Reaching the Next Billion

More than four billion people are online today. We took almost a quarter of a century to reach this milestone. In just the next few years, however, the internet is expected to grow by an additional billion! We call this influx of new users ‘the next billion’ and they are unlike any previous generation of internet users.

They will come from places we never imagined would or could be connected 25 years ago, in countries like Brazil, Nigeria, India and Indonesia. They will use the internet in unprecedented ways. Many will connect from regions of the world where the Gospel is yet to make a headway.

I believe there are three key opportunities for the Church as this next billion comes online:

Always On. Always Connected.

Unlike the previous generations, the next billion will connect to the internet primarily through mobile devices, and they’re not going to be waiting for websites to load line by line on a 2G/Edge connection! Forecasts on data consumption and usage trends suggest they’re more likely to be on 4G connections, using the internet for everything from streaming HD video to banking.

Let’s think about that for a second: A young woman from a village in Kenya that still takes three days to reach is now on Facebook. A farmer from the agricultural hinterlands of India is searching the web on Google. And there’s a billion more people coming online from some of the most unreached regions of the world, connecting through personal devices that are always on and always connected, using the internet in rich ways that touch all aspects of their lives.

The Vernacular Vacuum

There is a severe dearth of quality, relevant content in the languages that the next billion are speaking. Most of the internet is still in English, which is spoken as a first-language by only 5% of the world’s population. The internet today suffers from what I like to call a Vernacular Vacuum and the Church has a tremendous opportunity to help fill it.

While we can certainly translate and try to contextualise content in all these new languages, the real opportunity for impact is in lowering the activation energy for local content producers to get online by mobilising, envisioning and equipping them.

A great example of this is a Google product called Navlekhā, which helps offline vernacular publishers effortlessly move their content online and monetise it. Google is targeting the 135,000 Indian publications that don’t have a web presence. Moving even a small portion of this content online will go a long way towards bridging the language gap on the internet.

The Church too has a rich tradition of filling the Vernacular Vacuum. For example, the English missionary to India, William Carey, was known just as well for his linguistic contributions to the Bengali language as he was for his missionary work. Two hundred years later, we have another rich opportunity on our hands to proclaim the Gospel in the heart languages of the next billion.

Voice First

The next billion users are adopting cutting-edge technology like voice assistants astonishingly fast. Cesar Sengupta, VP of Google’s Next Billion Users Team, explains: “The next billion users will be the first to truly embrace ubiquitous computing, expecting apps to work in a natural way rather than having to learn all the artificial commands that we did on PCs.”

It makes sense. Our first experience of interacting with a computer was probably a QWERTY keyboard. Their first experience of a computer is a mobile device with an AI-powered voice assistant. And they expect nothing less!

Voice assistants are particularly helpful in making the internet accessible to the illiterate or semi-literate, who will make up a sizeable portion of the next billion. The Church can play a unique role here too, going perhaps where even Bible translators fear to tread!

The internet is hurtling to the ends of the earth at an unimaginable pace. It carries with it innovations that are fast dissolving the barriers of geography, accessibility and literacy. And we, the Church, have an unprecedented window of opportunity to leverage and adapt to these changes to reach the next billion for Jesus.

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