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Online Evangelism

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Articles by  Andrew Careaga 

   

Fishing on the Net
by Andrew Careaga

A teenage boy who uses the handle “CyberPhreakkk” when he logs on to the Internet often frequented a Christian chat room, but not to fellowship with believers online. As he explains on his World Wide Web site, CyberPhreakkk had other motives:

   “I discovered a room called #Church, so I figured I would anger them all by saying that I was Satan or the dread lord of all evil. Well, I did it and I was quickly banned.... That became a routine, and for almost a week and a half, I would join #Church and anger people, and get kicked. Soon, whenever I got into the room, ops (the channel operators) would say, ‘You come for your nightly kick/ban?’”

   But one night, one of those channel ops struck up a private chat with this young man and shared the Gospel with him. As a result, CyberPhreakkk became more open to the Christian message, and was accepted as one of the #Church channel’s regulars. He began asking serious questions about Christianity until, one night, he committed his life to Christ during a #Church chat. Now he openly proclaims the story of his salvation on his Web page.

   CyberPhreakkk’s story is not all that unusual. As the number of people connecting to the Internet continues to grow, more and more young people are coming to know Christ through this medium. And Christian teens are reaching out with missionary zeal to spread the Gospel online.

   The Internet is a fertile mission field for “e-vangelism,” or electronic evangelism, especially for the young. Here’s why:

   They’re online. In terms of sheer numbers, teenagers and “tweeners”—kids between the ages of 10 and 12—are a force for social change, in cyberspace as well as in “real life.” In his book Growing Up Digital: The Rise of the Internet Generation, Don Tapscott notes that young people constitute a “Net Generation” of 81.1 million in the United States alone. Teens make up a significant portion of the Net Generation; in the United States, half of all teens surf the Net, making them the most wired demographic group in the world, according to Yahoo! Internet Life magazine.

   They’re cyber-savvy. While their parents and grandparents are logging on to the Internet in record numbers, teens have grown up with the Net. Older computer users are adapters to the technology, but teens have been immersed in the digital realm from birth. Just as their Baby Boomer elders grew up with television, today’s “N-Geners” have grown up with the Internet.

   “For the first time in history,” writes Tapscott, “children are more comfortable, knowledgeable, and literate than their parents about an innovation central to society. And it is through the use of the digital media that the N-Generation will develop and superimpose its culture on the rest of society.”

   A 1999 study by Forrester Research, titled “The Net-Powered Generation,” drives home this point. Forrester’s survey of North Americans between the ages of 16 and 22 found that they:

• stay online longer than adults (an average of nine hours per week, 38 percent more than the average adult).

• connect from more places than adults—3.4 locations, versus 1.4 for their elders.

• do more activities online—such as downloading and listening to music, reading Webzines, and making phone calls over the Net—than adults.

   They’re in their element. The Internet is the communications medium of choice for many teens. The anonymous nature of online communication makes it easier for Web-surfing teens to discuss issues of faith more openly than they might in a more traditional setting, such as a church or youth group.

The Great .com Mission

   We’re seeing the Internet revolutionize the way people communicate, work, play, and conduct business. The Internet is also changing the way people search for spiritual answers. A 1998 report by researcher George Barna predicts the coming of a “cyberchurch” in the early years of this century. Before long, Barna contends, “millions of people will never travel physically to a church, but will instead roam the Internet in search of meaningful spiritual experiences.”

   If Barna’s cyberchurch is not already a reality, it soon will be. What, then, does this burgeoning online world of cyber-seekers mean for the church?

   It means that we now have a new avenue through which to reach those who are disengaged from Christianity. If we are to fulfill the Great Commission mandate of Matthew 28:19-20—to “go and make disciples of all nations...teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you”—then we must understand that cyberspace is part of that world we are commanded to reach. When confronted with spreading the Gospel in cyberspace, perhaps we should think of the Great Commission as the “great .com mission.”

New Promises, New Perils

   With hundreds of millions of people online, the Internet has become a global marketplace—not only for products and services, but also for ideas and philosophies. In this global marketplace, we have the opportunity to exchange our thoughts and ideas with people who do not share our beliefs.

   Diverse ideas about religion abound on the Internet. A simple search on the word “religion” will turn up thousands of listings—from Animism to Zoroastrianism, and everything in between. In addition, many New Age, pagan, wiccan, and occult groups are gaining popularity in this cyberworld. Many of these groups are attracting young people who have an interest in spirituality but no grounding in traditional Christian beliefs.

   In a recent article on the Beliefnet Web site (www.beliefnet.com), Dr. Quentin Schultze, author of Internet for Christians, explains: “The Net has made it incredibly easy for people to ’check out’ different religions and even to correspond with members of various religious groups. The anonymity of online seeking, along with the scope of available information, have facilitated widespread spiritual quests through cyberspace.” For instance, teens make up 10 to 15 percent of the visitors to SpiritWeb (www.spiritweb.com), a New Age site, according to Beliefnet.

Youthful E-vangelists
     
   Fortunately, many Christian N-Geners are leading the way in connecting with other teens online and sharing the Gospel with them. Andy Hogue, a journalism student from Texas, is one of them. Now 23, Hogue is one of the founders of an online chat-room ministry called STRIKE (Starting Technology-based Relationships Introducing Christianity Everywhere), an endeavor he began while a 19-year-old college freshman.

   Through Hogue’s coordination, the two dozen or so members of the “STRIKE force” log on to the Internet and pair off to witness in non-Christian chat rooms, or individually through instant messaging programs such as ICQ, Yahoo! Pager, or America Online’s Instant Messenger. The ministry Web site (www.strike.someone.net) serves as a home base for this effort, with instructions on witnessing in chat rooms and a message board through which members exchange ideas, prayer requests and success stories.

   While STRIKE is one of the more organized outreach efforts, many teens find themselves sharing the Gospel with friends or online acquaintances through chat rooms, online discussion forums, or via their homespun Web sites. If a small, unscientific survey of Christian teens that I conducted in the spring of 1999 is any indication, young Christian teens who regularly surf the Net aren’t fleeing their youth groups to seek spiritual nourishment online. Instead, many of them are finding that the Internet actually strengthens their faith and involvement in the “offline” church. In addition, these Net-savvy teens are integrating their Internet experiences of chat-room prayer, Web-based Bible study, and electronic evangelism with their “real-life” faith.

   Youth pastors, parents, teachers, and others may worry that teens spend too much time online at the expense of “real world” relationships and activities. But teens who regularly participate in online Christian discussion groups are using the Internet as a source of spiritual enrichment, not a substitute for traditional church involvement.

   The majority of teens in the survey (62.1 percent) said they find it easier to discuss spiritual issues online than in face-to-face conversations. Particularly for females, the anonymity of Internet communication, often cited as something that inhibits the development of true relationships, may actually be a positive factor when it comes to discussions of faith.

   “I personally feel more comfortable talking about my beliefs to people online because they don’t know me,” one teenage girl explained in her survey response. “They aren’t going to judge or act different the next day because of a conversation we had. With personal (non-Internet) friends, there are some things I don’t feel comfortable talking about because I’m unsure of their reactions. Also, it gives opportunities to share the Gospel without rejection.”

   The survey sample was small—234 surveys were sent out electronically, and 64 valid responses were returned. But the results, while not statistically valid, do suggest that the Internet may not be as negative a factor in spiritual growth as some might believe.

   One thing is certain: The Internet is here to stay. So, too, are the millions of seekers who feel alienated from the traditional church and are turning elsewhere to find relevance, meaning, and spiritual connections.

   Thanks to untold thousands, perhaps millions of Christian teen e-vangelists, the Gospel is getting out to the chat rooms and bulletin boards. Perhaps it is time for those of us in leadership positions to embrace our online teens and to encourage them to reach out into cyberspace. It’s time to give them that online religion.


Copyright © 2001 Andrew Careaga


Andrew Careaga is a volunteer youth minister in Missouri and the author of E-vangelism: Sharing the Gospel in Cyberspace (Vital Issues Press) and eMinistry: Connecting with the Net Generation (Kregel Publications). You may write to him at andrew@e-vangelism.com or via his Web site, www.e-vangelism.com. The full results of his survey of Christian teens online is available at www.e-vangelism.com/teens.htm.


Andrew Careaga is the author of E-vangelism: Sharing the Gospel in Cyberspace, published by Vital Issues Press.


This article first appeared on First Priority
Use by permission of Andrew Careaga

  

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