The Web – a unique medium

The Internet has become a 21st century Roman road, marketplace, theater, backyard fence, and office drinks machine. Web evangelism gives believers opportunities to reach people with the Gospel right where they are, just as Jesus and Paul did. The Web is an open window to the whole world.

The Web’s explosive growth has been remarkable. In ten short years, it jumped from being a minority hobby for computer enthusiasts to a communication medium used by over 1000 million people worldwide. If your visit to this website lasts ten minutes, in that period 460 people will have used the Web for their very first time. See web usage figures: Internet World Stats. []

The world impact of the Internet and the digital revolution will be as far-reaching as the invention of the printing press as this clip demonstrates:

To use the Web effectively, we must understand its nature as a medium. Each time a new means of communication is developed, people initially think of it in terms of a previous known medium. Thus, TV began as radio with pictures, but was soon viewed as a different medium in its own right, as people learned its potential.

Linear versus non-linear

Many mediums are linear – they communicate a message along a single line. Radio and TV are essentially linear (although these days, interactive TV can give the user some control). Fiction books, videos and tracts are also linear. However, a newspaper is non-linear – it contains multiple messages, not linked together sequentially. Users can move around as they choose.

The Web is also non-linear. A website is not (usually) a single page of text, but offers choice between a range of pages and ideally other interactive options too.

Pull versus push

Outreach literature is a ‘push’ medium. For instance, people offer tracts into others’ hands. Radio is largely a push medium – within a limited range of available stations, the user listens (or turns off).

The Internet however is a ‘pull’ medium. It draws people in – but only within the channels on which they wish to be drawn. It is therefore like a reference library rather than a literature distribution program. There is no automatic audience for a website. Many Christian websites which would aspire to be evangelistic, are in fact largely ‘preaching to the choir’. To engage with not-yet-Christians, who are not already seeking, requires us to use the Bridge Strategy.

Interactive and two-way

One of the greatest attractions of the Web is its interactivity. The user controls completely what webpages appears on his or her monitor. Each person will have a unique route of personal choice though any website, and across billions of webpages around the world.

arrow diagram The two-way nature of the web means that the user is no longer a passive recipient. When you listen to radio, the experience is one-way – unless you can phone in or write a letter. But the Web makes it easy for users to express opinions and interact with webmasters by email or instant messager, and discuss a site with other users by bulletin board, blog response form or chat room. At last, “my opinion counts”. In some ways, the Web is a modern reflection of the time 100 years ago before mass media, people created their own entertainments in the evenings or spare moments. Once again, through collective creativity, ordinary people at home are sharing their ideas, gifts and lives with others they feel linked to. The growth of sites hosting self-posted video clips is a dramatic example of this new creativity. “People want to be players not just spectators, part of the action, not on the sidelines,” writes Charles Leadbeater in a new book WeThink. []

Just as a newspaper aims to build loyalty among its readers, a website can generate a sense of community – the feeling that users can identify with the site. Successful sites understand how to this create welcoming interactivity.

Relationships and Web 2.0

arrow diagram The Web has developed and matured from being merely static ‘text on a screen’ to something far more. This ‘grown-up Internet‘ is often called Web 2.0. [] Although the ‘2.0’ concept includes best-practice design standards for webpage appearance and easy intuitive navigation, it embraces much more – a whole philosophy of communication. Just as the church is people, not buildings; the Web is essentially relationships, not computer screens. People want ‘connectedness’, the opportunity to share in a two-way or multiple conversation, to feel they belong. This is often called a sense of community, and is a key part of Web 2.0, illustrated by the diagram.

Relationship and connection are at the heart of the Internet. Before the Web, a person’s circle of relationships was usually initiated by face-to-face contact, and then sustained by personal meetings, letter or phone. Naturally, there tended to be a geographic limitation to a circle of relationships. But with the Web, relationships can be initiated and maintained online, and physical location is no longer an issue. Using the Web, people can also maintain, at least at a limited level, a much wider range of relationships.

Relationships are, of course, a key to evangelism. Very few people become Christians merely by hearing, or reading, a proclamation of the Gospel. Analyze a range of testimonies (including these web-mediated stories), and in almost every case, you find that an ongoing relationship with a praying Christian played a key role. So effective online evangelism needs to be relational.

The Web as disinhibitor

Poeople behave and communicate very differently in the virtual world, than they do in face-to-face interactions. The relatively anonymous nature of the Web encourages people to share inner thoughts, worries and questions, in a way they might never do face to face. Although there may be no person they could trust face to face, web users may ask intimate questions online from the privacy and anonymity of their home computer. This is strategic for any sort of evangelism, and even more so in a country where there are very few Christians. A seeker may know of no place where they could ask spiritual questions, or know that it would not be safe to be seen publicly to do so. Email, bulletin boards, blogs, or social networking sites can be a safe environment for questions and interaction.
The Online Disinhibition Effect [] – a valuable article from John Suler’s The Psychology of Cyberspace, which you can read online, or download as an e-book.

Implications of the Web’s properties as a medium

It is a mistake to regard the evangelistic potential of the Web as merely ‘tracts on a screen’. Such a perception will greatly limit its potential for outreach. Instead, we must understand the Web’s nature as a medium and learn how to work with its inherent strengths. Only then can we begin to use the staggering opportunities it offers us.

If we were going to design the perfect mission field, here is what it might look like:
Eight characteristics of the perfect mission field

Communication cultures

It is also helpful to understand the Internet in the context of different communication cultures. Before the invention of the printing press circa 1500, the prevailing communication was an ‘oral communication’ culture. The printing press changed the world for ever, and brought in a ‘print communication’ culture. Christian commentator M Rex Miller suggests in his book Millennium Matrix that from about 1950, the development of TV led to the ‘broadcast culture’, with different characteristics to the previous cultures. Further, he suggests that we are now moving into ‘digital culture’ in which communication is once more operating in very different ways. Listen to this excellent audio recording of Rex speaking at the Internet Ministry Conference 07:
Play in new window or tab/Save as MP3

Another commentator Andy Crouch sees our current culture as being what he calls visualcy.

These are not merely academic classifications – they describe some very profound changes in society which affect how we can effectively communicate the gospel. If we try to use methods which worked in a past communication culture and have gained an imagined sanctity as a result, we may receive litte fruit. While the gospel does not change, the way we communicate it must constantly change. If you doubt this, root around for some Christian magazines, books or films dating from perhaps the mid-60s. They may have been effective then, but the ‘past is a different country’!

Also, one of the major advances in the mission world has been an understanding of oral communication cultures. Many non-western countries are still largely oral societies, and it is only relatively recently that missions have really analyzed appropriate ways to communicate with people in such cultures. Many people in the West are also to a considerable extent within an oral culture, and receive very little information from books or newspapers.

Video clips illustrating the digital revolution

Information R/evolution

The digital revolution has changed everything – the way we find, store, create, critique, and share information. This video was created as a conversation starter, and works especially well when brainstorming with people about the near future and the skills needed in order to harness, evaluate, and create information effectively. []

Web 2.0 ... The Machine is Us/ing Us

Another discussion starter... []

Newcomer to the Web?

If you are a newcomer to using the Web, we recommend you check your local bookstore or library for a book that will start you off on understanding websites, browsing and searching, eg. The Rough Guide to the Internet. See also these guides to email use and etiquette: 1 [] | 2. []

There are also a few online guides, such as Learn the Web [] and Intro Guide. [] Microsoft offers an excellent range of self-study Digital Literacy Courses. []

Remember, every web user was a novice to begin with, as the humorous video clip below demonstrates.

If you are using computers or the Web to any extent, consider learning to touch type. The time this takes will be repaid many times over. (Those with any form of impairment can use speech-based software, both to read and write to a computer screen.)