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NetCasters: Sharing Jesus Online

By Craig von Buseck
CBN.com Contributing Writer

CBN.comThe Internet Evangelism Coalition (IEC) is a group of ministries, churches, and individuals who are committed to sharing the Gospel of Jesus Christ through the Internet and digital media. The purpose of the Internet Evangelism Coalition (IEC) is to stimulate and accelerate Web-evangelism within the worldwide Body of Christ. The focus is on collaboration - linking partners together in this mission to reach our world with the Good News of Jesus Christ.

Dr. Sterling Huston of the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association is the chair of the IEC Executive Committee. I recently sat down with him at the Internet Ministry Conference in Grand Rapids, MI -- co-sponsored by Gospel Communications (gospelcom.net) and the IEC (webevangelism.com)-- to talk about the growing Web Evangelism phenomenon:

Craig von Buseck: How do you see the Internet Evangelism Coalition working to encourage local churches to get involved in Internet evangelism? I don’t see a lot of local churches doing  it officially. There are individual evangelists doing it. There are parachurch ministries doing it. But local churches don’t seem to be catching that vision. How can we help local churches catch the vision for Internet evangelism?

Dr. Sterling Huston: First of all, I agree with you. I think there is increasing use by local churches and parachurch ministries. But the great majority of them are using it for communication and information, and sometimes fund raising, selling a product, and so on. A small percentage of them actually have grasped the vision that this tool can really enhance outreach.

One of the things that we have tried to do through the IEC is visit with denominational leadership in evangelism in some churches and make resources available to them, if not whole programs to them.

Another thing, of course is to have national programs like the Internet Evangelism Day (http://ied.gospelcom.net/index.php) just to make people aware that this is happening.

Another resource is the online training for online evangelists (http://iec.gospelcom.net/otoe/), which is helpful to get some perspective what is taking place on the Web.

All of these things can be found at the IEC Web site, www.webevangelism.org.

In all of this, I could wish that there was a much greater vision on the part of local church leadership, not only for what they can see here and now, but what reach they could have beyond that. They literally can reach around the world in the language they’re using for this. And they can also involve their members, particularly generations that are coming who live on the Net, and live by digital technology, and who would readily embrace this means of communicating their faith to others.

von Buseck: When I talk to pastors about Internet evangelism they say, “Well, you’re talking about reaching ‘out there,’ but God’s called us to reach ‘right here.’ How do you help them to get past that?

Huston: Part of my argument would be that it’s wonderful that you’re trying to reach right here and now, and we hope that you will be able to do that even more effectively in the days ahead. You can enhance that by using the Web and making it known to people in your neighborhood or in your city that there is a Web presence that they can go to and find out about the Gospel, about your Church, about the things they offer for Christians to do in that way. That is very inexpensive saturation exposure to people, just because the Web is so inexpensive once you’re got your product up there.

But I would go further than that to say that probably most churches in some way support some sort of home or foreign missions. That’s very important that they do that. But that is a very expensive way to send the Gospel out to other parts of the world. Whereas you can have a reach through the Web that can be kept contemporary, can be done very economically, and can touch not just one geographic spot in one part of the world, but can touch the entire world that maybe speaks the language in which you are conveying this in.

One of the great strengths of the Web is that it gives the person who is exploring faith anonymity. That means they will be much more open and vulnerable in the privacy of their own home or their own setting than they would be otherwise.

One of the strengths of that is reaching into Muslim nations. A survey by Vision Synergy on evangelistic Web sites in foreign languages has found that the largest number of Web sites are in Arabic. That’s because it’s much easier for a Muslim to explore Christianity in the privacy of the Internet. Whereas to talk to somebody openly and visibly is very dangerous.

So here is a marvelous tool that can extend their mission outreach, and multiply their exposure many times over. It allows a whole new generation in their congregation who love to use the Internet to participate in evangelism.

von Buseck: I have a vision to encourage local churches to get involved in Internet evangelism. Churches could launch an Internet evangelism team. You bring your people in and you have a facilitator who takes them through online evangelism training. Then you release them to do Web evangelism. Then you have a meeting time once a week, or on a Saturday morning to be the facilitator. If you remain consistent this thing could explode. And fruit recruits. Once your church members start having fruit other people will come in.

Huston: I think that for most pastors it’s not a lack of vision, it’s just that they don’t know how to do this. They say, “Where do you start? I don’t have people to do this. I don’t know who I can turn to.” But people would come out of the woodwork for this.

von Buseck: What I would like to see is what I’m calling a “NetCaster’s revolution.” Jesus said we’d be fishers of men. Let’s cast our net on “the Net.”

Huston: We could work with some of the mega-churches that are using the Web effectively. They get their mega-church reputation by the number of members that they have, and that what makes them a church to be admired. People say, “I want to go learn how they do it.” But if we could get the story behind those who are using the Web effectively, that also have this kind of credibility because they are visible. When people hear of a Willowcreek, or a Saddleback, or some churches like that, then they learn that they’re not just who they preach to on Sunday or Saturday night, but they are really doing a significant job on the Web, this will open eyes. People tend to follow those gatekeeper models.

von Buseck: Who are some of those that come to mind?

Huston: I do know that Saddleback has a significant Web presence and they’re doing a number of things with that. I know that Willowcreek was using NowTryGod on their Web site.

von Buseck: There is a church in Washington, D.C. called National Community Church (http://theaterchurch.com/) that has a very strong Web presence. They have three locations, but they coordinate through the Web. The sermon is podcast through the Web. There are various videos created and posted to the Web. Because so many people in the Metro D.C. area have to work on Sundays, or they involved in traveling with the government or the military, so wherever they are they can logon. If they can’t watch it live, they can watch it when they get there. Then they have message boards, chat rooms, interactivity wherever they are in the world. Their Web strategy meets the contextual needs of the people in their community.

Most of what they are doing is geared toward Christians, but what they are doing is so postmodern that it is attracting the attention of non-believers.

Two other local churches that are doing great work on the Web are Life Church in Edmond, Oklahoma, (http://www.lifechurch.tv/) and Flamingo Road Church near Fort Lauderdale, Florida (http://www.flamingoroad.org/).

Huston: We have to recognize that for most churches and pastors, and sincerely so, feel that their place of accountability is how many people show up on Sunday, and whether or not the budget is met, and whether or not there are activities for you, and those kinds of things. And so what sells, in the best sense of the word, is the fact that we’re doing all of this and also having an extended outreach through the net.

A parachurch ministry with a focus on evangelism can do more on the Web and have it supported, just because they have usually a larger vehicle for trumpeting the success they get on the Web. That’s what they’re expected to do, outreach in various forms, including various media forms.

The local church has a different challenge. It’s like, “Yes, we have 75% of our outreach occurs right here in this setting, where people physically show up, and we do things for them. And we have boosted that outreach by another 25% just because we’re doing an effective job on the Web. We’re giving our people a ministry that they love to do because they are in there responding and being a part of Web evangelism.

von Buseck: How can missionaries can better use Internet evangelism to expand their effectiveness?

Huston: In developing nations the Internet is more of a communication tool for them because the people they are dealing with may not have as much access to Web technology. Particularly when you say not second world, but third world nations that is likely to be true. However, in more developed and highly developed nations they’re obviously going to be a society that is more technologically strong. This is particularly true in Asia. The Korean church is way ahead of our North American church in terms of innovative utilization of the Internet and Web technology. That’s also growing in its impact on China and other parts of Asia.

I think it depends on where you’re serving and who you are serving as to whether or not they can receive information in this way. The same principle goes clear back to the place of whether people read or write. If they’re not education, you use story books and picture books for them. But if they’re educated then you can use printed words. If they have technological access, and they’re also educated, then you can make the Web another dimension of that.

Obviously the missionary can receive resources on the Web for themselves that can help them. In terms of communicating with their audience, it depends on who their audience is.

von Buseck: We have talked about the mobile revolution – 2.5 to 3 billion people around the world are now able to access mobile. What are your thoughts of this next phase, jumping from the Internet to other mobile devices? What do you see on the horizon?

Huston: First of all, we need to come back to the fact that the transferring of information to digital format has been revolutionary. That is what has made possible the ease of rapid communication, whether it be on the Net, or whether it be in other media forms. But I do see the fact that both from a standpoint of cost and convenience, and you might say omnipresence, the little PDAs and phones that we have that can receive digital messages, text messages, video messages, e-mails and all that kind of thing are going to be the tool of convenience for the future. And they may be the only thing that people have.

I know that in China they’ve leapfrogged over a whole generation of hardwired technology to get to wireless. Cell phones are omnipresent in Asia. Gordon Robertson told us that there are now more than 20 million phones in China with instant messaging capability, with an average of eight people on each one. We’re talking about potentially 20 million people right there. I realize that out of 1.3 billion that’s still a small percentage, but that is a rapidly growing group there.

So I see digital tract information, text messaging, audio and video communication via mobile as being the next wave because it’s accessible, it’s economical, and it’s the way that people are going to communicate -- particularly new generations. This raises a whole bunch of other issues, like how to give the Gospel in x number of words in a text message. Well, you don’t. But you can start the process that way. How do you give out some other message that entices people and gets them into it?

I’m working with Evangelism Explosion which has created a new product called XEE that is aimed at Generation X. It was created by consulting with a lot of Gen-X-ers around Europe and from other developing nations. It was produced in Australia. And you should hear the enthusiasm of these people in this age group who are saying, “I have a way now to begin conversations with people in my group that I feel totally comfortable with. It has opened up new communication with my family, with my friends, with those I meet at Starbucks, wherever it might be. As one young fellow from Germany said in a meeting I had just a few weeks ago, “I’m waiting for them to take these stories that they’ve given us as a way of sharing the Gospel, and allow us to download them onto video i-pods so that I can stop with somebody and say, ‘what do you think of this story.’”

This is the kind of tool that new generations are going to feel very comfortable with, they won’t be apologizing for. If they have a heart to share their faith it gives them a door opener and conversation starter to do that. All of this is going to be almost ubiquitous in terms of its presence worldwide in terms of developed and developing nations – those that are really moving rapidly. Asia is a great example of that. Of course, you also have the great masses in India where there is dramatic change these days.

So I see enormous growth in forms of digital technology. We might say, “Well, this is not really personal.” But it is certainly a communication tool in the way people are used to being communicated with. So it has as much impact as any other person that communicates with them using the same tools. It is a way of life. It is not as some might say in the Boomer generation, ‘I like people to call me on the phone and talk to me about it.” Well, that is not necessary for people in this age group. We need to realize that there is that generational attitude that’s changed as well.

CVB: What are some of the things that you’d like to see happen through the IEC in the coming years?

Huston: The mission of the IEC, simply stated, is to stimulate and accelerate global evangelism using the Internet. I would like to see us continue to be a catalyst to bring people together that have resources to commit to this. By that I mean resources of programs and ideas and technology, and obviously, dollars to support that. And as much as possible, create product and create a kind of knowledge base that we can give away to both the church and parachurch. I would like to see it be a place of coordination, whereby ministries that are springing up all over the world can have some place that they can not only receive information that helps them, but also share information that helps others.

There needs to be some kind of clearing house where we can help people on the other side of the world, “We’ve already tested this. It already works, or it doesn’t work.” I would like to see it be a place that has an intentional focus on communicating again, and again, and again that the Web and digital technology is the new media frontier. We must be utilizing it. We need to see it as more than just inside the church. We need to see it as a way to have access to a whole world of people who live in this media form and just expand our outreach enormously by doing that.

CVB: You spoke of the IEC using these words: catalyst, convener, connector, commender, consultant, communicator, and a credible voice. I counted them and there are seven – so you could “sail the seven C’s!” (laughter).

Huston: Well I’d like to pick up on the credible voice. If anything, because some significant organizations have gathered around the table and have said “We be we need to collaborate together because the mission is bigger than any one of our parts. We trust one another, and we can help one another get this job done. I think that provides a statement to the public at large, as well as an endorsement to the Christian community that will help the cause of using the Net for evangelism and for sharing our faith. That is a benefit just by credentialing in a way for that cause.

We have seen dramatic change in the last ten years from when Web first became available publicly and we saw that 100 million people were suddenly online. That has only accelerated over those ten years to the 1.3 billion approximately online now. It is moving from what was dominated by the English as the primary language, to where now Chinese is the second largest language on the Web. I believe the center of gravity of activity for this is actually moving to Asia where they have such great technological growth.

Just as we’ve seen dramatic growth in the last ten years, I believe the growth will be even more dramatic in the next ten years. My great concern is that the Church will get so far behind the curve that it cannot catch up. My great vision is that we can stimulate and release a lot of entrepreneurial individuals, organizations, and churches to say “This gives us a tool and an outreach to fulfill what is Jesus’ timeless mission to take the Gospel to the ends of the Earth. And not only to take the Gospel there, but also provide a mechanism that begins the process of making disciples in every tongue and every nation.

Learn more about Internet Evangelism Day

Order your copy of NetCasters: Using the Internet to Make Fishers of Men on ShopCBN

More Evangelism Resources on Spiritual Life

More from the Internet Evangelism Coalition

Craig's ChurchWatch Blog

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More from Craig von Buseck


Craig von BuseckCraig von Buseck is Ministries Director for CBN.com. He represents CBN on the Executive Committee of the Internet Evangelism Coalition.

 

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