The Internet has given Christian churches and ministries a brand new opportunity to communicate the gospel in a new, worldwide society. Distance in time and physical space is not a major obstacle anymore. Communication happens via e-mail, Web pages on the Net with text or graphics with hyperlinks, animation, audio and video. Internet Relay Chat and Net telephone will enable people to interact directly in real time no matter where on the globe one is connected to the Net.
The Great Commission (Matt. 28: 18-20) give a clear challenge from the Lord of the entire Universe to make disciples of all nations. In the man made virtual world of the Internet the opportunities are legio. The global structure provides a unique possibility for proclamation of the gospel to the whole earth, and the number of virtual inhabitants’ will continue to grow. In one sense, the world will come to the gospel!
Yet, the Internet provides no guarantee that people really visit the Christian sites.The rapidly growing population of the Internet will make it much more difficult to just drop into a virtual church by chance. New so-called push’ technologies will become increasingly important for example for commercial users of the Net. How can the gospel then be communicated –in whichever way possible–to the restless, fluctuant surfer of the Net looking for more excitement, new knowledge, new boundaries to explore?
More than 3,000 churches and ministries are present on the Net. Many of them communicates in various ways with their visitors. Yet, there is a need to find out more about these churches, their purposes, effectiveness, etc. In the Fall 1996 I conducted an in-depth international study of some selected virtual churches and real’ churches from major Christian denominations.
The survey reveals several significant findings:
A. The major focus for the churches is to present the gospel. Secondly, they wish to give visitors an opportunity to communicate about faith and life, personal struggles, to have an opportunity for counseling, etc. Thirdly, education on various spiritual issues is important to those who run the Internet ministries.
B. The Net ministries and churches participating in the survey do have a strong commitment to evangelization, and confirm that the presence on the Internet has made their work much more visible. About 44.5 percent positively affirm that the Internet ministry has contributed in leading one or more persons to Christ.
C. The research supports the understanding of the Internet as a participatory and interactive medium with a high level of affinitive openness, and which reveals a great need for pastoral counseling, spiritual education, ethical conversation, etc. There is also a general trend of curiousity’ and openness on the Net as a whole among surfers who are eager to explore what is out there.’ This openness can be used in a much more positive way for Christian outreach and witness on the Net, for example in training people to do friendship evangelism in the more than 20,000 electronic discussion groups active in the virtual world.
D. The Internet is a medium suitable for educational purposes. Many important books, texts and other materials are already available and the hyperlinks make it easy logically to link related material and topics together.
E. Multimedia use on the Internet is growing rapidly and will increase the educational potential of the medium. 17 out of 18 participants in the survey either already had or planned to implement audio tools on their Web site. This shows that Christian sites keep up with important new technological developments on the Internet. Also, video and IRC are about to become widespread on the Christian Net sites, making is easy for several people to interact directly at the same time.
F. The 18 participants in the survey reported that they have experienced an increase in the number of hits’ on their Web site. The overall number of hits shows a considerable interest. A conservative estimate on the collected data reveals that these 18 churches or ministries get between 6,500 – 10,000 hits and 500 – 700 actual responses per month. Realizing that there are more than 3,000 Christian churches and ministries on the Internet, it is reasonable to assume that thousands of people are interacting with Christian sites every month. Although the results show a majority to be Christians, it is also likely to assume that a significant number do not consider themselves believers.
G. Some larger virtual churches, and one of the local churches, actively promote prayer requests through their work. According to the numbers reported in the survey, eight of the churches/ministries receive more than 300 prayer requests per month.
H. Ministry work on the Net does not require many people. 50 percent of the sites were maintained by one person, and an additional 33,3 percent were run by only two people. However, some of the ministries had other people involved in prayer teams to support their work. The majority of the Web sites in the survey are updated at least once a week.
What is the bottom line?
One does not have to be a large local church to provide a high quality Internet ministry which may influence the lives of several hundreds or thousands of people worldwide. There are several ways to enhance the effectiveness of your Internet ministry.
First, develop a high quality Internet site, including audio facilities, scheduled opportunities for Internet Relay Chat (IRC), etc. It does not take a lot of extra money to develop and frequently maintain a warm, inviting and nice looking Web site! Make sure that your Internet provider also has a good server so that people are not slowed down by technical difficulties.
Secondly, build a ministry team around you with people committed to prayer. Invite your visitors to share prayer requests as well as other spiritual issues. Remember, ministering to people on the Net is a spiritual commitment and needs also to be supported by a lot of prayer!
Thirdly, start training people for friendship evangelism on the Net. Making new friends in whatever Usenet group or other general discussion group will over time give natural opportunities to share important personal issues like one’s faith in Jesus Christ. Also, encouraging Christians to participate in groups on AOL, CompuServe, etc., may have a general positive impact.
Fourthly, perhaps you want to facilitate one or more discussion groups as a part of your own Internet site?
Fifthly, make sure that your Internet site is properly listed with Yahoo and other major (Christian) search engines.