“The Information Superhighway as a Missiological Tool of the Trade” (Missiology, January 1999)

John Roxborogh

[note links current in 1999 may no longer be operative]


The Internet has facilitated Christian mission by providing fast cheap secure global communication and information access. Missiological research is now incomplete unless it has checked the resources available on the World Wide Web. Theological Education and Mission Training are facing the implications of the Internet for the delivery and assessment of courses. New communities of learning are being created. The culture of the Internet is itself a field for missiological inquiry. The challenge of Information Technology for the missiological community is to be critics of its social and religious effects at the same time as they are stewards of the power it provides and contributors to the futures it creates.


The term “Information Superhighway” conveys something of the promise of the vast network provided by the Internet. Web browsers make it possible to move seamlessly from computer to computer around the Internet using hypertext address links. The proliferation of Internet Service Providers globally has brought email and Web services within the reach of those able to afford computers, modems and access to telephony services. This has had a profound influence on communication for Christian mission and for Missiology.


Early uses of computers in cross-cultural mission were in connection with bible translation, statistical analysis of demographical data, and compilation of information on unreached peoples. As word processors replaced typewriters, and the advantages of electronic mail, databases for mailing lists, and bulletin boards as cheap forums for international discussion became known, agencies such Gospel Films[1], Global Mapping International and Missionary Aviation Fellowship used their experience with technology to provide internet communication, information and discussion services. David Lochhead (1997) has explored the theological implications of this “digital eschaton” and told the story of how North American ministers and priests saw the potential for ecumenical networking which led to the development of Ecunet during the 1980s. Groups such as the European Christian Internet Conference (ECIC) Network have been concerned to highlight the responsibility of churches to “take full advantage of the potential of the Internet” (http://www.ecic.org/welcome.html ). The Benedictine site http://www.nextscribe.org has a vision to enable the Word of God to be heard in a digital age[2] not unrelated to centuries of experience of providing frameworks for the spiritual life to actually happen. In a new ecumenism the World Council of Churches has a page which links to Protestant mission groups of a range rather wider than its formal constituency (http://www.wcc-coe.org/wcc/evanmiss.html ). Orthodox churches have not been slow to take advantage of the Internet (http://www.geocities.com/Athens/7734/orthlink.htm). Russia has a surprising level of access (Zamkov 1998). Yale Divinity School provides an important collection of links and information for mission history (http://www.library.yale.edu/div/missgde.htm ) as does the North Atlantic Missiological Project (http://office3.divinity.cam.ac.uk/carts/namp/).


With the information that missiological sites provide or link to, and the amount of relevant material available elsewhere on the Web, unless access is unavailable, it can now be said that no research can be considered complete which has not searched the Web. Despite their alarming length, bibliographical references to internet sources are now a necessary part of documentation for taught courses.


These developments have been the result of initiative from individuals and groups testing the possibilities of emerging information technologies. By 1994 missionaries and others in Kenya, South Africa, Australia, New Zealand, Taiwan, Hongkong and Russia were among those linking through bulletin boards and amateur networks. By 1995 the software and hardware of entry level computers had made Internet access widely available, though it was not clear how widely affordable it would be in the Third World. To some it still appeared that CD-ROM had a greater reach for global delivery of mission information. Now it is apparent that while CD-ROM and the new high capacity DVD systems will remain an essential means of delivery, the use of the Web as a world-wide information media is assured. Despite some gaps, the Web is within the reach of institutions at least, world-wide.


As a result of these developments, it is easy for churches partnered to churches in other countries to learn about one another’s cultures and keep in communication. Potential missionaries can learn about where they expect to serve and about job opportunities[3]. The openness of material means that where competing religions are involved, each can be aware of the other. This raises questions about discretion in the way information is placed on the Web, but it also provides possibilities for dialogue.


For missionaries in service, email has dramatically changed patterns of communications with their supporters. It is likely to also affect relationships with their host community. There are benefits for missionary families in access to educational material and the sense of security that reliable communication provides. While it changes what is involved in leaving their own culture behind, and in some situations may compromise local cultural identification, they can also maintain contact with their host culture once they leave. There are implications for the short and long-term relationships of all concerned.


Electronic news[4] and prayer bulletins[5] have created a new awareness of mission concerns and opportunities. They bring an immediacy between church and overseas mission that is not mediated by denominational or other agencies, though it may be affected by the political and religious sensitivities of particular countries. The networking that became possible through bulletin boards has been extended through listservers such as that provided by Brigada (http://www.xc.org/brigada ). By April 1998 they had over 7000 individuals subscribing to mission related discussion groups.


In the secular use of the Internet virtual communities are also established through chat groups. Online real-time “conversation” may be about interaction through the electronic masks of nicknames, but it is also a place of religious engagement and Christian witness. Every ideology is on the Web, including guidelines for evangelism (http://www.brigada.org/today/articles/web-evangelism.html). The Vatican (http://www.vatican.va/) provides information in 6 languages, including the texts of encyclicals, even if “for normal questions on eternal salvation the faithful should address . . . their parish priest” (Hunke 1997: 16).


The largely uncensored nature of the Web has drawbacks, but makes it possible for minority groups to tell their story. This is of crucial importance in situations of political and religious oppression. The Internet is well used by groups such as Amnesty, Keston Institute, Human Rights Without Frontiers, and the Religious Liberty Commission of the World Evangelical Fellowship. It is a potent weapon for getting out news, and as a tool for mobilizing prayer, awareness and political support.


The use of computers for the collection and dissemination of bibliographical information and access to texts has been a particular concern of the Documentation Archives and Bibliography (DAB) Project of the International Association for Mission Studies (IAMS) (Thomas 1990; Smith 1995). While the need for the documentation of Christian mission exists quite apart from electronic aids and finding tools (Roxborogh 1994: 131-136), the Web has realized at least a part of the vision of global transfer of information for the study of mission. Powerful search engines index historical material, contemporary documentation, discussion and news. While this includes missiologically relevant material, there will still be important information which is not shared in this way. Sensitivity is needed to questions of ownership and to the power that access and control provides. Chris Sugden is among those who have drawn up guidelines (Roxborogh 1994: 259-262). Issues of ethics and informed consent in missiological research are becoming more important and the use of the Web is not exempt, despite the freedom it gives to the user to obtain and process information.


In January 1993 a Pew Charitable Trusts Consultation on the Global Documentation of Christianity (Roxborogh 1994: 259-262) set the stage for the Pew Mission Studies Resource Development Project (Peterson 1994). Like DAB there was a sense of frustration that despite the promise of the technology, it was difficult to envisage with certainty what lay beyond experience to that point. Nevertheless from 1994 onwards those involved in Missiology began to share significantly in the benefits of electronic communication with colleagues, access to libraries and databases, and discussion groups related to their interests. Ron Rowland of SIL was among those who sought to grapple with what the technology meant for Missiology, not just mission (Rowland 1996). Evidence of greater confidence was becoming apparent. At the April 1996 IAMS Conference in Buenos Aires the Overseas Ministries Study Center indicated its intention of starting a web site (http://www.OMSC.org). Members of the DAB workgroup viewed the Catholic mission documentation group SEDOS page (http://www.sedos.org/) at a node operated by the Association for Progressive Communication (APC) and were made aware that English was not the only language of the Web. The passionate commitment of APC to facilitate networking between people was an inspiration. IAMS itself did not start a web site until April 1997 (http://www.missionstudies.org/ ). The ASM launched its presence on the Web in June 1998 (http://www.asmweb.org ). By that date the host of the annual ASM gatherings, Divine Word International, Techny Il (http://www.vais.net/~svd/Techny.html ), was providing email and Web TV facilities for guests and was actively encouraging the use of technology for distance learning.


Theological Education by Extension is another missiological dream whose time has come in a new way with the advent of the Web as a global facility. The limitations facing distance learning are now more to do with management and design than technology. The expertise needed to use the software is more within reach than it used to be. Both CD-ROM and the Web make it possible to deliver material, set up interactive dialogue, and assess written work submitted by email. Audio dialogue is feasible, and video streaming is increasingly so. Distance learning experiences can be greatly facilitated through the Web and CD-ROM, but there is still a debate as to how much is a good thing. Some chat group communities are real and valuable. For others personal relationships will be more with the local Christian community than the formal provider of the learning experience – something which seems close to the original vision of TEE. It also means that the missionary with the modem is not only facing the risk of being more in touch with their home than their host, they at least have the potential to offer a new order of training within the local community. The two-edged nature of the technology is apparent. There is a risk that international courses may have scant sensitivity to the local culture. On the other hand the missionary educator may be replaced by the computer.


The major benefits from Web delivery of learning are convenience, availability and cost, and this may dramatically increase the numbers of students whatever the problems of contextualization. The market will help decide, but so will those who set standards of accreditation, and those who make employment and other forms of recognition decisions. What will be significant will be the managerial skills required for the administering the numbers involved and the support of institutions with adequate infrastructures. More important than they sometimes give themselves credit for will be the direction of those who may or may not know much about computers, but who understand education. Competition will affect the outcomes and control may focus on access to supervision, recognition of prior learning, and the status of awards. Charging may attach more to these elements than to delivery of information.


Not all missiologists are involved in theological education, though all are likely to be interested in it. Of general relevance is the facilitation of interactive communication and the sharing of research with colleagues worldwide. The Internet offers another level of publishing alongside that of books and journals. Geographical isolation may not be removed, but it is greatly ameliorated. The importance for professional development is considerable, and may extend to those who find themselves teaching Missiology without having had intercultural missionary experience. There are some situations where the virtual experience of cultural anthropology on the Web may be as good as it gets.


Electronic document delivery is partial, though increasing, but Web research prior to library and archive visits reduces the time needed for physical visits. The Web has created a culture which is not only a field for evangelism, but one in which the cognate disciplines of Missiology need to join in exploring. Issues of world-view, hermeneutics, contextualization, justice, liberation and dialogue are as relevant here as in other cultures. It is more useful than may be realized that the Web provides a way in which words can be readily tested for their context, association and meaning.


Missiologists are aware that mission has been faithfully carried out in all sorts of cultures, in many paradigms of understanding and world-view, and in cultures with different technologies and ideologies. The Internet is neither the beginning nor the end of social change and intellectual development. Other technologies in history have affected the understanding and practice of mission, including warfare, medicine, transport and communication. The move from visual icon to linear print changed the way in which people explored the truth about God. The initial impact of new technology is to change the means by which existing goals are accomplished, but the longer-term impact has often been to change the goals themselves. If we recall such changes in history, we will have some idea of the strangeness, size and seriousness of the issues that the Internet presents for Missiology – far from the comfort and fascination of techniques for making parts of our job easier.


References cited

Hunke, Heinz

  1997 “Churches and Faith Organisations on the Internet. A general overview.” Report prepared for the international workshop on ‘Globalisation and Electronic Communication’ Seoul, Korea, 9-14 June 1997. London: World Association for Christian Communication.

Peterson, Stephen L.

  1994 Mission Studies Resource Development Project Final Report. Philadelphia PA: The Pew Charitable Trusts.

Roxborogh, John

  1994 “Archives for Mission in the 21st Century.” Mission Studies XI-1, 21: 131-137.

  1994 “Documentation Archives and Bibliography (DAB). Values and Practice for Global Christian Information Sharing.” Mission Studies XI-2, 22: 259-262.

Rowland, Ron

  1996 “The Contribution of Technology to Missiology.” In Missiology and the Social Sciences. Contributions, Cautions and Conclusions. Evangelical Missiological Society Series #4. Edward Rommen and Gary Corwin, eds. Pp. 84-101.Pasadena, CA: William Carey Library.

Smith, Christopher A.

  1995 “Mission Research and the Path to CD-ROM: Report on the Global Quest to Share Information.” International Bulletin of Missionary Research  19(4):146-153.

Thomas, Norman

  1990 “Documentation Archives and Bibliography (DAB) Progress Report.” Mission Studies VII-2, 14: 237-243.

Zamkov, Andrei V.

  1998 “Report to the 3rd European Christian Internet Conference (ECIC III) Driebergen, Holland, June 11/13.” http://www.ecic.org/welcome.html.


John Roxborogh, Dean of Studies, Bible College of New Zealand, Henderson, Auckland, is convenor of the Documentation Archives and Bibliography Group of the International Association for Mission Studies. An electronics engineer before he joined the Presbyterian ministry, he was a missionary in Malaysia during the 1980s and has written on Thomas Chalmers, and on church history in Southeast Asia. Email wjr@roxborogh.com

[1] Gospel Films was instrumental in the launch in April 1995 of the Gospel Communications Network with 10 member ministries. As at July 1998 there were 108 members. (http://www.gospelcom.net/statement-gcn.html )

[2] “The networked digital media are not simply a technical curiosity; they are rather the vesicles by which the life blood of the Faith will course through the Church.” http://www.nextscribe.org/purpose.html

[3] For example, Fingertip maintained by the Task Force for Global Mission of the Evangelical Fellowship of Canada. In July 1998, among the 1200 vacancies listed, there were none for missiologists. (http://www.globalmission.org/fingertip.htm)

[4] For example the Centre for Mission Direction, Christchurch New Zealand issues a weekly digest to a subscription list of nearly 700. http://www.cmd.org.nz/cmdnet.html

[5] For example Speed the Need. Christianity Today, April 3, 1995, p.80.