Late last month, I watched thousands of people come to Christ.
I saw it while sitting April 29 in the Nationals Stadium press box with Joel Osteen’s social media team. Without much heavy lifting, the reigning Christian king of hope attracted close to 41,000 people to Washington. While the filled stadium was impressive enough, the Texas mega-ministry’s staff says more than twice that number came to a live chat room from 145 different countries during the event. That’s enormous, and typical of Osteen, who experts say engages more people on social media than almost any other faith figure.
But what happens to these often fleeting interactions is far from clear. And when your goal is the saving of souls, the question of how faith groups use social media is touchy.
I wanted to see what this torrent looked like up close, and was lucky enough to embed with Brian Boyd, a Charlotte-based contractor whose 11-person team has handled a few “Night of Hope” stadium events for Osteen’s ministry. A spiky-haired IT guy who grew up in the church and talks often of “ROI” (return on investment), Boyd beforehand described to me the dramatic scene that would unfold online at the end of the three-hour event. It would happen as Osteen ended his service by asking people in the stadium to signal they had make the decision to come to Christ by standing up, he said.
“We were bawling like babies,” Boyd said of his small team’s reaction last time Osteen had a big stadium event, in Chicago last year.
A few hours later, I saw what he meant.
Shortly before 7 p.m., two massive, simultaneous altar call scenes began to unfold: one with a backdrop of a setting sun behind the U.S. Capitol, moving contemporary Christian rock and 41,000 people clapping, and the other absolutely silent, floating in the ether of the internet.
Blasted across the massive stadium screen, his eyes squeezed shut, Osteen called the crowd to “seal the deal,” and make a decision to come, or return, to Christ. In the press box, Boyd was speaking into his headset to his staff:
“Get ready to get them to stand up at home, Fran and Karen.”
On the massive outdoor stage below, Osteen’s eyes remained squeezed shut: “God is not mad at you .. the enemy will give you 1,000 reasons not to stand.”
On Boyd’s screen, Osteenland appeared to be pouring in.
_ Comment From Martha
This is given me a new way to look at my life! I now have HOPE!
_ Comment From MICHELLE FROM MAINE
WE WILL STAND
_ Comment From Trish Hennessey
I am praying that thousands will stand up accept Jesus tonight!
_ Comment From Steve
If you need Christ, please accept Him now. If you need to recommit your life, please do so now.
_ Comment From DeAnna
I am clean, I am fresh, I am new!! Praise God!!
_ Comment From Tina Murphy
I accept You as my Savior
And from Brian’s team:
_ Fran - ADMIN:
Just come as you are.... He is waiting for you.
Fran - ADMIN: Welcome to the Kingdom of God Tina
Soon Osteen’s teenage daughter was belting out contemporary Christian rock from the stage, a stirring ballad called “Come as you are,” with all your broken pieces, all your shameful scars. People in the stands were standing by the thousands, cheering, crying.
The little box in the corner of Boyd’s screen ticked that 7,554 people were logged in at that moment.
Within half an hour the event was over, the stadium was empty and Boyd’s team was tallying the numbers: Close to 90,000 people had come through the chat room during the three hours, and there had been 208,000 “interactions,” between the room, posts on Facebook and Twitter, shared photos, and other methods.
And the results were in from Boyd’s online poll: “Did you make a decision or recommit your life to Christ tonight?”
Yes: ( 93% )
No: ( 7% )
The scene, and Osteen’s reach on social media, epitomizes debates about spiritual life online. It’s booming, without question, but to what end? Is superficial spirituality better than nothing? Some look at the Osteen choreography and see pure entertainment. Others see a door cracked open to a deeper life.
“That use of social media, short of making feel good momentarily, it’s like a shot of Jack Daniels—it comes and goes,” said John Mark Reynolds, a philosophy professor at the Christian university, Biola, and founder of GodBlogCon, what was one of the first regular conferences on digital ministry. “It takes something effective and real and meaningful .. and makes it ripe for parody. I’m a huge fan of social media but what it can’t be is a replacement for things it can’t do. Anyone who is in love wants to actually see their beloved.”
Phil Cooke, a well-known consultant to Christian ministries whose unofficial motto is “we help Christians not suck at media,” sees the altar call scene as the result of successful targeted branding and something that may pay off.
“Joel is the guy that that non-believer, someone not remotely interested in Christ would at least listen to. Historically Christians have not focused on that first step,” he said.
Osteen’s ministry said 26,000 people in the chat room had clicked on information Boyd’s team fed to them during the event, meant to take them deeper: to Osteen’s sermons, to connections to an actual real live local church. Osteen knows half of the 10 million people who watch his sermons each Sunday on television don’t go to church; they think of him as church. He says he opposes this, but it’s a reality, he’s a superstar.
Yet even as people use social media for spiritual reasons as much as they do for anything else, it’s hard to understand its impact. Unlike in politics or sports or other realms, it’s difficult for people to point to major movements the faith community has driven through social media. There are exceptions, primarily young evangelicals dive into certain social justice causes, particularly the fight against human trafficking. Cooke credits this in good part to megapastor Rick Warren’s raising of the issue constantly on social media, where young people picked it up and embraced it.
Other major “movements” are more like cultural events. Like the YouTube video by Christian artist Jefferson Bethke, a totally organic happening that brought his screed against organized faith called “Why I hate religion but love Jesus” to 20 million viewers.
Do you participate or would you in a religion based chat on line? Would it deepen your connection to faith or make it more shallow? Join the conversation in our comments below.