The Church in Cyberspace





People are joining the online community in record numbers, representing a vast harvest field ripe for evangelism. How can the church best take advantage of the Internet to reach lost sould?

The church's launch into cyberspace hasn't been scrubbed, but it has yet to really get off the ground. While Internet ministry is a far less embattled topic than it used to be, many churches and ministries that would like to begin such an effort find they are warring on many fronts: the lack of financial and human resources, philosophical differences and apathy.

Helping the church lift off is an organization that combines the best efforts of churches, parachurch organizations and the grassroots evangelism movement. The Internet Evangelism Coalition (IEC) had its beginnings during an April 1997 consultation sponsored by the Billy Graham Center in Wheaton, Illinois. The consultation, attended by more than 80 representatives from a cross-section of church and parachurch ministries, voted to establish the Internet Evangelism Facilitation Committee.

The committee has now grown into a coalition comprised of evangelical ministries including the Christian Broadcasting Network, Focus on the Family, the Assemblies of God and the North American Mission Board of the Southern Baptist Convention.

One of the IEC's main roles is to bring interested parties together in an annual conference on Internet evangelism. Participants attending the second annual conference, held in Orlando, Florida this year numbered 204, but few churches were represented. For the most part, participants were from Internet for-profit ventures and nonprofit ministries, although some grassroots efforts were also represented.

Sterling Huston, who chairs the IEC, sees this technology-based approach to evangelism as a new challenge for the church.

"The church is recognizing the enormous potential of the Internet because of its greatly expanded reach and its availability on a 24-7 basis for sharing the gospel," Huston told Ministries Today. "But it is significantly challenged, both at the local church level and at the level of parachurch organizations--part of the larger, if you will, church--with the need to provide relevant, quality spiritual content and adequate follow-up, discipleship and referral resources."

An Internet ministry can drain an already taxed ministry leadership team. "The added reach we have [via the Internet] means we can touch people who can't attend our local churches or can't fall under our ministry networks, and so this puts a whole new challenge on the church," Huston cautions.

So, is there adequate reason for the church to use its precious resources for Internet evangelism? Mark Mittelberg, who serves on the IEC General Committee, believes the church will be missing a prime opportunity if it does not take full advantage of this technology.

"This is the one of the greatest opportunities in the history of the race to be able to communicate a message in a high-powered, rapid-fire way that can reach lots of people. So, to me, there is no question that it's a medium we need to exploit to the greatest possible benefit for the gospel," says Mittelberg, executive vice president of evangelism/partnerships of the Willow Creek Association and author of Building a Contagious Church (Zondervan).

Christians are keeping pace with the general population by embracing computer technology at the same rate, according to the Barna Research Group in Ventura, California. Many in the church believe Christians ought to utilize the technological power at their disposal for the sake of the gospel--and the field is wide open.

Two-thirds of all adults now own a personal computer, and half of all adults have Internet access, according to a June 2000 Barna study. "Home Internet access has grown like wildfire, jumping from just 9 percent household penetration in 1996 to 50 percent today," Barna reports.

Internet users are accessing the medium for all matters of life, some healthy and some unhealthy. On the positive side, the Web is being used to examine faith-based questions and to participate in religious community online. Many of these Internet users will never be reached by the church otherwise.

"Our research indicates that by 2010 we will probably have 10 percent to 20 percent of the population relying primarily or exclusively upon the Internet for its religious input," says Barna. "Those people will never set foot on a church campus because their religious and spiritual needs will be met through other means, including the Internet."

TOOLS OF E-VANGELISM

A multitude of ways exist to use the Internet for evangelism. With the all-pervasive nature of the World Wide Web, many people automatically think of establishing a ministry Web site. There can be great value to such a site, but its purposes must be clearly defined.

The Ginghamsburg Church Web site was started in 1997. It now has 2,000-plus pages and more than 2 gigabytes of streaming video online. Mark Stephenson, director of cyberministry for Ginghamsburg Church, a United Methodist church in Tipp City, Ohio, attests to the value of his church's Web site.

"We have more than 1,000 people a week view the sermons either in video or text format, and those people are from more than 40 different countries, so we're reaching out far beyond the walls of our church," Stephenson says.

"We get a lot of people coming to our site that are coming via search engines, and I've had some of them send e-mail because they were looking for something else and got into the middle of a sermon and had a question or whatever, so it's evangelistic in that sense," Stephenson adds.

However, Stephenson knows there is a difference between a site specifically built for the purpose of evangelism and a site built for some other purpose with a little gospel on the side. Most churches are not yet purposefully reaching out to unbelievers, especially those who would not normally attend a church service.

"If I were going to do an evangelism site, I would do it differently," he explains. "People still know they're coming purely to a church [site], and so I don't consider us an evangelistic site, even though I can tell you it does a fair amount of evangelism."

In fact, purely evangelistic sites are a rare find. Tony Whittaker, researcher and editor with SOON Educational Publications in Willington, England, writes that "there are probably about 30,000 English-language Christian sites. But it is hard to find even 1 percent which could be classified as broadly evangelistic."

In order to boost such Web ministries, Whittaker recommends that local churches either support evangelistic online ministries or encourage individuals to become involved in online witness in their spare time.

Some Internet tools provide greater instant gratification than the Web does in engaging people to talk about Christ. Consider the chat room, for instance.

Gerald Boyd, an 82-year-old retired Assemblies of God minister based in Carmel Valley, California, was, to some eyes, an unlikely candidate to begin an Internet chat room ministry. But Boyd missed the meaningful contact he had with seekers while in active ministry. When introduced by a computer software businessman to the vast ministry potential of the Internet's interactive tools, Boyd was hooked.

"Without a doubt, this has been the most exciting time I have ever had in all of my ministry, calling people daily with the claims of Christ," Boyd says. "I challenge any retired minister...any lover of souls for that matter...to get involved!"

Boyd prefers a loving, yet confrontational, style. He goes into a chat room, reads the ongoing conversation and, when he feels he may be able to witness to a particular individual, "calls" someone, engaging them in conversation one-on-one. In the course of conversation, he asks questions such as, "Are you happy with the life you're living?" or "Have you ever had a personal experience with God?"

As a retiree, Boyd has the luxury of time, so he can spend more time online than many active church leaders can. He spends about four hours a day online and has personally been in contact with almost 3,000 individuals in one-on-one online conversations. Boyd keeps a file and follows up on each person with whom he has had a fruitful conversation. More than 50 people will walk through heaven's gates because of Boyd's online efforts, he says.

Jim Coulter, founder of Netevangelism.com, also practices online chat evangelism, but in a less confrontational, close-the-sale style. Coulter emphasizes how critical doing hands-on ministry is to the ministerial professional.

"You get so busy, wrapped up in the ministry," he notes. "About the last thing you do is talk to people. I wish more pastors would get online between sermons. It keeps you sharp."

Dottie McBroom, head administrator for the SpiritLed Woman chat room at www.spiritledwoman.com, shares the story of a woman she led to the Lord online.

"When she came into the chat room to talk to me, she didn't even know God loved her--she didn't think anybody loved her--and she was having marital problems," McBroom recalls. "She was searching. In fact, we knew she was searching because her nickname was 'Searcher.'

"I asked her if she would let me talk to her privately," McBroom continues. "You can go into private chat from the room. She just had such a sweet spirit, she was open to the Lord, but she had low self-esteem. She came to the Lord, and she's into a Bible study on the Internet. I won her to the Lord, she prayed with me on the Internet and got filled with the Spirit, too. Not long after she got saved, she changed her name from 'Searcher' to 'Found by Him.'"

Besides the Web and chat rooms, other online tools can be used for evangelism, including bulletin boards, e-mail lists and newsgroups. The individual Christian can use all of these tools personally. However, a concerted effort by the church is helpful in supporting those involved in ministry online through training and encouragement.

IS THE NET FOR EVERYONE?

Naturally, Internet ministry is not for every Christian. "Some men are extremely vulnerable to the addictions of pornography," Coulter notes. "Some women are vulnerable to an online friendship that can become inappropriately intimate. If the inner battles with such things are too great for an individual, then going online [especially unsupervised] is probably not in their best interests."

There are those who believe, however, that every church should be involved in one form or another. Andrew Careaga, author of E-vangelism: Sharing the Gospel in Cyberspace (Vital Issues Press) and eMinistry: Connecting to the 'Net Generation (Kregel Publications), is one of them.

"Every church ought to have a Web site, just as every church ought to have their telephone number listed in the phone book," he says. "I mean the Internet is a way of communicating, and if people are going to be looking for something and if you're not in there, they're going to go somewhere else."

There is another sense in which Internet evangelism is not for everybody. Like all evangelism, an Internet witness needs to flow from the heart of a Christian who is motivated to witness out of their own relationship with the Lord.

4>"If we just start at a superficial level and try to trump up Christians to talk to people on the Internet, I'm afraid that will have missed the heart of the issue and the heart of love that flows out of it, and then I'm afraid of what we could produce," Mittelberg emphasizes. He also believes that a certain level of spiritual maturity is necessary for effective Internet evangelism.

Those who should be involved in Internet evangelism are "Christians who are really mature enough in their faith to know where they stand in Christ and really understand what they believe and why," he says. "I think it's a tool to go out there and do damage if we aren't really clear on our message, if we aren't really mature in how we communicate it. I would just encourage people to view the Internet as a great resource to use for kingdom purposes, but again, to make sure the kingdom heart and values precede those efforts."

Also, the giftedness of each person in the ministry should be taken into account.

"Some people are more gifted with chat room ministry, others are better at working with specific forums where they can respond to a post and then think about it, revise what they're writing, and present a more thoughtful and more recent edited version," Careaga says. "And then you might have people who are talented with their ability to design Web sites, and some people might have the ability to pull together resources and information."

THE VIRTUAL CHURCH

It should be noted that not everyone agrees on the level of the church's involvement in using this new technology. The technology itself can be seen as destructive to the life of a local fellowship. "We don't have any strategy for online evangelism," says Bryan Dutt, Web coordinator for Mars Hill in Seattle, Washington. "We were intentional in our decision to not attempt anything like online ministry for worship or evangelism. We didn't--and don't--want to encourage or perpetuate the lonely isolation [that] our generation is plunging into.

"That said, we do want to use the Web to share a bit of who we are and what we do, give people a place to dialogue and provide some inspirational, challenging, thought-provoking material," Dutt adds.

Careaga sees virtual and physical ministry working in tandem. "I think virtual church can augment or supplement the physical church," he says. "I think the virtual church also can bring together believers globally and give us in some ways a better sense of the global nature of Christianity. Christianity is a world belief system, and sometimes we think too small about our faith. We think only of our local congregations or maybe the churches in our community.

"I've heard Hebrews 10:25 quoted often about the Internet--'Don't forsake the assembling of yourselves together'--and you're doing that because you're sitting in front of your computer. Well, maybe you aren't. Maybe you are fellowshiping with other Christians on the computer, and maybe you are experiencing something that cannot be experienced in other venues. One example: People are more open, more apt to discuss issues on the Internet than in a typical Bible study in a church or a typical church service."

The church has a way to go to catch up in online ministry. David Bruce, webmaster of HollywoodJesus.com, warns believers not to miss the boat with this opportunity.

"Christians are largely irrelevant," Bruce remarked in his seminar at the Internet Evangelism Conference. "Most churches are in four walls and not in the public park."

Bruce, a free-thinking radical for Christ, believes people can be won to Christ, but the church must go to them. "We can use the culture to win the culture," he said. "That's what God has always done.

Coulter offers a challenge to pastors and church leaders: "Put some serious thought and prayer toward the training of dedicated men, women and teens in your church who will function as part of your missions outreach, commissioning them to penetrate the Internet world with the Good News of Jesus Christ!"

Ultimately, the Internet may be a different instrument than what we're used to, but many of the factors that go into face-to-face evangelism apply online, too--factors such as authenticity, knowing the Word of God and having the ability to speak the truth in love.

Kay Arthur, well-known Bible teacher of Precept Ministries International, spoke at the Internet Evangelism Conference, calling all participants back to the heart of the matter: "Salvation is of God, but it's my job to present it in all of its integrity, words that are carefully chosen, words that are prayed through."

That's the way to bear fruit in Internet evangelism, too--fruit that will last.


Christine D. Johnson is assistant editor for Christian Retailing magazine. She lives in the Orlando, Florida, area.

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