Introduction

COVID-19 is forcing many in the world to connect exclusively through mobile technology. Missions teams must capitalize on this moment, utilizing both inexpensive devices, secure applications, and broad access to the internet. Coordination and communication with front-line gospel workers is being accomplished using these new tools for fulfilling Christ’s great commission among the unreached.

  • What are the current best communication tools for cross-cultural team leaders to effectively monitor and support semi-literate field workers in creative-access contexts?[1]
  • How do team leaders harness these opportunities for the expansion of the gospel?
  • What risks or cautions should be observed?

70%

of the world’s population will own a personal smartphone


In 2016 over

51%

of all mobile internet users worldwide were in Asia

Opportunities

Affordability of smart mobile phones

Google predicts that this year, 70 per cent of the world’s population will own a personal smartphone. The cost of smartphones has dramatically decreased due to the freely distributed Android operating system. The next four countries that boast over one billion[2] smartphone users will be Pakistan, Indonesia, Brazil, and India.[3] Google is developing new ways to increase data efficiency for people in developing countries who pay by the megabyte.

Availability of mobile internet

In 2016 Keethe Breene wrote: ‘Over half (51%) of all mobile internet users worldwide are in Asia: China has 1.3 billion mobile subscriptions out of a population of 1.36 billion, while India has 0.91 billion mobile subscriptions out of a 1.25 billion population.’ [4]

According to the Digital Ministry Atlas produced by the Mobile Ministry Forum, between 2011 and 2018, there was an increase of 29 per cent in the total number of people who were accessing the internet globally, with a remaining 53 per cent who did not yet access the internet.[5]

Facebook and the rise of messaging apps

In tandem with Google, the social media titan, Facebook, has a vested interest in facilitating access to the internet to the remaining global population. Time magazine’s December 2014 feature article was entitled, ‘Half the World is Not Enough: Mark Zuckerberg’s Plan to Get Every Human Online’.[6]

With these developments has arisen the use of free digital messaging applications (‘apps’) and services. Many of these messaging apps are designed as extensions of social media. The year 2014 was when Facebook spent USD 19 billion to purchase the popular messaging service WhatsApp.[7]

WhatsApp and Facebook Messenger boast the highest numbers of active users globally, around one billion respectively.[8] ‘Facebook is massively dominant everywhere but China, between the 1.3 billion-user Messenger and 1.5 billion-user WhatsApp.’[9]

Strong encryption

Of great value to the user of these products is the security and privacy that these apps may offer. WhatsApp, Signal, and Telegram (and some others) all claim to use very strong encryption standards. This level of security allows the missionary who seeks to be in real-time contact with his team on the ground to have greater freedom in his communication.[10]

Possibilities

Vision casting, supporting and directing


Figure 1 “David Marcus on stage at Facebook’s F8 Developers Conference 2015” by pestoverde is licensed under CC BY 2.0

While expatriate leaders may find it difficult to secure visas for the country where their network or team is located, these new tools provide an instant way of communicating through bite-sized messages. Disciple-makers can easily communicate encouragements, exhortations, Scriptures, songs, pictures, etc.[11]

One of the great developments in these apps is the ability to record voice messages in a kind of ‘walkie-talkie’, two-way radio method of communication. This is especially a blessing when working with an ethnic minority language that either is not yet in written form, or (even more likely) when working with people who are not yet literate. Considering that some people from Unreached People Groups (UPGs)[12] are functionally illiterate or for whom there is yet not a written language, this is a boon for creative mission leaders.[13]

Monitoring: real-time reporting, problem-solving and feedback

Using these tools, leaders can receive reports from the field in real-time. The morning might begin with a group call in which the teams outline their travel plans, pray with each other, and get any directions from the leader. Each team sends a message when they arrive at their destinations, or simply snaps a photo of the village name so the other members would know where they are and support them in prayer.

The Challenges

Developing a trusting team

Digital communication tools are helpful for efficiency, yet their ability to form deep trusting relationships is limited, particularly in communal societies. A wise team leader will focus on in-person relationships with every member of the team. Regular opportunities to gather as a larger team or group will be vital for a sense of trust, togetherness, and relational energy. Messaging Apps are a supplement and support for face-to-face relationships, not a replacement.

Security issues

There are some helpful articles on security available from the Electronic Freedom Foundation.[14] Freedom House has compiled and indexed a large database on relative levels of government control of internet use.[15]

Facial recognition technology is advancing rapidly.[16] The freely-shared facial image on social media platforms has been harvested, not only by Facebook and Google, but also by agencies who seek to develop a useful digital database of every individual on the planet.[17] This will be used for tracking missions teams. It is a simple solution to track the movement of people, unauthorized religious meetings, and unsanctioned trainings. As recent events in Hong Kong demonstrate, there are currently few modest measures available to mitigate this technology’s use.[18]

Geographical factors

While rapidly diminishing, there still remain regions where the mobile 3G/4G network has not yet reached. These internet ‘dead spots’ will need to be negotiated, and the field workers will need to be prepared to record reports and save them for when they return to a good signal spot. In addition, there are villages yet to have dependable power sources for charging mobile phones. In these locations, battery packs or solar power chargers will be needed.

Skills to develop

Basic device and app literacy

Some security training, along with role-playing, may be necessary. Deleting sensitive messages and data, using a security passcode, and how to respond to civil authorities when questioned, are some important issues to be discussed before sending workers into the field, especially in hostile environments where there could be surveillance attempts.

Advice from a team leader

One missionary working in a creative-access location who manages a dispersed ministry team gave the following advice for managing a large team using WhatsApp:

  1. Use it with a specific team; too broad of a group and it risks becoming spam.
  2. Use written text when able. Most teams can read simple texts, and it is easier and more straightforward than sending a voice message.
  3. Use voice message in concise bite-sized portions. Multi-minute messages are overwhelming.
  4. Use voice call when able for more secure voice-to-voice messaging. Make sure that there is enough bandwidth on the part of the team (make sure that they have enough money to afford the data). If finances for purchasing data is a problem, then voice, video, and voice/video messaging would not be a tool suitable to communicate in real time.
  5. Use thumbs up or other easy signs to gain simple meaningful feedback from the team.

Conclusion

The digital divide is narrowing rapidly, and even if the least-reached peoples have yet to begin using these devices, there are likely near-culture Christians that can gain access to these peoples. As with all technologies, the pros and cons of these tools are very real. Just as the Apostle Paul used parchment and ink to remain in contact with the early churches that he helped to plant, the modern missionary too must take advantage of the window of access that this development has brought. May the Lord give grace and wisdom in all such endeavors.

Appendix

  1. SIL Application Builder—Reading App Builder helps you build customized apps for Android and iOS smartphones and tablets. You can use it to make apps containing picture books, health and community development materials, song books, illustrated stories, and libraries of easy-to-read books for new readerseach with the option of synchronizing text and audio, highlighting each phrase as it is read. The app menus, icon, splash screen, and colors can all be customized for your language and culture. https://software.sil.org/readingappbuilder/
  2. The Mobile Ministry Forum— ‘A movement of mobile ministry to the ends of the earth. Join a network of missional innovators fostering a mobile ministry movement so that every unreached person will have a chance to encounter, experience, and grow in Christ through their personal mobile device. The Digital Ministry Atlas here has extremely valuable research. http://mobileministryforum.org
  3. Render—‘A software tool that guides oral communicators in creating culturally relevant oral materials for their own language group. It was developed and designed with the oral communicator in mind, guiding the user through an entirely oral translation process by listening and speaking. https://renderpartners.com
  4. The Electronic Frontier Foundation’s Surveillance Self-Defense Site—An organization dedicated to helping protect online privacy from unwanted surveillance. https://ssd.eff.org

Endnotes

  1. ‘Creative-access contexts’ refers to locations where public gospel work is restricted by the community authorities.
  2. Editor’s note: One followed by nine zeroes, that is, 1,000,000,000.
  3. ‘Google Puts Pakistan among 4 Countries That Will Give Next Billion Smartphone Users’, The Express Tribune, 30 November 2017, www.tribune.com.pk/story/1573034/2-google-puts-pakistan-among-4-countries-will-give-next-billion-smartphone-users/.
  4. Keith Breene, ‘What Is the Future of the Internet?’ World Economic Forum, 17 January 2016, www.weforum.org/agenda/2016/01/what-is-the-future-of-the-internet/.
  5. Clyde Taber, ‘Digital Ministry Atlas in 40 Least Reached Countries’, Mobile Ministry Forum, 28 March 2018, www.mobileministryforum.org/digital-terrain-in-40-of-the-least-reached-countries/.
  6. Lev Grossman, ‘Inside Facebook’s Plan To Wire the World’, Time, 15 December 2014, http://time.com/facebook-world-plan/
  7. Parmy Olson, ‘Facebook Closes $19 Billion WhatsApp Deal’, Forbes, 6 October 2014, www.forbes.com/sites/parmyolson/2014/10/06/facebook-closes-19-billion-whatsapp-deal/.
  8. Stephanie Newman, ‘The Messaging Phenomenon Has Hardly Begun’, Medium, 23 November 2015, www.medium.com/the-activate-outlook/the-messaging-phenomenon-has-hardly-begun-cdaeaf735cb2.
  9. Josh Constine, ‘WhatsApp Hits 1.5 Billion Monthly Users. $19B? Not So Bad’, TechCrunch, 31 January 2018, www.techcrunch.com/2018/01/31/whatsapp-hits-1-5-billion-monthly-users-19b-not-so-bad/.
  10. See Micah Lee, ‘Battle of the Secure Messaging Apps: How Signal Beats WhatsApp’, The Intercept, 22 June 2016, https://theintercept.com/2016/06/22/battle-of-the-secure-messaging-apps-how-signal-beats-whatsapp/, or Mark Williams, ‘Because Privacy Matters’, Secure Messaging Apps Comparison, 20 May 2018, www.securemessagingapps.com/.
  11. Editor’s note: See article by David Yeghnazar, entitled ‘Can Technology Help Disciple Iran’s New Believers?’ in January 2019 issue of Lausanne Global Analysis,https://www.lausanne.org/content/lga/2019-01/can-technology-help-disciple-irans-new-believers
  12. An Unreached People Group is commonly known as any distinguishable group of people of which less than 2 per cent self identifies as Christian. See website: https://joshuaproject.net/help/definitions#unreached
  13. Editor’s note: See article by, Feruza Krason, entitled ‘Making Disciples with the Uzbek Bible App’ in November 2019 issue of Lausanne Global Analysis, https://www.lausanne.org/content/lga/2019-11/making-disciples-uzbek-bible-app
  14. ‘Surveillance Self-Defense’, Electronic Frontier Foundation, https://ssd.eff.org/
  15. ‘Freedom on the Net 2017: Manipulating Social Media to Undermine Democracy’, Freedom House, 26 January. 2018, https://freedomhouse.org/report/freedom-net/2017/manipulating-social-media-undermine-democracy.
  16. Paul Mozur, ‘Inside China’s Dystopian Dreams: A.I., Shame and Lots of Cameras’, The New York Times, 8 July 2018, www.nytimes.com/2018/07/08/business/china-surveillance-technology.html.
  17. Thomas Brewster, ‘These Ex-Spies Are Harvesting Facebook Photos For A Massive Facial Recognition Database’, Forbes, 16 April 2018, www.forbes.com/sites/thomasbrewster/2018/04/16/huge-facebook-facial-recognition-database-built-by-ex-israeli-spies/.
  18. Blake Schmidt, ‘Hong Kong police have AI facial recognition tech—are they using it against protesters?’ The Japan Times, 23 October 2019,www.japantimes.co.jp/news/2019/10/23/asia-pacific/hong-kong-protests-ai-facial-recognition-tech/#.XfidIi2B0Wo.

Photo credits

“David Marcus on stage at Facebook’s F8 Developers Conference 2015”‘ by Maurizio Pesce (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0).

DJ Oden (pseudonym) is a cross-cultural worker in SE Asia with PIONEERS and can be reached at [email protected].

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