Difficulties of Online Communication
While talking on Periscope to a man in Saudi Arabia, his children were peeking over his shoulders and around the face of his screen. I wasn’t sure what he was saying as this was one instance where English wasn’t something he understood. I kept calling his children, “Adorable.” In America, this is a compliment. Within minutes, he blocked me. This is an example of why it’s important to understand foreign cultures, even when your ministry is serving online.
In order to understand how to develop relationships here and abroad, I need to understand the culture. Intercultural Communication for Christian Ministry by Frank Tucker is an excellent and exhaustive resource. In this article, I will go over how and why this book applies to online ministry. While I am lucky enough to not go through culture shock, I am guilty of having a Western mindset, speaking only one language (English), and balance implementing my ministry focus and communicating spiritual truths in new and creative ways while raising support as a missionary. More importantly, living out my own creed of balancing online with face-to-face to never lose the human element in communication.
Chapter one stated, “…reject the use of persuasive techniques to influence people that depersonalize them or deprive them of the freedom to know and choose; – seek to actively listen sensitively in order to understand people with different views and beliefs; – affirm the right of all people to their beliefs and the right to make their own decisions.” A writer seeks the perfect editor; someone who won’t edit out her unique voice, but help her write better. In teaching social media to a non-technical person, it is imperative to keep that person’s personality and voice, and to teach them how to listen to another person’s online chatter. But Intercultural Communication takes it one step further. It talks about how what you write or how you say things are interpreted from the other culture’s point of view.
You must know how to use appropriate symbols, icons, and signs to convey your message so people understand the truths you are trying to share with them. In the online world, we use graphics and video to send our messages. To use writer’s language, we show rather than tell the story, and this can be rather interpretive. Double check your Western thinking before hitting publish or sharing online.
When I sent out a recent newsletter, I hadn’t understood how people can interpret some of the common things Western thinkers take for granted. Having to think cross-culturally as an online worker is not easy while living in a Western culture. Every day I am thinking and talking Western, but when my social media arm reaches across the ocean to another country, I must learn to think like them to understand their histories, cultures, and symbols. When interviewing a Chinese international student in 2015, it was amazing how God had prepared this international student to receive the Gospel. She had a loose grasp on her religion which meant more receptivity to the Gospel. She knew some English, but was fluent in Chinese. Some of my words were confusing. In communicating with people overseas on Periscope, some knew English, but if I used long words, it caused confusion with their limited English. Other minefields in communication include the obvious: Using your influence to, “deprive them of the freedom to know and choose.”
Some claimed the church was dying. Later, others denied this saying, God is changing the church. He is remaking it. Because social media is about public perception, we must be careful when we use social media for more personal venting. Venting the right way allows people to connect with you, but the wrong way can say something else. It’s back to how others reinterpret your words from the filter of their worldview and culture. Over the years, one voice joined another online creating a loud voice saying, “I hate church.” Some of them reported saying this so other people can feel like they have something in common. Others just didn’t like church. It became one voice shouting, “I don’t like church.” Like anything negative, it’s almost like a drug. The more we talk negatively, the more negativity others share with you. How do we give them the freedom to know and choose?
Let’s make things we have in common, like what we enjoy doing on our free time, the basis for our strategy. Establish good things in common with people of other cultures. Go as a learner and ask open-ended questions. Let them share their culture, and you can share yours when appropriate. Politics is another minefield, and in America, it’s the biggest barrier we have in cybermissions.
Go on any news site and people are shouting down people with whom they disagree (Christians and unbelievers alike). Candace Cameron Bure said in one of her books how people assumed they had permission to be an authority in her life while she performed on, Dancing For The Stars. Because of this, bringing social media up as a tool for missions is a difficult task. People who are not on Social Media carry away an impression that it divides friends and families instead of being a creative place for community to develop; for churches to reach into someone’s livingroom in a less intrusive way than going door to door with a brochure; and to get to know their communities through groups online. Neighbors are suddenly no longer strangers with social media. Part of the barrier in cybermissions comes from how news stories frame their stories; even our favorite sources have a bias or an agenda. These days you must interpret what you read through a Biblical lens, but we are a people of extremes.
And one thing struck me in the most negative way, “To our shame, evangelicals have befriended people for the sole purpose of evangelism, and Western Christians have developed cross-cultural relationships, not for the value of the relationships, but to ‘strike a deal.’” I’m still friends with the person who came to know Christ.
Online Communication is Becoming a Personal Witness
Intercultural Communication said something that struck me as incorrect. It said, until the advent of smart phones, the phone has not been a useful tool for ministry or evangelism. Mobile Ministry Forum and Bible TransMission might disagree. For instance, a Nokia feature phone with its long battery life and small screen was the tool they used to bring material to other cultures. A slot on the side of the phone allows for an SDcard where audio Bibles and other files are stored rather than on the memory of the phone itself. Smart Phones have a shorter battery life, but better apps. In Mexico, smart phone usage is rising.
Mobile Ministry Forum recently had a webinar where they shared a tip for short term mission trips or even local evangelism in a neighborhood that speaks another language. You can download videos in the language of the people you are trying to reach and share that video as a way of witnessing to them. With the rise of live video (Facebook Live, Skype, Periscope, Vsee), that personal witness needed for discipleship and evangelism is available from anywhere in the world provided you have WiFi or data.
My goal to reach across cultural and language boundaries is to learn new languages. I would like to start with Spanish, and when I think I have handled writing and speaking it, I will move on to another language. Social Media allows me to communicate freely anywhere in the world. Language is a barrier, even with Google translate. Like missionaries who move overseas, I will immerse myself in the cultures when I am fully funded.
How am I Preparing Now?
While raising financial partnerships, I am thinking ahead in planning how to implement spiritual truths in the context that I am serving. A list of short term and long term goals have been made, edited, and re-made. Social Media is so huge. My problem: How do I learn so many different cultures and religions and speak the Gospel into them using the bridges of communication already built into their culture by God? Education will help and immersing myself in different cultures regularly can build online relationships while I raise funding.
Raising funding, keeping my websites active and my social media going, and keeping abreast of new developments in technology is a fun and creative task that is time consuming. Days come when I sit at my desk at my day job and dream of when I can begin immersing myself in culture and develop new friendships online. My biggest dream is being able to connect that person online with a fellowship of faith somewhere in the world through my ministry contacts and the organization of WorldVenture. My other dream is getting the pulpit to be aware of the breadth of missions; that it doesn’t only exist in the traditional ways, but in the creative, too; and finally, knowing I can give all of me to this calling and not just 80% because of my day job.
Even in this waiting, God is preparing my heart. If you are serious about social media and using your one or more accounts to reach out to unbelievers online, Intercultural Communication is a book you need to read. It’s exhaustive, text book-like, and needed as you navigate the online world from your own cultural point of view.