Sounding an Alarm on Social Media Evangelism

Excitement and awe were palpable in the dimmed hotel ballroom as I stared at the presenter’s screen. The young speaker, who appeared to be in his early 20s, was explaining how Facebook was proving to be a strategic way to share the gospel and allow people to learn about scripture safely and privately. Facebook users could view his page that was filled with scripture verses, and if they commented or liked the content, he would send them a link to an online Bible in their language. It was clear to all of us that this was a revolutionary way to broadly share the gospel with people who might not have the courage to ask for a Bible in person. 

Since that day in 2011, Christian ministries and indeed the world have experienced massive shifts in how we communicate, connect, and share information with one another. With smart phones now outnumbering people globally, social media platforms have morphed from a means of connecting with loved ones to a ubiquitous medium of communication and marketing. People separated by thousands of miles can now easily form a community that does not require physical proximity.  

A Double-Edged Sword

With every innovation comes both blessing and curse, and social media has been no exception. What began as a medium of socializing is now a powerful advertising tool. Social media platforms’ ability to market to the audience most likely to purchase a product is at the heart of many marketing strategies. Since social media platforms can quickly learn details of users’ preferences, personalities, and socioeconomic status, they are able to disseminate individualized content that is curated for each user’s ever-changing preferences. With increased usage, users grow dependent on social media to meet their needs for interpersonal connection, news, entertainment, and general events in their community. 

Dependency on these apps has turned into outright addiction for many users, and the problem of social media addiction has turned from concerning to an outright crisis both in the U.S. and around the world. The tentacles of social media addiction reach far beyond how a user spends their time. Mental health experts and former social media insiders are sounding alarms on how social media is purposefully addicting youth and young adults and making them depressed, anxious, and suicidal. 

We know far more today than we did 12 years ago about the mental health hazards of social media use, and we have a greater awareness of social media companies’ incessant use of unethical practices in addicting and exploiting their users. Nevertheless, Christian ministries are promoting social media use for evangelism, and doing so with little regard for the well-documented accompanying hazards.  While some would argue that the “end” (users hearing, believing, and accepting the gospel) justifies the means, it would be irresponsible for Christians to neglect a careful examination what exactly the “means” is. While we cannot deny the fact that social media can and has been a way of exposing people to the gospel, we must start recognizing that no one, neither users nor administrators, are inoculated against the harms of this medium’s addictive and exploitative nature.


Social media companies can give users content that is personalized and helpful. Based on their searches, posts, and likes, expectant mothers can expect ads for baby gear and nursery furniture. A grad school student might find their feed peppered with study aids and paper-writing tools. But what begins as a simple search for ten minutes is, by design, often extended into viewing other similar or related posts, and that added time viewing more content gives the platform evermore data on the user’s preferences. The apps purposefully remove “stop cues” like an actual end of a page or a blank screen at the end of video reels. There is limitless content that the platform is able to offer up to its users, so people who see no harm in spending hours upon hours on social media may do so without realizing that they are becoming addicted. 

This practice becomes increasingly unethical among users who are unwittingly using a service that is likely to harm them. Social media use is just as ubiquitous in low-income countries as it is in wealthy areas of the world with a broader understanding of internet addiction. Nevertheless, impoverished and low-income regions tend to be where social media evangelism efforts are being deployed. These areas have far fewer resources to educate populations on mental health hazards, so there is consistently a minimal understanding of addictive internet use.  Consequently, low-income countries offer up highly vulnerable and captive audiences to social media companies, who then sell that audience’s attention to anyone willing to pay for it. This is Exploitation 101: offering a service that seems highly beneficial while concealing its hazards in order to exponentially benefit and enrich the service provider. 

Seizing upon the dependable attention of social media audiences, Christian ministries join the fray by purchasing a piece of that attention. For a fee paid directly to the platform, evangelistic ministries can buy ads and broadcast to audiences most likely to view their content and respond. In order to grow their online audience (and thereby attract more users to their page), account pages can pay for likes, views, and follows. These accounts are often being run hundreds or thousands of miles away from the target location in order to protect the identities of Christians who live nearby, as these are often places with a history of hostility towards Christians. 

Users who view evangelistic pages are often presented with content and videos full of grace, hope, and love. For some, it is the first time they have ever read scripture, and it speaks to them in a deep, profound way.  Users who respond to the ministry’s social media content with questions or a desire to learn more are encouraged to call or meet in person with a local Christian who speaks their language and understands their culture. The hope is that people who are genuinely interested in knowing Christ will go beyond just text exchanges on a screen and begin a relationship with people who care for them. 

The question of ethical practice here is not about the message being offered to vulnerable social media users. It is about the medium by which that message is being conveyed and its incendiary methods of creating markets of hungry consumers. Yes, Christian ministries are offering a message of truth and hope to these markets. But is paying the drug lords who run the market an ethical practice? And are Christian ministries taking the time to inform their patrons of the health hazards of the medium they are both using?  

Beyond the Target Audience

The target audiences of social media evangelism are not the only vulnerable parties in these efforts. Those who are tasked with responding to inquiries are also falling prey to social media’s addictive devices, but their unhealthy habits or full-blown addictions are easily cloaked in the language of urgency for the gospel and “lives on the line.” Since this type of work is increasingly becoming a full-time job for globally minded Christians, we must recognize the addictive nature of social media ministry as an occupational hazard. Some responders are staying up into early hours of the morning to correspond with people who have reached out, and others report a hesitancy to create boundaries around ministry time on social media and personal time in general. 

The church should never shy away from entering dark places to carry in the light and love of Jesus, and we have a rich history of doing so. Ministering to people who are trapped in substance addiction, sex trafficking, and systemic abuse is the work of the body of Christ. However, we have historically done this work with diligence and awareness of the systems of oppression that can just as easily ensnare and brutalize us. We need to treat social media outreach in much the same way we would treat ministry in night clubs, casinos, or red light districts. The people on the inside may just be passing through, but they are very possibly there because they do not know how to leave. This may mean that people who put their faith in Christ as a result of finding hope on social media were indeed there because of an addiction to the platform. And this may mean that they need recovery rather than an invitation to work as social media evangelists or responders. 

Installing Guardrails

There was a road in the mountains of Eastern Afghanistan where the guardrail was completely destroyed, giving way to a frighteningly clear view of a bus skeleton far below. While the guardrail had certainly been in place on that treacherous road, it did nothing to deter a bus full of passengers that veered off course. 

The best boundaries are both strong and visible. Seeing them helps you keep a healthy distance, but bumping up against them protects you when you fail to notice. In using a tool as powerful, addictive, and controversial as social media platforms to spread a message of hope, Christian ministries need to ensure that guardrails are well-established to avoid doing harm to vulnerable populations. This could mean refusing to use strategies of engagement that are addictive in nature, such as rewarding users’ viewing of a video with another video. It could also mean transparency about how their respondents’ information is being saved, stored, and shared. This particular issue requires imagining how you would feel if, in an existential search for connection and hope, a person responded to your need while keeping a detailed record of your messages in a database and shared it with donors who funded the campaign. A guardrail could also mean that ministries begin disseminating information about social media addiction right alongside their regular posts. When using targeted ads, it could mean researching and adhering to rigorous standards of ethical advertising. 

Likewise, Christians who are taking part in social media evangelism ministry need clear guardrails with regular accountability on when, where, and how much time they spend on the platform. Since social media platforms make both accidental and purposeful viewing of pornographic content easy, we must also inquire of a person’s current internet habits and personal history with pornography use before inviting them to make social media work their full-time job and ministry.  The Kingdom of God is not dependent on any social media platform. It has been advancing since Jesus blew the doors off and began inviting everyone into his family. As we assess the time, space, and resources God has provided for us today, may we work with both compassion and conscientiousness of the realities of oppression and sin that will be present until the day of Christ’s return. And until that day, may the Holy Spirit guide us in serving people with love, respect, and dignity to the glory of God the Father. 

9 Steps to More Ethical Fundraising

Six years ago my wife and I were in the middle of a two-year effort to raise the necessary funds to move to the Middle East as long-term workers. While our fundraising journey had been exciting — as friends and family responded generously and lovingly to our call — it was also heartbreaking. We received discouraging comments such as “Why would I give you money to go over there and get yourselves killed?” or “Why can’t you just get a real job?”

We were doing all the things we were taught to do—pray, write newsletters, make calls, send letters, schedule meetings—but after two years, we felt stuck. We were at about 50% of our goal and couldn’t seem to make any traction. One day, I just felt I needed to do something to make a statement to our potential supporters that we were as serious about this as we possibly could be and that we held them and their potential donations in the highest esteem. So I decided to write down the ways in which we were committing to respect them and their sacrifice.

I called this our “Fundraising Code of Ethics.” To me, it was a public covenant we were making to hold ourselves to a standard of maturity, transparency, and responsibility. By making it public, we were welcoming our supporters to hold us to this standard, but we also warned them we would never have a perfect record and asked them to be gracious with us. Like every healthy relationship, trust is absolutely crucial. We are all aware if donors trust you they are more likely to support you. What we learned is that we also need to have enough faith in our supporters to be transparent with them.

My wife and I started including these nine commitments in our fundraising materials and presentations. We do not think there is anything all that original or brilliant about these things; in fact, most are common sense. However, there has been value to us in writing publicly what we think good support-raising relationships look like.


1. We will resist the urge to solicit support through guilt. We want donors to share in our joy when they support us.

Guilt is an effective tactic. The problem is that it creates a manipulative relationship between you and your supporter—and your supporter and your work—that is based on their shame of having and others not having. I don’t want my supporters to pity me or the people we serve; pity doesn’t do anything to help us draw closer to the Kingdom of God. Serving God in the Middle East is a great privilege and joy (most of the time), and I want my supporters to share in that joy. Likewise, my wife and I support fellow workers as a part of our tithe and we do it because we are excited about the kingdom work they are doing and want to be a part of it.

Admittedly, there is a slippery slope with this one, and I personally do have to resist the urge to lapse into using guilt. There is a line, though, between saying, “Four more donors at $25 a month will send us on our way to join the exciting work God is doing among the Ugabuga people,” and “Only four more donors at $25 a month stand in our way of taking the gospel to the Ugabuga people, who are dying and going to hell without knowledge of the Gospel.”

Our work with refugees is prime territory for guilt tactics. I often think I would raise more money if I published pictures of poor families huddled around kerosene heaters in their cold and damp concrete rooms than the pictures of refugees generously serving me cup after cup of Arabic coffee while we sit and laugh at the antics of our kids.

A friend of mine works for an organization that has a policy to only publish pictures that show “people at their best.” This has been a challenging standard for me to follow, especially because I do feel that it’s important for me to share the stories of the people we serve. But even though we serve people in the midst of tragedy, we want people to join our ministry because of the potential joy and wholeness that will come, not simply because of the presence and continuation of pain and suffering. Will people be excited when they support us, or will they simply feel relieved of their guilt?


2. Donors will receive a monthly report on the income and expenses of the ministry.

Full Disclosure: Our sending organization requires us to send this report every month. Nonetheless, we fully support this and want our donors to be aware of it and to see our support and commitment to this standard. Yes, it’s uncomfortable to tell dozens of friends and family what your salary is, but we want to be as transparent as possible.

Often, we are self-conscious that people will think we make too much and won’t give because of it; however, the feedback I received from some supporters is that they check the report to make sure we have enough resources, not to see if we have too much. That’s the kind of supporter we need more of, and we can’t have them unless we live in a relationship of transparency.

Will some people decline to support us because they think I should not be making as much as I do? Maybe, but I have to ask myself how healthy that relationship will be over the long run.


3. The donor’s privacy will be respected.

This one seems simple but in practice takes care. It’s too easy to be out to dinner with friends and say something about how generous another friend’s support is. We try as hard as we can to keep financial support a private matter.


4. The donor’s questions will be answered honestly and in a timely manner.

Supporters are our partners in this ministry. They see things from a different perspective than we do, and we respect and value that. I want to encourage a culture on our support team that supports a healthy dialogue about our decisions and tactics. Sometimes asking questions is also part of their process to decide to begin or increase their support. I want to build allies who have an in-depth knowledge and understanding of who we are, what we do, and why we do it that way.

We have also all had to field our share of seemingly silly and bizarre questions: Why do you need a car? Why can’t you deliver refugee aid supplies by bicycle? How was your mission trip? When are you coming home to get a real job?

What we’ve decided and have committed to our supporters is that we are going to try our hardest to respect inquisitiveness and give the benefit of the doubt by answering their questions humbly and joyfully.


5. We value unity in the church and will resist dogmatism.

I think most donors want to know their funds are not being used to support some sort of denominational turf war overseas. Once I was petitioned by a worker in Asia to support a new outreach in a village he claimed had no believers. During our discussion, I asked what religious groups were active in this area. He replied, “Well, [one particular denomination] has planted a lot of churches there.” There might be some supporters who want me to carry the flag of our denomination, but I think most care more about their funding going to where it’s needed most to do Kingdom work.


6. Our highest commitment will be to remain biblical in both our ministry and how we portray it.

This sounds like a no-brainer, but including it in this list is another layer of commitment to our support team that the Bible will be our ultimate authority in how we conduct our lives and ministry. By including this in our code of ethics, we are willingly opening ourselves up for biblical correction by our partners.


7. Our trials and triumphs in ministry will be accurately reflected in our communications; we will not sugarcoat or embellish.

“You mean you don’t skip out the door every morning singing hymns after spending two hours in prayer and then baptize three people before lunch and plant a church before dinner?” No, sometimes we get really discouraged by the lack of fruit in our ministry and need to call in some help to encourage us and get us back in the fight.

I’m also not going to fill my newsletter with a bunch of stories about our trials and tribulations to guilt you into giving more (#1). I’m just going to try to tell it like it is, as often as possible, and hope you and I can trust each other to deal with the real-world facts in a loving and gracious manner.


8. The financial decisions we make concerning our life and ministry will be made with health and longevity as a primary goal.

“Wouldn’t my financial support be better used to buy food for refugees than an air conditioner for your house?” Well, not if I come home from delivering that food to find my wife packing our bags. Sometimes we spend donors’ funds to immediately buy blankets, and sometimes it goes into my child’s college savings plan via my salary. Heck, sometimes it goes to get my wife a massage at a day spa. Again, we don’t think our donors’ money is going to do anyone any good if we are burned out and leaving the field.

Most missionaries are frugal by nature, but we need to be wise. Sometimes, instead of buying the absolute cheapest, we spend a little more on a tool or resource because we want things that will last and be useful to us for as long as we need them. This is good stewardship to us. We believe and hope that our ministry will increase in effectiveness and fruit over time, and we have to let our supporters in on that long-term perspective.


9. Donors have the right to discontinue support at any time without fear of guilt or reproach.

We have talked to potential supporters who list the fear of not being able to continue indefinitely as a reason for not starting to support us now. Likewise, we’ve seen people distraught as they come to us and say they have to cut back on their support.

Similar to not using guilt to motivate, we don’t want people to feel guilt for having to stop. Situations change, and we are not the judge of anyone’s budget. We want to assuage this fear from the beginning of our partnership. We trust God will provide for our lives and ministry.


Well there you have it, our nine-point Code of Ethics for Fundraising. Naturally you will want to know if this worked, and I don’t have a clear answer to that. We did end up raising all of our funds and have enjoyed generous financial provision on the field. A few people have given us positive feedback to the Code of Ethics, but most never said anything about it.

I can honestly say, though, that committing to these things has challenged me to conduct fundraising with a higher level of integrity and conscientiousness. Having confidence that I have raised our support with a commitment to these ethics has made me take our resources more seriously.

It has also relieved me of possible embarrassment and shame of fundraising. This isn’t a gimmick. To us it comes from our hearts, and it has been entirely worth it just from the standpoint that I can look my supporters in the eye and enjoy a trusting and mutually respectful relationship with them.


What fundraising principles have you tried to live by?


Matt is a missionary in the Middle East, where he leads a team that partners with a local church to provide aid to refugees. He’s also an adjunct professor for Johnson University. He ministers alongside Susan, his wife of seven years, and their 3-year-old daughter Annabelle. Matt and Susan worked in social work in Knoxville, Tennessee for 6 years before moving to the Middle East. He enjoys cooking, scuba diving, and talking about big and daring ideas.

Let Me Make Your Kid a Buddhist

In true A Life Overseas fashion, we are marking this our 200th post (!!!) with a difficult conversation about the ethics involved in working with children overseas. As always, thanks for making this place an open space to hash out the realities of this living-and-working-internationally-thing. We’re grateful for your insights, experience, and grace, and we’re hopeful about what the next 200 posts will bring. 

Imagine this.

Your family is devoutly Christian. Not only are you Christian in honest-to-goodness-soul-belief, but your entire culture leans that way.  The founding fathers, the churches on every street corner, the preachers on television. This is America– one nation under God and all that.

Christianity is in your blood. 

But, there’s a problem- you are really, really, really poor. For some reason (in this analogy, stay with with me here) free public education or welfare programs are not available, and you can’t afford to send your kids to school, can barely provide the next meal. You have three little ones under eight years old and your husband walked out two years ago. Your floor is dirt and your debt is high. You live in a state of clawing-desperation.

But what if, what if.

A Buddhist monastery moved into the city beside yours, a few miles from your house. What if the monks knocked on your door one day, when the baby was crying because her belly was empty for too long, and offered free schooling and housing for your older two children. They seemed kind and attentive, and the word free was dropped at least 15 times throughout the conversation. It is the opportunity of a lifetime–

Of their lifetimes.

And so you take it. You send your two Christian children to a Buddhist school, and you thank Jesus for the gift of an education and two meals a day and actual beds for your little ones to sleep in at night. 


But how’s a six year old girl to resist Buddhism while living in a monastery? And why should she? The monks give her and her brother sweets and the occasional toy from foreigners who visit in loud groups. The children get a steady dose of indoctrination and hot meals, temple visits and spelling tests.

And, no surprise, they come back to you for their first visit six months later, making offerings and burning incense, asking for luck and claiming reincarnation, Buddhist through-and-through.

You are disappointed, angered even. You’ve been around long enough to know that kids will believe about anything grown-ups tell them. But what other choice do you have? A free education might be worth Buddhist children.

“At least they won’t starve,” you tell yourself.


And we shrug a simple story like this off, but I wonder if this is the position we put parents and children in too often in pursuit sharing the gospel? And while we’ve had conversations here about offering humanitarian aid and it’s relationship to missions, we haven’t yet talked about the ethics of engaging with children in another culture– particularly without parental authority present.

And, yes, I spent a decade in church ministry, and I always heard about the “opportunity” for children to accept Christ. “Like wet clay set out to dry, the older a person gets the harder it is to change their minds,” a children’s pastor told me once. It’s a philosophy that has made me donate specifically to kids’ ministries in the past. I get the logic.

But let’s be honest here– what are the moral ethics involved in preaching, converting, discipling, proselytizing children?

Don’t we have an obligation to their home culture (which is often closely linked with a religion) to tread carefully? Don’t we have a responsibility to their humanity to avoid using gifts to gain loyalty and to their parents to respectfully engage them in the information their kids are receiving?

I mean, stick my poor kid in a free school and demand (very nicely) through lessons and social pressure and altar calls that she become Buddhist, and well, I’m going to be left feeling both angered and powerless.

But the monks may never know it– a free education is a free education, after all.


– Laura Parker, Co-Founder/Editor, Former Aid Worker in SE Asia


So let’s talk.  What guidelines/principles do you have when working with children in another culture?  How have you seen it done well/done poorly? Is it fair to give a gospel presentation without parental consent? And what if the parents aren’t involved or aren’t around? Thoughts?