialogue … we’re not there for debate.” THRED content is written specifically for a nonchurched audience. That means paying special attention to the language and tone of each piece they create. Cook says, “As a Lutheran, I believe that the power of God is found in His Word, through the working of His Holy Spirit … With this is mind, THRED® attempts to have a conversation that is respectful and open while recognizing that people have different perspectives.” THRED is led by a four-person team, who train and equip THRED volunteers with the necessary skills and resources to have ongoing conversations with people online. As people find themselves engaging more deeply with THRED content and followers, they become a part of a community connecting them with Christians and Jesus. In addition, in 2018, Lutheran Hour Ministries plans to launch a new online course entitled, “Sharing Your Faith in the Digital Age.”
On a local level, an increasing number of Lutheran churches are using digital technology in their outreach efforts, sharing their ideas and best practices in online forums like the “Lutheran Communicators” group I help moderate on Facebook. Churches are livestreaming their sermons and services on the web and through Facebook. Pastors are hosting “ask the pastor” live sessions on Facebook, where all questions are welcomed. “How can we pray for you today?” posts are opening up dialogue both publicly and through private messages. Facebook groups focused on raising children are connecting new parents, which has led to local in-person gatherings and opportunities to connect with the local church. Missionaries are providing locals with electronic tablets preloaded with theological books and training materials. Podcasters and video creators are developing new content that offers a Lutheran perspective on timely topics and difficult questions. The list goes on.
The next 10 years
It’s encouraging to see these initiatives and others like them, as Lutherans explore how digital technology can create “trajectories of engagement” that lead people from virtual isolation into caring communities of faith. More innovation is ahead, both in and beyond the LCMS. Within the next decade, for example, I would not be surprised to see Lutheran pastors and missionaries called specifically into the digital mission field. I anticipate more laity pursuing training opportunities in digital evangelism, such as those offered by Lutheran Hour Ministries, and more LCMS congregations employing professional communication directors.
Regardless of which technological tools we use, our task remains the same: to seek out the lost, engage those searching for Truth, and create pathways that lead people to Jesus and connect them to the body of Christ.
Seth Hinz is web media director for the Michigan District, LCMS. In his spare time, he serves as administrator for the Lutheran Communicators Facebook group, an online community with more than 1,400 members.