Technology is transforming Central Asia.
Already, in Kyrgystan and Kazakhstan, people can hail taxis on their smartphones, using apps, such as Uber, Yandex and Namba Taxi. Governments across the region have unveiled multiple-year plans for digital development, hoping to gain economic and social benefits available through increased technology and widespread internet access**.
“Everyone has smartphones,” OM worker Craig* observed. “Moving forward, that’s how everyone’s going to be reading things and getting access to information.”
Selfies and social media have transformed popular culture, but the Central Asian church hasn’t caught on to the technology craze. “We need to fill that space with resources for local churches in local languages,” Craig asserted.
He formed a group of cross-organisational workers interested in developing digital discipleship tools. Their top three projects include making Scripture available on smartphones across all platforms, developing a devotional app in a Central Asian language and adapting a worship songs app for use by home churches.
“We also see there’s room for a lot more to happen in that space—many more apps and other digital resources as well,” Craig said. “We’re trying to draw from the ones that are really good in English and either try to find a Russian version that already exists and promote it here, or if there’s nothing, create something in the local language.”
In addition to making Scripture available on smartphones, Craig said adding an audio Bible is strategic. People travelling by bus often listen to music or other entertainment during long commutes, and, in the evenings, nearly all walkers and joggers exercise with earbuds attached to their phones.
This technology is not only for the young, though. “The older generation … like to listen to things more, so they’re really happy when they can have the audio version of the Bible on their phones,” Craig said. “When I put it on some people’s phones and they start to listen, they get very excited about being able to hear.”
Like smartphones, social media also provides a huge platform for sharing Scripture. Craig and the team created a Facebook page for The Prophets’ Story, an evangelistic video outlining the lives of several biblical prophets—culminating with Jesus—and illustrating the message of redemption through sacrifice.
The team has used Facebook advertising to push the video out to more people and create discussion. “There’s a lot of negative response because it’s a Muslim country, but … you find these random comments: ‘Yeah, this is what I believe’; ‘I agree with that,’” Craig said.
Part of promoting information online is training locals to follow up with interested individuals. Craig helped facilitate an apologetics training, led by a Central Asian who teaches in a Bible school, that included a section on online apologetics.
“We invited local believers, mostly young people who are engaged with social media and the digital side of things,” Craig shared. Twelve people attended the four two-hour sessions.
The training focused on apologetics theory and methods, and incorporated a practical application. Attendees learned common questions that Muslims have about Christianity and how to answer them without creating barriers.
For example, when responding to comments about The Prophets’ Story, “How do you engage as an apologist?” Craig asked. “Rather than laying down an argument, it’s sharing faith and doing that in a grace-filled way.”
In Central Asia, “any type of proselytising or evangelising is illegal,” Craig stated. However, digital content doesn’t have the same restrictions as printed media. Information can spread more quickly and widely via technology.
“I think The Prophets’ Story might have had 300,000 views in a month or so because people share it and people comment on it. If they comment on it, other people will see it. Even if it’s a negative comment, it will appear on their feeds, and it will spread like that. And it will go further than we physically can,” Craig said.
Gary*, a worker who’s lived in Central Asia for nearly 30 years, started collecting worship songs in one local language when he noticed his home church always sang the same songs. “I knew there was more material out there,” he recalled.
To make the songs accessible to more churches and individuals, Gary decided to upload the songs onto a smartphone app. Instead of developing new technology, he got in touch with the creator of an existing application.
The app initially contained songs from only a few languages, including Turkish and Mongolian. Gary partnered with the developer to add the songs he’d already collected as well as those in other Central Asian languages. “I’m a regional guy,” he explained.
Gary hired Taras*, a worship leader in a local church, to upload more songs to the app. “He’s a musician. He knows how to put chords into the songs,” Gary noted. In one year, Gary and Taras were responsible for uploading over 5,000 songs in 10 Central Asian languages—about 1,000 individual uploads and the rest via electronic songbooks they sent to the app developer.
“You can choose which languages you can load on your phone. … You can get the words of the songs; if we have the chords and have entered them, you can get that; if we have an MP3, we put that on the app. You can listen to it streaming or download it,” Gary explained.
Downloading songs is important as the internet doesn’t always work well, and, in some places, streaming Christian music might be a security risk. “If you download it in a safe place, you can listen to it whenever you want,” Gary said.
He can’t track how many times people listen to individual songs—once files are downloaded, they’re invisible, so to speak—but during one recent monitoring period, he noticed that over 100 users had clicked on songs in two Central Asian languages from his area.
One of the most helpful features was the app’s ability to create song lists, Gary said: “You can use WhatsApp to send a link to all the people [in a house church, for example], and everybody has the words.”
The app’s popularity is still growing, but “everybody uses WhatsApp, so we’re passing songs around on WhatsApp all the time.”
Gary’s home group has used the app to share songs for their meetings. Another church he attends has connected the app to a projection programme, a feat Gary also helped engineer.
“Other people … have said, ‘I never knew there were so many [Central Asian] songs,’” Gary said. “Some people who worked with me are happy to have an expanded song book.”
Apart from increasing awareness about available songs, “we’ve also been effective in networking and bringing groups together,” Gary said.
“There was one group that fell apart; the people weren’t even in church. But they heard I was collecting songs, and they came and showed me their songs, and through that, they got reconnected to the [indigenous] church scene.”
Pray for Central Asian churches to take hold of the digital resources being created. Pray that they would invest in creating tools that will benefit emerging communities of Jesus followers among the least reached.
*Name changed for security
Nicole James is a world traveller and writer for OM International. She’s passionate about partnering with fields to communicate the ways God is working across the globe.
**http://www.worldbank.org/en/news/feature/2016/03/15/reaping-the-benefits... (accessed 20Sept17)