In every era of missions, technology has helped missionaries take the gospel to new people and places. From the network of Roman roads in 300 BC, the printing press in 1436, television evangelism in 1950, the internet in 1983, and now 5.4 billion mobile phone users, technology has provided tools and resources for evangelism. New technological advances continue to emerge rapidly, which can often feel like new hurdles to learn all over again. Society, on a global scale, is learning to adapt to these technologies, thus opening new strategies for connecting to unreached peoples.
The Internet and Technology for Missions
Despite a world with over half the population online, the gospel has still not reached about a third of the world, and the percentage of Christians compared to the global population is projected to see little growth by 2050.1 Just as missions work was accelerated in the past with innovation and technology, the church needs to innovate and transform digitally to make disciples of all nations.
In the last 40 years, the internet has transformed how society learns, works, and connects. Today, the internet has reached 5.1 billion people, and 65 percent of global internet users are in North Africa, Central Asia, East Asia, South Asia, and Southeast Asia. In China alone, there are 1.05 billion internet users, including 1.03 billion social media users.2 This means a majority of internet users are in regions that overlap with the 10/40 Window which the missions world has deemed the highest priority for mission work.3 With access to the internet, online strategies are popular for connecting to new people. Through global connection online, we can also see how digital natives may cross cultural boundaries with others online. Alongside the internet, recent technological tools like applications of artificial intelligence, new trends on social media, virtual reality spaces, and more can open new avenues for the gospel.
Digital transformation is the adoption of digital technology for innovation, invention, user experience, or efficiency. It includes both practice and mindset for Christians to engage in digital technology effectively for communication and evangelism. In practice, it can transform work and daily tasks to be more streamlined or automated, thus saving resources like time and money. It is also crucial for Christians to be thinking about the future where there will be a need for continual adaptation and innovation. Mission leaders need to be pioneers of innovation to be culturally relevant in reaching a wider audience undergoing digital globalization.
These can all be daunting for missionaries who have not grown up as digital natives. However, they are not called to be alone in the Great Commission effort. God has called the 99 percent of the church—those who are not in full-time ministry—along with the one percent of ministry workers to make disciples. The whole church needs to innovate and adapt to digital transformation. To not change or do anything about it can be fatal for the spread of the gospel.
We may have heard it before: we are losing our next generation! Whether it is children growing up and leaving the church, fewer missionaries being sent, or government regulations tightening in restricted countries, it is evident that many challenges impede the spread of the gospel. In Pew Research’s projected 2050 growth rate of religions, Islam is climbing faster and will likely surpass Christianity after 2050. In corporate settings, when a project fails, it goes through a post-mortem evaluation. However, the attrition of Christianity and global missions leads to a more dire and bleak outcome. Rather, we can consider performing a “pre-mortem,” which means looking ahead and avoiding the mistakes that will hinder the spread of the gospel. This mental model is crucial for ministry leaders because they are not enough to reach the 3.2 billion people who are yet to be reached. Rather than only relying on the one percent, evangelism and discipleship need to be the work of the 99 percent of the church. This 99 percent of those not in professional ministry have the opportunity to reach their spheres of society beyond the one percent.
As the whole church is living in an increasingly digital world, the 99 percent of Christians have also needed to adopt digital transformation in their workplaces. More recently, with the impact of COVID-19, churches and ministries have begun to adopt digitally with online worship services despite this being a challenge for many. We might look at using new and digital technology as a “blizzard” which Andy Crouch, a partner of Praxis, shares:
As leaders, we must react swiftly to the blizzard that is already upon us…pivot to survive…and reimagine our organizations to outlast the rigors of a possible little ice age…. We are, for reasons only God knows, on the front line, on the starting team. Let us act boldly, today, to build as best we can, for the love of our neighbor and the glory of God.4
With rapid changes and new trends, missions and ministry leaders must stay ahead of the curve on all things relevant to engage the next generation, mobilize new goers, and creatively reach the lost. According to the National Skills Coalition, 92 percent of jobs in the US require digital skills. As innovators or early adopters, mission and ministry leaders can discern and guide Christians against the misuse of technology. In the Bible, Paul shares about his missionary life and the need to adapt for the sake of evangelism: “I have become all things to all people so that by all possible means I might save some” (1 Corinthians 9:22). Likewise, Christians can redeem technology and digital spaces for good. Rather than be a consumer of technology and online content, there is an opportunity to give their time and skills for digital missions which is providing and creating digital tools, resources, and strategies for global missions.
In Ted Esler’s book, The Innovation Crisis, he writes about the need for creativity and imagination in the church and beyond. He suggests using five simple concepts called the Shoemaker Rules, named after William Carey. The five rules are:
- See a problem worth solving.
- Ride the wave of existing innovation.
- Be biased to action.
- Empathize, then strategize.
- Think big.5
Esler points out that innovation needs to exist in missions because it enables Christians to regain their voice for the church in culture and society. Using the Shoemaker Rules will help the church recognize the urgency of missions, adapt to new trends with innovation, and move into action for real change. He encourages us that to truly empathize with others, whether it be to mobilize Christians in the church or to understand unreached people groups, there is a need for new solutions and the posture of innovation.
Innovation and digital transformation can help redefine the missions journey for Christians among the 99 percent. Many churchgoers do not know what the Great Commission means for their life and do not know their place in global missions. However, the missions world needs them, including their marketplace and tech expertise beyond the four church walls. Innovation in missions means activating people beyond awareness and into action. The hope is to see the church take on a new posture and behavior toward digital transformation.
In addition, with the need for creative access to countries like China, Christians outside the country may find avenues to support cross-cultural workers and churches within the country through digital spaces. The young adults of the next generation of China’s digital natives are often pressured to pursue only their career paths. Their missions journey exists only for a few Sundays of the year or at a conference like Chinese Mission Convention (CMC). However, digital missions can provide an avenue for them to offer their digital skills to supplement the needs of missions in China and other hard-to-reach spaces. Where physical boundaries prevent access to China, young adults with a heart for China can re-engage with digital transformation, innovation, and collaboration to help share the gospel in new creative ways.
Opportunities for Innovation and Collaboration
Hackathons are events usually held for programmers on college campuses or within tech companies. It is typically a weekend-long event where technologists are challenged to prototype a tech solution to a problem. Indigitous (indigenous + digital) hosts the largest Christian hackathon, #HACK, and has gathered technologists and creatives alike to come together and “hack” for missions. Between challenges in using data to locate Christian activity, Scripture innovation, engaging the next generation in church-planting, and many more challenges, the hackathon has been a space for Christians to bring their faith, work, and heart for missions together with others. Ministries join hackathons as well to be part of the community, learn from each other, and collaborate with the church body to innovate and brainstorm solutions that help solve their mission’s needs. Hackathons hosted in China have become beneficial in gathering technologists, media specialists, and creatives to then go on to continue serving in creating digital content strategies to reach the Chinese community online.
Similar to hackathons, design sprints are great practices for innovation. Design sprints are a time-constrained, five-phase process that utilizes design thinking to develop a new product, tool, or strategy. In corporate settings, design sprints aim to reduce risk when bringing a new product, service, or feature to market. They also help to better understand the needs of their audience or users. While design sprints often take place within hackathons as well, the process itself can be implemented in any ministry environment. It involves a team dedicated to collaborating within a set amount of time to brainstorm and prototype a new solution. The five phases can be split into five separate days, such as:
- Day 1: Understand: Observe and empathize with the challenges users face.
- Day 2: Sketch: Do brainstorming and ideation.
- Day 3: Decide: Define the problem statement to be solved and any added features.
- Day 4: Prototype: Build and implement.
- Day 5: Test: Gather feedback from potential users.
Design sprints can be implemented by ministries to innovate new solutions with their outreach or discipleship strategies. They can also gather new insights at a low cost before ministries spend too many resources on an idea that may fail.
Virtual cohorts also open another pathway to engage young adults in global missions. Virtual cohorts often come together in learning environments which became a necessity when many educational institutions went online during COVID-19. Indigitous has taken the virtual cohort model and created digital missions cohorts where young adults can use their marketplace skills and work together with mission organizations. Indigitous has set up virtual cohorts as an internship that is like a short-term missions trip done digitally. For eight to ten weeks, these young adults will meet together online, learn about missions and unreached people groups, and use their tech and creative skills to help solve the needs of missions. Mission organizations will partner with Indigitous and present a challenge that these young adults will work on. For clearer scopes of work, this can appear like providing extra resources to complete tasks. For more open-ended challenges, this can appear more like a design sprint where the cohort will prototype a new solution. In both cases, there is an opportunity to reimagine digital discipleship with mentors that engage young people to combine their heads, hearts, and hands for the advancement of the gospel.
Another advantage of a virtual cohort program is to get international students involved in digital missions. Indigitous’s digital missions cohorts have offered flexibility in bringing in international students from China and other countries to work together. They offer their cultural perspective and experiences to the projects which help to expand the views of the cohort as a whole. To learn more about Indigitous cohorts, visit the Indigitous website.
Lastly, a new ministry partner, Switchboard, is creating a global platform connecting everyday believers to the mission field. Missionaries all over the world are often in need of help but do not know whom to ask for assistance. Many are also tackling multiple roles, wearing many hats when it comes to ministry, and living as pioneers. However, missionaries can receive remote support, and Switchboard’s platform enables experts across all sectors to bring their best to serve in the Great Commission. Virtual volunteers or kingdom consultants can sign up for the platform and get connected with Great Commission organizations.6
Innovation and digital transformation are necessary for the advancement of the gospel in this technologically driven world. Through innovation and digital transformation, we may see the whole church rise together to take on its missional calling. In this way, digital transformation can enable the 99 percent of Christians to collaborate and truly meet the needs of the missions world with their time, skills, and resources together. It can then become the ministry of the whole church to take the gospel beyond the four walls of the church and their spheres of influence. By redeeming technology, Christians can redefine their engagement in the Great Commission and empower the discipleship of the next generation to carry global missions forward.
- “The Future of World Religions: Population Growth Projections, 2010–2050,” Pew Research Center, April 2, 2015, accessed August 15, 2023, https://www.pewresearch.org/religion/2015/04/02/religious-projections-2010-2050/.
- Simon Kemp, “Digital 2023: China,” DataReportal, February 9, 2023, accessed August 15, 2023, https://datareportal.com/reports/digital-2023-china.
- The 10/40 Window refers to the countries located between 10- and 40-degrees north latitude, including much of Africa and Asia, and some of Europe. The area is considered to have the least interaction with the gospel. See “10/40 Window,” Wikimedia Foundation, last modified June 3, 2023, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/10/40_window.
- Andy Crouch, Kurt Keilhacker, Dave Blanchard, “Leading Beyond the Blizzard: Why Every Organization is Now a Startup,” Praxis Journal, March 23, 2020, accessed August 15, 2023. https://journal.praxislabs.org/leading-beyond-the-blizzard-why-every-organization-is-now-a-startup-b7f32fb278ff.
- Ted Esler, The Innovation Crisis (Chicago: Moody Publishers, 2021), 36.
- To get connected, go to: https://www.globalswitchboard.io/blog/make-yourself-available-to-the-global-body-of-christ.
Andrew Feng serves as the US Director for Indigitous which engages the next generation to use their marketplace skills beyond the four church walls. Andrew advises on global strategy related to faith and tech. He is exploring crowdsourcing missions via remote work. He aims to help young adults utilize their abilities to support the great commission. Andrew and …View Full Bio
Over the past few years, God has opened Nick’s heart for missions through dozens of opportunities including taking Perspectives, going on short term mission trips, and documenting and producing videos for missions. He is eager to see where God is leading him in his faith and missions, but he is …View Full Bio