"Communicating Christ

on the Information Superhighway"

Introduction to my dissertation for the Doctor of Ministry degree submitted to Fuller Theological Seminary, School of World Mission, Fall 1997.

The dissertation is currently available from UMI (1-800-521-0600) as publication number 9734361.

New information technologies are rapidly changing the shape of worldwide interaction among people. The world is becoming a smaller world, unified in the use of common tools for communication and interaction and yet still diverse in language, culture, religious beliefs, and ideological values. Emerging new technologies will have a tremendous impact on every society in the world, although in various degrees and shapes. Some countries are spearheading the shaping of this new information-based society while others, due to economical and political as well as other reasons, are slowly following in their footsteps. Vice President of the United States, Albert Gore, has named the new technological reality the "Information Superhighway."

The purpose of the dissertation is to analyze how the concept of a global "Information Superhighway" may challenge the understanding of Christian spirituality and accelerate the fulfillment of the Great Commission of World Evangelization (Matt 28:18-20). The dissertation aim is to keep a dual focus on how new technologies at large change human interaction and provide new opportunities for communicating the gospel. Furthermore, the dissertation elaborates on how these technologies, represented by the rapidly expanding Internet, also challenges Christian churches (and ministries as well) to explore new ways of expressing a holistic Christian lifestyle in the virtual realities of "cyberspace."

The Challenge from a New Reality

The dissertation is divided into three sections. The first section provide an introduction to the Internet as a "worldwide Web of Networks." The focus in this section will be on how the postmodern societies of the Internet stimulate new forums for spirituality, and the implications for how we are to communicate the gospel of Christ in man-made, high-tech virtual realities.

New technologies already have and will continue to create a vast amount of new opportunities for human interaction. The Internet is a good example of how time and physical distance have become increasingly less important. Given better multimedia tools like audio, video, animation, net telephone, etc. a plethora of opportunities will emerge within communication, commerce, education, research and many other areas. Yet, the Internet is far from fully developed and will most likely face various problems in the years to come, like high enough access speed and maybe also sufficient capacity to carry the millions of users worldwide.

New technologies give new opportunities for interaction. Time and distance become less important when e-mail can be used both at the office and from home. Internet telephoning is already in use and will make long distance phone bills much cheaper when this new tool has grown out of its infancy within a few years. Video and audio tools are just starting to become common. With better telecommunications, higher speed and broader bandwidth, the Internet will become even more user friendly with a tremendous potential for being a really participatory medium with live interaction between people far apart becoming an everyday experience.

Modern technologies are not just "techniques" or "communications" in a theoretic sense. During the last century, the telephone, radio, TV, and numerous other inventions have changed everyday life for most of us. New habits of interaction within families, between friends and in society as a whole have emerged. Technology changes society as well as our ideas of community.

The invention of new technologies does not only change an existing culture. It can also create a new reality, new societies, new cultures. The Internet with its countless numbers of "virtual societies," news groups, online chat-channels are good examples. During the last 25-30 years, a whole new society has been established with its own rules and culture. Today the Internet is used daily by millions of people all over the world and it will continue to grow.

The Internet is a marketplace with an overwhelming variety of commercial enterprises, religious ministries and ideological organizations, and communities of every imaginable kind. It is a tremendous source for information about whichever topic one may want to explore. The opportunities for obtaining information--and knowledge--about all kinds of issues have become within reach for everyone with a computer, a modem, a telephone line and access via an Internet provider. Knowledge is no longer only reserved for the experts or governments but has become commonly accessible.

This freedom has also highly increased the possibility of dis-information. Within the anarchistic architecture of the Internet, anybody who really wants to can be a publisher and an advocate for whatever cause. In the same way as we generally believe what we read in the newspaper or watch on TV, we tend to regard as basically true whatever we read on a computer screen. The need for careful consideration and evaluation of sources becomes even more important when we deal with information downloaded from unknown Internet pages or sites.

Today there are not only hundreds but thousands of Christian ministries and churches on the Internet, and new ones are added every day. There are numerous discussion groups for religious issues in many forums on the Net, both moderated and unmoderated. The Bible is accessible in many editions and languages, as are countless numbers of Christian resources and documents for almost any purpose.

There are also important ethical issues to be considered. To a certain degree, new media tools like the Internet Relay Chat (IRC), e-mail news groups and lists foster a strong sense of community and partly also intimacy. The openness within such forums can be astonishing. But it also may give opportunities for creating "false personalities." For example, a man can take on the identity of a woman, given the tempting opportunity of an anonymous relationship. Deep matters of trust, confidence and relationships need to be addressed.

The problem of Internet addiction has also become visible. An incredible amount of time can be spent in front of the computer screen. Computer-mediated interaction and computer games can become obsessive for certain -- often younger -- people, preventing them from developing an adequate and socially necessary level of social intelligence. On the other hand the computer can be a really liberating tool for disabled people who can be experienced just by their words and opinions and not by their physical appearance.

New Technologies Changing and Challenging World Mission

The second section of the dissertation gives a broader introduction to the emerging "Information Superhighway" by presenting plans and strategies in some selected countries throughout the world. It also present some of the ongoing developments of new technologies in a few high-tech companies. A short case study of Mission Aviation Fellowship (MAF) gives an introduction to how new technologies can be implemented into mission work.

Many countries are in the beginning of a process to facilitate a new Information Society. They have created numerous regional and national plans, made important strategy decisions, yet the implementation is still very much in process. Multinational corporations as well as smaller businesses are also planning and developing new tools to compete in a new market reality which may radically change the rules and conditions for an increasingly common world market.

This paradigm shift will undoubtedly have a great impact on the worldwide framework in which the Great Commission is to be fulfilled. New tools will be facilitating interaction among multiple persons in real time rather than communication between a sender and a receiver. The environmental reality, virtual or real, will give many opportunities for sharing a common work as a team, enable various ways of education, information exchange, as well as communicating the gospel to more people.

From a global mission perspective, it is becoming vitally important to have knowledge about new tools being developed by private companies. We also need to keep track of existing technologies as they become far more effective. New plans and strategies implemented on national and regional levels will influence the plans and strategies of churches, mission boards and mission agencies in the years to come. New tools will make communication easier, faster, much cheaper, and indeed more convenient to use. They will provide countless opportunities for interaction across barriers of time and physical space.

On an international level, the race to become even more competitive and technologically superior has been going on for a while. Behind all nice "fairy tales" about the wonderful opportunities of the emerging "Information Society" of the 21st Century, the real issue is, "Who will be the winners and the losers in the global marketplace?" In a fundamental way there will not be any "local markets," all the national and regional markets ultimately becoming a part of the "global village." From a missions perspective, the concept of a "global village" may come to influence our missiological strategies and tools used to communicate with present partners in mission and to further explore unevangelized areas of the world.

The dissertation aim give an introduction and a rough "map" into the jungle of ideas, plans, tools and channels of the emerging information societies. The primary focus is the next 5-10 years (until the year 2007) but a separate chapter is assigned a more general look into the future. The Information Society is a very broad term which (in political "newtalk", borrowing a term from George Orwell’s famous novel 1984) may include almost anything. To narrow the scope to better understand some key trends, the dissertation focuses mainly (but not exclusively) on issues of importance for the Internet. The "Net" already envisions many of the changes yet to come, and it certainly will play an important role in future communication between people worldwide.

The Internet has already given unique new possibilities for interaction in missions by e-mail, net telephone, multimedia Web pages, etc. In chapter 2, the existing Internet technologies are briefly described, together with a short overview of some major issues and technologies that will have a significant influence on our future information societies like cable modems, satellites, etc. Most likely, it is technologies already emerging that will have the most profound influence on our everyday life in the next 5-10 years to come, and many of these inventions are beginning to appear on the Net.

Chapter 5 aims to give a brief overview of the plans and strategies for some selected strategic countries all over the world. Some of them are spearheading the implementation of new technologies while others are struggling to catch up in the race. Chapter 6 focuses on some selected companies from telecommunications, consumer appliances and computer industries. They all have one thing in common: innovative new technologies developed and marketed by these companies might have a profound influence on our daily life in the years to come.

Mission agencies are also involved in developing new technologies, as well as using them to promote community and interaction within the global Christian community. A case study of Mission Aviation Fellowship (MAF) is intended to serve as an example of mission-related technological development. At the end of chapter 7, some possible opportunities for worldwide evangelism and mission, provided by new technologies are discussed in detail.

Communicating Christ on the Internet

The third section provide in-depth analysis of selected Christian activities on the Net through two international surveys of churches with Internet ministries. In the first survey a selection of "virtual churches" and some "real" churches from several denominations provides detailed information about the purposes and results of their ministries. The second survey features an in-depth research of a few hundred Lutheran churches worldwide based on a slightly revised questionnaire. At the end of this section there will be a special chapter aiming to apply the results of the surveys on the basis of Christian communication principles to a practical approach in a postmodern reality on how to use the new technologies to communicate Christ.

A Christian presence in the "virtual world" has become important to many believers. In one sense, it is like being present in the real world, interacting with family, friends, colleagues, communicating faith in an everyday life, evangelizing nonbelievers, being available, answering questions, participating in discussions and sharing testimonies. On the other hand, the "virtual world" may facilitate a new openness for spiritual questions, for sharing life experiences and fostering a different kind of intimacy which is not easily seen in the real world. However, should there also be limitations and boundaries? Can the Internet, for example, facilitate an acceptable forum for Christian fellowship, even worship?

Questions like these raise important issues in terms of how to understand the virtual and other churches on the Internet. Are they really churches or just channels and tools for a real church or ministry? Is the church necessarily a visible physical entity gathered at a definite place at a certain time, or can it be a "virtual" gathering physically distant but emotionally intimate? These issues is discussed in chapter 10.

The Concept of HEART Language

New technologies influence the common perception of reality and challenge the methods for communication. To a certain extent a whole generation, the so-called "busters," are true children of the "flux and fluid" virtual reality in the real world. The HEART language is introduced as a model to attempt to communicate the love of Christ to the heart of a new generation in a holistic, evangelistic, authentic, reconciliating and transforming way.

On the basis of an incarnational understanding of Christian communication the last chapter discuss the challenges from the two surveys. At the end of chapter 13 there is also an outline with practical ideas to help churches and Christian ministries in developing an effective ministry on the Internet.

The goal for the dissertation is to provide new knowledge of how Christian churches (and ministries) can communicate Christ to the end of the virtual worlds and give a better understanding of how new technologies can be used in a postmodern reality to accelerate the fulfillment of the Great Commission of world evangelization.