(RNS) Janine Winkler loves reading books to her 2-year-old grandson Judah, but instead of sitting on her lap at her home in Michigan, he’s usually half a world away in Nigeria, where his father works for Wycliffe Bible Translators.
What connects them is Skype, the free online telephone and video service, that has made expensive phone calls and lengthy periods of no contact a distant memory for many missionaries abroad and their families back home.

“I’ve told people that I think God waited to send them until … the technology got to where it was,” said Winkler, who never had a camera on her computer or used Skype before her son left the country. “I couldn’t imagine just waiting to get letters from them.”

Missionaries say the new technology can bridge the thousands of miles between home and the mission field, often for free and in real time.

In a recent survey of more than 800 of its missionaries, Wycliffe found that about one-third use e-mail daily to communicate with family and friends back home. More than half said the Internet connections have made it possible for them to stay in the field longer.

Wycliffe President and CEO Bob Creson recalls the days when he was a missionary in Cameroon in the 1980s, when a staff of 200 would sign up to use the one landline to call home on weekends. Now texting, Facebook and Twitter are available to his employees.

“The world really has flattened out so that people in these very, very remote areas have contact,” he said.

Aid workers and missionaries from other organizations also report improved ability to work abroad and stay in touch with family.

“It certainly does allow there to be instant and constant communication, where before the ability to communicate with family was limited and expensive,” said Wendy Norvelle, a spokeswoman for the Southern Baptist Convention’s International Mission Board.

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