Chapter Four – Full Sail at Sunrise: The Daily Life of a NetCaster
“If one is truly to succeed in leading a person to a specific place, one must first and foremost take care to find him where he is and begin there. . . . In order to truly help someone else, I must understand more than he—but certainly first and foremost understand what he understands. If I do not do that, then my greater understanding does not help him at all.” —Søren Kierkegaard 1
Internet evangelism is all about helping people. It’s about helping people who do not yet know the truth that God loves them and has provided a way for them to have a relationship with Him through Jesus Christ. It’s about telling them that God is not mad at them—He already poured out His wrath on Jesus on the cross.
It’s about telling them that they can be free in Jesus.
But as Kierkegaard explained, to help people, you have to meet them where they are. You need to understand what he or she understands and then walk with them gently and lovingly in their discovery of the truth.
The good news is that in all of this the Holy Spirit is there to help provide the words to share. And then the Holy Spirit will bring those words to life in the heart of the person on the other end of the Internet connection or mobile phone.
Certain methods used today may be helpful to beginning Web evangelists. As we examine these techniques, it’s important to remember there is no single correct way to share your faith online. First, the key is to know the demographics of your audience and its needs and expectations online. Second, you must understand your own calling from the Lord. What is it that God has for you to do? Third, you must understand the technical and communication skills required for your particular outreach. And finally, what are your financial and time limitations?
Once you have answered these questions, it’s time to dive in. But, first, make sure you bathe all that you do in prayer—for intercession is the superstructure that upholds any ministry. All Internet evangelism must begin, be sustained, and conclude with dependency on the Holy Spirit through prayer.
Internet Evangelism Methods and Techniques
We have established that Internet evangelism must be relational. But how are these relationships built and maintained? Some of the leading methods include:
• Web 2.0 interaction—chat, message boards, text messaging, social network functionality, Skype, etc.;
• Affinity Web sites—created around a particular theme, hobby, or shared interest;
• Magazine Web sites, featuring a variety of topics from a biblical worldview;
• Apologetics sites, defending and explaining Christianity from an intellectual and rational position;
• Video-driven Web sites, similar to YouTube and Tangle, featuring both short-form features and long-form video sermons or teaching;
• Blogs (Web logs), microblogs, and vlogs (video Web logs);
• Synergized Web sites with other media or local church outreach;
• Skype searches;
• Online radio;
• A combination of many of these methods into one evangelistic Web site or Web outreach.
“The ‘conventional’ outreach Web site is going to be the most obviously effective, in the sense of bringing people to Christ,” Tony Whittaker observes. “Effective evangelism not only requires people to obtain more knowledge—they must also move from a position of antagonism and indifference to a more positive viewpoint. We must not use Christian language and ideas which will mean nothing to them. In fact we must assume they have zero knowledge. We must assess our message through their eyes, not ours.” 2
Whittaker cautions that it may also be inappropriate to give a heavy “preach for a decision‚” at this point. “People need time to progress and understand. Instant conversions are rare. A style of presentation which bases everything around ‘praying the prayer’ without true understanding or preparation is counter-productive.” 3
So it’s important to find out what methods and techniques are connecting with people who are seeking online. The great author Ernest Hemingway once said, “Bait the hook according to what the fish likes, not what the fisherman likes.” The apostle Paul taught basically the same concept as he shared his technique for reaching the lost of his day: “I have become all things to all people, so that I may by all means save some” (1 Cor. 9:22).
Certain methods of Internet evangelism, emerging in recent years, have proven to be effective in connecting with online seekers and pulling them toward a relationship with Jesus Christ. Here are some of the more fruitful methods used by Web evangelists to reach the lost on the Internet today. This is by no means an exhaustive list of methods—there are new ideas for reaching the lost through the Internet every day. But this is a good starting point to understand what other NetCasters are doing that is bearing fruit.
Conversations 1.0: E-mail and Instant Messages
In a humorous scene in the movie You’ve Got Mail, the grandfather of Tom Hanks’s character is telling him how he used to correspond through letters with a girl he liked. “You know, stamps, paper, envelopes . . .” he said, only half-jokingly. “You know, I’ve heard of it,” Hanks’s character replies. The entire movie is based on a relationship that develops via e-mail after a chance encounter in a chat room.
Surveys tell us that today nearly 100 percent of college-age students use e-mail to communicate. People age thirty and under have grown up with e-mail as a part of life.
In the book Before I Close My Eyes: True E-mail Conversations of Faith and the Meaning of Life, Mikael Andreasen tells the story of his e-mail conversations with Stine, a seeker of truth he had met through an Internet music forum. After meeting at his small music store, Mikael and Stine began going to concerts together and exchanging, as he puts it, “a few chatty e-mails.”
One night as she closed her e-mail, Stine asked Mikael, “If you could explain to me the meaning of life before I close my eyes tonight, I would be content.” That comment started a string of intense e-mail exchanges about God, skepticism, science, faith, and life in general.
Here is how Mikael responded to Stine’s question, and a portion of the conversation that ensued:
Mikael: The meaning of life? Hmm, to become friends with God would be my best answer, but perhaps that’s too abstract.
Stine: Do you believe in God?
Mikael: Absolutely. Although, even if I didn’t, I think that would probably be the best answer I could come up with.
Stine: I’m going to have to think about that . . . if you suggest that there’s meaning to life, then I assume you’ve already found it? I think it’s quite difficult to get my head around those things . . .
Mikael: Think it over. I would be curious to hear what you’d come up with. Feel free to ask me questions if there’s anything you’re wondering about. I am happy to talk about my faith, especially to be challenged and provoked myself.
Stine: I found it impossible to sleep last night and lay in bed thinking and thinking. At one point I was ready to jump on my bike and ride over to you, but didn’t. . . . It feels strange to say this—especially in e-mail—but I have wanted to talk to you about this for some time now, I just didn’t dare . . . I don’t personally believe in God, but would like to find out exactly why it is that I don’t. Besides, with my adherence to science there leaves no room for a personal God—if you understand what I mean. I am, however, rather intrigued by the “big” existential questions . . . and I really don’t know anyone who actually believes in God. . . . I don’t want to inflict my problems on you so they become a burden, but it is nice to be able to write to someone.
Mikael took this opportunity to open up to Stine about his faith, but he made it clear he was not trying to manipulate or convert her into believing what he was writing. “Obviously I believe in God and that he wants a personal relationship with everyone, and that personal relationship is the highest thing I could wish for anyone else. However, the path to God has to be through each individual’s own decisions and wishes.”
He went on to tell Stine of their mutual friends who were Christians, and of Christian musicians they both liked. He invited her to continue their discussions of the meaning of life. “Hopefully I would be able to show you that Christianity is not about rules and regulations or about restrictions or straitjackets for people’s expression. In reality, it’s a source of freedom and creativity. Again, for me these things are so important, but I don’t want them to come across as preachy. I want to share what I believe, and would very much like to hear your own reflections and thoughts on the greater meanings of life.”
Thus began an e-mail conversation in which two friends talked about their joys and sorrows, their hopes and their questions about God and mankind, about religion and science, about truth, and about doubt.
Along the way Mikael recommended some outside reading material, not to take the place of their conversations but to supplement them. The first book was Mere Christianity by C. S. Lewis, and the other was The Jesus I Never Knew by Philip Yancey. Mikael and Stine discussed the issues that came up in the books, but the bulk of their conversations centered on their mutual interests, music, and friends.
By the middle of January, Stine wrote in an e-mail, “It’s as though God has caught me by surprise. All those things I couldn’t understand before have slowly, before my own eyes, become something I can grasp.”
On March 9, Stine visited Copenhagen Vineyard for the first time. For the next couple of months, the e-mail conversation revolved around what she was experiencing at church, the Christians she was meeting, the pastor’s sermons, and her growing understanding of God and faith.
On May 19 Stine e-mailed Mikael, “Yesterday was fantastic. . . . The teaching was so intense. I don’t want to find myself in anything less than the state I was in yesterday. . . . If in reality that fantastic overwhelming sensation that touched me inside and filled me completely to the brim was God, then I hope he wants to come again. It was so beautiful. Just the thought of it brings butterflies to my stomach.”
Two days later: Stine e-mailed Mikael:
Stine: Tra la la, today I have felt completely in love . . . all sorts of things are bubbling inside with excitement. But I guess that I really am. In love that is. You can relax. It’s with Jesus.
Mikael: That’s completely amazing, your new love. Congratulations. I think you’ll make a great couple. 4
E-mail has become an indispensable tool in any evangelistic strategy. Alex Demeshkin applies the principles of effectively using e-newsletters in an overall Internet evangelism plan. “In the commercial world, e-mail is considered to be the most cost-effective way to acquire new customers. Recent studies indicate that even in the religious category the percentage of e-mail marketing open rates and click-through rates is among the top four or five highest. A lot of people are using the Web for searching spiritual and religious information.”
Sending e-mail costs you next to nothing because there is no printing or postage. It can be highly effective in an evangelistic outreach because it’s measurable, as opposed to print where you don’t know if the recipient read the mail or magazine piece or not.
As Mikael and Stine’s story demonstrates, e-mail is potentially a lot more interactive. Through the relationships built in e-mail you can methodically persuade people to do something else—to get them to your Web site, to watch a video, to read a teaching or a Bible passage, to send a prayer request, to go to a Christian concert or event, or, as in the case of Stine, to visit a church.
So it can be a very effective strategy.
But as with every digital evangelism method, there are also things you will want to avoid with e-mail.
People like getting relevant e-mails from the people they know or from the organizations they know and trust. There is a negative attitude toward e-mail by many people, and rightfully so, because of the abuse by spammers.
“But there are several organizations that e-mail me on a daily, weekly, or monthly basis that I always read,” Demeshkin observes, “and I save it because I know there is value in it. I know the names and I trust them. Try to establish that kind of a relationship with your audience and it can be used effectively.”
NeedHim.com has also utilized e-mail effectively in its Internet evangelism strategy. “We added an e-mail response mechanism to the Web,” NeedHim Ministries President Drew Dickens explains, “and that opened up a global response opportunity for us that we had not recognized before. Then we started having volunteers who not only could answer the phones but also respond to e-mail. And that was a huge bump for us in response. It was exciting because you would be e-mailing people from Bangladesh.
“There are some built-in frustrations,” Dickens cautions. “E-mail can be slow. The recipients control the pace of it. You can pour your heart and soul into a response and never get anything back. You don’t know what happened to them. That can be a little frustrating. But it is fun and it’s exciting. E-mail is great for volunteers who are a little intimidated by the phone. They can put a little more thought into what they are going to say.” 5
Greg Outlaw from AllAboutGod.com explains the importance of follow up, through e-mail, instant messaging, or some other means. “You can also partner by answering e-mails or Instant-message back and forth. Obviously instant messaging is a little harder than answering e-mails. Answering e-mails can be done offline. You have plenty of time to think about what the person has written, and you can address it.
“With IM, you really need to be more knowledgeable or have access and fast typing on the computer to get the knowledge. You can go to AllAboutGod.com or other sites and search, get the information they’re looking for and put it down.
“The best way to do e-mails is the personal touch, with a testimony. Be absolutely honest and authentic. I’ve seen God use that more than anything. Sometimes the best answer in the world is, ‘I don’t know; but I’ll tell you this, I’ll pray for you.’ You can say, ‘I’ll think about it or I’ll ask somebody, but I don’t know. I’ll get back to you.’
“You’d be surprised at how many people are blessed just to get a response at all,” Outlaw explains, “because they usually get nothing or an automated response. So the personal touch is key. And it can’t be just mush. It’s got to be a place where you can deliver truth. Truth is the power of salvation.
“We have 45 people who answer e-mails on topics including testimonies, science and philosophy, religion—anything. Some of them are retired pastors, some are theologians or seminary graduates; some have no training whatsoever. They just know they can research one topic because they read God’s Word and they know it. We check everything doctrinally, of course, before we send it out or publish it, because everything flows through us.
“We reached 197 countries, just in English, every month last year. I’m no different than a regular missionary. I was called to the nations, not just one—I was called to 197 last month. And these are the ones just in English. I’m working to get the whole thing in multiple languages.
“I believe that the Internet is the primary mission field of the twenty-first century. People will go to a search engine like Yahoo or Google and type something they would never ask their best friend or pastor or whomever else, but if you’re there at the top, with truth, you’ll be able to lead them to a relationship with Christ.” 6
Conversations 2.0: Message Boards, Chat, Text Messages
As we have seen, Web 2.0 is all about conversations. And most Internet evangelism happens through conversations and relationships built on the Web. So this is a wonderful moment in history when both the tools and the techniques are converging to create an atmosphere that’s conducive to connecting with people and pointing them to Jesus. In addition to e-mail, other forms of online interaction include chat, instant messages, text messages (SMS), Skype (online telephone), and message boards or discussion forums. Here are some basic definitions:
• Message Board—A popular forum for conversation is a Web-based message center, where users post ideas, comments, questions, and responses.
• Threaded Discussion—An online dialogue in a series of linked messages. These threaded messages are created over time as users read and reply to each other’s posts.
• Newsgroup (Forum)—An online discussion group dedicated to a particular subject of interest.
• Chat—Real-time communication over a computer network, involving at least two users usually typing text messages. Now the technology also exists for actual voice chat, and many Web sites are making this available.
• Messaging—A generic term referring to several modes and methods of online communication between people, including e-mail, message boards, Twitter, chat, instant messages, text messages, newsgroup postings, and Internet telephone/video (Skype).
All of these methods are used effectively by NetCasters to win people to Christ online.
One group that has been hugely effective using chat and discussion boards for evangelism is Campus Crusade’s TruthMedia. This group works to strategically build online communities of evangelism and discipleship and currently runs twenty-two Web sites in twelve languages. TruthMedia.com effectively uses chat, integrated and connected to other “felt-need” content within the site, to reach people with the gospel.
Karen Schenk, the director of TruthMedia, shares the strategy behind the ministry model. “It’s a funnel that describes how the Web site goes from attracting visitors to ministering online. The top of the funnel is traffic coming to the Web site. That will usually be your largest number. Then we want our visitors to move deeper into the Web site. We’d like them to read articles that share the gospel. Our team puts a lot of emphasis on this.
“We want them to engage in community through chat or mentoring because we know at that point it’ll become a deeper relationship with Christ as a result. Obviously we want them to make a decision.”
Schenk explains that six areas of interactivity on TruthMedia.com move people toward making a decision for Christ:
Mentoring: “We don’t look at mentoring as giving advice; we look at that as coming alongside of.”
Prayer Mentoring: “We do this on our seeker sites. We ran a survey about prayer on one of our seeker sites, WomenTodayMagazine.com. We were just stunned at the results. Eighty percent of the people said they believed in prayer. I was devastated. I thought, ‘We’re reaching Christians. I don’t want to be reaching Christians.’ Then I read the next question. It said, ‘To whom do you pray?’ The responses were, to the goddess, to the winds, to the rains. I thought, ‘Oh my goodness, this is wild.’
“We kept going through the survey results. In response to ‘How often do you pray?’ some people prayed once a day. Why do you pray? ‘For good luck.’ ‘Because I have to.’ ‘Because . . .’ There were all these ominous reasons.
“I said to our staff team, ‘Let’s try something crazy. Let’s put a button on WomenTodayMagazine that says, ‘Need prayer? Click here.’ It seemed so radical, so ‘Christian-ese.’ Yet probably 20 to 30 percent of our e-mails from all our sites are from people wanting prayer.”
Discussion Boards: “Moderated boards help give the opportunity to share thoughts and ideas to hear about the gospel. This is a great tool, but it is definitely wise to have somebody monitor them. We have a very unique one on our Web site, www.thelight.com. We’ve got Buddhists, we’ve got all kinds of different cults that meet in there; we have a high priestess, and a Satanist who tries to lead our discussion boards. We finally were able to find an apologist who would come and work on it, to tame it, because we really want to encourage them to talk, but we don’t want them to convert other people the wrong way. So it’s a real challenge to monitor that particular board, but it’s also neat because you know the right people are on your site.”
Follow-up Strategy: TruthMedia has developed a strategy that enables online follow-up for offline events. People at the event are informed that a particular person prayed to receive Christ, and on the comment card it says somebody will be following up on him or her through an e-mail. Mary Smith would then get an e-mail that would say, ‘Dear Mary, thanks for coming to this event. We understand you just prayed to receive Christ. Here are some resources and some information.’
Within two to three days, she is then matched up with a mentor who contacts her by e-mail, and says, ‘You have just indicated that you prayed to receive Christ. I’d like to help you.’ The mentor offers online courses, indicating that there’s a very basic discipleship one.”
Online Courses: “We’ve created online courses as a discussion tool, not so much an answer. We have every topic from marriage to Bible studies. We’d like to think of it as a ‘Chapters Online.’ Whatever your area of interest is, you can find a little online course. It can be one lesson, or it could be eleven lessons long. Then those lessons get matched up with a study coach, and those two can interact. At the end of every lesson is a question about what are some concerns in your life, or how can I pray for you, which takes it to the spiritual dimension.
Chat Rooms: These forums exist on the sites to provide an arena where Bible-based evangelism and discipleship can occur in a safe and welcoming community. “We had a lot of suicidal people coming to our chat room for a while,” Schenk explains. “We bought a search word, ‘suicide’, and it links to a life story that gives hope about suicide.
“So we met with a counselor and we came up with resources, all kinds of them. Now if you log into any of our chat rooms it says, ‘Are you at the end of your rope?’ and it links to a page that has a wealth of resources; and we want to connect them to a real community. Then our volunteers’ role is just to come alongside and say, ‘Let me pray for you, let me encourage you, this is where you need to go for help.’ But then the volunteers don’t have to carry that burden and feel like they need to save somebody’s life that night. However, that being said, God has used us to save many, many lives.
“Just as people open up quicker on the Internet, you need to shut them down quicker. You just say, ‘Can we stay focused? The reason we’re here today is to discuss this topic, and I really want to discuss that with you. Let’s stay focused, in fairness to all of the people who have taken the time to come here today.’ So we just pull it in very quickly.” 7
Online chat is very fast paced, and it can be fun because it’s so quick moving. It’s not quite as fast as a phone conversation, so you can put a little thought into it. But it can also be difficult. It’s one or two sentences back and forth in rapid-fire motion. This appeals to young people who like the feel of an online text conversation similar to real-time, face-to-face conversations.
Drew Dickens of Need Him Ministries explains that chat has become an important component of its overall ministry strategy. “Just on a whim we started chat. I have two teenage boys and they are huge into chat. So just for fun one night I Googled ‘chat platforms.’ I found some free open source code that would put a chat link on your site. It’s nothing fancy, just a ‘talk to me now’ one-on-one customer service platform. We threw it up there and just got killed from all over the world.
“Ministries and individuals started copying the code and putting it on their sites, and it was just overwhelming. It was amazing. That was another big bump for us in our strategy, promoting ministries and individuals to add the link to their page. Chat was just huge for us.
“All our volunteers are trained to do phone, e-mail, and chat. All volunteers start monitoring a chat or a phone call. Most of them start by replying to an e-mail. It’s slower, and they can put some thought into it. Then they move toward either phone or chat. Very few do both. They are different kinds of conversations. Chat’s more youth-oriented and global, and you have to be a fast typist. So most of our chat volunteers are younger.”
Another burgeoning avenue for digital ministry is telephone text messaging, or SMS, which has exploded in the United States and around the world.
Need Him is beginning to respond to text messages for some client ministries. “Most of our SMS that we are doing is for us and for the Palau Ministry who use SMS as an electronic reply card for festivals. So we have a five-digit code for them, just like how you vote on American Idol. We have a five-digit code that they promote from the stage, saying, ‘Text your name to this code.’ That way we electronically, immediately capture their name and their cell number. Then we call them back.
“We have a plan right now where people text in their name or send in an e-mail address and we respond to them that way. But SMS is really becoming a great opportunity.”
“My son goes to Baylor,” says Dickens, “and during the football game at halftime Sprint sponsors a publicity stunt where they encourage the students to take digital pictures of each other in the stands and then e-mail them through their cell phones to a number that Sprint puts on the scoreboard. Then at halftime they pick several of the goofy pictures and post them in full color up on the scoreboard for everyone to see.
“Nobody said, ‘I can’t imagine how that happened.’ I’m blown away by the technology—how did that just happen? The students don’t get freaked out about that. They did SMS, too. You text your name to a code and then during the third quarter they randomly pick a name from the database and you get a game ball. Think about what they captured from an acquisitions standpoint.
“I’ll tell you who does a huge job of this is Bono of U2. While he is on tour he’ll say, everyone in the concert, text your name to whatever, and you can come up on stage and I’ll give you a T-shirt or whatever. All of a sudden you have twenty thousand kids all sending their name—and all of a sudden I’m going to be getting a text from Bono every day about world debt. It’s brilliant. Again, he knows his audience.”
There can be a downside to chat room ministry. Though you attract people who are seekers and you can enter into discussions with people, you may also encounter people who can be very antagonistic. Debra Brown of Hope House Church on Second Life had some negative experiences in chat rooms before she built her online church. “I would be talking and having a really good conversation with someone, and everyone was listening, because they are all in the same chat room. But then someone might chime in and say, ‘She’s an idiot. Who believes that? There is no truth. Who was Jesus anyway?’
“I’ve found that you get to know people in a chat room and then you send them an e-mail. I’ve found e-mail to be very effective because you have the time to sit down and think about it. You have a relationship. They give you their e-mail address and that’s personal. It’s more of a relational thing.”
Stephen Shields oversees the American Bible Society’s Faithmaps discussion group. “The one criterion for participation that is absolutely non-negotiable is respect. You can say anything, you can disagree with anything, but the one thing you can’t do is . . . talk about people being stupid.
“When that happens in a discussion group you have a certain amount of power to stop that sort of thing because you can ban someone from your group or you can moderate all their messages, so you read all their messages before they get posted. . . . That’s probably the best way to really get a discussion going.
“On the positive side there are people who are drawn to Internet participation in religious events because they’re churchless Christians. . . .” Shields explained. “We have a number of folks in the Faithmaps discussion groups that just don’t feel they have anywhere to turn, that don’t have anywhere else to go, and they have developed a strong sense of online community where they are mutually accountable. Their self-perception is that’s all they’ve got—that is their church. It’s sad but that’s the reality.
“Some people join and they’re very bitter about the church. That has also segued into bitterness about God, but they’re still sort of hungry and they want to try to differentiate that. So from a positive perspective, that’s why some people tend to spend more time online.” 8
Blogs and Vlogs
One of the most effective means of reaching the world with the Word is currently through Internet conversation groups, including chat rooms, discussion boards, blogs, and vlogs (video blogs).
Blog is short for Web log, which is a type of online journal that has several key characteristics. Blogs are not meant to be merely articles. They are intended to be conversations and discussions. You as the blogger determine the topics. But then the ensuing discussions about the topic can take on a life of their own. Blogs are set up as reverse chronological posts, so that everything you publish to your blog is dated with the most recent entry always at the top of the page.
Another characteristic of a blog that you may or may not find on another type of Web site is the ability for commenting. A lively blog allows anybody on the Internet who comes across your post to respond to it, to correct you, to offer an opinion, or to add to the discussion.
Technorati is now tracking more than 70 million blogs, and approximately 120,000 new web logs are being created worldwide each day. That’s about 1.4 blogs created every second of every day. 9
At the Internet Evangelism in the 21st Century Conference at Liberty University, several experts on Web 2.0 gathered to discuss the revolutionary power of conversation on the Internet (http://ie-21stcentury.com.
“The anonymity of [the Internet] enables people to be more open than they normally would be,” explains Steven Shields. “I say that the Internet has an ‘optional relationality.’ If we meet on a discussion group and I don’t like what he says, I can easily just leave the discussion group. If he and I exchange personal e-mails, I can write a rule in Outlook that will cause all of his e-mails to go right to my deleted folders.
“That being said, there can be a significant degree of intimacy that develops online—what I call a ‘virtually unmediated relationship’—where you can get down to brass tacks and talk about each other’s lives. The dynamic I’ve seen in our Faithmaps discussion groups we’ve had for the last four years is that people open up usually earlier and more intimately in an online environment than they would face-to-face, and then they get, as it were, ‘tricked’ into a genuine friendship, because as they develop a level of trust, the relationship can segue from online to real-time face-to-face.
“That is one way I think we need to look at blogging, at online—it’s a segue ministry to try to help people transform and move into genuine face-to-face relationships.” 10
• “Seventy percent of blog readers are influentials, that is, people who are articulate and networked—the 10% of America who set the agenda for the other 90%” said D. J. Chuang, digital ministry architect at ForMinistry.com, an outreach of the American Bible Society. “So bloggers blog because they have something to say.”
• “Often what you’ll get is sub conversations where people will actually comment on the comments,” declares Will Sampson, an independent technology consultant, and a blogger for the American Bible Society, “and begin to have a conversation within the comments themselves. So that gives you some context for what comments are.” 11
• “As bloggers link to each other, as we always tend to do, if you read somebody’s blog you get to find about who they read and who their friends are, and you start to read them. So it starts to form this community, this group of people all talking about the same thing.” 12
Blogging experts recommend that you really consider what will allow the best conversation to take place. It’s not only about publishing an article or a random thought and then getting people to read it. It’s about creating an online space that allows for conversation, discussion, and debate to take place.
Active individual bloggers need two to three hours a day to maintain their content. Most bloggers use their own names, though some have blogged anonymously.
D. J. Chuang points out some of the benefits and the dangers. “It’s become an individual communication tool which allows the fostering of transparency. This is a good thing and a scary thing at the same time because what you say instantly gets registered onto something like search engines. There’s a search engine specifically for blogs, so if you say something about a product, an organization, or yourself, it’s out there for the world to see.
“The publishing revolution that was started in the 1500s with the Gutenberg Press gave power and voice to the institution. Now blogging has given voice to the individual. You can instantly put your voice out, and if you have something to say and it shows up on people’s radar, you can influence the world. You’ve seen the impact of blogging in politics, in media, and certainly in evangelism.” 13
Steve Knight started a reality television blog as a bridge strategy to investigate culture’s fascination with reality television. “On my site I tie that into what Leonard Sweet calls EPIC, which stands for ‘Experiential, Participatory, Image-based, and Connective.’ That’s an acronym he uses to talk about what our culture is searching for and how reality television really addresses a lot of those things. . . . It would be inauthentic of me to look at statistics and say, ‘You know, there are millions of people who watch reality television shows. I don’t watch reality television shows, but I want to reach people who watch reality television shows. So I’m going to start a reality television Web site and talk about that.’ If it’s not something that you’re truly passionate about, it’s going to quickly be discovered on the Web that this guy is really a ploy; this is a bait-and-switch situation. 14
Some have become successful in blogging through a team effort. One excellent example of this is Allison Bottke’s Boomer Babes blog (http://www.boomerbabesrock.com). Different boomer-age women take turns blogging on subjects of interest to them, and the comments are posted on Bottke’s Web site.
While blogging remains popular, it’s important to note that it can be all-consuming if you allow it to be, which can be dangerous to your health—both mental and physical. Tech researcher Gartner Inc. reported that in 2007, two hundred million people have given up blogging, more than twice as many as are active.
People who have blogged seriously for any length of time know it can have tremendous benefits, but it can also be a tremendous burden. “Good bloggers work like dogs,” writes Michael Parsons, editor of the tech site CNet.co.uk. “You can’t expect readers to show up unless you show up. And the Internet never closes. Every successful blogger I’ve come across is the same. Eat, sleep, and drink the work. No time out; no holidays.”
In his article, “The Death of Blogs,” Ted Olsen quoted Parsons and wrote, “That’s not a recipe for healthy living, especially if you’re working a day job that’s not paying you to blog. When Catholic blogger Amy Welborn shut down Open Book . . . to focus on writing books, she wrote, ‘I want to do good, and I want to do lasting good—the kind of good that people carry around, share, put on their bookshelves and reflect on—rather than the kind of good that sparks a momentary flash until we surf to the next Web site and the next and the next.’” 15
While blogs remain popular, the explosive growth has leveled off. Today many who continue to blog do so because they have cornered the niche in their market or because they have a passion to chronicle their life experiences. Many who have begun blogging but did not attract a sizable audience have given up and moved on to other avenues of distribution. Others who began blogs have found it easier to use the tools and networking applications made available by social networks.
When I speak at Christian writers’ conferences, I’m often asked my thoughts on blogging, whether I believe it’s productive or a waste of time and energy. I answer that I do believe it’s productive if you have name recognition or an outlet that will gather an audience for you. However, if someone doesn’t have that name recognition or a platform from which to speak, I recommend the following:
• Consider linking up with an established ministry, writer, or speaker as a guest blogger.
• Focus on building a platform, with a blog as one plank in the structure from which to speak.
• Create a Blogger, MySpace, or Facebook page and a Twitter account and post thoughts via these avenues.
• Begin blogging but recognize that without name recognition there may be only a limited audience.
• Find another outlet for what the Lord would have you to say—radio, public speaking, television, etc.
• Learn more at the Internet Evangelism Day Web site section on blogs: http://www.internetevangelismday.com/blogging.php.
Vlogs and Vulnerability
Across the country, local churches and individual Web evangelists are catching the vision of using video blogs, or vlogs, to reach an online audience with the gospel. Two local churches that are making a significant impact on the Web are LifeChurch.tv and Flamingo Road Church in Florida.
LifeChurch.tv is an innovative ministry that grew out of Edmond, Oklahoma. Every week the various satellite campuses across America join together—along with online viewers around the world on Second Life, Facebook, and LifeChurch.tv—to worship God and to experience truths from the Bible. Satellite broadcasts enable all the local brick-and-mortar locations to be connected in one worship experience. LifeChurch.tv is a multisite church that transcends metropolitan regions.
In April 2007, LifeChurch.tv launched its fully interactive campus in Second Life, the popular 3-D online virtual world. Currently LifeChurch.tv is hosting nearly twenty-thousand people every weekend across all its campuses during forty-seven worship experiences. 16
Flamingo Road Church
In fall 2007 the pastor of Flamingo Road Church in Florida, Troy Gramling, decided to “get naked” on the Internet. In an innovative Web outreach, Pastor Gramling allowed himself to be watched via his video Web blog on a twenty-four-hour Web cam in four locations: his house, car, hotel, and office. Every day, all day, Internet viewers saw his life in a fishbowl—the good, the bad, the great, and the ugly.
Why did he do this? As his video log explained, “We are all fish in a bowl. The more transparent (naked) we get, the more God can do amazing things through us.” The outreach received worldwide attention in the media, attracting thousands to his online evangelism ministry, including an online congregation. 17
Text-based Articles and Internet Evangelism
Despite all the advances in Web 2.0 technology, video, and mobile, Tony Whittaker sees online text as indispensable. “I think written words remain a core tool of communication and hopefully always will. Online text still has a vital role for clear communication. But audio and video are increasingly strategic too.”
While the communication elements of Web 2.0 allow for conversations online, and video offers attention-grabbing clips, text articles and in-depth teaching allow the serious seeker the opportunity to “go deep” in a quest for truth. This is especially attractive to the more intellectual and mature seeker comparing various religions. Apologetic Web sites have been very effective in reaching this type of seeker.
While praising the growth of video online, online evangelist James Watkins warns ministries and individual Internet evangelists to resist the urge of moving away from the use of text on their Web sites. “I’m sure that the video is nice for people who don’t like to read or who don’t have a lot of time. But for somebody who wants a bit of information, who wants a sound bite, or who wants a quote to cut and paste and put into an article—I want to be able to go to the actual print, to cut and paste, and glance through it and find the particular bit I’m looking for.
“I’ve always been a news junkie. So I think being able to combine news events and my faith is just ideal. The gospel of John, chapter 1, describes Jesus as being full of truth and grace. I’ve tried to keep that in mind. Yeah, I want to tackle the topics, but I want to do it with grace. I’ve got an article called ‘God Hates GodHatesFags.com.’ I have my response to this infamous article and just how unbiblical and un-Christian it is. I had this very outspoken homosexual leader write me: ‘I may not agree with everything you say on your site, but if there is a God, I hope that He’s the God that you describe.’
“I have another testimony of a woman who came to my Web site. She just happened to type ‘love’ into Google. That mine would pop up in the first one hundred pages is really amazing. I think it’s a real God thing. She said that she got into it and was kind of cynical. She thought, ‘This is some sort of Bible thing and they’re trying to get people to convert.’ But she said, ‘My hand was frozen to the remote.’ And her last line was, ‘Do you think that God was trying to tell me something?’
“There was another gal who said, ‘Your site saved my life tonight.’”
Internet evangelist Rusty Wright has also seen dramatic results of his targeted text-based articles, which are now posted on more than three hundred Web sites, both Christian and secular, around the world—and can be found in more than thirteen languages.
“There is a Nigerian man living in Belgium, and he is sitting in front of his computer and he’s watching a pornographic video. And then he has this idea, to focus on the concept of love. ‘My spirit tells me, love,’ he wrote, ‘so I decided to log on to Google and type in the secret of love.’ He found one of my columns that is basically an evangelistic article talking about love, relationships, and premarital sex. At the end it brings in Jesus.
“‘When I read it I felt different,’ he explained. ‘I asked myself, why do I always think about sex every day? This has affected me negatively. I promise myself never to watch porno films again, but to walk in the commandment of God. I thank God for using you.’”
Wright crafts his articles considering both the intellectual and the “felt needs” of his audience. “I try to find out what’s going on inside the mind and heart of the nonbeliever and then use that as an entry point for spiritual truth and the gospel. But my approach is not just to write articles to meet needs that people feel they have, in other words, just to make them feel better or just to have a better relationship or be more successful, although those things are important. But what I try to do is use the felt need as an entry point into a real need.
“We all have felt needs. For some it might be an extra chocolate dessert or a million dollars or to be number one in their class or number one in business. But we know that people also have real needs—food, water, air, and, of course, spiritually, eternal life, you need Jesus.
“My task as an outreach Christian communicator, I believe, is to find the felt needs people have and see how I can use that as an entry way to their heart to show them the importance of Scripture. Just like that Nigerian guy who at first was interested in sex and then he was interested in love and he started reading my article, and it brought him to realizing that human beings have three dimensions—physical, psychological, and spiritual—and you need to focus on all three. Then it talked about how to develop the spiritual dimension and talked about Christ.
“Sometimes I use traditional apologetics for that, for instance when people have questions about the reliability of the Bible or the Resurrection or whatever. But also I would use what I call cultural apologetics, which is using elements of culture, especially popular culture, to point people to spiritual truth.”
We’ve discussed e-mail, chat, blogs, and text. Now it’s time to move on to the next level in the convergence of media that we call the Internet—online video!