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Ministering Christians find faith on the Internet

By Robert Mims

Worshipful music, prayer and a sermon have encouraged your faith. You close your Bible with a smile and reflect on the service. You feel refreshed, you enjoyed giving your tithe and offering toward the ministry, and a little conversation with other Christians and a promise to pray for a friend signal time to leave church.

But you won’t be walking out the door to the parking lot and the drive home; you’re already home. Your pew has been an easy chair and your exit comes by closing your laptop. You have just spent an hour or two viewing the service via streaming video; you contributed your tithe and that missions offering online with a credit card; and after the sermon you spent time in a chat room or through your instant-messaging program catching up with other Christians.

This is not a hypothetical future scenario. For millions of Christians — 82 million of them, according to a recent Pew iResearch Center Internet study — the Web has become at least a supplement to, if not a cyberspace substitute for, attendance of Sunday services in a traditional brick-and-mortar church.

“Jesus told us to go into the world; He didn’t specify how,” says Pastor Mark Batterson, whose National Community Church (AG) has been a trailblazer for Internet ministries. “Our generation has the greatest potential to fulfill the Great Commission — if we can learn to redeem the technology available to us and use it for God’s purposes.”

NCC is an 11-year-old congregation of almost 1,300 meeting in three theater locations in the Washington, D.C., metro area. The church launched its first Web site (www.theaterchurch.com) in 1998. Today, it offers an array of Webcasts, audio or video podcasts, blogs by the pastor (including Batterson’s regular “evotional”) and blogs for small fellowship groups. A specially assigned “digital pastor” oversees those offerings.

And yes, there is a secure link for online giving; NCC accepts Visa and MasterCard.

“Our podcasts reach more people than our physical services,” Batterson says. He is unsure what the ever-changing traffic statistics for the church’s Web offerings are, but his own blog (linked from the church site to www.markbatterson.com) receives more than 250,000 unique visitors a year.

Still, Batterson insists the Internet can never replace the power and spiritual intimacy of personal ministry. “But there are people growing up with computers who tend to connect more naturally via blog, MySpace or Facebook,” he adds. “Is there anything wrong with that?”

Mark Kellner, a newspaper technology columnist and author of God on the Internet,  agrees. “Religion has really exploded on the Web because that’s where people are. It’s up 24/7.”

While enthusiastic about the use of the Internet to spread the gospel, Kellner warns that Christians need to exercise discernment when exploring services offered online. Anyone can put up a Web site, and some use them to pitch errant doctrine and cults. Check out the church the site represents, its statement of beliefs and its reputation before committing, he advises.

Kellner also stresses online worship is not merely a technological twin of traditional church attendance. The Internet church cannot offer the same sense of community, he says. Still, Kellner believes it’s better for Christians to commune through the Internet than not at all.

“There are a lot of people who can’t make it to church, for whatever reason,” Kellner says. “If I have a choice between watching streaming video from my local church or a televangelist, I’d rather be connected to my local congregation.”

Today’s Pentecostal Evangel hasn’t ignored the potential of Internet evangelism and discipleship, either. The official Assemblies of God publication has embraced the Web in a big way, having expanded its own Web site (www.tpe.ag.org) with TPExtra — a layering of multimedia offerings that supplement the weekly print magazine.

TPE launched its blogging and podcast offerings in July, and has had so much response that it is expanding its offerings in 2008.  Print stories are updated, and additional photo, audio and video provided.

“These are tools for people to use the same way they do the magazine,” TPE Editor Ken Horn says. “Our goal is to reach Christians and to draw those who don’t follow Christ.”

If there is a term that describes the move of faith onto the Internet, it might be “Jesus 2.0,” the moniker popularized by Chris Wyatt, onetime television producer and Internet entrepreneur. He now is chief executive officer of the fledgling GodTube.com.

As the name implies, GodTube.com, launched in August, is meant to be the Christian community’s answer to the wildly popular video-sharing site YouTube.com. Sermons, personal testimonies, Christian music offerings and discussions are posted across denominational lines.

A little more than six weeks after its launch, the digital media tracking company comScore reported that GodTube.com was the fastest-growing Web property during August. Wyatt’s site logged 1.7 million unique visitors that first month and 4 million by October.

Wyatt called that inaugural performance a major milestone for a faith-based Web site. “Our entire culture is becoming Internet-focused,” Wyatt says. “Today, people use the Internet to search for practically everything they need in life. Why not their faith?”

So, one has to ask: What would Jesus surf?

Batterson says he believes Jesus would have been a blogger. “All I know is I would have subscribed,” he says.

Kellner says God has allowed Christians to use the Internet as a tool to spread the gospel and to reach out to millions around the world.

“I don’t know what Jesus would surf, but the question Jesus would ask us is, what are we doing with it?” he says.


ROBERT MIMS is a journalist and member of Valley Assembly of God in Salt Lake City.

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