by Jim Musser
I recently visited with a 40-something Christian friend and mentioned that our campus ministry uses Facebook. Her blank expression told me she had no idea what Facebook was.
Do you? What about MySpace? Twitter? YouTube? According to emarketer.com, these are some of the most popular Internet Web sites for college-age young people and they are sweeping the nation like wildfire.
Unlike my friend, you probably have heard of these. But have you given much thought to the impact of the Internet on the mission of the church?
From where I sit, on a college campus, I see generations of students being transformed by the Internet and other technologies—the way they relate to each other and the way they receive information. These same students—believers and unbelievers alike—are coming to your communities. If the church is to reach the generations being transformed by this phenomenon, we need to learn how to take advantage of it.
The Internet Revolution
The World Wide Web, or Internet, started in 1989. While radio took 38 years to gain 50 million users, and television 13 years, according to William F. Slater III, the Internet had that many users in just four years. And according to internetworldstats.com, worldwide users now total more than 1.5 billion! In the United States, 220 million are Internet users.
A recent worldwide study indicated users ages 18-55 spend a significant amount of leisure time online. Asian users had the highest percentage (China, 44 percent; South Korea, 40 percent; Japan, 38 percent) and Americans averaged 30 percent.1 Among American young people, 93 percent of teens use the Internet2 and young people ages 13-24 average 16.7 hours per week online, excluding e-mail use, which exceeds their hours spent watching television.3
Every corner of society feels the Internet impact. The U.S. Census Bureau reports online shopping since 2000 has increased from just 0.6 percent of retail sales to nearly 3.5 percent in 2008; it now totals more than $31 billion annually. People buy and sell almost everything online. Universities are offering classes and entire degree programs online. The Web site eSchoolNews.com reports nearly 4 million students were enrolled in online courses in fall 2007, an increase of 13 percent in one year. Employers and potential employees post openings and resumes online. People increasingly are banking and paying bills from their computers.
Perhaps, however, the area most significantly impacted by the Internet is social networking, people meeting and interacting with others. Fifty-six percent of Americans surveyed have met someone online before they met them in person,4 including people like me who first met their spouse online! Fifty-five percent of teens have a profile on Facebook or MySpace, the most popular social networking sites. People from opposite sides of the world are communicating vocally and visually through VoIP (Voice over Internet Protocol). These services, such as Skype, are free.
These statistics speak volumes to the church. Generations of Internet-savvy people are in our services, and soon they will represent the vast majority of churchgoers. Outside the church, too, people are using the Internet in practically every facet of their lives. If the church is to continue impacting the world, use of the Internet and other technologies, such as cell phone text messaging, needs to be an increasing part of the strategy.
The Internet Revolution on Campus
Campus ministries have firsthand experience with this revolution and get an early peek at what is coming to your local church and community. Here is what we are seeing and how we are adapting to reach students.
Facebook: This social networking site started in 2004 and has become the favorite of college students. In a brief survey of Christian church campus ministries, all who responded say they use Facebook as a tool in their ministries. Most have a “group” page for their ministries, from which they can announce events, prayer needs, and post pictures.
Some, such as Student Christian Fellowship at Ohio State, create pages for specific events and send invitations to all members. Our campus ministry has created an alumni group page in order to keep our alumni informed about what is happening with the ministry.
Angela Denton-Rachel, director of Christian Campus Fellowship at the University of Georgia, uses Facebook to organize practices for the praise band and to share new songs. The group page also allows the page administrator to send “Facemails” to all group members.
For most campus ministries, Facebook is rapidly replacing e-mail as a way to communicate with students.
Cell phones and texting: Young people increasingly prefer texting as their main form of communication. According to cellsigns.com, 68.7 million cell phone users text and young people represent 19 percent of that market. Cell phone users send an average of 20 texts per day. Our ministry leaders use texting to send words of encouragement, make appointments with students, and remind students of events.
Services such as Txtsignal.com allow subscribers to send messages to a list of phone numbers. Announcements and prayer needs can be sent instantly and easily. Consider it the 21st-century version of the phone tree.
Ministry Web sites and blogs: Web sites are diminishing somewhat as a source for frequent communication among students. Several ministries surveyed said their Web sites were mostly visited by new students or parents of students seeking basic information about the ministry.
However, ministries are making use of their Web sites for podcasts (audio recordings) of the messages at their large-group meetings. They also post ministry videos to two other popular video Web sites, YouTube and GodTube, and link them to their Web sites.
Blogs (Internet commentaries) continue to grow in popularity. I have been writing daily devotions for students and sending them via e-mail for many years. Last year, I also began posting them on a blog. People who subscribe automatically receive each new entry via e-mail. A ministry in America can post a sermon or devotion, and it can be accessed by people in India, China, and the Middle East. My devotions have been read by people all over the world.
Other interesting tools: New Web tools appear all the time. One of the more interesting tools gaining popularity is Twitter. Twitter is a networking site that allows users to post short updates on their daily activities, but it has become so much more. Applications for ministry are abundant. Not only can a minister or campus worker update “followers” on what he is doing, but ideas can be exchanged, meetings arranged, prayer needs expressed, photos shared, and news communicated.
Brandon Smith, campus minister at Northwest Missouri State, uses Twitter to post challenging questions for his students to consider, such as, “What does the gospel mean to you?” He says this has led to many interesting conversations with students. The campus ministry at the University of Illinois (Springfield) used Twitter to help facilitate a week of prayer.
I also recently started using Twitterfeed, an independent site that allows me to automatically send a notification (“tweet”) to my followers that my devotional blog has been updated. One of the most interesting uses of Twitter comes from Wall Street Trinity Church in New York City, which “twittered” the passion of Jesus on Good Friday. A Google search of “ministry uses for Twitter” produces many links to more innovative ideas.
One of my favorite tools is Biblegateway.com. It is a great resource for Bible reading and research. The site offers 20 different English translations of the Bible and many foreign languages, including Greek. There are also commentaries, search functions for words and topics, and Bible reading plans. For those looking to expand their biblical knowledge and understanding, this is an excellent tool available for free on the Internet.
VoIPs: Voice over Internet Protocols, such as Skype, are becoming more and more popular. A number of universities now conduct face-to-face interviews with prospective students via VoIPs. My wife and I keep in touch with her family in South Africa via Skype, and many missionaries stay in touch with stateside families the same way.
It isn’t hard to imagine the money-saving applications of this technology. Ministries could replace phone interviews of potential staff with face-to-face interviews over the Internet. Weary furloughing missionaries, instead of traveling all over the country updating supporting churches on their ministries, could eliminate the travel and still make reports directly. Also, rather than newsletters, missionaries could update churches regularly using this free technology.
The Opportunities for the Local Church
For 2,000 years the church has done a wonderful job of adapting to the changing culture. Now we find ourselves in the midst of another radical cultural shift. The worldwide and cross-generational reach and impact of the Internet and other related technologies offers the church an amazing opportunity to spread the gospel in ways unimaginable just two decades ago. It also offers many ways for the body of Christ to communicate with one another all around the globe.
Just as first-century Christians used Roman roads as avenues for spreading the gospel and connecting with one another, it is now our turn to convert cyberspace into HisSpace and do the same.
1“UK housewives rule in online time,” http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/technology/7789494.stm.
2“Teen usage of social media, 2007 vs. 2005,” www.clappingtrees.com/archives/2008/11/teen-usage-of-social-media-2007-vs-2005/.
3“Teens tune out TV, log on instead,” by Jane Weaver, 24 July 2008, www.msnbc.msn.com/id/3078614/.
4“UK housewives rule in online time.”
Jim Musser is senior campus minister with Campus Christian Fellowship at Appalachian State University in Boone, North Carolina. He is now in his 26th year of campus ministry. His blog is at www.jimswftw.blogspot.com.