E-vangelism - Are you logged on?

Mark A. Hadley

"The Internet has opened up a whole world of ‘secrecy’ where people can interact without the other person knowing their identity," Steve says, keying in a response to a quick email question on the value of the church engaging in the Internet.

"This has negative affects of course but the ability to explore things in an anonymous way is good for apologetics."

Steve Morrison is a fourth year Moore College student, and part of the Christianity.net.au venture launched by Anglican Media two months ago.

Along with 35 other classmates he has begun the challenging task of integrating his personal witness with the Internet by answering the spiritual inquiries of web users from all over the planet. In short, he is learning to e-vangelise.

No-one has to be embarrassed about feeling out of touch when it comes to the Internet. After all, the computer industry failed to predict its arrival and Bill Gates almost missed it altogether. It includes so much that is growing so fast in so many directions that no-one can really say they understand it or know what it is going to accomplish next. It began with simple text messages from one computer to another and now we are able to use it to access satellites and stare at our houses from orbit.

"Believers may not understand the Internet but they can't afford to ignore it," says Mark Hadley, the manager of Anglican Media's Multimedia division.

"The invention of the printing press, the telephone, the radio and the television - they all led to the increasing democratisation of information. Now the Internet places the libraries of the world at the fingertips of a four year old - and allows her to talk with the individuals that make up every culture they chronicle."

What is the church to do with such a formidable tool for communication? While denominations ponder, Australians are busy tearing the paper off Pandora's box.

At the end of March 2005 the total Internet subscriptions in Australia numbered 5.98 million. Only 845,000 were business and government subscribers; 5.1 million were households. The total number of Internet subscribers grew by 15% between March 2004 and March 2005. Broadband subscribers swelled by a staggering 109% in the same period. Microsoft MSN, one of Australia's most popular 'chat' programs now connects approximately 465 million unique users worldwide each month.

Clifford Stole, the author of 'Silicon Snake Oil' says he senses an 'insatiable demand for connectivity'. "Perhaps some of these people feel hungry for a community that our real neighbourhoods don’t deliver."

The Sydney Diocese began building a new doorway for the Gospel on this virtual reality nine months ago. Christian web sites are nothing new; they have been around in various forms since the earliest networks. No-one should be surprised; the Kingdom and 'Geekdom' have often overlapped (at least that's what Paul told Christians in 1 Corinthians 1:26-29). But the Diocese' latest web venture offers not just information but the interactivity which is fundamental to the web. In a word: community.

"Christianity.net.au begins by outlining the Gospel, but it doesn't stop there," says Anglican Media CEO Allan Dowthwaite.

"It is a tool that is specifically designed to encourage people to interact with the Bible."

Christianity.net.au is being developed by a team consisting of evangelists, educationalists, editors and culture experts from Anglican Media, Youthworks, Moore Theological College, Youthworks College and a number of Internet design companies.

The evangelistic site was launched in conjunction with the Challengingdavinci.com campaign and currently attracts 300 unique visitors from around the world every day.

Part of the site's attractiveness is the opportunity to pose a spiritual question and receive a personal response. Site administrators receive as many as two to three genuine inquiries each day.

Stuart and Liana Maze are a husband and wife team studying at Moore who are also answering questions for Christianity.net.au

"I see the benefit as mutual between those asking the questions and the respondents," Stuart says.

"As we hopefully provide a helpful response to others clarifying their understanding of Christianity, we're being exposed to the real questions people are asking about our God and the Christian faith. It is giving us a sense of realism about why we're training and what we can expect to encounter when we start full time ministry.

"I consider it a valuable part of my ministry training."

Other students agree, far from being impersonal, Internet evangelism cuts to the heart of people's concerns.

"The questions are usually quite hard, suggesting that those people have given them some real thought," says Alexander Purnomo.

"Some are left-field questions, those which we don’t get asked regularly - not even in my church gatherings - but they are all very genuine. It might have something to do with the nature of the Internet, that people think they can raise questions that don’t get asked in any other forum."

Discussions are underway to allow students at Moore and Youthworks College to include participation in the site as part of their studies.

Christianity.net.au is also developing plans to increase the level of participation, expanding the sense of relationship inquirers can experience on-line with the creation of on-line Bible study groups.

"The Internet is rapidly becoming the first place people turn to for answers to their questions. The big problem with this is that the quality of the information on the Internet is mixed," says web developer David Horne.

"While answering questions for people on-line goes some way to helping them
understand the Christian point of view, entering into a dialogue can help them much more. It gives them the opportunity to come back for clarification or with other questions. Basing this around a Bible study enables us to structure this interaction in the most helpful way."

What Anglican Media hopes will emerge is a digital community that is interested in exploring Christianity, with room for inquirers, new believers and mature disciples.

"We see this as part of the process of multiplying Bible-based Christian fellowships." says Mr Dowthwaite.

"It's not our intention to replace the local church, We want to connect it with a vast new, electronic mission field."

Digital technology philosopher Esther Dyson told Time Magazine: "The Internet is like alcohol in some sense. It accentuates what you would do anyway. If you want to be a loner, you can be more alone. If you want to connect, it makes it easier to connect."

For many Australians, virtual reality is fast becoming their dominant reality.

"Thanks to email, forums, MSN and SMS I carry on more 'virtual' conversations across the net each day than I ever do in person," says Mr Hadley.

"Quietly, over the past ten years virtual reality became actual reality for millions of Australians. The Internet is where we work, relate and relax. For some people, by necessity, it's going to become where they fellowship as well."

"Working with it is part of our taking the Gospel into all the world - even if it is a digital one."

A bigger Net for ‘fishers of men’

"¢ March 2005 total internet subscriptions in Australia number 5.98 million

"¢ 5.1 million are household subscribers; 845,000 were business and government

"¢ Total subscriber numbers grew 15% between March 2004 and March 2005

"¢ Broadband subscribers grew by 109% in the same period

"¢ Household broadband subscribers in 2005 numbered 1.4 million - over 77% of total subscribers

"¢ MSN attracts more than 465 million unique users worldwide per month