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The Gospel According to WhatsApp

BY ISAAC, A PIONEERS MISSIONARY IN EUROPE

Increasingly technology affects and changes every part of our world in ways which are both positive and negative. It also presents great opportunities for the gospel.

I recently attended a Christian technology conference, where the keynote speaker told how he was one of the first missionaries to arrive by aeroplane, and his wife one of the last to arrive by boat. Cheap air travel has transformed our ability to send and support both short and long-term workers, and was one of the driving forces for church planting in the 20th century.

Radio and television increased the reach of the gospel, giving access into closed countries and allowing people to hear the message in their own language. In recent years, however, the response rates to radio broadcasting have been declining in favour of newer technologies.

Companies who were once working in radio are still providing recorded content, but distributing it in a wider variety of ways. Solar-powered MP3 players can be bought cheaply in large quantities, loaded with appropriate language resources – including whole recorded Bibles – and are being distributed widely. In the midst of the growing refugee crisis they are being received warmly along with practical aid, and listened to avidly by people traditionally closed to the gospel.

Recordings can also be loaded onto micro SD cards, and these have been handed out in large quantities, loaded onto phones and passed on from person to person.

Video can be distributed in this way too. The Jesus Film, originally shown around the world by teams of people carrying film projection equipment, is now the most translated film in the world and available to download and share.

As well as helping on the front lines, technology has massively increased the pace of Bible translation, enabling experts to collaborate around the world. Projects such as Unfolding Word are seeking to speed up the process by crowd-sourcing translation and enable the production of royalty-free Bible translations, which can be used without copyright concerns.

It is the rise of the internet and more recently the increasing availability of mobile phones which is proving the biggest opportunities at the moment. Globally nearly three out of four people owns a mobile phone. Perhaps more surprisingly, two out of those three phone users will already have a smartphone.

Non-smartphones can be used to share the gospel via SMS or USSD codes (similar to SMS but widely used in Africa to provide more interactive two-way services). Many can also be used to play MP3 audio files.

Where the mobile phone really comes into its own, however, is in allowing access to the internet. Increasingly discipleship resources can be shared on social media, and follow up carried out in voice or messaging apps such as Skype and Viber. We often hear of families who come to faith in the west sharing with their relatives back at home in phone calls, or sending recordings via WhatsApp.

My own contribution to the online discipleship arena began as a mobile-friendly website. We resisted requests to turn this into an app until we were approached by an underground church who explained that they needed to use it in places with no reliable power or phone signal. These brothers provided us with the initial locally-voiced recordings, which enable listeners to feel an immediate connection to the app. Their vision was to reach their neighbours, their country and the surrounding area by sending people with the app to run studies in houses and to pass it on to those who believed, encouraging them to do the same.

The app has since been downloaded in over 120 countries and translated into Arabic, Somali, Dari and Uyghur with Pashto and Indonesian in the pipeline.

The app is being used directly in discipleship groups amongst the unsaved, and we have received numerous stories of God at work through it. It is also being used to train local leaders with access to countries which would be difficult for us to enter. It can be shared from phone to phone via Bluetooth, and is simple enough for anyone to use.

Given the pace of change in recent years, it seems certain that mobile internet access will continue to grow worldwide, providing increasing access to unreached people, and new opportunities are bound to emerge as a result.

 

Photo by Thomas Kvistholt.

My Adventures as a Data Input Artist

I’ve always fancied myself an amateur adventurer – up for anything, willing to rough it, and ready at the drop of a hat. To my delight, God’s plan for me has actually involved quite a bit of adventure. They’ve been your basic missionary adventures like going on safari in multiple African countries, rafting the Nile, taking long layovers in Paris and London, scalding my feet on the white-hot marble of the Taj Mahal; that sort of thing. I’ve lived in New York, San Francisco, Istanbul, Botswana, and now sunny England; and I’ve visited more countries than I can count on my fingers and toes. Yes sirree, it’s a life of adventure for me.

I’d always known I wanted to be involved in cross-cultural mission. It was drummed into me from the age of four onwards that anyone who is serious about Jesus would go into ministry of some kind, and for me and my (even at age four) ravenous appetite for adventure, becoming a missionary was the only way to go.

So at the age of 24 I did just that. I became a missionary. And boy was I rubbish at it! I mean, I had a great time getting to know the people, and spending time with my fellow missionaries, and of course going on so many safaris I’ve lost count. BUT I never really got the hang of missionary-ing. I was too selfish. Too socially inept. Too immature. I made a complete hash of it, so much so that there was serious talk of sending me back to America before my two-year assignment was over. I had to beg them to let me stay! They did let me stay in the end, and I learned a lot of important lessons. But on my next missionary assignment – four years later, to Turkey – my emotional immaturity and spiritual arrogance got the best of me, and I left the field in tatters seven months before I was due to go home.

So what does a person do if they’ve failed at being a missionary but still have a call to cross- cultural mission? Well in my case, they flounder for a few years not knowing what to do until one day someone offers them a job in mobilisation. I started working at Pioneers four years ago, and it wasn’t long after I started that the penny finally dropped. Turns out that a call to cross-cultural mission doesn’t mean you’re meant to be a missionary. In fact, it turns out that a call to cross-cultural mission isn’t a special thing, conferred only on those who are serious about Jesus. The call to cross-cultural mission is universal to Christians. We are ALL called!

I loved being a mobiliser. I was able to help prospective missionaries with all the logistics of getting to the field and, better still, I had the very undeserved privilege of discipling and mentoring first-time missionaries through their experiences on the field. I have so much experience with failure and frustration on the field, I was able to counsel my young charges through just about every situation that arose with a simple, “Here’s what NOT to do.”

But now I’ve swapped my mobiliser hat for a communications hat. And that’s where my fancy new role as Data Input Artist comes into play. I get to do lots of interesting and fulfilling things as the communications person for Pioneers, but one of my less glamourous jobs is maintaining our huge database. And for the last couple of months, because of the new data protection regulations, and because we recently switched data management systems, I’ve been neck deep in spreadsheets and consent forms and all manner of mundane mumbo-jumbo. In some ways it’s an important job, but it is D-U-L-L dull!

Why am I telling you about my apparent descent from the romantic life of an African missionary to the woes of being a desk-jockey? It’s not just so that you’ll send me sympathy (and chocolate). It’s because I’ve had to come to terms with the fact—and it’s actually a glorious fact—that because we’re ALL called to cross-cultural mission, everything we do has the potential to impact God’s world for good. We’re not all called to be front-line field-based missionaries. If everyone was called to the field, who would spend those precious pre-dawn hours praying for the people on the field? Who would work in the marketplace or run businesses in order to fund mission work? Who would sit at a desk day after day punching contact preferences into an online database so that Pioneers could connect with those who ARE called to the field? We genuinely believe at Pioneers that all are called. Some are called to send (me!); some are called to pray; some are called to give; and some are called to go.

So for me, the self-styled amateur adventurer, being a some-time Data Input Artist is enough. It’s enough because even if it doesn’t always make me happy, it makes God happy because I’m doing what he wants me to do, where he wants me to do it, all because someone out there needs to know His love. And my database is just one of many tools He will use to tell them.

 

Photo by Markus Spiske.