Destitution, war, ethnic division and political and religious oppression are only some of the daily challenges for millions of people in the Middle East. Even so, no one envisaged empty streets and shops, travel bans and curfews and a cloud of uncertainty and fear to shape the memories of 2020. While it has been an onerous year everywhere, in many Middle Eastern and North African (MENA) countries, COVID-19 has meant an even deeper plunge into poverty and unemployment – not to mention the pressures of an unpredictable future.
With people restricted to the confines of their homes, online viewership and engagement numbers inevitably rose across the board which opened a world of digital possibilities. By effectively harnessing digital and social media during COVID-19, many Christian ministries and NPOs have been able to bring hope to desperate people in the MENA region. There is certainly a lot to be gleaned from their learnings over the past few months.
Most ministries saw an unmistakable increase in online viewership and engagements.
Before COVID-19 Al Hayat Ministries, a 24/7 Arabic Christian satellite television channel, had an average of 329,000 views on their YouTube channel, whereas during COVID-19 that number increased to 2,85 million views. Unique users grew by 79,000 people. With regards to actual engagements, the channel noted an increase of 700,000 Facebook engagements between March and July 2020 in comparison to the period of December 2019 to February 2020. Their YouTube engagements on the other hand grew by 61,000 over the same period. What has been even more interesting and valuable than likes or impressions, has been the number of personal messages the Al Hayat team had to respond to. This figure increased from 20,000 to 32,800.
Why this dramatic surge in numbers? The ministry believes people are now even more inclined to think about life after death and they are earnestly searching for the truth.
During the beginning stages of the COVID-19 outbreak Heart4Iran, a ministry devoted to reaching Iranians through social media, mobile technology, satellite TV, underground church planting and counselling, noted over 12,000 decisions for Christ in just four months (March-June 2020).
‘More than 90% of these people are coming to us through the internet. This is a brand-new demographic and audience – these are the millennials, the future of the country. This is a phenomenal historic moment for us in Iran – so much so that World Mission sees the underground church in Iran as among the fastest growing churches in the world,’ said Dr. Mike Ansari of Heart4Iran.
Reflecting on year-on-year growth Miracle Connect, which shares the gospel using Arabic programmes on social media, internet radio, mobile apps and satellite TV, reported an increase of 260% in video views of more than 30 seconds, as well as an increase of more than 375% in unique engagements.
Arab Centre for Consulting and Training (ACCTS), on the other hand, noted an increase of 443 average monthly messages while their monthly engagements grew by 31,628. ‘Many of our target groups have accounts on social media, which allows us to promote our organisation to reach, nurture, and engage with them and assist them through their journey — no matter their location or restrictions hindering them of actual presence,’ explained ACCTS’ Ruba Rihani.
SAT-7 KIDS’ Facebook audience engagement increased by more than 500% whereas SAT-7 TÜRK is experiencing its largest ever audience engagement numbers since it began broadcasting in 2015. Since the beginning of lockdown, SAT-7 ACADEMY witnessed an estimated 4,000% increase in phone calls, messages and comments, and a 400% increase in social media engagement.
‘Before, SAT-7 ACADEMY would receive 800 messages a day, but now we receive around 3,000 messages daily,’ shared Carla Bachir, the initiative’s audience relations officer.
It’s one thing to have the somewhat expected growth in viewership and engagement, but how have people managed to grow and mature in their walk with Christ during this time of isolation?
Miracle Connect reported that they fully presented the gospel one-to-one to more than 5,000 people. Not only that, but they also completed a 30-day online and on-the-ground discipleship journey for 301 people compared to 189 people during the same period in 2019. That’s an increase of 59%. This year they also started seven discipleship groups on WhatsApp with a total of 24 people, in comparison to 2019 when they had four groups with a total of 15 people. The participants are from Yemen, Morocco, Algeria and Libya.
Samuel of Al Hayat explained the precautions necessary when engaging with viewers, ‘When ministering in the Muslim world, we always have to take safety measures when following up. We start with messaging and phone calls and later, once we are convinced that the viewer has genuine intentions, we arrange face-to-face meetings with our local church contacts.’
He recalled the story of a man from Saudi Arabia who contacted Al Hayat’s follow-up team after watching many of their social media live programmes and praying the sinner’s prayer: ‘In his conversation with our follow-up team, he said that he would really like to meet with a believer in Saudi Arabia and sent us his phone number. We have a local contact, an American missionary, who first met him face-to-face to determine whether he was truly a believer now. Both were in fear when meeting one another, not knowing whether it was a trap. But over the course of three days with prayer and discernment, the missionary concluded that he really believed so he started to disciple him, baptised him, and connected him with a local Muslim background believer (MBB) pastor who is now continuing to disciple him.’
Even though people prefer and will always seek genuine, face-to-face interaction, Ruba of ACCTS noted that it has been a mostly positive season. ‘The Lord used COVID-19 to open the doors for online discipleship in the Middle East. In our life-growth journey we can include women from Muslim backgrounds from Tunisia, Morocco, Algeria, the Arab states of the Persian Gulf and even Jordan, where the regime does not grant the freedom of religious belief. They lack churches and Christian support groups. This programme plays a significant role in including them in a church community where they can belong, grow and gain self-awareness. We witnessed women motivated, encouraged, and sharing within their circle of influence as well as home church groups supporting each other in a country where they are minorities. They also receive an individual follow-up, starting day one of the training for one month,’ she said.
‘We have been given, through the COVID-19 crisis, a new opportunity to tap into the future of a nation – to see the destiny of a nation potentially changed from the inside out,’ noted Dr Mike of Heart4Iran.
According to Samuel, online media platforms were particularly crucial during the COVID-19 lockdown because people were fearful and looking for answers.
The Muslim Woman is one of Al Hayat’s programmes which had a notable increase in viewers during COVID-19 – especially at the beginning of the pandemic. The programme is hosted by Sister Amani, a former Muslim (now Christian) woman and it specifically reaches out to Muslim women and MBBs, giving them a forum to discuss the important issues in their lives.
During COVID-19, Al Hayat also started producing Facebook Live programmes.
‘Social media is an extremely current and fresh form of media,’ said Samuel of Al Hayat. ‘Filming, uploading and publishing content on social media can take place in a matter of minutes. Traditional media, on the other hand, is very well thought out and professional, but usually takes a much longer time to produce. Through social media, we are able to react quickly to current events and also interact with our audience in real-time. This is why social media is extremely helpful for us, operating in the Middle East,’ he explained.
‘The highlight of my day during the lockdown was the time I spent serving on Facebook Live – whether I was on camera or supporting other hosts on the team and answering the viewers’ questions and requests,’ recalled Sister Amani. ‘We quickly realised that we share a bond with our viewers and that they trust us. Fear, uncertainty, and grief were among their common questions and both Muslim and Christian viewers asked for prayers.’
According to Ruba, digital platforms were essential during COVID-19: ‘Women needed a place to share their hearts and struggles and perhaps online meetings were the simplest, safest way. We saw it as an opportunity to raise women’s awareness and empowerment. Many women facing violence, war, family pressures, and insecurities that resulted from the harmful effects of COVID-19 and perhaps the lack of discipleship opportunities, found refuge and hope. Some women benefited from the training, and others began to apply the knowledge practically, seeking to develop their lives and influence others.’
As part of their COVID-19 response to viewers, Christian satellite broadcaster SAT-7 continued to produce live broadcasts with skeleton staff in studio. The channel’s response to the pandemic has been to prioritise live programmes and in four specific ways across live and pre-recorded programs: COVID-19 awareness and prevention information; education; physical and mental well-being for families and children; and spiritual support.
Their SAT-7 KIDS channel, whose key strategy is to adapt to children’s changing media habits, partnered with SAT-7 ACADEMY – an education and social development initiative that provides remote learning for children and support for parents and teachers through satellite, online, and social media – offering programming that equips children socially, emotionally and educationally.
‘We want to empower youth to discover their identity in the Lord and to be confident in Him: in His guidance, provision, and protection,’ said Andrea El-Mounayer, SAT-7 KIDS channel manager.
‘Today more than ever we are delivering a truly holistic ministry in our response to the pandemic and increasing audience engagement across our channels is sending a clear signal that we are responding to a much-needed call,’ noted Nicoletta Michael, development manager of the SAT-7 International Office.
The nature of the crisis was such that viewership numbers would’ve probably increased even if media organisations had not adjusted their response strategies. A global crisis would naturally cause people to fear, to have questions and to search far and wide for answers and sources of comfort. However, 2020 has shown that making the most of the available digital platforms is an opportunity not to be missed.
The learnings from these Middle Eastern ministries on how they effectively use digital media to reach people with the gospel, even in the most unlikely circumstances, causes a sense of urgency to prioritise digital strategies.
Though the world of digital and social media can be overwhelming, it is easily accessible and can be extremely effective. But where does one start?
1. Choose your persona – who are you trying to reach? Create a particular example persona of who you want to reach so that you can tailor your message and choose your platform accordingly. Avoid just shooting out a message to the masses without knowing who the one person is you’re speaking to. As Paul said in 1 Corinthians 9: ‘I have become all things to all people so that by all possible means I might save some.’ Start praying about who your persona or your audience is.
2. Choose your platform/s – you don’t have to use every single available platform to get your message out. This strategy often poses to be stretching and tiring and isn’t always as effective as you might hope. For example, if you are wanting to reach youth specifically, do proper research about the platforms they are using the most. Is it Snapchat, TikTok, Instagram, YouTube or Facebook? If your research shows that your persona doesn’t spend time on Facebook or YouTube, for example, you don’t have to target those platforms and you can focus your time and resources elsewhere.
3. Create relevant customer engagement – to be able to engage with people via digital platforms, you need to carefully align technology and data with human values and identity. According to a recent article on Deloitte, ‘Long term engagement with people requires end-to-end capabilities to translate customer insights into actions that are both relevant and meaningful.’ The article notes that with digital becoming an integral part of the ‘new normal’, those brands that can elevate the human experience will be able to make a lasting emotional connection with their customers, which then becomes transformational.
4. Be bold and open to learning – don’t be intimidated too easily. Now is the time to approach the world of media with an open and teachable mind. According to McKinsey, ‘companies often experiment at a pace that fails to match the rate of change around them, slowing their ability to learn fast enough to keep up. Additionally, they rarely embrace the bold action needed to move quickly from piloting initiatives to scaling the successful ones.’ Do small trails and learn from your mistakes as you go along.
5. Get advice and help from knowledgeable people – you might consider asking a digital expert for their advice and training. Or, if you are in the position to do so, outsource your digital strategy to trustworthy, knowledgeable people who have experience in digital and social media.
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