Wednesday, Apr 19, 2006

World Wide Web finds religion

Churches use Net as communicator for many messages

BY ALLISON KENNEDY
Staff Writer

The Apostle Paul spread the Gospel message that Jesus was crucified for the sins of humanity, rose from the dead, ascended into heaven and will return. To do that, Paul traveled thousands of miles to strange lands and experienced shipwreck, snakebite, imprisonment and, ultimately, death.

Today, Allan Beeber takes the same message to more countries than Paul did.

From a computer in Orlando, Fla.

Beeber, who leads the East Coast team of Global Media Outreach, an Internet ministry with Campus Crusade for Christ International, says that every 45 seconds someone somewhere in the world learns about the Gospel from one of the groups' 37 evangelism Web sites.

And every 60 seconds, he says, someone indicates that he or she has accepted Christ as their Lord and Savior. Of those, more than a quarter e-mail Campus Crusade with comments and information that can be used to follow up with the new converts.

"This is the next big thing," Beeber said. "It's a way of communicating that the world has never had before... . A lot of them never go to a church anywhere so we are big on connecting them to churches."

More than 1 billion people use the Web, so why wouldn't churches and Christian groups do what companies are doing and spread their message around the world on the Internet?

After all, the Bible quotes Jesus as saying, before he ascended into heaven: "Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations."

Local churches are using the Internet, too. While pastors and members agree that meeting people face-to-face is the best way to show them the love of Christ and encourage them to get involved in church, they also acknowledge that the Internet can be a valuable tool.

Going global

Beeber, who has a Ph.D. in polymer science,coordinates Campus Crusade's evangelistic and discipleship Web sites, including "Who is Jesus... Really?"

He is married to the former Trish Murphy of Columbus -- whose parents, Bill and Betty Murphy, are members of Wynnbrook Baptist Church -- and the couple has three children. He has worked with Campus Crusade for 30 years.

Though the Beebers live in Florida, Allan has seen his Internet work impact countries like China that are closed to missionaries. "Seekers are now coming to us from a lot of closed countries," he said.

He is helping the international mission agency launch Global Evangelism Day on May 5.

Beeber compares the Internet to the Roman Road, the network of military and trading routes that Paul traveled to spread Christianity.

"My sense is that this will fast become one of the dominant technologies for missionary work," he said of the Web. "Not only does the reach extend into closed countries but the return on investment is so much better from a stewardship perspective of not only finances but resources."

Making contact

In Columbus, many Christians place a heavy emphasis on sharing the gospel in person, as they try to persuade non-Christians to place their faith in Jesus Christ. It's not that residents here aren't wired to the Web -- two-thirds of Columbusites have access -- it's that most seem to prefer personal contact.

Shopping for churches via the Internet, and getting a sense of a congregation's flavor through its Web site, seems to be the prevailing use of the technology here.

Erik and Melanie Salsgiver, who are Baptists, did that when they were about to move to Columbus four years ago.

"We lived in Pittsburgh where there aren't very many Southern Baptist churches. We went to a little congregation outside of Pittsburgh and we were heart-broken when we had to leave it," said Melanie Salsgiver, an executive at Hughston Orthopedic Hospital.

From a thousand miles away, they found a match with Schomburg Road Baptist Church.

"It jumped out at us," she said of the site. "They had all our core values. We really got a flavor for what it was."

After arriving in Columbus on a Saturday in 2002, they showed up for worship the next day.

"I hope other people are drawn to our church because of the Web site," Melanie Salsgiver said.

Weight loss, sin loss

Some church sites, in addition to the usual topics like conversion and doctrine, attempt to draw people in with personal stories and testimony.

That's true for the Salsgiver's pastor. After he lost about 50 pounds in five years, the Rev. Buddy Lamb posted 10 diet tips on the church Web site. (In addition to eating less fat-laden food, Lamb also has an affection for espresso. He's not sure that relates to his weight loss, but he posted it anyway.)

On his business card, Lamb printed a few of the tips as well as his church's Web address.

"The hook was to get people to the Web site," Lamb said. "It's a tool to reach people." On the Schomburg Road site: A link with the question "How's Your Life?" That link gets you to a Gospel message.

People have told Lamb in person how encouraged they've been by his stories of weight loss. He uses e-mail to communicate with most of his members at once.

"I can connect with 80 percent of my people through an e-mail," he said. He also uses e-mail to write prayers to hurting people.

Minister Mike Gurganus of Torch Hill Church of Christ is all for this medium, too. He mainly uses his site to explain about his denomination's teachings. One link says "Salvation."

"God says, 'Go out into the world and preach the Gospel,' " he said. "As far as locally, I can get out and talk to people." But others from as far away as India have used the Torch Hill Church site to spread the faith, he said. "If it weren't for the site, I wouldn't meet these people," said Gurganus, who started the site six months ago. A friend keeps it updated.

A powerful tool

Brenda Brasher, Ph.D., author of "Give Me That Online Religion" (Rutgers University Press, $21.95) teaches sociology at the University of Aberdeen in Scotland. She finds a mixture of pros and cons when it comes to evangelism on the Internet.

"The Internet offers an easy, relatively inexpensive, and safe way for people to explore religious options," Brasher wrote in an e-mail from Scotland. "The latter is especially important. People without a lot of religious experience are often (shy) about entering a religious setting -- reasonably so. They don't know what's expected of them.

"But people go online these days quite frequently from their homes. Typically, that's a very comfortable and relaxed place for most of us, and can make people feel more at ease in trying to get answers to religious questions."

Drawbacks, she said, include a lack of nuance and body language one gets from face-to-face conversations.

"Whoever is in charge of a religious group's Web site exercises a great deal of rhetorical power," Brasher wrote. "If you have ever been to any religious meeting, you will know that there are always varying opinions, nothing works perfectly, and the ebb and flow of normal human gatherings prevails. But online, digital religion is yes/no in form. If someone writes 'This is what we believe' on a Web site, a site visitor is exposed to very strong absolutes rather than the diversity he or she would encounter at an in-real-life religious gathering."

The personal touch

The Rev. Scottie Swinney of St. James AME Church, Columbus, uses the Internet mainly to communicate to church committee members by e-mail. Like at Schomburg Road Baptist, a visitor located St. James via the Web. Swinney doesn't know how many of his 400 members are wired. He doesn't see any negatives, except for the possibility of ignoring a personal call in favor of the Internet.

"You can never beat the personal touch," he said. "For instance if someone has a death in the family, it'd be more appropriate for a personal visit rather than an e-mail."

Beeber, who connects Internet contacts with churches, knows these pitfalls too. The Internet can only go so far in connecting people to each other. The congregations have to be willing, Beeber said, and some are wary of the technology because of potential scams and abuses. "A very low percentage of churches will say to me, 'Give me anybody you've got.' "

With all the advances of the Web, Beeber predicts it won't -- or can't -- replace real-life missionaries.

"If someone visits one of our sites, such as http://www.meant4more.com/ and either makes a decision to receive Christ or has a question, once the response form is submitted it is automatically distributed to a live person. We believe people should answer peoples' questions from the Internet, not computers answering people."

Other religions online

Other world religions seek converts, too, and are using the Web to do so. Islam, for instance, is the world's fastest-growing religion. Mohammed Aleem, the CEO of Islamicity.com, told National Public Radio in 2004 that the Internet is an effective way to educate non-Muslims about the faith, and portray Islam as a religion where diversity and debate are encouraged.

Aleem said Muslims use his site to get together in chat rooms, post messages to discussion boards and download lectures or debates. "We feel that all of these discussions allow us to express ourselves in ways that maybe in other countries they don't have the ability to do," Aleem told NPR. "We are still a very young community, a growing community. But the advent of the Internet... is bringing us a collaborative tool, where we can make sure we can leverage our strengths in a meaningful way."

Faiths that are not so proselytizing-driven, including Judaism, are also on the Internet bandwagon. There are sites for individual congregations and denominational groupings, such as the Union for Reform Judaism and The United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism. Both groups are represented here.

"We are now working on updating our Web site because we have an old computer. We plan to get a new computer for the synagogue," said Rabbi Max Roth of Shearith Israel Synagogue on Wynnton Road. Temple Israel also maintains a site. "We're just catching up. It's the 21st century, and how can you conduct business without the Internet? It's a fad that's here to stay."

Jean Liparoto, in her 80s and a member of Our Lady of Lourdes Catholic Church, refuses to acknowledge the Internet craze. Her congregation doesn't have a Web site, and Liparoto said she gets along just fine without Internet service and e-mail, which she once had.

"I don't miss it," she said. "I enjoyed my e-mail when I had it but it was a hassle because I got so much advertising."

Interactive care

St. Luke United Methodist Church, one of Columbus' largest congregations with 3,200 members, has begun an Internet audio simulcast. That enabled one member, Grandin Eakle, to listen in on his son Trey's confirmation service a few weeks ago when he was in an Atlanta hospital, where he remains following an accident. With the help of his sister, Nonie Eakle, he is posting daily updates on his progress online through a site called Carepages.com. Readers are also able to post messages to Grandin there. Many messages are from church members, staff and other friends who report they're praying for him.

Outreach via the Internet typically happens after a person visits St. Luke. First, the Rev. Jimmy McIlrath, minister of evangelism, tries to see people at home. Visitors are given a church coffee mug and pamphlet.

"I do feel that an e-mail, starting out, would lose some of that face-to-face contact," McIlrath said.