Missions and Social Media: A Personal Journey
I must admit that I am not an avid social media guy. Some years ago, when moving to Vietnam, I was encouraged to start a blog – which I did. The title, The Reluctant Blogger, wasn’t just selected to be cute. It expressed a sentiment.
Through the years, I have overcome that attitude to a degree, but I am still what my younger friends call a “late adaptor.” Yes, the Internet is a remarkable thing. But can it make an impact that is significant – lasting – meaningful?
During a gathering of missionaries in Minneapolis earlier this year, I was encouraged again to consider using the Internet as an outreach tool. A retired Seminary professor had seen our websites and read a pre-publication draft of our new simple English introduction to the Bible and said, “Your websites and writing are ideal for social media.” He told me some remarkable stories about social media ministries in South America, where he had spent the past 30 years. Then he made a simple proposal. He suggested that I give social media a try. I could start by creating Facebook pages for the A Simple Word and Hear A Story websites and “boost a post or two”. So, I read up on the process and decided I would give the idea a try. I wrote a short post. Then I decided to include a link to one of the audio stories we had recorded for the Hear A Story website. What happened next surprised me. In the next six days, more than 5,000 people had clicked on the link and listened to all or a portion of the story of how God created the heavens and the earth. My primary target audience for the boost was Vietnam, so 80% of the responses were from Hanoi or Ho Chi Minh City. But I also had responses from India, Canada, a few places in Africa, and even five from Jordan.
I wasn’t certain what to make of that first attempt, so I decided to try again. This time, I chose to target a single country – Bangladesh. I knew that the population of Bangladesh is 86% Muslim. Twelve percent are Hindus. The Christian population of Bangladesh is under 0.7%. The need was clear. Added to those statistics is this one. There are currently 22,000,000 Facebook users in Bangladesh.
I followed the same general procedure as I had before. I developed a Facebook post. This one invited people to visit the A Simple Word website. Again, I boosted the post for seven days. I targeted people living in Bangladesh with interest in either Christianity or in learning English. Again, I waited. At the end of 7 days, (according to Facebook statistics and Google Analytics) the post had received more than 3,000 LIKES. By that response, every LIKE is recorded, and the personal information of the person who did so becomes available to us. That meant that I have the profiles and contact information on more than 3,000 Bengali people, the vast majority (90%) currently living in Bangladesh. As I looked at the information available to me, I discovered that 75% were men and most were in the 17 – 45 age category. Some are university students. Some are university professors. Some work for the local government in their provinces. Some work in cafés and corner stores.
Now the question was – what was I to do next? I now have contact information on literally thousands of people. All have expressed interest (at least in a minimal way) in a bit of information that could be leveraged to lead them somewhere in a Godward direction.
But even after those results, I am still not certain that I was convinced. Do people actually make significant decisions based on what they read on social media?
Then, in the past number of weeks, God has put a few people in my path who have made me face what has been obvious to everyone else for at least a decade.
Earlier this summer, I sat with a young man, his wife and three children who had come for a visit. When I asked, “And how did you two meet?”, his reply was a story that involved social media and an internet dating site. Somehow, between living in Ireland and studying in Canada, my friend found his British wife “on the internet”. A month or so later, my wife and I walk into a little bakery in a small southern town. We met a woman, the owner, who was chatting about her new business. We knew from her accent that she wasn’t from the local area, so we asked, “And how did you come to live here?” She explained that she wanted to get out of the cold in Cedar Rapids, Iowa and find a place where she could start a new business and a new life. How did she find it? You guessed it – “on the Internet.” Here were two people, full grown adults, who ended up making two of the most significant decisions in life, who to marry and where to live, and the tool that led them into these monumental choices? The Internet.
Do I believe in the power of the word to reach people? Yes. Do I believe that God can use the things that I have written to help people know and understand that word? Yes. Does he use the apparently indiscriminate “sowing” of that word to produce fruitful results? Yes. Do I believe that God is now using social media in a significant way to reach people? Yes.
Now what do we do?
That could be the most significant question for our ministry future.