Our guest preacher, Rev Dr Johan van der Bijl gave the second sermon in our mini series on ‘Connecting with Christ’. In this sermon he focused on the importance of disciple making and the role technology should play in this. Technology is not all bad and has its role, but we also need to be aware of limitations and move beyond digital to personal.

Disciple Making and Social Media

In his excellent book, Seeking Allah, Finding Jesus, the late Nabeel Qureshi wrote about how Christian street preachers never had any impact on him as a non-believer, because he felt disconnected from them. He admired their courage to stand up for what they believed, but thought that what they had to say could not possibly have any bearing on his life because they simply did not know him as a person. “Effective evangelism,” he maintained, “ requires relationships. There are very few exceptions.”

A missionary friend of ours who works in Mexico recently wrote the following: “When a very wise friend once told me that ministry is really all about loving people, I suddenly realized, that that was the real secret to his success in ministry. And he is so right. People don’t really care about our theology or how smart we are. They want to know if someone loves them.” It’s all about relationships.

Jesus was certainly one of the most relational people our planet has ever known. Throughout the Gospels we find Him with the people, in the market places, in their homes, in their fishing boats, in their very lives, as it were. He rubbed shoulders with social elitists and with the social outcasts alike…to Him there were no exceptions…He loved people…all people and He related to them out of that love.

Because of Jesus’ own working methodology, most discipleship experts will agree with Nabeel and with my friend. Disciple making requires – or rather, demands, relationship…in order to help someone walk as Jesus walked, we have to walk alongside them…with them, side by side, in their lives as they live them. In other words, you cannot disciple people from a distance…you cannot disciple people from the pulpit or from a street corner or through an email or a post. You must know them and be known by them…you must earn their trust…they must see you practice what you preach.

Now, I was asked to discuss disciple making and social media. So this evening, I’d like for us to examine the question: Is it possible to utilize social media in the making of disciples? Those of you who use social media will know that there is a measure of disconnection between us and the people we relate to through Twitter, Snapchat, Facebook, email, Instagram, blog sites, podcasts, and so on. For instance, I have over 2000 friends on my Facebook account…of those 2000 plus, I personally know about 1000…and of those 1000 I would consider myself fairly well connected with about 300…but of those 300 very few are close confidants…people with whom I would feel comfortable baring my soul.

So, going back to Nabeel’s comment that he felt disconnected from street preachers as they knew nothing about him as a person and that “Effective evangelism requires relationships,” would it be possible to fulfil his requirements via social media? Before we answer that question, let’s look at the positive side of social media first.

Social media has exploded over the past few years. If we look back a generation or more, you will see that people did communicate with each other through mediums other than the spoken word, but that was very limited…not only because ever communication had to written by hand, but also because such communications had to be delivered by hand – by horse and rider, by mail coaches, by bicycle, by ship, or by plane. But that did not stop people from trying to persuade others through the written word…in letters, newspapers, pamphlets, and books…or with a disconnected verbal word, such as the radio or television…and not just their friends, but total strangers too.

Take the Apostle Paul as an example. Most of his letters were written to people he knew – people he had either evangelised or discipled at some time in the past. As such, he was known to them and, for the most part, trusted as an authority figure and a friend (the exceptions, as far as trust is concerned, are possibly Galatians and Corinthians). Some of his letters, such as those he wrote to Titus, Philemon, and Timothy were very personal. A glaring exception to this, of course, is the letter he wrote to the believers in Rome. This letter could be considered Paul’s Magnum Opus and his best defence of the Gospel, and yet it was written to people he had not yet met. In 1:13 he said, “I want you to know, dear brothers and sisters, that I planned many times to visit you, but I was prevented until now. I want to work among you and see spiritual fruit, just as I have seen among other Gentiles.” This begs the question; if Paul did not know the people he was writing to, were they hampered from growing in their faith by this disconnection?

If that were the case, then none of us would be touched by what we read in the Bible, as none of us know the authors personally…although, one may argue, we who are believers do know the real Author. But my point is that people have had their lives turned around by reading words written by others who are, for all intents and purposes, wholly foreign and unknown to them. So in this sense, social media can be used to transmit the truth of the Gospel to people we have never met or with whom we do not have a personal relationship.

But can we disciple them? That is the question we need to answer this evening.

Social media is great for getting the word to people on the other side of the ocean in real time and when we have believers in otherwise closed countries, we are able to send them messages, podcasts, blogs, and even pdf files with books otherwise banned in their countries…very cool, don’t you think? So should we use social media as believers? Most certainly, yes! But you need to plan how you will use whatever medium(s) you choose in order to be most effective. Think before you click. Pray before you post. Be selective and always consider the consequences of what you send to others…especially if they live in dangerous countries or families. And don’t forget that you always need to be aware of your own security and privacy as well! Cyber crime is becoming a huge problem and hackers etc. are always way ahead of even the best of us.

So when you do use social media…make sure that what you post is good quality. I know very little about how cyber space works…but I do know that if I Google something, that very item will suddenly appear on my Facebook feed the next time I check it. Now I am told that if one posts a variety of good quality material that is liked or shared by others often, it works the same way…it somehow comes up on search engines when people are looking for something on the internet. So, whatever you post ought to be relevant and personable and interesting and up to date so that people will actually read what you write and be edified by your posts. And if people do message you or comment or share your content, interact with them. This demonstrates that you actually care about them and want to be involved in their day-to-day lives.

And then there’s Zoom, FaceTime, Skype, and other such wonderful inventions that allow you to talk to others (almost) face to face. This is the way we communicate with our children and grandchildren in Stockholm and Birmingham. Just a pity you can’t reach into the screen for a hug and a cuddle.

But…and here’s the million dollar question again…can one make a disciple who will make other disciples via social media? Sure, we can get the material out there…we can evangelize…we can persuade…we can encourage…we can uplift and comfort…we can teach and train even “face to face” in real time…but can we make disciples who walk just as Jesus walked? Does disciple making not demand a closer contact…a closer connection? Most people would agree that character formation – as that is part of disciple making – cannot be done from a distance.

In one sense, social media is a disembodied consumer experience. (But then, so is this sermon.) For many sceptics and cynics such an unobservable, untouchable, unaccountable medium will not be sufficient…they want to see our faith in action if they are to change their belief system or behaviour…if they are to believe, change, and grow.

So, while social media is a very positive method we can use to disseminate the Gospel, to catch-up with people we cannot see every week, to encourage, teach, and so on…it simply can never replace true one on one, life on life discipleship, just as artificial intelligence cannot replace a real flesh and blood human being in a marriage or other close relationship. True, it can help equip people into becoming better followers of Jesus…it can provide them with links and articles, and blogs, and podcasts, and resources otherwise unavailable to them. It can encourage and exhort people to fulfil their callings in Christ. But in the end, it must lead people into the community of faith where disciple making can be demonstrated through connected lives…where the mind and person and behaviour of Christ can be seen and modelled and duplicated.

© Johannes W H van der Bijl 2019-04-26