Race, homosexuality, addiction and abuse—all hot button issues with plenty of opportunities to air personal views about them, especially online.
From July 24-25, the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association’s internet evangelism team, Search for Jesus, held a Virtual Summit for about 1,200 of its trained online volunteers around the globe. The common thread weaving the weekend together was how to reach people who are different than us in a Christ-loving way.
Volunteers came away with wisdom to share with other Christians who want to reach people with the Gospel online—or find themselves in emotionally charged conversations through social media, chat or email.
“As a ministry team, we want to keep learning how to minister to others who are different than ourselves, or those who have life experiences we haven’t shared,” Search for Jesus Director Mark Appleton said. “So how do we love well and share Jesus with people who struggle with homosexuality when we haven’t struggled with that? Or have experienced physical abuse, or are from a different culture or race and have different experiences in their lives than we do? … Those are the situations our volunteers encounter online all the time. They also represent real life for so many people in our day-to-day lives.”
>> How does online evangelism work? Watch this video.
Normally, a smaller number of volunteers gather for in-person training at the Billy Graham Training Center at The Cove in North Carolina. This year, COVID-19 called for a plan B, moving the entire conference online, which allowed more team members to join in.
“One of our speakers, Pastor Bryan Loritts, challenged us with the statement that proximity breeds empathy,” Appleton said. “We need to get close to people, get to know them, feel their pain or their frustrations, understand what’s shaping their thinking. When we do so, if Christ is in us, we can’t help but grow in our empathy for their situation and be driven to serve, love, and help rather than criticize or judge.”
Below, three volunteers from different parts of the world share their experiences with online ministry—and valuable takeaways for reaching people virtually with the love of Christ.
Q: What’s something you’ve learned about online ministry that could be helpful to other Christians as they reach out to people online?
Shan (U.K.): “For me personally, reaching out to people online is easier than sharing person to person. To begin with, I have a brief history of their background; i.e., beliefs, physical or mental issues. This gives me a great place to start a conversation. Also, being online helps me to take time and pray as I mentor them and answer their questions.”
Fausto (Portugal): “One important thing I’ve learned over the past 11 years dedicated to online ministry is that we have to keep in mind all the time that we are dealing with real people with real deep spiritual needs and wounds. Therefore, online evangelism should not be seen as an ‘automatic software platform running on its own’ or a ‘customer service’ thing; rather, a personal, one-to-one relationship, every time.”
Joyce (U.S.): “Sometimes it feels like I stepped into a race with finish lines in all directions. You don’t have a clue what way the next conversation will take. … I have to plan for time to get ready. Pray, quiet my mind before God, open all my [notes] and my digital Bible. I have Word documents I prepared for cutting and pasting on salvation Scriptures, prayers, resources and other Scriptures.”
Q: What’s something to keep in mind as you interact with people online who come from different backgrounds and experiences?
Shan (U.K.): “It is not always obvious their different backgrounds or experiences. In some ways, it is like a blank sheet to start with as far as color, appearance, etc. There is no instant assessment of who the person is as we cannot see them.”
Fausto (Portugal): “We were all perfectly made by the same Creator, and we should interact with people with simple truth and grace—bluntly stating the message of the Gospel but doing it in God’s grace with a loving, not judgmental, attitude, always pointing them to Jesus.”
Joyce (U.S.): “It can be easy to wonder if [people] are sincere. But they are a real person with real needs like me. I only have them a few moments. My heart cry then is, ‘Jesus! Help me touch their heart!’ That has to be at the forefront of my mind all the time, opposed to getting offended or trying to judge the person’s sincerity. Asking for eyes to see as God sees this person.”
Q: Are there unique challenges to online ministry that fellow Christians should be mindful of as they talk to people via chat, social media and email?
Shan (U.K.): “I have to be careful with humor as it does not come over well via correspondence. Choosing my words carefully, especially when [people] do not understand [something].”
Fausto (Portugal): “Really listen to people’s cry for help, and gracefully and truthfully point them out to our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Provide them with a Bible-based, spiritual foundation and relevant resources. Link them with Christian fellowship opportunities.”
Joyce (U.S.): “It is definitely challenging relating to strangers online. Lay down self-centered agendas and preconceived ideas. Keep your eyes on Jesus.”