Internet Evangelism – home of the wild west

Almost every week I get an email from some Christian organisation asking me to sign a petition regarding something ‘bad’ on the internet. Every second day I see another news headline talking about the dangers of facebook. A recent news headline in Australia has been about defacement of a young schoolboy’s tribute page with disgusting porn images. Last week I saw another story about a teenage girl being lured by two men to her death through her facebook page. All this talk about facebook and yet not much about myspace. (By the way, myspace isn’t exactly a field of daisies either. “Lowlights” include video images of terrorist beheading captives.) I tell you it is a wild world out there in cyber land!

Here in Australia we are having the ‘internet filter’ debate. Our government wants to force all ISPs to use a government-approved list of acceptable and unacceptable sites. Some Australians don’t trust their government to run such a thing, some Australians don’t see how it’s even possible. Some Australians think at the very least the government should make the list public. However, making the list public would actually promote some of the sites which frankly shouldn’t be seen by anyone. It becomes even more complicated by the fact that already hackers have shown how easy it is to circumvent the filter, and I should mention the filter does not work in filtering out peer to peer networks where most of the material the government is trying to filter out is shared. To make the filter debate even more silly, the same people who have shown how easy it is to circumvent the filtering system have also show how easy it is to make the list of unacceptable sites known to the greater public.

And now the Internet debate has intensified with the government’s new national broadband network – an issue so complicated it would take hundreds of articles to do it justice and I would still only scratch the surface. Should the government roll out another network? Despite the fact the Australian people have already paid for a network to be rolled out in the guise of ‘Telstra’.

Frankly all of these issues are only issues because we have people who are ignorant of the real issues. Decisions seem to be made with one thing in mind… the lowest common denominator… the largely ignorant population.

Sadly, this ignorance has become a breeding ground for the most well-meaning people. As a result some of the most well-meaning people have become pawns used for other political reasons. Some of these well meaning people have come up with petition after petition and have created proposals which are a terrible waste of resources. Further, these proposals will do damage to some businesses, further erode the responsibility of parents to care for their children, continue to increase the cost of providing internet services (which will be passed on to consumers) and create mistrust.

And here is the worse bit: it will not stop people viewing things which are immoral, distasteful and illegal. In fact, it might make it harder for the enforcement agencies to police.

The state of the ‘internet’ here in Australia actually caused me to consider joining the ‘pirate party’. An ordained Baptist minister wanting to join the pirate party. What has happened to me?

So I went to the pirate party’s web site… (quickly just in case it is going to be put on the government’s banned list ;-P) and I looked to sign up. But I didn’t because I couldn’t find the information I needed (and because the site looked like a 12 year put it together, which is a likely scenario). Not exactly the professional alternative voice I was looking for!

Whenever I get an email from a Christian organisation asking me to sign up to the ‘we want the filter list’ or the ‘facebook is evil club’ a little part of me withers… I feel further and further away from “main stream” Christianity. I wish I could articulate what I know and in so doing some make people aware of the even greater issues behind the debate. Or to show some alternatives which might help rather than ‘tear the Internet down and just don’t use it’. I know these people who send me petition after petition to sign are well meaning, God fearing people. But… the message coming across to anyone who is a bit internet geeky is one of ‘retreat’ or at best ‘react’.

I propose an alternative… An alternative in wish we neither retreat nor react, but actually adapt, overcome and lead!

That was the background information. Moving on. Why would any Christian be interested in Internet evangelism? Why should someone who is part of the ‘internet is evil club’ want to taint themselves with internet evangelism? Or why would someone like me who feels at odds with what mainstream Christianity is saying about the internet want to be involved in internet evangelism?

Apart from the obvious fact that we don’t have a choice when it comes to evangelism… it’s a God given requirement, for me it is because my ministry, my life, my church’s life is all about seeing opportunities in which God’s people cross paths with culture and community. The internet provides just that sort of opportunity.

The internet can be a front door or a side door for so many people into a community of faith. In my church setting we have just as many people who not yet followers of Christ as we do believers. The internet provides a way for those not yet following Jesus to keep in touch with the church (and I mean the people, not the building of course), to interact in a deeper yet non-threatening way through blogging, twitter, facebook, forums, online games, the list is endless! As someone who has been heavily involved in internet evangelism for more years than I care to remember… I’m certain people are more free to go deeper on the internet. And yes before some of the nay-sayers say it, that is also one of the problems with the internet.

But for large number of “de-churched” people in Australia (people who have experienced the church at some time but for whatever reason have dropped out), the internet provides at great doorway for them to re-enter. Tools such as video podcasting allow people to experience your gatherings first and try them out. You might say, ‘Doesn’t that just make it easier for people to drop out of the church?’ Another fallacy I afraid… all those who have tried video podcasting in a professional way have not experienced that problem one bit!

These things I’ve just mentioned are good reasons why some of our more traditional churches should be involved in internet evangelism. But things get way more exciting when we look at how some of our newer church plant models can get into internet evangelism.

Let’s say for example a church plant was looking to start up in high rise buildings in the city. Those of you have tried to plant in high rises know it’s next to impossible to get your foot inside the door (unless you live there). One effective entry point is as follows:

Parents who live in these buildings are concerned with the types of online games and the types of people their kids play with online. What if you could offer the people inside these buildings a secure network of game servers, which are heavily moderated and enforce a  stricter ethical code? These game servers could also be local game servers, so the kids don’t even need to have to go online to play. This type of ministry does get you permission to enter the building and knock on doors to advertise. In fact this type of ministry can also be seen by the developers as an aid to fostering community within the buildings. The game servers could even run building verse building days. As someone who has been successful in online gaming ministries I can tell you that something as weird as online games can and will lead to conversions and can and will lead to church multiplication!

Regardless of what sort of internet evangelism you want to be part of… social networking, web sites, forums, church pages, online gaming…the problem has always been the same. It is the problem that the IEC is working hard to over come.

That problem is the 99% rule. 99% of Christian sites are useless for evangelism. They rarely escape their own comfort zone and don’t have a “product” to sell. In other words there is no reason for anyone to visit let alone to keep them coming back.

So here is what I think we need to be doing.

Tell stories of our positive internet evangelism results with your churches. If you have none, I’ll share mine and you can use those! We need to demonstrate it as a working medium that is effective!

We need to understand internet evangelism is not about preaching, it is not about slick professional tracts in a new medium. It is more about being a good journalist and employing a user-friendly interface. We need to encourage churches and individuals to make effective sites for nonchurch members, sites which are based on a common interest or common ground.

And here is the biggie for me… train potential web evangelists. Internet evangelism has massive implications for the spread of the Gospel into the whole world and there are practical ways and means to do that effectively.

The Pines Training Centre offers a Unit on Internet Evangelism. If you would like to know more please get in contact with me asap.

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