September 17, 2020

Jesus for YouTubers

“In the 10 years I did literature evangelism, I’ve estimated I’ve knocked on 100,000 doors,” says 30-year-old Justin Khoe, YouTuber and self-described digital missionary. “That’s a lot. But it took 10 years. I can put out a video with similar content as would be in a Bible study or a sermon and theoretically it can reach the same 100,000 people, but with just one video.”

Back in 2015, this “revelation” led Khoe to pursue mission in a completely out-of-the-box way that has allowed him to reach—and establish relationships with—thousands he might never have connected with. As the world of YouTubing has exploded in the past several years, Khoe found it hard at first to find Adventists on the platform. And when he did identify two of them, he felt their approach to things didn’t exactly resonate with him. He realized that perhaps he’d found an untapped mission field.

Creating a Platform for Ministry

And so, he began. Khoe’s first “brand” was That Christian Vlogger, a channel where he posted videos on many topics pertaining to Christian faith and lifestyle. As literature evangelists do, Khoe started by setting a goal for himself in terms of the number of people he was aiming to subscribe to his channel. 

He admits that he wasn’t sure of what he should be shooting for. Content creation must have disciplined focus, and the commitment to making videos that would consistently draw viewers was pretty much the entire idea. “So, I said, ‘OK. What does success look like in this form of ministry?’ And I didn’t have a way to measure that. And so, I drew a parallel in my mind of every other ministry experience I’ve had. If I was a Bible worker, if I was an evangelist, if I was a church planter, for example, what would success look like after 12 months?” 

Khoe initially set a goal of 250 subscribers. But he felt like God was calling him to dream bigger and increased it to 500. “After 12 months, I had passed 250, passed 500, and then had over 10,000 people regularly engaging with the channel, and it was like ‘Oh wow, what’s happening?’”

Most YouTubers begin their channel as a side project to whatever else they are doing workwise. But when things start taking off, the project can easily become a full-time job. Khoe realized if this way of serving God was going to flourish, he needed to commit completely. “I really was feeling like God was leading in this direction,” he says. Though initially working for church-sponsored initiatives, Khoe began to feel he could do more for spreading the message outside of church employment. Digital media ministry was not so well understood by many with the power to give the idea support, and it was a hard sell. So Khoe stepped out in faith and went on his own.

Steady growth with almost no budget followed. Khoe shared some metrics he gathered earlier in the year. At the time, with a zero-dollar marketing budget, his channel had nearly 1.5 million views, 48,000 likes, 13,500 comments, 11,500 shares, and 35,000 new subscribers. In addition, this same period yielded 2,300 Bible study requests—with 73 percent of them being under the age of 35. 

Khoe’s channel, now called “I’m Listening with Justin Khoe,” is unique. In it, he finds people to talk with from just about every walk of life and religious background. He’s forged relationships with atheists, pagans, and Mormon missionaries among others, to discuss faith and find common ground. The startling difference is that Khoe isn’t just there to talk about his faith. He’s listening—often time more than he is talking—and that is the key that has led to some profound developments (no spoilers here—you’ll want to watch his channel).

Viewers often comment on what they are watching or reach out to Khoe to learn more. As budget currently doesn’t allow for him to produce Bible studies on his own, Khoe refers interested persons to the Light Bearers platform for that.

How to Reach a Digital Mission Field

All of this leads back to the concept of being a digital missionary. The idea is clearly effective, but what led Khoe to frame his work with those particular words? “I think it was my attempt at trying to find language to help the church understand what I was doing,” he says. “People will ask, ‘Oh, are you a pastor?’ And I jokingly say, ‘No, but I play one on the internet.’” Khoe says he feels strongly that the real point of his channel is not to drum up record numbers of baptisms but to introduce people to having a relationship with Christ. “Like the Mere Christianity approach, C. S. Lewis’s book and his idea were, ‘Hey, I’m introducing you to the hallway and there are many rooms—the Baptist room, the Episcopalian room, the Adventist room, or whatever. I’m not going to weigh in on which room is better, I’m just trying to introduce you to the hallway.’ And that’s how I feel my role on the internet is. To introduce people to Jesus.”

The conventional idea of a missionary is of those who leave their countries to journey to far-off lands, learning the culture of their adopted home and adapting the message for the people. “A missionary, in my opinion, and this could just be my personal bias, is someone who pays attention to the culture and adapts,” says Khoe. “And when I thought of the internet and seeing the lack of spiritual content at the time I started, I thought, how do I translate what is happening in a physical church environment and make it work for the internet?” For Khoe, it’s all about taking the message right out to where people are. One can’t argue that a platform such as YouTube doesn’t deliver on that goal.

During the pandemic, the internet has allowed society to keep moving forward when physical presence–based systems had to be halted. Whether the field is education, technology, health care, or, yes, religion, without Zoom, Google Hangouts, and YouTube, we’d be sunk. 

“I do believe that for the near future, and maybe even for the extended future, it’s doing exactly this and versions of this as I continue to develop my audience and content and learning lessons that I can take back to the church,” Khoe says. “I don’t see this changing from my human perspective over the next [several] years, because I still see it as a massively underserved area of our church. So, I’m still intending to move forward in that direction. But if God says that’s not the goal, then OK, cool. Sounds good to me.”

Wilona Karimabadi is an assistant editor at Adventist Review Ministries. To watch Justin Khoe’s channel (which offers many videos worth sharing), go to I'm Listening with Justin Khoe. Follow him on his Facebook and Instagram pages by searching his name.