Millions of worried people who have turned to Google with their anxiety over COVID-19 have ended up connecting with Christian evangelists in their search results—leading to a spike in online conversions in March.
In the Philippines, a woman named Grace found herself on a website about coronavirus fear hosted by the internet evangelism organization Global Media Outreach (GMO). “Please help me not to worry about everything,” she wrote in a chat with a volunteer counselor. “What’s happening now is very confusing.” The counselor explained that only Jesus can bring lasting peace, and Grace received Jesus as her Savior.
Back in the US, a volunteer at the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association (BGEA) chatted online with a young mother named Brittany who worried that COVID-19 would take her life and her children’s lives. The volunteer offered hope and peace, and Brittany too accepted Christ.
Three of the largest online evangelism ministries—GMO, BGEA, and Cru—account cumulatively for at least 200 million gospel presentations on the internet each year. All three say the number of people seeking online information about knowing Jesus has increased since the COVID-19 outbreak was declared a pandemic in early March.
Between mid-March and late March, GMO saw a 170 percent increase in clicks on search engine ads about finding hope. Clicks on ads about fear increased 57 percent, and about worry 39 percent. The ministry’s 12.4 million gospel presentations in March represented a 16 percent increase over the average month in 2019.
This recent surge corresponds with a broader finding by a University of Copenhagen professor: Internet searches related to prayer in 75 countries skyrocketed to their highest levels in five years in March.
Pastors, evangelists, and online ministries tend to tell a similar story: COVID-19 escalated an already significant trend toward internet evangelism. As the virus’s spread eventually wanes, they will seek to determine whether the uptick in online witness can be sustained—and how they might improve discipleship for these new believers. Only a fraction of those who come to faith online engage in follow-up discussions or report joining a local church.
In March, BGEA launched landing pages with coronavirus resources in six languages (English, Spanish, Portuguese, Korean, Mandarin Chinese, and Arabic). The association also launched social media campaigns themed around fear.
In the first four weeks, 173,000 people visited the websites and more than 10,000 clicked a button indicating they made decisions for Christ, said Mark Appleton, BGEA’s director of internet evangelism. That was in addition to traffic on BGEA’s standard family of evangelistic websites, which includes SearchForJesus.net and PeaceWithGod.net and sees nearly 30,000 visitors per day. (CT reported in 2015 that online gospel presentations through BGEA were equivalent to a daily Billy Graham crusade.)
visitor to the coronavirus page, a 17-year-old named Donmere, told a chat volunteer, “I’m not really a religious person, but I don’t know who else to turn to but God.” Forty-five minutes later, Donmere was a follower of Christ and had been pointed to discipleship resources.
Pastor Mark Penick, in his 2013 doctoral dissertation at Dallas Baptist University, studied converts who came to Christ through the evangelistic website IAmSecond.com. Through in-depth interviews with 37 individuals in 17 states, Penick determined all his subjects “experienced an impassible quandary” like a divorce, job loss, or financial crisis that left them searching and questioning. Eighty-six percent said finding a Christian website was unplanned but “of their own initiative” (through actions like clicking on an ad or a search engine result). About 75 percent had “personal dysfunction and addiction issues” prior to their online conversions.
Few scholarly analyses of internet evangelism have been attempted—mostly dissertations and doctoral projects on specific evangelistic initiatives—but in 2014, the Pew Research Center found that informal online witnessing was relatively common. One in five Americans said they shared their faith online at least weekly, and 60 percent said they saw religion shared online at least weekly.
In 2018, Barna Research reported that most Christians agree technology is making it easier to evangelize and that 58 percent of non-Christians said someone had shared their faith with them on Facebook, with another 14 percent hearing a testimony through other social media channels.
“Historically, we’ve always thought of evangelism being done with our feet and our faces,” he said. “We go and we tell. But people feel okay that it might involve electrons and avatars” in the 21st century.
At Cru, witnessing also involves emojis. Among Cru’s digital evangelism tools for college campuses is a survey to be answered with emojis to start a spiritual conversation. Cru’s online presence also includes evangelistic mobile apps, gospel presentations in various languages, and online articles using felt needs as bridges to the gospel. One of the ministry’s most effective evangelistic websites, EveryStudent.com, received 56 million hits last year and registered 657,000 decisions for Christ.
In response to COVID-19, Cru has added 52 new resources to its websites. A corresponding bump in traffic has the ministry on pace to eclipse last year’s total number of visitors to EveryStudent.com by 20 million in 2020 and the site’s total decisions for Christ by more than 300,000.
The college-focused ministry InterVarsity USA reported a similar increase in spiritual interest amid COVID-19. In an online fundraising ad running the first week in April, the ministry stated, “We’ve seen more first-time decisions to follow Jesus in the last week than at any other time in the past year.”
A study by the American Enterprise Institute suggested the young adults targeted by ministries like Cru and InterVarsity may be more worried about the coronavirus—at least in some respects—than their counterparts in older generations.
The survey found that 53 percent of 18- to 29-year-olds are concerned about being able to afford basic housing costs amid the pandemic. Fifty-nine percent of 30- to 49-year-olds expressed the same concern, compared with just 29 percent of Americans age 65 and older. Across all generations, people said the coronavirus outbreak has caused them to feel closer to God, including 14 percent of the religiously unaffiliated.
Despite the documented rise in religious interest as COVID-19 sweeps the world, it remains unclear how much of the increase in religious internet traffic is due to the heightened interest and how much is simply a temporary replacement for in-person religious activity. Cru, for instance, has taken all of its evangelism and discipleship groups online via the video conferencing software Zoom. On a single day in late March, Cru held 746 Zoom calls, compared with 474 for the entire month of February before social distancing began in earnest for the US.
By March 29, only 7 percent of American churches were still holding physical gatherings and most had moved online, according to a survey by LifeWay Research. Just 8 percent of Protestant pastors said they had not provided any online sermons or worship services for their congregations during the month of March.