The Gospel According to WhatsApp
The Gospel According to What'sApp
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 and 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 providing 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.