At www.myspace.com, you'll find more than 55 million "friends" who feel remarkably free to simply "be themselves." While this translates into some racy language and such, it's also a place full of people who are looking for friends. It's a cultural commentary on a generation that is lonely and searching. And a few brave souls are venturing in to get their cyber-feet dirty.
... Guys like James, a youth pastor of a midsize congregation in Florida who decided to check out what the chatter was all about. What he found was nothing short of amazing. Of the 25 or so teens that he reaches in his youth group on a weekly basis, 20 of them have MySpace accounts. The most appealing aspect of MySpace is that it allows you to list other MySpace members as "friends." James has 72 friends on his MySpace page and more than 500 "hits" (Web-speak for people who actually view your page) to his blog. Many of them are searching for answers, like Dave.
"Dave was my 20-something worship leader for two years," James says. "He is an amazing guitar player with a real heart of worship. But a few years ago he moved out West, developed marital problems and the marriage ended in divorce. Through it all, he never found a church that he felt he fit into. So, he slowly drifted away from his faith. We would talk on the phone occasionally, but Dave would never tell me the whole story. Eventually he met a girl and moved in with her.
"Then, Dave developed his own MySpace account, and we got hooked up through MySpace. Before long, Dave was connected to me and all of my MySpace friends, many of whom Dave once ministered to."
Between James' blogs and the e-mails from these Christian teens, Dave began feeling the gentle tug of the Holy Spirit drawing him back into the body of Christ. After only a couple of weeks and a lot of MySpace connections, Dave broke up with his live-in girlfriend, rededicated himself to Christ and is now looking for a way to recommit to the calling on his life.
"The thing I like about MySpace," says James, "is that it is another way to connect with people that you have invested your life in. I have one kid from a former youth group that has completely walked away from God. I found him on MySpace and have been e-mailing him, and now he's starting to think about God again.
"So often, when a youth pastor leaves a church, those connections die. But with MySpace, I can still connect and make a difference, because I've already earned the right to speak into their lives. I don't think this would work if I did not already have a connection."
There's a lot of talk these days about the "virtual community" of the Internet and the many ways it is lacking. But it's reality for millions, whether we like it or not. And if you want to reach them, the standard phone call or conversation over a soda may not work. Too many mental firewalls go up in face-to-face conversations.
But for whatever reason, the Internet, and, in particular social networking sites like MySpace and Friendster, makes people disclose things that they would not normally disclose. Dangerous? Probably. But it sure makes it easier for those who want to reach these seekers for Christ.Phishers of Men
How to protect yourself-and your congregation-from Internet scam artists
If you aren't already an expert on phishing, you should be. Phishing is a sleazy tactic (are there any other kinds?) used by cyber thieves to rob you blind. In a phishing scam, an e-mail message is often designed to appear as if it came from a trusted company, such as your bank. It has the right address in the "from" field, company logos and talking points and is often customized just enough to serve as very tempting bait for the unsuspecting.
But these e-mails are actually from identity thieves. All you have to do is follow the link within the e-mail, input your password or other personal info, and you're the catch of the day for phishers.
That's not all. If you open (or even preview) the fake e-mail, phishers can just as easily load a Java script that hijacks a Windows system file (called the "hosts" file) that tricks your browser into going to a fake Web site.
Surely, you muse, I'm smart enough to spot a scam. Well, the Federal Trade Commission estimates that 10 million people have fallen prey to phishing scams in the last five years. You can test your own security prowess by using MailFrontier's Phishing IQ Test II at http://survey.mailfrontier.com/survey/quiztest.html.
In 2004, Robin Laudanski of CastleCops.com, a security-oriented Web site, issued a two-part report showing how the "claims of Christianity" were being used to aid in phishing scams. One story recounts a scam perpetrated by an alleged 65-year-old retired pastor, who claimed she was told to give away all her money because of the imminent return of the Lord. Of course, to do this, the victims (who were contacted via a Yahoo Christian chat room) would have to contact the pastor's "lawyer" and divulge personal information so that the transfer could be made legally and accurately.
According to Crimes-of-Persuasion.com, Larry Short, director of Internet production and design at World Vision, received the following e-mail, which you've most likely seen yourself, or at least something a lot like it:
"Dearest beloved, Grace to you and peace from God our Father and Lord Jesus Christ, Blessed be the God and father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the father of mercies and God of all, comforter who comforts us in all our tribulations, that we may be able to comfort those who are in any trouble, with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God. For as the sufferings of Christ abound in us, so our consolation also abounds through Christ.
"Ambassador Deacon Deinde Fernandez is my name. I am the U.N. permanent representative in the Central African Republic. Through the goodness of Lord Almighty I own a 340-square-kilometer diamond mine in Angola and a number of crude oil wells in some places. I have course to be glad for this goodness for my person and have decided to testify His goodness by dedicating this token sum of $1.5 million U.S. dollars for His kingdom investment through your ministry."
A $1.5 million donation? What pastor wouldn't be tempted to mutter under his breath, "But what if this is the real deal?"
Well, if it sounds too good to be true …
Thankfully, lots of folks are fighting back. Microsoft's Internet Explorer has a new a plug-in, and federal regulators have announced new rules requiring banks to better protect their online customers with a "two-factor" authentication process. (In other words, banks must go beyond just requiring the basics: username, account number and password.) But what about those personal e-mails from your long-lost cousin's wealthy Christian great-grandmother or the poor widowed pastor's wife from some desolate but oil-rich nation?
Well, the best defense is to be armed with the knowledge and tools to fight these scams. In other words, a little skepticism can go a long way. Consider the following:
Start a boycott of certain e-mail links. If you get an e-mail from someone wanting you to "update your account" or give you lots of money, delete it and call the institution on your telephone. Don't have a phone number? Look it up from an old statement or from public records (such as the phone book or a Google search). If it's from a very gracious "benefactor," forward it to the FBI at www.ifccfbi.gov.
Get a real spam filter. Don't depend on Outlook or your ISP to filter everything out with software. Use your brain. MailWasher Pro (www.mailwasher.net) is a great tool because it allows you to preview content without opening yourself to attack. Then, you decide what's junk and what's not. You can even "bounce" e-mails so that spammers and scammers think your e-mail address is no longer legit.
Protect your computer. Lavasoft's Ad-Aware (www.lavasoftusa.com) is great for sniffing out spyware. Zone Alarm (http://www.zonelabs.com) is as vicious as a software firewall. And while you're at it, make sure your anti-virus software is up-to-date and all your data is backed up on disks or portable storage devices.
Lock up your PC's hosts file. Search your computer for the word "hosts" using Windows Explorer (most likely it is here: C:WINDOWSsystem32driversetc—in Windows XP), right click "properties" and then mark as "read only." For more information, visit www.antiphishing.org.Screen Savior
Guys, church and flat-panel monitors
According to an article by G. Jeffrey MacDonald, in the Religion News Service (www.religionnews.com), there may yet be hope for reaching men for Christ—by using flat-panel monitors!
MacDonald cites the fact that "for more than a century, women have outnumbered men in the pews of America's churches" and, in contrast, "religious software has become an $80 million industry in the United States, thanks to a clientele that's predominantly male."
So while standard features of church life (preaching, touchy-feely small groups and uncomfortable chairs) are creating a culture of yawning men, the alluring flicker of a screen is waking them up. But that isn't really surprising, is it? After all, a computer is just a television that gives men even greater control than the clicker. For men, all screens are good.HotSpotters
Find Wi-Fi networks without a computer.
For many of us, getting outside the office may be the first step toward higher productivity. Laptop computers with wireless networking have made this possible. For many, Starbucks is an easy answer—they almost always have a hot spot and who can resist coffee that's been marked up 800 percent? But what if you aren't near a Starbucks? Should you drive around with your laptop on?
Instead, get yourself a nifty little key chain that will do the searching for you. Yes, you heard it right. Simply press a button or flip a switch, and the tiny lights and indicators will tell you when there's a wireless access point nearby. Some models (like the Trendnet shown here) even double as a USB wireless network adapter for laptops that don't have Wi-Fi capability built in.Try these on for size:
Create Monday night TV graphics for Sunday morning services.
Ever wonder how Monday Night Football producers incorporate the flying icons, scrolling text and 3-D graphics into game broadcast? Ever wish you could display some of these tricks on your church's video screens or TV broadcast?
Look no further than Inscriber's Inca Studio (www.inscriber.com). Be forewarned: this is not Paint Shop Pro. We're talking professional-level production graphics with a big price tag (you're looking at thousands of dollars). But if your bread and butter is in super-slick, on-screen graphics and animations over live video feeds, then the product probably pays for itself in a matter of weeks.
If you're thinking that you're ready for prime time and are gunning to be the next Osteen, Jakes or Graham, broadcasting your message to the masses, this is the software for you. All the whiz-bang graphics you see on your evening news or sporting events were created by similar products.
Even better is the fact that Inscriber's Inca Studio can integrate with media file formats such as DV, MPEG-2, Windows Media, Flash and PowerPoint. This is just one more example of how the use of desktop computers has fundamentally changed TV-graphics production. For TV-production artists, it's the only way to fly. You might also want to look into other similar products, such as Broadcast Logic's Pop Logic, Chyron's Lyric software suite and Avid Deko 3000.PlusDeck
Transfer a cassette to a CD ... in one hour flat.
Looking for a simple way to convert those old cassettes into MP3 files? Try PlusDeck's PC Cassette Deck (www.plusdeck.com). This slick player sits in your PC's drive bay. With the PlusDeck (retailing at about $140), you can listen to audiotapes on your computer or convert them into digital files and save them to your hard drive. It even has recording capabilities so that you can record all output sounds from your computer (such as MP3s or Internet broadcasts) onto cassette tapes if needed.