We used the internet to share gospel-related Facebook ads to over 6 million Muslims in the Middle-East/North Africa (MENA) region. Hundreds of contacts were generated of people who wanted to know about Jesus and read the Bible. Our local partners followed up with over 1,000 muslims, many got baptized, and many house churches started!

But then we stopped. And I’m glad we did.

In today’s post, we are going to share the why behind our big pivot away from a media-to-movement (using pay-per-click ads to find potential persons-of-peace) strategy and what we would do if we were to start over again.

It all started with a Bible Smuggling Operation…

In the trunk of my teammate’s car (lets call him Bill), he had over 500 Bibles dispersed between two suitcases. He was entering a predominantly Muslim country.

“Anything in here I should know about?” The border agent asked.

While Bill nervously shook his head, the agent started to pull each suitcase out for a thorough inspection. Utter panic filled Bill’s chest as he saw the agent reach for the Bible-stuffed suitcase. He would surely be black-listed from ever entering the country again if the agent discovered the contraband. The agent unzipped the suitcase and reached his arm in all the way to the back of the suitcase.

A sudden thought came to Bill. 

“Oh yes officer! I have a large pack of bacon I brought from Europe.” 

He put the package of raw bacon right in front of the border agent’s face. 

“I’m so sorry! Is this not allowed in the country? Please take it!”

Repulsed by the haram-drenched pork, the officer quickly withdrew his hand and gave Bill the nastiest look of shame I’ve ever seen.

“No, no, that is alright. Please leave now,” the officer said, in a huff.

As Bill left the border inspection, he whispered a quick thank you to the Lord, and the knot in his chest eased a little.

We had generated a Bible shortage

All of this happened because we had figured out a pretty simple tactic to find muslims curious about Jesus or the Bible. We would spend less than a dollar in Facebook ads and get muslims into a marketing “funnel” where they learned about Jesus.

Hundreds of peoples responded to the ads, wanting a Bible of their own. Hundreds took our content and did a deep-dive in who Jesus was. 

All because of Facebook. Sounds pretty cool, right?

Then we turned off the ads

Nearly getting caught with hundreds of smuggled Bibles kicked off an intense season of prayer and reflection. Was what we were doing working? Were we just getting satisfied with cool numbers and a few good stories? Were we really obeying Jesus’ commission to make disciples? Or were we just handing out Bibles?

Our prayers and reflection led us to identify three core issues with our media-to-movement strategy:

1. Seekers were making decisions on their own and in secret

Mohammed was ready to start following Jesus. He had spent the last 6 months reading the Bible online by himself. He was watching Youtube videos of evangelists sharing all about the fallacies of Islam. He was convinced that Jesus was the Son of God.

Then Mohammed saw an ad appear on his Facebook feed. It was a simple gospel presentation with a call-to-action to start chatting with another Arabic speaker about Jesus. After chatting  online, Mohammed got passed off to a foreign worker named Terence.

Terence was ecstatic. Trying to find people who wanted to follow Jesus was rare in his country. His newsletters had been pretty empty of any encouraging stories. Mohammed felt like a gift from God! In their first meeting, Terence and Mohammed shared their stories. Mohammed unveiled all his disdain about Islam and how he was ready to believe and be baptized.

Then Terence asked Mohammed a hard question, “How does your wife feel about wanting to be a Christian?”

Mohammed blushed a little bit and looked at the ground. 

“She doesn’t know.”

Digital Evangelism often results in spiritual orphans. Seekers deep-dive on who Jesus is without bringing any of their family or friends into the process. In contexts where Christianity isn’t embraced, they either never share with their family about their decision or become culturally exiled because of that decision.

2. Churches are either made up of strangers or just outsiders

We had seen over 20 churches started because of the ads we were running. The vast majority of these groups were of people who were seeking Jesus on their own online, then coming together to meet. The problem is that in our country (in the MENA region), locals often don’t trust each other. “Wolves in sheep clothing” is an extremely common occurrence.

In movements, however, groups naturally come from pre-existing groups. 

Neighbors do church together. Co-workers do church together. Families do church together. Random strangers who are all only connected to the leader will have a hard time ever lasting or reproducing.

3. Ads had become the “engine of growth”

While we were seeing many 1st generation groups started, those groups didn’t multiply.

Many in the groups had been saved by reading content about Jesus and the Bible online. So they figured this was the best way for others to come to the faith as well. The DNA of engaging the lost, serving their communities, and being spiritually conspicuous hadn’t been embedded in them from the very beginning. Instead, through their faith journey, they had been secretly seeking, terrified to tell anyone about what they were reading or learning.

So what will we do differently if we use Facebook Ads again?

Encourage seekers from day one to bring their friends or family in the journey with them.

Which is easier for a seeker to say to their friends or family?

  1. “Hey I am interested in learning more about the Jesus. Could we read some of the gospels together?”
  2. “I’ve been reading a lot online about Jesus for the last 6 months and have decided to become a Christian.”

Imagine your best friend or spouse decided to become muslim without ever telling you they were even reading the Quran. How out of left-field would this be? So why do we expect different from the seekers we are trying to disciple?

I also realize this is hard in the context of a media-to-movement strategy. You could encounter a seeker right at the beginning of their journey or they could be like Mohammed and Terence; basically ready to be baptized after months of secret seeking.

Churches should be formed from naturally occurring groups. 

The natural result of seekers bringing their friends or family into their faith journey is that they can form a church with their pre-existing friend group or family. 

Make service to the community and engaging the lost be the engine of growth instead of ads. 

Every lesson in Waha has the questions, “What are the needs of the people in your community, and how can we help each other meet the needs we’ve expressed?” and “Who will you share a truth from this story with before we meet again? Do you know others who would also like to discover God’s word in this app like we are?”

These questions lead seeking groups from the very beginning to start sharing scripture stories with others. It encourages them to practically serve their neighbors. In the context of media-to-movements, I truly believe that ads can be a catalyst for finding initial people of peace, but they need to be coached to have an outward focus from the very first meeting.

Is Technology Bad?

In our digital age, it’s easy to just dismiss technology as another distraction from the world. Perhaps revelations about social media and online outreach like the ones described above lead us to assume modern technology is inherently bad. But we don’t think so.

While the digital world can create a sense of isolation, we tend to think of it as just another tool. If we learn to use it well, it could enhance the face-to-face interaction rather than replace it. This could be key for movements to happen, since disciple making is an inherently relational activity.

That’s why we created Waha, a tool to help seekers meet together in their homes and discover God together. Get started with Waha today by checking out the video below. Then, head over to our download page to turn your smart phone into the most powerful disciple making tool in your arsenal—for free!