New Tech Reaching First Nations

Electronic communication cold & impersonal? Think again. (from Issue #507)

Electronic communication cold & impersonal? Think again.

It was report time for the short-term missionary who’d just returned from overseas. “So, how technologically advanced are the people?” someone asked. “Well,” he replied, “the first day I saw a fellow driving an ox cart … talking on his cell phone!”

Here in Canada, at least in northern areas, First Peoples may live a slower paced lifestyle. But when it comes to using new communication technology, the North is certainly not behind, probably ahead. Jonathan Yeo, one of our missionaries, tells us that every NWT community — no matter its size — has gained highspeed Internet access, as has Yukon. Nunavut completed its high-speed system earlier. He guesses that over half the homes in his community use the Internet, and the rest probably use it at work. He’s heard that cell phone services will soon be provided for every NWT village, as well.

So, which “new” technologies, and what does this have to do with missions? We’re mainly referring here to Internet-based communication, and we’re using it to reach First Nations for Christ.

The “Net”

“I am definitely super thankful for the Internet,” says missionary Lori Bennett, who serves in Nova Scotia. “It really does play a huge part in my ministry … it gives me opportunities to talk one-on-one with the kids I work with, and their older sisters or brothers.”

Most of Lori’s face-to-face ministry is in groups, and it’s hard to get together with the kids who have questions and want to talk, she explains. So she uses MSN and Facebook — MSN for “talking” with individuals, and Facebook for group communication. “God has given me so many opportunities to share the Gospel and encourage and counsel people through MSN,” she says. “Sometimes I feel like I really have to prepare myself to sign in, cause it’s definitely ministry. Lots of times I find myself sitting here at my computer praying, ‘Jesus, help me know what to say.’ ”

“Facebook I love too,” says Lori, “because it’s helped me become more of an ‘open book’ to people on the Reserve. There’s lots of people who I haven’t yet met, or been able to get to know really well. By checking me out on Facebook they can find out who I am, what I believe, why I work with the kids, and what we do. I made a video just of me explaining the Gospel. A bunch of people from the Reserve told me they’d watched it on Facebook, and that opened up the door to talk about Jesus more.”

Other NCEMers tell how they use the Internet in ministry: Jim Davis posts Pine Ridge Bible Camp videos on YouTube, youth retreat photos on Facebook, and has regular conversations with teen campers via e-mail and Facebook. Campers “tag” their friends on his photos, so he knows they see them. “It’s been good to keep in touch with campers through the year … and through the years,” says Jim, who serves at Headquarters and involved with the Camp.

Dallas & Deena Roberts and their daughters also assist at Pine Ridge. Even while their daughter Lisa was studying in Israel, she was still very involved in campers’ lives through the Internet. She even had a girl threatening suicide online, and phoned a northern pastor to go and help. Lisa has used the Net to encourage teens to attend our Mission’s winter youth retreats.

Mark Dana (Quebec) uses the Internet to stay in contact with men he’s met from isolated northern communities. Anita Boucher (northwestern Sask.) uses Facebook to stay in contact with local girls. “You know when they are in trouble, and can pray more specifically,” she says, “and it helps me know when they need an in-person visit.”

Carl Sonnichsen just joined Facebook. “With certain people, communication lines have really opened up,” he says, “and our communication can go way beyond what we would normally talk about face-to-face.” Phil Peters is another missionary using Facebook. Along with phone calls, he’s using it particularly to encourage a young Native ministry leader.

Online Support

For several years most of our missionaries have used e-mail to connect with prayer supporters. The benefits are obvious — urgent prayer requests can be sent instantly to many homes. Regular prayer letters are also increasingly sent by e-mail. It saves on postage costs, and it’s become easier to include color photos, even videos.

Our missionaries have found the Internet very useful in other ways. It puts resources at our fingertips, such as illustrations for Bible messages, and lesson material for children. For our missionaries’ spiritual benefit, there are devotionals to read or listen to. And, just for living, our workers use the Internet for banking, shopping, and getting news from home.

In our Mission’s day-to-day work the Internet enables the sending of text and photos for publications and projects, including Bible translation. Our Tribal Trails TV department sends audio and video files for program preparation. In radio outreach, Carl Sonnichsen “uploads” audio files to a Labrador radio station.

NCEM’s Three Sites

As a Mission we launched our NCEM web sites — / & — in 1999. We wondered how useful they would prove. The next summer one of our HQ staff, while helping at Bible camp, had several summer workers tell him that they’d found out about the need for camp staff on NCEM’s site.

Our Tribal Trails site has viewers reading testimonies, and watching our half-hour evangelistic programs. With highspeed connection, viewers don’t need to find a TV broadcast station and wait to tune in at the right time. They can watch at their convenience. Increasing numbers are responding by e-mail for prayer and spiritual help.

On our Key-Way-Tin Bible Institute web site, First Nations teens get details about our NorthQuest youth retreats, and can apply online. KBI’s courses are listed, along with campus life photos, and information for prospective students.

Hindrance or Help?

Are these new ways of communicating really necessary in our ministry? Are there drawbacks?

If we’ve thought of electronic communication as cold and impersonal, Lori Bennett’s report (and the others’) should make us think again. MSN and Facebook are not face-to-face, but they are facilitating one-on-one sharing on a personal and spiritual level.
E-mail certainly helps us connect with our supporters. One of our workers points out, however, that while e-mailing prayer letters may save on postage, a printed prayer letter may more likely be read by all household members, and kept as a prayer reminder.

Cell phones help missionaries stay in touch, but they can interrupt ministry, too. And they can make it hard for the worker to get a needed break. Missionaries increasingly see young people, especially, distracted in meetings with cell phone texting, and other electronic devices.

The Internet hasn’t been embraced by everyone in our Mission. One of our missionaries says he only knows of one person in their fellowship group who uses e-mail. Some missionaries remain very busy relating to people without these new technologies, and simply don’t have time to connect with people online.

But our Mission sees a large and growing young generation of First Nations needing to be reached for Christ. In the NWT, Jonathan Yeo observes NWT children learning to use the Internet in kindergarten and soon fluently communicating on the Net with family and friends. He points out that many Native communities have little Christian witness — he sees the Internet as a necessary tool to spread the Gospel.

Tom Cnossen knows older missionaries may stay away from this kind of communication because of the learning involved. “But,” he says, “I believe that kind of thinking can keep us away from great opportunities.”

Adapted from our Northern Lights magazine (Issue #507). Note: some of the locations and involvements of our missionaries may have changed since the original publishing of this article.