In March 2020, at the onset of the COVID crisis, I wrote a TGC-AU article imploring us all to think outside of the box as we sought to find new ways of doing church and ministry at home, with our families, and from our computers. The article closed with these words:
The opportunities for gospel work, care for those in need, and personal spiritual growth are boundless. Every one of us, whether single, married, young or old, employed or not, stands at a threshold of gospel opportunity. Let’s share our ideas and spur one another on toward love and good deeds in the spirit of Hebrews 10:24-25.
Little did I realise just how God would use churches and individuals around the world to share his gospel far and wide.
Little did I realise just how God would use churches and individuals around the world to share his gospel far and wide. My brother, a pastor at Westminster Presbyterian Bull Creek, WA, saw a massive and unprecedented uptick in downloads of sermons during the pandemic. Churches around Australia have shared some brilliantly innovative ways of reaching others and sharing the gospel. But perhaps the most innovative of all the methods that have crossed my radar comes from a small street evangelism team in Brisbane who took the gospel from the streets to the Internet.
Moving Evangelism Online
Week in and week out, the Brisbane chapter of Operation 513, a small team of faithful evangelists led by Ryan and Rebekah Hemelaar, takes the gospel to the city streets. Before the pandemic, King George Square was ripe for the harvest and many a stranger put their trust in Jesus under the watchful eye of the Clock Tower. But the COVID-19 lockdown changed that.
What do street evangelists do when the streets are empty?
Go to where the people are. Online.
Innovative thinking saw the team move into the online equivalent of the dodgy side of town. Namely, Omegle, an online chat platform where strangers are randomly paired up with other strangers, out of roughly 30,000 to 50,000 people at any given time, to chat about … anything. “Anything” can sadly mean a sordid attempt at a sexual encounter. But more often, people come just to chat, and a simple starter question kicks off some of the most exciting gospel conversations I have ever witnessed.
What began as a fairly straightforward transition from street to cyberspace soon grew into an incredible evangelism ministry that has the team working, oftentimes, 4-8 hour days evangelising online, training ever-increasing numbers of enthusiastic new trainees from around the world, and harnessing the viral nature of popular platforms like Instagram, Facebook, YouTube and, yes, even TikTok, to spread the good news. In doing this effectively, Operation 513 teamed with NeedGod.net, an evangelistic website that has a growing presence on social media platforms.
What began as a fairly straightforward transition to cyberspace soon grew into an incredible evangelism ministry.
How does it all work? Team members meet each day online, running a team chat group alongside an Omegle chat window. As they encounter strangers on Omegle, they start a conversation with a simple question: “Hey, I have a question for you. What do you think happens after you die?” It is a question that is often met with a disconnected line. But other times, the stranger is intrigued enough to continue talking. The discussions that ensue sometimes last as long as an hour, venturing into apologetics, science, and sometimes stories of deeply sad lived experiences. And, to the praise and glory of God, many of these conversations end with the stranger putting his or her trust in Jesus and linking up with resources to help them read the Bible and connect with other Christians where they live.
This initial transition from street to screen was the primary focus of the work of the 513 team. Soon after, they introduced training days. This allowed folk to pair up with others and watch online as they evangelised, learning helpful tips for keeping the conversation moving towards a full explanation of the gospel. This training then led to livestreaming on YouTube and Facebook so that others could also watch and learn. Before long, the team started making shorter 1-minute video snippets of their conversations, sharing them on Facebook, Instagram, TikTok and beyond—with hashtag links to the full conversations and their web pages where the gospel is clearly outlined.
Somehow, the algorithms of TikTok have allowed these videos to clock up tens of thousands of views—some surpassing the half-million mark within a week or two—while comments sections blow up with questions and answers from viewers around the world. One teenage evangelist encountered a stranger in the street who exclaimed, “You’re that girl from TikTok!” and so began a wonderful exchange about the truth she had learned just by watching the 1-minute TikTok videos.
Mid-livestream, Steve T, confessed his trust in Jesus.
One of the most heart-warming stories of this pandemic time emerged from the comments on NeedGod.net’s YouTube channel. A self-proclaimed atheist named Steve T, came along ready to ridicule and argue. Yet, over time, the team noticed a change in him: he began to engage with the other sceptics, answering their questions with truth from God’s Word. Then, mid-livestream, Steve T, confessed his trust in Jesus, declaring that he had been “washed by the blood.” Tears of the team members flowed freely. The next day he wrote:
I rewatched Matt, Grace and Ryan’s reaction, the ones that I could see, over and over. I couldn’t believe my eyes. How someone could care that much about someone on the other side of the world amazed me.
Even though the teams are now back on the streets again, they have continued with their online evangelism. As a result, Ryan Hemelaar, Brisbane’s Operation 513 team leader, has had many face-to-face encounters with folk who have seen on one of the online platform:
I spoke to one young lady in Brisbane city who—when I asked her the question “What do you think happens to you after you die?”—said, “Oh I saw a video on TikTok recently where someone asked the same question to a person and I thought to myself, ‘I wish that I could have someone speak to me about that.’” She went to look on her phone for the video and she said, “Oh, it was you! You were the one on the video!” A 15-minute conversation then ensured explaining the gospel to her and by the end of the chat, she came to profess faith in Christ. She left rejoicing. We then got to see her several weeks later again in the city with some of her friends, and she could articulate the gospel perfectly to us and when we began witnessing to her friends, she actually began explaining the gospel to them herself.
Another guy tapped me on the shoulder one night, while I was in a gospel conversation with someone else. He said, “I love what you’re doing on TikTok. I’m from the outback.” It then provided an opportunity to witness to his friends who all go to local churches but had no idea why God should let them into heaven. They came to grasp the gospel for themselves for the very first time.
There are many other stories like these. Young and old, male and female, atheists, Muslims, nominal Christians and many others have put their trust in Jesus. The tears, smiles, and heart-felt gratitude never grows old. The growing interest from Christians wanting to join the team’s work is just as encouraging.
God knows where the seed has fallen and how it will grow.
I could not have imagined this kind of out-of-the-box thinking when I wrote that article back in March 2020. I could not have known the joy I would feel watching committed, articulate Australian teenagers train other teens online from around the world in evangelism. I could not have comprehended the viral nature of the gospel message reaching people through their screens.
Yet, God knew. And He knows. He knows where the seed has fallen and how it will grow. He knows whose testimonies in 10, 20, 30 years from now will begin with, “One day I was chatting to strangers on the Internet and …”
My prayer is that this story will spur us all on towards love and good deeds. May our deeds include the work of evangelism. And may we learn from, join with, and pray for the work of Operation 513 and for the hundreds of people who today can say, with confidence, that they trust in the saving work of Jesus thanks to a chance encounter with a stranger online.
Find out more about the work of Operation 513 and NeedGod.net here by following these links. Or connect with Ryan and Rebekah Hemelaar to find out how you can be involved.
Operation 513: https://www.operation513.com/