Millions of worried people who have turned to Google with their anxiety over COVID-19 have ended up connecting with Christian evangelists in their search results—leading to a spike in online conversions in March.
In the Philippines, a woman named Grace found herself on a website about coronavirus fear hosted by the internet evangelism organization Global Media Outreach (GMO). “Please help me not to worry about everything,” she wrote in a chat with a volunteer counselor. “What’s happening now is very confusing.” The counselor explained that only Jesus can bring lasting peace, and Grace received Jesus as her Savior.
Back in the US, a volunteer at the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association (BGEA) chatted online with a young mother named Brittany who worried that COVID-19 would take her life and her children’s lives. The volunteer offered hope and peace, and Brittany too accepted Christ.
Three of the largest online evangelism ministries—GMO, BGEA, and Cru—account cumulatively for at least 200 million gospel presentations on the internet each year. All three say the number of people seeking online information about knowing Jesus has increased since the COVID-19 outbreak was declared a pandemic in early March.
Between mid-March and late March, GMO saw a 170 percent increase in clicks on search engine ads about finding hope. Clicks on ads about fear increased 57 percent, and about worry 39 percent. The ministry’s 12.4 million gospel presentations in March represented a 16 percent increase over the average month in 2019.
This recent surge corresponds with a broader finding by a University of Copenhagen professor: Internet searches related to prayer in 75 countries skyrocketed to their highest levels in five years in March.
“We are seeing millions of people open to talking about faith in the face of fear,” said Michelle Diedrich, GMO’s seeker journey director, “and we’re ramping up to be available for them.”
Pastors, evangelists, and online ministries tend to tell a similar story: COVID-19 escalated an already significant trend toward internet evangelism. As the virus’s spread eventually wanes, they will seek to determine whether the uptick in online witness can be sustained—and how they might improve discipleship for these new believers. Only a fraction of those who come to faith online engage in follow-up discussions or report joining a local church.
Evangelism via ‘electrons and avatars’
In March, BGEA launched landing pages with coronavirus resources in six languages (English, Spanish, Portuguese, Korean, Mandarin Chinese, and Arabic). The association also launched social media campaigns themed around fear.
In the first four weeks, 173,000 people visited the websites and more than 10,000 clicked a button indicating they made decisions for Christ, said Mark Appleton, BGEA’s director of internet evangelism. That was in addition to traffic on BGEA’s standard family of evangelistic websites, which includes SearchForJesus.net and PeaceWithGod.net and sees nearly 30,000 visitors per day. (CT reported in 2015 that online gospel presentations through BGEA were equivalent to a daily Billy Graham crusade.)
One visitor to the coronavirus page, a 17-year-old named Donmere, told a chat volunteer, “I’m not really a religious person, but I don’t know who else to turn to but God.” Forty-five minutes later, Donmere was a follower of Christ and had been pointed to discipleship resources.
Donmere’s conversion fits the profile of typical internet salvation experiences.
Pastor Mark Penick, in his 2013 doctoral dissertation at Dallas Baptist University, studied converts who came to Christ through the evangelistic website IAmSecond.com. Through in-depth interviews with 37 individuals in 17 states, Penick determined all his subjects “experienced an impassible quandary” like a divorce, job loss, or financial crisis that left them searching and questioning. Eighty-six percent said finding a Christian website was unplanned but “of their own initiative” (through actions like clicking on an ad or a search engine result). About 75 percent had “personal dysfunction and addiction issues” prior to their online conversions.
Few scholarly analyses of internet evangelism have been attempted—mostly dissertations and doctoral projects on specific evangelistic initiatives—but in 2014, the Pew Research Center found that informal online witnessing was relatively common. One in five Americans said they shared their faith online at least weekly, and 60 percent said they saw religion shared online at least weekly.
In 2018, Barna Research reported that most Christians agree technology is making it easier to evangelize and that 58 percent of non-Christians said someone had shared their faith with them on Facebook, with another 14 percent hearing a testimony through other social media channels.
Ed Stetzer, director of the Billy Graham Center for Evangelism at Wheaton College, said missiologists generally have a favorable view of internet evangelism.
“Historically, we’ve always thought of evangelism being done with our feet and our faces,” he said. “We go and we tell. But people feel okay that it might involve electrons and avatars” in the 21st century.
At Cru, witnessing also involves emojis. Among Cru’s digital evangelism tools for college campuses is a survey to be answered with emojis to start a spiritual conversation. Cru’s online presence also includes evangelistic mobile apps, gospel presentations in various languages, and online articles using felt needs as bridges to the gospel. One of the ministry’s most effective evangelistic websites, EveryStudent.com, received 56 million hits last year and registered 657,000 decisions for Christ.
In response to COVID-19, Cru has added 52 new resources to its websites. A corresponding bump in traffic has the ministry on pace to eclipse last year’s total number of visitors to EveryStudent.com by 20 million in 2020 and the site’s total decisions for Christ by more than 300,000.
The college-focused ministry InterVarsity USA reported a similar increase in spiritual interest amid COVID-19. In an online fundraising ad running the first week in April, the ministry stated, “We’ve seen more first-time decisions to follow Jesus in the last week than at any other time in the past year.”
A study by the American Enterprise Institute suggested the young adults targeted by ministries like Cru and InterVarsity may be more worried about the coronavirus—at least in some respects—than their counterparts in older generations.
The survey found that 53 percent of 18- to 29-year-olds are concerned about being able to afford basic housing costs amid the pandemic. Fifty-nine percent of 30- to 49-year-olds expressed the same concern, compared with just 29 percent of Americans age 65 and older. Across all generations, people said the coronavirus outbreak has caused them to feel closer to God, including 14 percent of the religiously unaffiliated.
Despite the documented rise in religious interest as COVID-19 sweeps the world, it remains unclear how much of the increase in religious internet traffic is due to the heightened interest and how much is simply a temporary replacement for in-person religious activity. Cru, for instance, has taken all of its evangelism and discipleship groups online via the video conferencing software Zoom. On a single day in late March, Cru held 746 Zoom calls, compared with 474 for the entire month of February before social distancing began in earnest for the US.
By March 29, only 7 percent of American churches were still holding physical gatherings and most had moved online, according to a survey by LifeWay Research. Just 8 percent of Protestant pastors said they had not provided any online sermons or worship services for their congregations during the month of March.
Great Commission goes digital
Regardless of whether the bump in internet traffic is permanent or temporary, it’s clear that online evangelism’s reach is global. During one week in March, Cru’s digital resources were accessed from every country in the world, Cru vice president Mark Gauthier said.
Thanks to online tools, the body of Christ “has the ability to plant churches in every unreached people group” with less expenditure of resources than ever, he said. “This is one of the greatest moments in the history of the church for the fulfillment of the Great Commission.”
COVID-19 hot spots have received particular online evangelistic focus. BGEA launched a Spanish social media campaign aimed at Spain, where about 120,000 have tested positive for the coronavirus and nearly 11,000 have died. During the campaign’s first week, 93,000 people viewed targeted Facebook posts for at least 10 seconds. More than 1,000 people had social messaging conversations in a single week with BGEA volunteers in English and Spanish.
Southern Baptist evangelist Sammy Tippit has plans for gospel witnessing during the coming months in Iran, where 45,000 COVID-19 cases have been reported. At age 72, Tippit has experienced the power of internet evangelism only in the past four years. His journey online began by preaching evangelistic sermons to villages in India via Skype. That led to a Skype event where 10,000 Indians gathered to watch Tippit preach via video, and 5,000 indicated a desire to commit their lives to Christ.
To follow up with those new believers, Tippit began making three-minute discipleship videos and distributing them on social media. The videos took off, and now a global network of his ministry partners is preparing to distribute videos of two Tippit sermons to their non-Christian friends on May 30 and 31. The sermons will be translated into 10 languages and distributed via the messaging application WhatsApp in nearly 70 countries, with an anticipated audience of 10 million
A television station in Iran got wind of the emphasis and is partnering with Tippit to distribute the evangelistic sermons to an additional 6 million people.
Only a “handful” of evangelists are doing online ministry on that scale, said Tippit, president of the Conference of Southern Baptist Evangelists. But “a lot of people I know” are “doing something on Facebook” and reaching hundreds. Tippit plans to train other evangelists in expanding their reach through the internet.
Mass evangelism’s weak point
The greatest difficulty with online evangelism is follow-up. While 60,000 people per day last year indicated on GMO’s websites that they had made decisions for Christ (either first-time commitments or rededications), the ministry was only able to track 5,244 people all year who connected with a local church after beginning their journey with Christ. “This has been our biggest challenge,” Diedrich said.
Now, with the coronavirus keeping church doors closed for the time being, new believers will need to rely even more on web resources for discipleship.
Of the 10,000 people indicating salvation decisions during BGEA’s COVID-19 campaign, about 2,030 requested follow-up. For BGEA, funneling new converts into online discipleship courses is a major part of the follow-up process, along with encouraging new believers to plug into a local church. In March, the ministry saw 3,043 people enroll in discipleship courses, up 37 percent from the average monthly enrollment. Cru sees about 40 percent of the individuals who register salvation decisions through EveryStudent.com proceed to online follow-up. This includes working through a series of discipleship lessons and being offered an opportunity to interact with someone over chat to discuss what they’re learning.
Yet the difficulty of following up with those who profess faith isn’t unique to internet evangelism. The same trouble has dogged crusades and other forms of mass evangelism, Stetzer said.
“This has been everybody’s weak point for the last hundred years,” he said. However, “we shouldn’t pull away because this is the challenge. We should try to address it” with “stronger bonds to local churches.”
Despite the follow-up challenge, the benefits of online evangelism seem to outweigh its drawbacks. Missiologists note seekers’ willingness to discuss spiritual matters in greater depth because of the anonymity afforded online. People also generally will trust the biblical counsel on websites that look reputable and professional. Internet witnessing additionally creates a lower-stress opportunity for initial evangelism attempts by Christians who may feel hesitant to share their faith in person.
A BGEA online volunteer reported, “I have lived across the street from my neighbor for 10 years, and I just went and shared the gospel with him for the first time ever because I started to do this internet evangelism, and I learned how to actually have conversations with people,” Appleton said.
Among the next frontiers in online gospel sharing is Global Outreach Day 2020. Set for May 30, the day has largely been driven online by COVID-19 and the increasingly digital nature of the world. An international coalition of organizers has set a goal of mobilizing 100 million believers to share the gospel with 1 billion people worldwide in May.
Among the main evangelistic methods will be posting personal testimonies online and then sharing them with friends via text or social media. (The Southern Baptist Convention has launched a similar campaign as the pandemic forced adjustments to its Who’s Your One? evangelistic push.)
If every Christian would send a gospel presentation to one person online and ask that person’s opinion of it, Gauthier said, “you would see a lot of people having a chance to know Christ and a lot of fruit.”
David Roach is a writer in Nashville.