Chapter Eight – A New Day in the Marina: NetCasters and the Local Church
Heather was an average, thirty-year-old woman struggling to find her purpose in life. She would flip-flop all over the place, searching for the one thing that would bring her the joy she so desperately craved.
She had a career and owned a home and a car. She had two wonderful children and lived in a good neighborhood. But something was missing, something she couldn’t put her finger on. But she knew that it wasn’t there and that it should be.
After looking for satisfaction in relationships, in her career, and in the party scene, she finally decided she should try to find a church. She went a few times but never found one that felt like home.
An online acquaintance from the business world, Lisa, sent Heather an e-mail announcing that she was becoming a biblical coach and was looking for guinea pigs. Because she loved to learn, and she thought it wouldn’t hurt, Heather signed up.
Lisa asked Heather to complete a questionnaire, requesting that she be honest. So she was. Heather cringed sending in the questionnaire, but Lisa’s response was only that the two were a lot alike. They began chatting online via instant message. Heather soon opened up about some of the things going on in her life. One day as they were chatting, Heather started to cry.
She admitted that recently when a pastor spoke at her son’s basketball game, she felt compelled to talk to him about God but didn’t. The next thing she knew, Lisa was giving her the telephone number to the church where her son played ball. She instructed Heather to call and make an appointment to talk to the pastor.
Lisa wasn’t taking no for an answer and so Heather called. Heather talked to the pastor for nearly two hours in his office. She told him that she thought it was particularly cool that a pastor had a MySpace page.
After the visit with the pastor, Lisa gave Heather some Bible verses to read and told her to journal at least three pages every day. Heather did what she said and then e-mailed Lisa with her questions.
The pastor invited Heather to visit the church on Sunday. After talking to Lisa at length, Heather told her that she would go.
Saturday rolled around, and her friends were all going out—downtown . . . to a bar. Heather decided she would join them. She told Lisa before she went that she was going to go to church the next day. Then she told everyone at the bar that she was going to church the next day.
When Heather finally rolled in the door at 5 a.m., drunker than a skunk, she determined that there was no way she was going to church. She didn’t set the alarm. In her drunken stupor, she figured that if she was up in time, she would go; and if she didn’t get up, then the church would be there next week.
But at 8:00 a.m. Heather was wide awake. She tried every bed in the house and the couch, trying to get back to sleep. She was tired and hungover and wanted to sleep.
By 9:00 a.m. Heather got up and contemplated going to church. But the reality was that she didn’t want to go. She was afraid. Heather tried to talk herself out of going to the church, but she didn’t want to tell Lisa that she didn’t attend. Heather had promised she would go.
She went to the church and found that it did things much differently from the church she attended when she was a child. The church had a projector, lively music, and people praying and crying. Heather cried too.
She took notes during the sermon. She had questions like, “How come it was OK for David to kill Goliath when the Bible says ‘thou shall not kill’?” She wrote them all down on her bulletin so that she could ask Lisa.
When she got home, Heather sent Lisa an instant message telling her that she had been to church. When Lisa asked her about the night before, she told her all the details, including being wide awake at 8:00 a.m. after being out all night.
What Lisa said next amazed her. She told Heather that she prayed for a wake-up call so she would get to church!
For two weeks Heather and Lisa went back and forth on saying a prayer of salvation. Heather struggled because it was so different from what she knew. But Lisa was very patient. She never yelled at Heather or gave up on her.
For Heather, those two weeks were horrible. She did nothing but cry, read the Bible, and pray. But she just wasn’t going to say the prayer of salvation. She was stubborn.
One night Heather couldn’t take it anymore. “I felt like I was having an arm-wrestling match with God and I gave in,” Heather explained. “I said that prayer. And then I told Lisa. And then I e-mailed the pastor.”
This is what she wrote:
So MySpace isn’t the avenue that I would normally pick for this, but I’m on my laptop and not with my address book. At least I know where to find you.
We talked two weeks ago. In the time since, I have read more of the Bible than I ever have in my life. I’ve been to church; I’ve journaled; I’ve prayed. Man, have I prayed. I’ve attended Bible studies and prayer groups. I’ve been working on righting wrongs.
But also in this time I have felt more out of sorts than I have in a long time. I cry at the drop of a hat. I cry for no reason. Why do I feel that I am lost and alone?
Well, I think I figured all this out . . . and it has to do with that prayer. I think I’ve been hesitant because I don’t fully understand. I was raised differently in that this “saved” thing isn’t the norm for me.
Now Lisa says it’s a spiritual struggle and that God is working on me. Great! I need work, but I can’t keep going on like this. I feel like God and I are having this arm-twisting game and I’m ready to say, “Mercy!”
So here goes . . . I said that prayer. I sat here in my bed, tears in my eyes, and decided that I had nothing to lose. I know two things. I can’t go on by myself anymore. And I want a relationship with Jesus. I want what you all have.
On February 15, 2007, Heather became a Christian. Her life hasn’t been the same since.
More than a year later Heather posted a message on Lisa’s blog, thanking her for her online ministry. “Oh, how grateful I am for the Internet, and for you, and for your witnessing to me so that I could have the life that I have now, and in turn, share Jesus with others.”
NetCasters and the Local Church
The local church is a key part of God’s plan for making disciples and fulfilling the Great Commission. These are the ground troops—pastors, cell group leaders, youth leaders, young adult leaders, homeschoolers, Christian school teachers, street evangelists, music ministers, children’s ministers—the list goes on and on.
NetCasters—people who share Christ on the Internet—are part of the air forces, which include bloggers, people with affinity sites, people who work on chat and message board forums, television ministries, radio ministries, and so on.
As Heather’s story demonstrates, the air forces need to work with the ground troops, and the ground troops need the air forces to see the gospel of the kingdom preached to all peoples. We need each other. As the apostle Paul wrote, “So the eye cannot say to the hand, ‘I don’t need you!’” (1 Cor. 12:21).
In order for the Great Commission to be fulfilled, all the various forces in God’s army must be coordinated and cooperating to strategically take the gospel to those who need to hear.
The time for NetCasters to arise and work with the local church to win the lost and then equip them as disciples is now. The need couldn’t be more critical.
As I’ve already pointed out (see chapter 1), researcher George Barna indicates that within this decade, as many as fifty million people might rely solely on the Internet to provide all of their faith-based experiences. 1 This activity will include virtually every dimension of the faith community, such as online church services, chat, message board forums, video, devotionals, streaming video sermons, virtual meetings, broadcasts to those who are homebound, theological training—the list of possibilities for using digital technology to preach the Good News is only limited to our Spirit-directed creativity.
Equipping the Local Church—Ephesians 4
Writing to the believers in Ephesus, the apostle Paul explained how the structure of the church was to work most efficiently and effectively.
“And He personally gave some to be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, some pastors and teachers, for the training of the saints in the work of ministry.” (Ephes. 4:11–12)
The apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors, and teachers are to equip the saints for the work of the ministry—each individual believer must be empowered to do his or her part. The Great Commission can never be fulfilled as long as the ministry is only being done by the full-time, vocational ministers. Paul was pointing out that it is the role of every disciple, or saint, to do the work of the ministry. Every Christian has a calling to fulfill in this life.
The wonderful thing about the Internet is that once the language barriers are overcome, it becomes possible for any believer to reach one-fourth of the world’s population from a laptop on their dining room table! And now with mobile digital devices in the hands of more than three billion people worldwide, and more soon to come, any NetCaster is potentially connected with half of the people living on planet Earth!
What an amazing time to be alive and be serving Jesus.
Discover, Develop, Deploy
Church consultant Sandy Kulkin speaks of the “three Ds” of discipleship— discover your calling and spiritual gifts, develop these things, and then deploy into that ministry. 2 Obedience to the call of God on your life is the issue. Discovering, developing, and then being deployed into that ministry is a lifelong adventure in which you must maintain an intimate relationship with God through prayer, Bible reading, and fellowship with other believers.
“I think the very first thing would be to take Mary’s advice,” says NetCaster and professional writer Rusty Wright. “Mary, the mother of Jesus, in John chapter 2, verse 5, told the servants at the wedding of Cana, ‘Whatever he tells you to do, do it.’
“A real key is asking God, ‘Lord, what do You want me to do? Do You want me involved in this?’ And if He does, you had better not be caught dead anyplace else. If He doesn’t, you don’t want to be involved in it.
“A second thing would be to do everything you can to learn how a non-Christian thinks and feels.” Wright has resources at www.rustywright.com with text and video explaining, “How to Think like a Non-Christian Thinks.”
“A third thing I would ask God is to break your heart with the love for the lost, so that you would maybe even literally weep over the plight of people who will spend eternity without Christ. Ask God to give you a burden and zeal to do everything you can to try to reach them.”
Wright also recommends that NetCasters get training in how to communicate with non-Christians in a way that catches their attention and doesn’t push them away with overly religious language. TruthMedia, an outreach of Campus Crusade in Canada, has great training programs in online evangelism through writing articles and chat room ministry.”
Fishing Lessons: Training the NetCasters
So what does a person with a passion for evangelism and a desire to start NetCasting on the Web need to get started? John Edmiston has developed a series of online evangelism training courses through Cybermissions.org.
“I’d ask them first who their friends are, and who they relate to. A person might come to Christ and he might be a mad hockey fan. Do you know any Christian guys in hockey who can give their testimony? You can be passionate about hockey and be passionate about Christ. So you get hockey testimonies and analogies to hockey that relate to Jesus.
“There’s something you have an affinity with, and do something that’s specific,” Edmiston explains. “Start small and cheap. Do something like 1and1.com for Web hosting. Set aside two thousand dollars. I know that sounds like a lot—but if you’re starting a ministry, that’s not a lot of money. That’ll give you the domain names and allow you to buy the software like Dreamweaver that you’ll need to do the job properly. Get the right software and make sure you know how to do what you’re doing.”
Edmiston recommends that NetCasters think strategically about the first two seconds when people are looking at your Web site, your video, or your podcast. The attention span on the Web is very short. If that first two, three, or four seconds aren’t good, people are clicking away.
“You’ve got to hook them in the first few seconds, and hold the type of people you want in those first few seconds. So if you’re doing a video, and the first few frames are boring, boring, boring, they’re gone. It’s similar with a Web page. If it takes too long to load, they’re gone. You’ve got to make the first paragraph interesting—so you’ve got to be a journalist.
“Most of the stuff I work on, I want to lead someone to Christ in five minutes. I often use the Romans Road, or approaches like that because by the time I’ve gotten to that page, they’re already asking, ‘How do I become a Christian?’ If they’ve clicked on the link to go to that page, they are ready. So just give them the gospel—don’t mess around. Keep it simple. Give them short sound bites. Get them to the player in under five minutes.”
Then follow-up materials can be a lot longer, because once seekers have made a commitment, they really need to read. But even the follow-up messages are only one page each. Keep it simple. Keep it tight.
“I don’t mind getting politically involved,” Edmiston explains, “but I separate that drastically from Internet evangelism. It’s a different arena. You have to ask yourself:
• Will this become dated?
• Will this offend?
• Will this bore the person?
• Is my testimony relevant to the whole group of people I’m seeking to reach?
“When you’re doing evangelism, you have to have the testimony that fits your audience. So it’s imperative that you know the demographics of your intended audience and you continually aim at these people.”
Internet evangelism has great potential, and the response rate online is extremely high because you have an audience that has selected to learn about Jesus. Edmiston explains that his online response rate is the same percentage that Billy Graham has for a major crusade. “So online, I’m as effective as Billy Graham—because they’re preselected. It’s 2 percent—that’s what Billy Graham gets. If he’s preaching to fifty thousand people, one thousand people come down front. If I share the gospel with fifty thousand people online, one thousand people make a decision.”
Edmiston is reaching nearly a million people a year through his various Web sites. This is an amazing achievement for one person, and he is quick to point out, “But I’ve been doing it for years, and I have some volunteers who are really key.”
Edmiston offers three levels of Internet evangelism training on Cybermissions.org—beginner, intermediate, and advanced. Here are other sources for NetCaster training:
• Internet Evangelism Network Online Training: http://www.webevangelism.com/otoe/index.php
• Internet Evangelism Day Training: http://www.internetevangelismday.com/training-videos.php
• TruthMedia Training: http://training.truthmedia.com/training_video
Dissing Church, but Into God
As people continue to interact with each other online, increasingly they are turning to the Internet to find answers about God, the Bible, religion, and spirituality in general. The new connectivity to the Internet in cities around the world couldn’t have come at a more strategic moment in history. In the new millennium, people are moving from the countryside into the wired megacities like never before.
Surveys tell us that they are also hungry for God like never before:
• Web pages dealing with God, religion, and churches grew 1,429 percent between 1999 and 2004. 3
• A 2003 Gallup poll indicates that a vast majority of Americans say religion has an impact on every area of their life. 4
• The online faithful are somewhat more active as Internet users: On a typical day, 63 percent are online; 56 percent have been online for six years or longer; 60 percent are broadband users. 5
According to the 2006 survey on Americans’ religious beliefs “American Piety in the 21st Century,” published by Baylor University, 82 percent of Americans are Christians; 90 percent believe in God; nearly three-fourths, 71.5 percent, pray regularly; and almost half, 49.2 percent, attend church at least once a month.
According to the Baylor study, nearly half of Americans (47.2 percent) identify themselves as “Bible-believing.” Americans are demographically as religious and as Christian, as they ever have been, but they are far less likely to be loyal to a particular denomination. As a whole, Americans are drifting toward more informal forms of evangelical Christianity. 6
So while Americans seek God, they are leaving traditional church. According to a 2007 survey by LifeWay Research, seven of ten Protestants in America, ages eighteen to thirty, both evangelical and mainstream, who regularly attended church in high school, say they quit attending by the time they were twenty-three years of age.
In most cases the decision to leave was not planned far in advance. Only 20 percent of these “church dropouts” agree that while they were attending church regularly in high school, they “planned on taking a break from church once [they] finished high school.” Many of those who drop out do eventually return. Among church dropouts who are now ages twenty-three to thirty, 35 percent currently attend church twice a month or more. Another 30 percent attend church more sporadically. Thus, about two-thirds of those who leave do return at some level. 7
According to Rainer Research, 70 percent of those that leave the church do so between the ages of eighteen and twenty-two. Of these eighteen- to twenty-two-year olds who drop out of church, 51 percent describe the church as “judgmental.” Only 39 percent of those who dropped out of church saw their churches as “caring.” Forty-one percent said their churches were “insincere.” Only 20 percent described their churches as “inspirational,” 30 percent said their churches were “authentic,” and 36 percent called their churches “welcoming.” 8
For many who leave the local church, the Web has become their source of information about God and religion. So for the Internet minister the concern should be in connecting with people online where they are, not where we think they should be. NetCasters should see Internet ministry as a means to connect with the lost in a forum where they are comfortable sharing their innermost thoughts.
We should always encourage people to find a local church where they can grow in relationship with God and fellowship with other believers. But we must also be gentle and sensitive to those who have been wounded in the past.
Some of the people who will come to Christ on the Internet may have no problem making the transition to becoming a part of a local church. But others may have been wounded by other Christians, may have poor teaching on the importance of the local church, or may feel uncomfortable in public settings, and it may take some discipling to convince them to become a part of a local church. The Internet is a wonderful safety net for people like this who need to have their wounds healed so that they can once again become a part of a face-to-face body of believers.
Local Church NetCasting
I often get blank stares from pastors when I speak to them about getting their people involved in Internet evangelism. “That is the World Wide Web, and we’re interested in the local scene,” some declare.
I tell them two things. First, the church whose light shines farthest, shines brightest at home. And second, there are plenty of ways to evangelize your local community through the Internet. Often communication through the local church has been one-directional. Today, through user-generated content and community features, online communities are gathering in the local church and beyond to encourage discipleship and evangelism.
More and more, local churches are developing innovative, creative, and informative Web sites that are both serving as digital meeting places for discipleship within the body of believers while also drawing in seekers. Many youth groups and young adult ministries have linked from their church Web site to a MySpace or Facebook page for their particular group. Using the tools and applications in these social networks, and others like them, they feature forums and chat rooms so people can interact with others from church throughout the week, rather than only through face-to-face encounters within the church building.
Ways local churches can use the Internet include:
• Post videos of services on the church’s Web site and on other video outlets.
• Report to members what’s happening through the week in and through the church.
• Post audio sermons online and offer them as podcasts.
• Post short-run, creative video.
• Post teaching series in in-depth online Bible studies with video, audio, and text podcast.
• Skype meetings for staff and volunteers who can’t be at the physical location—or if they don’t want to meet face-to-face.
• Facebook, MySpace, and other social networks for chat and message boards.
• Post local church video logs and calendars.
• Create a local community event portal with links back to your church and to a gospel presentation.
• Create a local services page with information on various church, community, educational, and governmental services for people in need.
• Create a local Christian online dating service.
• Create a forum for online interaction for shut-ins, people traveling, or prisoners with Internet access.
Through a church, you can use Skype, Facebook, Tangle, or other networks to promote and advertise what the church is doing. You don’t need a $1,000 dollar camera—all you have to have is the vision and the training to do it.
Local Churches and Worldwide Missions
The Internet provides a new and exciting way for people with a vision for reaching the nations for Christ to do so without leaving their local community. Churches can create Internet evangelism teams, trained within the church, to go online through various forums and volunteer agencies to witness to the lost—both in your local community and around the world. Churches can provide computer labs and weekly meeting times for the NetCasters to gather, pray together, share testimonies and words of encouragement, and then go online to win the lost.
Ministries like Campus Crusade’s Global Media Outreach (GMO), TruthMedia, and NeedHim.com recruit volunteers and provide them with e-mail addresses of people who are seeking. Using e-mail as a key part of its response strategy, Global Media Outreach is recording more than 3,800 decisions for Christ worldwide through the Internet per day.
The GMO system is designed around a virtual e-mail base. Volunteers never use their real e-mail addresses because security is important. “It’s all browser-dependent using virtual e-mail. And you correspond with the person back and forth. It’s a threaded conversation. So if they come back, they come back to you,” explains Alan Beeber, director of Global Media Outreach for Campus Crusade for Christ.
If an issue arises that a volunteer doesn’t feel comfortable dealing with, the volunteer can reassign the entire thread to somebody else. “Let’s say it’s a marriage problem,” Beeber gives as an example. “The volunteer says, ‘I don’t know how to deal with this.’ Well, we’re a group, so we can send that to someone else if need be. If it’s suicide, abortion, or difficult questions, or it’s a language we can’t figure out—we have parts of the system that can take care of that very well.”
Beeber says it’s easy for volunteers to sign up and get started. They can decide how many daily e-mails they can handle. The community leader can read the threads and determine if a new volunteer is theologically sound or not. If a local church would like to start an Internet evangelism outreach, this would be a great way, he recommends.
“A good example is a Baptist church in Arizona that had a donor who had previously supported Crusade and some of its major ministries. I talked with him and he said, ‘OK, I’ll give this a try. I’d really like to make Jesus more of an issue at Easter.’ So he created a Web site, www.jesusandeaster.com.”
“The evangelism director at his church became the community leader. We were able to redirect any contacts originating from any of our sites back to Arizona. If they came from Arizona, we’d send them back to this community.”
Beeber received an e-mail a few weeks after the four-week campaign. This donor wrote, “Alan, I have never seen anything this effective in my life. We had 301.7 indicated decisions for Christ every day. I will be back.”
The contacts can come from someone locally or from anywhere in the world. “We’re able to say, ‘How many people do you want to expose to the gospel?’ We can literally give you a good idea of how many you’ll expose, how many will respond, how many e-mails you’ll get.”
Dr. Sterling Huston of the Digital Evangelism Network believes there is great potential for churches to use the Internet to touch both their local community and the world. “It’s wonderful that you’re trying to reach your communities 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 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.
“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.
“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.”
Now is the time for pastors of local churches to catch the vision of ministry through the Internet. As churches launch various Web outreaches and remain consistent, Internet ministry often explodes with new growth. And fruit recruits. Once your church members start bearing fruit, other people will want to be a part of it.