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Principles for reaching people with the gospel online

These days the majority of people spend large portions of their time online. Whether it’s ordering food, consuming entertainment or connecting via social media, the fact of the matter is, the online world has become a central part of twenty-first century life. Yet, how often do we think about using it in our mission efforts? This article explains some key principles for reaching people online with the gospel.

If you are reading this I assume that you want to reach people with the gospel online. Wonderful! Before you are able to effectively do so, it is important to ask yourself three questions. Who are you? Who do you want to reach? And what do you mean by ‘reach’? The answers to these questions build the foundation for the work to come. So let me expand on them. 

Who are you?

The answer lies in what you believe, and what value you uniquely offer to others. You need to know who you are before you can present yourself online to those you want to reach in an impactful and relevant way. 

Churches have an advantage in that they are a known resource for connecting with God which presents an opportunity in reaching people online, but still studies have shown that you have at most three seconds to capture someone’s attention online. Trust can be built relatively easily in a face-to-face conversation, however a webpage or a social media profile needs to quickly and effectively communicate exactly who you are in a compelling way or you risk losing the viewer’s attention and with it, the opportunity to begin building trust with them. 

Who do you want to reach?

The answer to this informs every decision thereafter. It informs where you reach them, when, and with what content. Organisations and companies typically work with personas. A persona is a researched and informed representation of the intended target audience. 

Personas humanise your target audience, give them a name and help you stay on track to reaching them. Let’s call your persona Frank. Frank provides a lens through which you’re able to ask yourself questions like: Is this online initiative relevant to Frank? How does this provide value to him? How best should we talk to him about it?

in the online world if you cast your net wide you catch no one.

A common response to the question ‘Who do you want to reach?’ is often, ‘Well, the gospel is for everybody so we want to reach everybody.’ While this is well and good, in the online world if you cast your net wide you catch no one. How you engage with a father of three who has a passion for gardening is different from how you connect with a teenager having relationship problems in the middle of exams. Their needs and interests are different, so how you speak to them and what you talk about ought to be different. This is true in person as well as online. 

What do you mean by ‘reach’?

One of the biggest failures I’ve experienced in online ministry is a lack of clear goals. In other words, good intentions without intent. Creating specific and measurable goals is key to seeing success, whatever success may look like for you. 

One of the biggest failures I’ve experienced in online ministry is a lack of clear goals.

Let’s say you invest £10 in advertising and reach thousands of people with an online article. Is your goal met because you reached their phone or computer screen? Think about where you want to guide them, what link do you want them to click next? Ask yourself do you want to reach people or do you want to journey with them? And if you want to journey with them, where do you want them to go?

The online world is real

The digital world is an integral part of modern-day life. It’s how we choose a restaurant, listen to music or communicate with our loved ones. As consumers of the digital world we take part without even realising, but when you seek to enter the digital space as a creator or a guide, you must see the online world with new eyes. 

The digital world is an integral part of modern-day life.

When you hear words like ‘content’ or ‘target audience’ it can be easy to lose sight of the personal aspect of online ministry. Thinking digitally requires a different way of thinking about how to reach people. Nevertheless, the people behind the screens are just that, people. As real as you are right now reading this on your screen. Those people matter to God, and so presumably they matter to you.

Audience first mindset

Adopt an audience first mindset. Who are you reaching? What do they need? What value do you bring to their lives? How are you moving them closer to God? The online world can be deeply personal and it’s fundamental that you understand your online audience and empathise with them. As such, avoid being too promotional. It’s good to promote yourself as a resource for the gospel, however there is a balance to be found in promoting yourself and journeying with people. 

Coffee shop vs soapbox

Most online platforms offer opportunities to engage. Have you ever scrolled through the comments section or read a user review? If you seek to listen, not only to speak, you will attract more people and open yourself up to having quality interactions with them. Now ask yourself, do you see your online presence as a coffee shop or a soapbox? What does your audience see? 

Don’t underestimate digital

The digital sphere is a world unto itself and should be treated as such. Companies and organisations spend millions and have entire departments dedicated to reaching people online and yet often mission organisations and churches underestimate the necessity, the potential and the resources required to fully utilise the God-given gift of the Internet. 

I’m not suggesting we all spend millions on branding, nor can we expect to have a marketing expert at our disposal free of charge. However, a failure I’ve seen and experienced time and again is the assumption that the youngest member of staff, or perhaps the new intern, could do a few hours of social media and fill the ‘digital quota’. This practice places a damaging amount of pressure on the few individuals and comes with an unrealistic expectation that people will come flocking because of their efforts. The simple fact is, you won’t see the results unless you put in the work. 

As you consider the questions and principles presented in this article, consider this first: God is God of the digital world just as He is of the physical and spiritual world. Technology is an extremely valuable and powerful tool that God can use to reach the unreached and encourage Christians around the world. So what does that mean for you?

Lyn McNeill

Lyn McNeill is a digital missionary with Agapé UK. Her focus is helping people experience Jesus in the digital world. She lives in Rome with her husband and thirty-seven houseplants and she is a passionate visual artist.