Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn. Some people think social media networks are passing fads. Others use them to keep in touch with family and friends. But for Back to God Ministries International (BTGMI), these revolutionary communication advances offer ways to build the church of Jesus Christ.
Kei, a 40-year-old government employee in Hong Kong, is one of nearly 9,000 Chinese-speaking people who receive daily encouragement from God's Word through Facebook.
"Life in Hong Kong is very busy and hectic," Kei told the BTGMI Chinese media team. "So I make good use of my one-hour bus ride to read the Chinese Today devotional each day."
Kei formerly used the printed booklet. Then last June, Kei was excited to discover the Chinese Today Facebook page. "I found this community very precious," said Kei. "Fans share their faith each day and greatly encourage each other . . . and I am proud to be one of them."
The BTGMI Chinese media team launched facebook.com/ChineseToday in April 2010. "We want to build a Chinese Today community through which fans can share with and encourage each other in their Christian faith," explains Rev. Jimmy Lin, BTGMI Chinese ministry leader. "Through the viral effect of Facebook, we hoped to reach our audiences and expand outreach to their friends, directing them to the chinesetodays.org website."
Within a month the site attracted 2,000 Chinese-speaking "fans." As friends shared with friends, that number multiplied at a surprising rate, and by November 2010 there were more than 9,000 fans. On average, 400 people each month leave comments about how the devotionals are touching their lives. Those who visit the site also "speak" with others who are struggling with faith or life issues.
Traffic on the Chinese Today website increased by 30 percent over the previous year as a result of the new Facebook site: from 77,624 visits in April through October 2009 to 108,314 visits in the same period of 2010. That means an additional 30,690 Chinese-speaking people are accessing the daily biblical teaching and encouragement.
"Of course we are excited about the growth of our readership and participation," notes Lin, "but we are even more excited to see these evolving pockets of 'virtual' communities of faith.
"While we understand this can never replace a physical community of faith like a church or a Bible study group, it is very encouraging to know that we are providing a platform for sharing and encouragement. The Lord is blessing our outreach using social media, but at the same time we are challenged with our changing role as a broadcaster in this new and exciting adventure."
So can social media be used for God's glory and the increase of his church? The experience of BTGMI suggests it can and quite effectively.
"There is a 'digital skin' forming around the world that is rapidly connecting people together in ways we never thought possible," says Rev. Bob Heerspink, BTGMI director. "If Facebook were a country, it would be the third-largest country in the world.
"Claiming the digital world for Christ allows us to share the gospel and nurture faith in ways that transcend geographical boundaries. We're committed to using social networking tools to evangelize and disciple the country of Facebook."
Back to God Ministries International began using social media several years ago in Japan, where Christians are isolated and technology is popular. In 2007, the BTGMI Japanese media team developed its own social networking site called "Pajapaja," a word created from two simple Japanese characters that are easy to access by phone or website.
"Social networking is effective and useful both for connecting people and encouraging each other, without interference from unknown outsiders," explains Japanese ministry leader Rev. Masao Yamashita.
"For the first five years after we launched our website, we tried to communicate with website visitors by using online chat rooms and a bulletin board system, but we experienced some trouble. Sometimes the chat room became a battlefield between Christians and anti- Christians, more of a place for arguments. Such situations often prevented people from coming to our website. So we found social media ideal for our purpose and developed Pajapaja."
Rev. Yamashita asked Pajapaja members to tell how this ministry has encouraged their faith. A member named Shuji left this comment: "A good thing about using Pajapaja is that I never felt lonely. I'm encouraged by the fact that I'm connected to Christians all over Japan through social media."
Another, named Teruno, added, "It's been a very nice place to meet other Christians. When I have a bad day and write about it, I get encouragement and prayer. And I can do the same when others have bad days. I always felt alone but now I have a sense of belonging. I'm thankful for that." Teruno also discovered the Japanese-language teaching program "Gospel Wave" through a link on Pajapaja, and now listens faithfully.
Teruko, who became a follower of Jesus at a BTGMI summer camp, said, "My family is Buddhist. I was baptized on Christmas 2001, but only recently told my family. They were very surprised. They still don't understand about me and my belief, but I'm hoping they will one day. I hope that through the Internet more people would know what Christianity really is."
Added Ryo: "Everyone on Pajapaja is my wonderful family."
BTGMI's Indonesian and Arabic ministries are in the early stages of using social media to engage young people in faith conversations.
"Social networking is becoming more popular in Indonesia," reports ministry leader Rev. Untung Ongkowidjaya. "It is a powerful and inexpensive way to connect with people.
"I see our users strengthening each other with Scripture. They are able to express their heart more openly on this site."
"Ministry is all about relationships, either in person or through media, so social media was an obvious route of expansion for us," says Rev. Steven Koster, director of ReFrame Media, the English outreach of BTGMI.
"The whole point of social media is to engage more conversationally with people and their friends, so we consider it a key channel for all of our programming. Social media is a part of everything we do."
ReFrame Media first ventured into social networking in 2007. Realizing the potential for increased outreach, ReFrame hired Todd Hertz in the fall of 2009 to oversee social media expansion for all its programs. "We now consider our Facebook pages as crucial to our overall outreach as radio itself," says Koster. "Radio is a one-way medium, but Facebook allows conversation— conversation between us and fans, and conversations between our fans and their friends."
You can be part of that conversation and introduce your Facebook or Twitter contacts to faith messages using these discipleship tools, Koster explains. "We've included social features on every ReFrame Media website so that our content is easy for our listeners to share."
Hertz adds, "The chief ministry for most of our social media venues is disciple- making. The best way we can do this online is through knowledge and relationships.
"We want to gather believers from various points on their paths of faith into a virtual room, give them opportunities to interact, and let them sharpen one another as iron sharpens iron. We want to create communities that discuss, encourage, challenge, and inspire their members."
These online faith communities are growing. On the Walk the Way Facebook site, for example, the number of fans has grown from 517 to more than 10,000 in one year, and interactions among fans has increased from 19 per month in 2009 to more than 1,200 in 2010.
Other BTGMI social media sites have also grown phenomenally, such as the Facebook pages of Under the Radar and Spotlight—the international English program—each of which has more than 5,000 fans.
"Beyond conversations on Facebook, we've also seen direct ways we're helping people grow their faith," Koster reports. "On our Today Facebook page [for English speakers], Alicia L. has commented several times about the redeeming side of Facebook: 'I am reading more of the Bible than I ever have. I'm now using Facebook for God's glory instead of letting it rule my life negatively.'"
Koster summarizes the social media ministry like this: "To share God's story in people's lives, we embrace new technologies. And as our projects continue to grow, we know it's not about us, but all about God using Facebook to bring people closer to him.
"Pray that [we'll] reach more people through social media. And if you're on Facebook, will you be part of the conversations? We're so thankful for all the ways you support our ministry."