Disciples of the Digital Earth: Does the Internet Make the Great Commission Easier?
In addition to our weekly blog pieces, Crown & Cross publishes a semesterly print issue, a compilation of 9 to 12 pieces based around a singular theme. Since these pieces represent some of our best work, we want to give them greater circulation. So, starting this semester, our blog will post a new piece each Wednesday as individual essays in a thematic series. This semester’s weekly series will be titled “The Great Commission,” the theme of our most recent print issue. Below is the ninth of ten installments.
With the advent of the digital age, it seems that Jesus’ exhortation to “go therefore and make disciples of all nations” 1 would be streamlined: all the information needed to come to and stay in the faith is readily available now to nearly half the world’s population through the Internet. 2 Although the World Wide Web has been around for 26 years, there are still non-negligible populations in countries with Internet access who are not only not Christian, but are completely ignorant of Christianity. After all, Christianity is by no measure a dominating force on the Internet. With this new means of evangelism, there also come impediments that prevent the gospel from reaching all peoples: the misuse of the Internet by only carving out small Christian niches within it, the fear of coming across as arrogant or prideful, and the difficulty of teaching something as counter-cultural as Christianity through the new media. But, if we can overcome these impediments, can the Great Commission actually become easier thanks to these new means?
Christians should become aware that being passive in internet evangelism will not lead to new believers. Christ calls us to follow Him. He wants to help us “become fishers of men.” 3 We must recognize that the Internet itself is a net, and we must cast a wide net to truly evangelize. But by hemming ourselves into only explicitly Christian areas of the Internet, we allow this net just to sit in our boats, expecting fish simply to jump aboard. We should instead cast that net over the whole of the Internet, and one of the best new developments for this is social media. More than ever, people with whom we are only tangentially familiar, even some we have never met, have access to our actions, beliefs, hopes, and dreams. So we should use social media, especially Facebook and Twitter, to spread not only the truth of the gospel but also news of believers glorifying the Lord by their lives; for, as Paul writes, “Only let your manner of life be worthy of the gospel of Christ, so that I may hear of you that you stand firm in one spirit.” 4 The best way to cast this wide net is by using social media and other public aspects of the Internet to proclaim the gospel and the goodness of the Christian life. Using links, posts, and comments to show the joy of Christ, whether explicitly or implicitly, will actualize the Great Commission over the Internet. For example, linking any outreach event your church hosts, posting editorials about humanitarian efforts, or talking about living the Christian life over Facebook may give much-needed visibility to the Church.
As Christ calls us to follow him in order to make us “become fishers of men,” we must recognize that the Internet itself is a net.
But one of the greatest impediments of evangelizing over the Internet is the fear of seeming arrogant. Often, Christians are uncomfortable sharing articles or expressing comments that betray their faith to the online community, whether out of fear of other’s opinions or feelings of unworthiness. This may also be because some believers consider it trite or useless, or worry that others will mistake online evangelization to be something boastful rather than humble. Yet, these fears are completely unfounded. A Christian should not be afraid to evangelize over the Internet because he or she is afraid of the word “hypocrite.” Although we are all sinners, we are called to be “perfect as [our] heavenly father is perfect.” 5
Even though this is not realistically attainable as we are all prone to sin, it does not mean that we should stop trying to be perfect, nor does it mean we should stop imploring our brothers and sisters not to sin. Even if a Christian is called a hypocrite, it is the continual seeking of forgiveness that is part of the Christian life which separates a missionary from a hypocrite. Neither should Christians consider their faith to be something private or hidden away. Faith is meant to be shared: we are supposed to “proclaim the name of the Lord. Ascribe greatness to our God,” 6 not hide Him away as a household god. A Christian who is private with his or her faith in the public sphere makes an empty gesture, for “many a man proclaims his own loyalty, but a faithful man who can find?” 7
Regardless of how we go about evangelizing through the Internet, the idea of private faith is a claim of loyalty without actions to support it and denies Biblical teaching. Not only that, but the underlying fear behind this, that any public indication of faith might bring condemnation, is nothing to be afraid of at all. Christ tells us that “[we] will be hated by all for [His] name’s sake,” 8 and that we must endure as signs of contradiction, so that we may be spoken against but remain as a sign pointing to the love and sacrifice of our Lord. Another concern of some people is that proclaiming the gospel over the Internet shows not humility, but pride. This comes from a misunderstanding of what humility is: the aligning of one’s own will to the will of God. Just as we have been taught to pray that “the will of the Lord be done,” 9 we should actually act in accord with that teaching. And since the Great Commission is accomplished by proclaiming the gospel to all nations, then evangelism through one’s life fulfills the very definition of humility. So, if and when you are next thinking about whether talking about your faith is appropriate over, say, Facebook, take a good look at your intentions and determine whether they are grounded in something of this world or something holier.
However, if evangelism is something we are called to do, then we are obligated to find a method that is not only morally upright but also effective. There are two main impediments to this: first, the failure on the part of churches to provide good and consistent catechesis [i.e., religious instruction.] to believers, and second, today’s Western culture’s hostility to Christianity, leading to Christianity’s being considered counter-cultural. C.S. Lewis was absolutely right when he wrote that “the Church exists for nothing else but to draw men into Christ, ” 10 so it is all the more unfortunate that the Church has become so complacent in the instruction of believers. But, regardless of whether you received no catechesis as a child or you were raised by missionaries, continuous study of scripture is necessary to evangelize effectively, because of the abundance of modern false reinterpretations of scripture. For, if one scandalizes Church teaching about a Biblical interpretation, only to realize he was wrong, he falls into a devilish trap: as it is written in Proverbs, “It Proverbs 20:25. is a snare for a man to say rashly, ‘It is holy,’ and to reflect only after making his vows.” 11 When we consider ourselves so wise on our own that we get to deem what is and isn’t holy, rather than leaving it to God, we are setting a snare, both for ourselves and for our loved ones. By encouraging or being complacent in a certain sin, we set an example to the people around us that Christians condone whatever sin that may be. Rather, we should study the truth contained in the Bible so that, if points of contention come up between believers and non-believers, we can make an attempt at apologetics. Alongside Scriptural familiarity and knowledge of the Bible as God’s true authoritative Word there must be a firm yet charitable tone of evangelism.
Sadly, Christianity is now counter-cultural; although our Western society has its basis in the Judeo-Christian tradition, it would be incorrect to say that biblical values are reflected wholesale in the modern age. Because of this, evangelization has already taken a huge blow, being reduced in society either to something that limits our freedom or to something to comfort those afraid of death. Therefore Christians should not evangelize simply by threatening damnation to all who do not believe; nor should they be discouraged if, despite charitability, people are unwilling to convert immediately. Regarding his expectation for evangelism using the new media, Benedict XVI, when he was still called Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, said:
[The] new evangelization cannot mean: immediately attracting the large masses that have distanced themselves from the Church by using new and more refined methods. No—this is not what new evangelization promises… rather, it means to dare, once again and with the humility of the small grain, to leave up to God the when and how it will grow. 12
So simply because we evangelize does not guarantee a swift and complete conversion of all who hear what we say.
But that is not the point: it is about humbling yourself to do God’s will. If Facebook is supposed to represent, no matter how oversimplified, our public personas, then we must not only be loving and social, but also patient and understanding. In this, we should persevere with steadfast faith so that one day all may be brought to Christ.
Ultimately, those things which made traditional means of evangelism difficult (danger of isolation, fear of seeming prideful, societal hostility to Christianity) still plague the new means of evangelism; the only difference is that the Internet provides a much larger audience, and one that might not be open to more traditional forms. To fully take advantage of this, we must apply the structure of evangelizing that made traditional means successful to the Internet by taking responsibility for our call to evangelize and to be firm yet charitable in our beliefs. For, if “conversion is humility in entrusting oneself to the love of the Other,” 13 then we must be willing to let the truth of Scripture with rightly guided interpretation lead prospective converts to Christ, allowing them to personally assent to the love and grace of God. We must, however, be careful not to privilege our own evangelism over God’s grace, for, as Benedict XVI once said, “We are not looking for listening for ourselves—we do not want to increase the power and the spreading of our institutions, but wish… [to give] room to He who is Life.” 14
John Quinn Russell (CC ’20) is a native New Yorker but also hails from St. Louis, Missouri. He is interested in biolinguistics, U.S. diplomatic history, poetry, and, of course, Jesus. While he’s currently strapped for cash, he plans to one day visit Malta or the UAE.
- Matthew 28:19 (ESV). ↩
- “World Internet Users Statistics and 2016 World Population Stats,” Miniwatts Marketing Group, 12 Oct 2016. ↩
- Mark. 1:17. ↩
- Philippians 1:27 ↩
- Matthew 5:48. ↩
- Deuteronomy 32:3. ↩
- Proverbs 20:6. ↩
- Luke 21:17. ↩
- Acts 21:14. ↩
- C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity (New York: HarperOne, 2012), 199. ↩
- Ibid. ↩
- Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, “Address to Catechists and Religion Teachers.” Jubilee of Catechists, Vatican City, 12 Dec 2000. Speech. ↩
- Ratzinger. ↩
- Ibid. ↩