Alpha USA on the Promise of Digital Evangelism Environments


This blog represents the opinion of Alpha USA, Barna’s research partner for our newest journal, Five Changing Contexts for Digital Evangelism. You can purchase the full journal now.


A woman sits on a bench in New York, overwhelmed with tears of desperation. Seeking diversion, she reaches for her phone and escapes into the stories of others. Scrolling and swiping, she comes across an ad for an online series of spiritual conversations. A spontaneous sign-up leads her to begin a 10–week online journey with people she has never met. To her surprise, she discovers a safe space to bring her fears and challenges and process her questions about faith. Over the next few weeks, she also develops a real connection with others in her group who are leaning into honest pursuit of what “more” in God means. Together, they decide to continue their discussions and friendship even after the course ends. 

This is one of countless true stories of how doors for digital evangelism have unexpectedly opened in a year of isolation and disorientation. These accounts showcase the unique opportunities the Church has in this global moment to reach people right where they are, right in the midst of the many questions being carried.

While the internet has a long list of liabilities, it has become a providential gateway to a much needed “third place.” This term, coined by sociologist Ray Oldenburg in the 1980s, describes those places we frequent that don’t fall into the categories of home or work. Cafés, pubs and common rooms in cities around the world offer third places that have been increasingly, intentionally curated for people to share unhurried moments and conversations. People can gather in pairs and groups to learn from new perspectives and grow new friendships.

Now, in the isolation created by a global pandemic, a generation craving third place “havens” is being pushed online to find them. As we have found ourselves momentarily restricted from our familiar public spaces, the internet has filled the gap and met a critical need. Countless online platforms beckon the world to share the largest living room ever created, crowded with a greater diversity of people and perspectives than ever before. In a digital space, all are welcome to gather. Lost and found, churched and unchurched, there is room for everyone.

For the collective Church, there is clearly a kairos moment emerging to embrace engagement and fluency in this online frontier like never before. As most local communities have been forced to leave their buildings vacant, a virtual “welcome mat” has been laid before us to join the world where it presently gathers. It is vital that we accept this invitation. For those who are listening, there is a quiet cry for hope and healing rising up across every social divide.

Studies on eroding mental and emotional wellbeing emphasize this reality. Barna data gathered in May of 2020 show that half of Americans (51%) report feelings of loneliness at least weekly during COVID-19. That number jumps to 56 percent for those whose household income is $50k or less annually. A study conducted by the Center for Disease Control and Prevention found that roughly four times as many people reported symptoms of depression in June of 2020 than had in the second quarter of 2019. Anxiety, suicidal ideation and substance abuse were also all measured in this study, and each showed marked increase during 2020. In fact, 74 percent of respondents 18–24 years of age reported at least one adverse mental or behavioral health symptom.

These statistics are heartbreaking, yet understandable. We are wired to be social, needing true connection to thrive. Without community, our hope and ability to persevere though challenging circumstances begins to fade.

But new approaches to digital evangelism can move into this relational void, reaching back out toward the authentic interpersonal encounters we were designed for.

In this year marked by loss, tension and fear, many people have found themselves more isolated than they ever imagined. But together, the Church has an opportunity to build needed bridges and join God in his work of restoring life and connective tissue to dry bones across a global valley. By pioneering virtual spaces for deep and meaningful connection, we can offer people new ways to be heard, known and understood.

For decades, Alpha has invested in creating and curating spaces around real tables that allow for honest, hospitable spiritual conversations. Now, we are helping thousands of churches build and host virtual table moments. Like the woman in New York who found new community and faced her grief through an online course, we are watching these stories unfold like never before.

A few examples…

A bartender in New York had been running from God for 14 years and would never have shown up to Alpha in person. But he attended a virtual Alpha, opening his heart to God for the first time in his life. 

A woman in Atlanta was near the breaking point in a long battle with unforgiveness. She joined an online Alpha and, because she felt safe, was able to let that pain surface. Before her Alpha experience was over, she had begun taking next steps toward healing and forgiving the person who had wronged her. 

Even some who didn’t intend to participate in Alpha have been drawn into an encounter with God. For instance, a woman’s teenage son overheard her Alpha call and ended up surrendering his life to Jesus. The roommate of an Alpha host in Minnesota overheard an Alpha conversation, which provoked questions about faith, which led to her placing her faith in Jesus.

As churches of every size, style and expression have partnered in pioneering Alpha in an online environment, innumerable stories like these illustrate the surprising gift this course has become in this challenging season. And it is clear that as new digital doors are opening, many believers are eager to step through for the sake of others. Barna reports that half of churched Christians would like to be coached on or given tools for sharing their faith in online environments with non-Christians.

Why are digital evangelism environments working?

1. In digital environments, there are significantly lower barriers to entry.

  • Barna data tells us that 41 percent of non-Christians say they’re open to participating in spiritual conversations about Christianity if the experience feels friendly. Alpha has found that cultivating friendly / safe digital environments for non-believers is easier than you might think.
  • As the world has quickly acclimated to doing life with others online, Alpha offers hospitable, fun, empathetic hosts whose only agenda is to listen well. The ease of showing up to a Zoom room, compared with traveling to and physically entering an unfamiliar and daunting church facility, allows even skeptics to explore on safe ground.

2. In digital environments, there are simply no geographical limitations.

  • Currently, 17 percent of churchgoers who are extending invitations to digital church experiences say they invited non-local friends and 15 percent say they have invited non-local family.
  • Where geographical proximity has historically been a limiting factor, now the doors have digitally opened for anyone to attend an Alpha course anywhere online. Stories of distanced friends and relatives diving into online Alphas from different zip codes and time zones confirms an ease of accessibility never before experienced. Family members can participate with their moms, dads, siblings and kids wherever they are in the country.

3. In digital environments, attendance capacities are easily expanded.

  • Online tools can typically accommodate as many guests as show up, with a limitless supply of virtual tables to gather around. One church in California shared that they had the largest number of Alpha attendees ever when they moved online. A church in Iowa saw so many people join that they maxed out the number of possible Zoom breakouts allowed on a call. A church in Chicago shared that their Alpha attendance doubled in one week, and they experienced a higher percentage of declared skeptics joining Alpha online than they ever had in person.

4. In digital environments, authentic connections can happen with more frequency and depth.

  • Many communities are discovering that guests are willing to open up with much greater vulnerability when participating from the comfort of their own homes. One church leader observed, “When people have the home court advantage, walls come down a lot quicker.” As leaders are trained to listen and patiently draw out the big questions and concerns carried by guests, the floodgates of fears, hurts and raw emotions begin to open.
  • From the comfort of their own homes, it seems that people are willing to unpack their hearts with strangers like never before. Barna data has confirmed this as well. In fact, a notable 40 percent of adults agree they are more open to talking online with people who have opposing views on controversial topics than they would be in person. And, among non-Christians who report having had a digital discussion about Christianity with a friend or family member, nearly all (90%) report that the conversation went well.

At Alpha, we invite you to journey with us through this unforeseen chapter of both challenge and discovery. We are all learning to live and lead through this new reality. And it is vital for us to be on the pioneering frontline together, embracing and leveraging digital environments to establish meaningful connection with those who need it most.

Without question, the door is wide open for exploring new strategies for digital evangelism. As this Barna study reveals, 77 percent of those outside the Church say they have not been engaged in digital discussion about Christianity. The need and opportunity is clear. Whatever 2021 holds, virtual options will be essential—whether they run parallel with, or as a pathway toward, in-person environments.

Stories of breakthrough from churches nationwide make it clear that we can’t simply or solely return to in-person gatherings as restrictions are lifted.  Together, we can continue to create online moments marked by hospitable, virtual conversations.  For those carrying questions like never before, this is our moment to intentionally invest in virtual spaces that allow for anyone, anywhere to take the journey of discovering Jesus—and be welcomed, known and loved along the way.

 

Feature image by Jenny Smith on Unsplash.

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