In recent years, Christians around the world collaborating on ministry and mission have decided, in vast numbers, to skip conferences and face-to-face gatherings, and, instead meet virtually. This has been a boon for global interaction between East and West, North and South, at levels never before envisioned.
It is likely that the next time ministry leaders become part of a task group, they will be invited to join its virtual version and be expected to continue the conversational work online.
These virtual meetings are held on a web page link or in an app, and not at a place:
Text chat: Text dialogue happens in a Facebook group, a WhatsApp group, any website equipped with a chatroom, or simply right in a mobile phone’s text messaging service. Group members catch up and contribute to a free-flowing, written conversation 24 hours a day. These are called asynchronous, or ‘not in real time’ tools.
Audio: Live audio meetings use tools such as FreeConferenceCall where a group calls into a specific audio ‘virtual room’ to conduct its conversation.
Video: The emerging favorite form of virtual meetings are live video conference meetings (such as Skype, Zoom, WebEx, and many alternative services), where a group can see and read each other’s faces as they talk.
Virtual ministry teams are moving projects forward and making decisions together, expressly due to their routine use of virtual connections.
An increasing number of in-person meetings are welcoming virtual participants as more than just observers.
Christian ministries around the globe have seized on the advantages of virtual classrooms through online, interactive learning.
Struggling churches among people groups where Christians are persecuted have been forerunners of those turning to virtual connections for fellowship, discipleship, and faith-building times together.
A new crop of ministry tools is focused on bringing together Christian ministry leaders so that they can connect and communicate virtually even though they may be separated by great distances.
daily active users
Zoom local connections in
countries and regions
monthly active users
For those who have not kept up with digital communication’s quick rise, the numbers are astounding:
Number of monthly active WhatsApp users worldwide from April 2013 to December 2017 (in millions):
This new fact of frequent virtual meetings to facilitate global collaboration among Christians is the result of several drivers that explain, in part, what is happening to this communication space. Ministries operate in the volunteer space. Good connection with those volunteers is critical, whether they are board members, team leaders, network leaders, or participants. What are some top drivers?
Allegiance Fundraising notes:
‘As the volunteer group grows and spreads out, it becomes more difficult to stay connected with each and every one. Video conferencing is a way for a nonprofit to easily connect its volunteers and management, and it offers many other benefits. . . . When managing a volunteer workforce, there is no substitution for one-on-one interaction. People donate their time and abilities to nonprofits because they are enthusiastic about the cause and believe they can make a difference. The more time higher-ups can give to these individuals, the more they can encourage and support this enthusiasm.’
Younger people in ministry are fluent in communication tools, vastly prefer to use them, and are more likely to engage in ministries that harness these communication tools.
Additionally, volunteers these days have a stronger interior drive to be connected to ministries and have a greater expectation of access. They want a stronger sense of genuine connection to the groups to which they contribute time and energy—and this happens over video.
In general, mobile phones and laptops have become globally distributed. The strategic market research firm Futuresource Consulting observes: ‘With an increase in usage of conferencing technologies and more people working from home, the demand for video communications and collaboration in the meeting room is at an all-time high.’
Dr. Alex Abraham, director of Operation Agape, India, reports, ‘It is true that in all walks of life [in India], virtual communication is on the rise. Facebook and WhatsApp are being used by millions of people in India. WhatsApp is certainly being used by church networks for communication within their own community as well as with the wider church networks. One example is the WhatsApp group on persecution relief in India. Within minutes, any persecution-related news in India is communicated widely not only in India but even globally. WhatsApp is probably the most popular virtual communication tool that is being used by the church in India. Among Christians, virtual communication is increasingly being used by the top leaders as well as middle-level leaders. At the grassroots level, virtual communication is still a challenge but certain simple tools such as Facebook and WhatsApp are very popular even at the grassroots level.’
Allegiance Fundraising points out: ‘While video conferencing does not possess all of the advantages of being in the same room with a volunteer, it can prove more effective than other solutions. Both web and phone conferences do not promote the same kind of engagement as video conferencing.’
With tighter budgets, ministries and their leaders are looking for economy. Clearly there is a significant price differential between a virtual meeting and attending one that requires a flight and hotel, a cost that also includes time away from home. Virtual meetings reduce transport costs to zero.
The pace of innovation by ministry entrepreneurs in virtual meetings is faster than we might ever imagine. Ministries and networks are still discovering new forms of connection between leaders:
Not all is rosy for online and virtual meetings. A ministry leader describes an all-too-frequent device connection problem in India. Attempting to begin a Zoom video conference on his computer, the connection failed. He switched to his iPad, which also failed. Finally, he got a successful Zoom connection on his mobile phone. The North American on that same call says, ‘In the end, sometimes you just have to spend the money for a phone call.’
To some it seems connection problems are a devilish intrusion. One leader says, ‘I believe Satan uses the weakness of the net to disrupt key conversations. I’ve lost count of the times that that’s happened over the years. A call can be really clear until it gets important.’
Even advocates for face-to-face meetings allow that virtual meetings have their place. Dr. Alex Abraham of India says, ‘Considering the practical difficulties, it may not be possible for all people to come together in one room. Therefore, we need to encourage virtual meetings and virtual training as much as possible. The role of virtual communication is to augment rather than replace face-to-face meetings.’
David Hackett is Director of the Middle East and North Africa Region with visionSynergy. He and his wife Sandy live near Seattle, Washington, USA and they enjoy their three grown children, their spouses, and one grandchild.
Michael Kaspar serves as Catalyst for Ministry Collaboration with the Lausanne Movement, and Director of Global Initiatives with visionSynergy. He lives near Atlanta, Georgia, USA with his wife, Lindsey, and their four children.