I have been privileged to work in Christian media projects globally. What I cover in this brief article is essentially applicable in any area fundamentally hostile to the Christian message such as Islamic, Hindu, Buddhist, China, etc.
My particular interest has been in the Greater Middle East. And, there, North Africa where I first worked in the 1970s. It is this context that I use as I seek to make the case – an example of what I believe is a global reality.
To media personnel, many of these issues are well-known. But, I review them so my assumptions are clear as I seek to make the case:
- The God design (Genesis 2-3) was for man to live in relationship; with God, himself, others, the created order, and with eternity. Blown up by Adam and Eve’s decisions, Jesus came to restore relationships as expressly stated repeatedly in John 13-17. As difficult as it is to accept, His credibility is affirmed or devalued by our relationships as believers. Therefore, inter-personal communications, when possible, trumps all other forms communications.
- The bulk of the ‘unreached’ are in traditional, relationally-intensive cultures reflected in Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, and regional variants in China and Africa. This is in sharp contrast to the West where individualism is prized – and often shapes that nature of our communications, decision-making, and media strategies.
- In traditional cultures, the challenge or risks involved in adoption of an innovation rises as the implications of the proposed innovation potentially reflects on the family – immediate or extended – and the community in which the individual or family lives. In other words, in these circumstances, the social context plays a huge role in a decision like personally following Christ.
- Multiple passages in the book of Acts and Paul’s writings indicate the characteristics of the existing/emerging community of believers is central to the credibility of the Gospel and the likelihood of individual conversion. In other words, the apparent qualities of the local fellowships of believers in these relationally-intensive cultures is vital to the Gospel’s credibility and attractiveness
- While communication was limited to inter-personal and slow-traveling letters, research into the explosive growth of the early church up to +/- 300 AD strongly suggest it was due to the evident alternative the community of believers offered to general society. The work of Michael Green, Robert Banks, and Rodney Stark all affirm this conclusion. One asks then, is the pattern of influence and decision-making in traditional, community-based cultures all that different today?
- In such traditional contexts, research suggests that media-based communication regarding socially high-risk decisions like following Christ can have significant potential for raising awareness and providing information on options regarding choice. Then, that media can play a valued role in affirming and educating individuals “post decision.” But, at the critical point of decision making, inter-personal relationships are vital.
- The importance of proximity in communication has been widely studied and, again, is attested to by multiple passages in Scripture. Trust and credibility are key components, as the personal implications of the decision being considered rise. Therefore, implications of proximity also rise. Is this message coming from an unknown some at some distance? A source with whom I have no relationship? Or, is this message coming from my neighbor or a respected leader in my community?
- The advent and widespread adoption of social media has provided a massive step forward in addressing issues such as proximity and geographic specificity of messaging.
- Identifying seekers and/or individuals of peace who, in turn, can become key factors in ‘movements’ or multiplication/replication of the local church has challenged the missions community for over 50 years. And, if such individuals can be identified, how can media agencies effectively galvanize or support the individual’s role in development of local fellowships?
- The highly individualistic ethos of Western Christianity has had a profound effect on how funding for media-related initiatives are evaluated. From the primitive days of counting mail, to the current world of SMS, evangelistic website visits, “time on page,” social media activity monitoring, etc., etc. Western funding has heavily favored the digital or electronic versions of “how many raised their hands,” or “how many walked down the aisle?” But there have been no categories to evaluate the growth in believers’ maturity or the health of local fellowships.
I was slightly amused but appreciative of the candor of recent remarks by a long-time friend, director of a major U.S.-based evangelical foundation. He said, “When Google Analytics came along we thought, ‘At last, we have some objective, third-party data!’ But within a year or two we realized that we don’t have any more really useful information than before.”
In my experience, the media and its relationship to on-the-ground issues were first seriously explored by eight agencies in June of 1986. At that time there were only three electronic media-based sources for the Christian message in the North Africa region: Trans World Radio, medium wave, from Monte Carlo and Cyprus. And Far East Broadcast Associates (UK) and IBRA (Norwegian Fhiladelphia Church sponsored) by shortwave from the Seychelles Islands and Portugal respectively.
Collectively these broadcasters identified approximately 600 individuals as multiple or ‘regular’ monthly contacts. Frequently the same individual contacted multiple broadcasters. Often they were asking for advice, requesting Bibles, etc. The challenge? Turning these apparent ‘seekers’ into disciples and, ultimately seeing them in local fellowships. That basic challenge hasn’t changed.
Then, these enquirers reflected a unique subset of the general population as literacy rates were low in North Africa (in Morocco at that time, less than 20%). As both content producers and forms of communication proliferated, the challenges continued to dog media-based initiatives. Later, a well-intentioned, multi-agency initiative, GRMS, was diligently pursued seeking to address the same challenges. It is a story with which many are well acquainted. Regarding the 1986 North Africa meeting of 8 ministries — a Youtube video unpacks the complex but encouraging story in more detail, if you are interested.
Since those initial meetings in 1986 the ‘national church’ of Muslim Background Believes (MBB)s across Libya, Tunisia, Algeria, and Morocco, despite receiving little explicit attention by media, has managed to slowly grow. An exemplary exception — being focused on strengthening local fellowships and their leaders – has been the priority for a team based in Tunis.
Ultimately, the challenge is that a decision to become a Jesus follower in traditional cultures always occurs in a highly personal, relationally-intensive context over which the media have little or no control. The words and images of media must be translated into flesh and blood.
This brief BBC News piece chronicles the implications of a Muslim to Christianity convert – in London.
Imagine the implications for a convert in a village in the Atlas Mountains of Morocco. The stories of often horrific circumstances surrounding new converts are widespread.
So, I ask –
The communication initiatives which, with the advent of social media, are constantly proliferating, should, of course, only continue and be strengthened. Yet, is it not reasonable to consider allocating at least a portion of the current media resources specifically to the members, and, particularly, leadership of the existing local fellowships in “hostile” areas like the Middle East and North Africa?
Too often, I think, our assumptions may be that existing fellowships and their leaders are so constrained by years of ‘survival’ that they have no potential for innovation and change. The idea of a specific effort to engage and support these fellowships and their leaders may seem like the ‘long way around’ in the goal of church growth. So, in effect, we feel we must make an ‘end run’ seeking primarily if not exclusively media-inspired movements. And, typically, these initiatives focus on individual decisions. Then the always-present challenge of effective “follow-up” emerges. And, still further, comes the question of how these individuals will be effectively integrated into existing fellowships – if they exist in the individual’s area? Or, even less likely, how the individual will connect with other new or existing believers and form a completely new fellowship?
If we are to focus on strengthening local fellowships and their leaders, the question I’ve most often heard is, “What should be the content?” (Something of an indictment of the pervasive ignorance on the topic!) In an effort to get input from those most likely to know, a French/Arabic language study was done among 55 national North African leaders at a 2018 regional evangelism conference.
The leaders’ feedback regarding the needs of existing fellowships and their leaders – suggested these priorities:
- Strengthening the quality of leaders own, personal spiritual life and their leadership skills
- Alerting and, in some cases, educating local fellowships and their leaders in ways they can provide relational covering and safety for serious “seekers” and new converts.
- Creating a vision for and ideas about how their fellowship can move from fear to favor in their local community, strengthening their credibility and potential impact.
- Giving them a vision for and “how to” suggestions for their own fellowship. How can the fellowship itself be an engine of replication – being a key element in a ‘movement”? In short, how do they “plant” and multiply new fellowships?
- Share stories, case histories, and testimonies of leaders and other fellowships who have seen real blessing as they have captured one or more of these ideas – the local fellowship becoming a reproducing element in God’s plan for their region.
A working meeting of media and on-the-ground ministry leaders, focused on these issues, would be a great place to start. Experimental initiatives can be designed with specific objectives and agreed indicators for evaluation. An active communications and feedback plan must be agreed among all participants. And, a key factor, there must be funding sources involved from the outset – agreeing on key elements of the experimental initiatives.
It is not really a question of money or of technical capability. Ultimately we must face our readiness to seriously explore issues of stewardship – readiness to take risks and honestly face the implications of our fundamental assumptions about how the Holy Spirit will empower God’s people to take the Good News most effectively so that all may hear of Him, the giver of Life.