The Rev Dr Rowland Croucher, a Baptist minister, is the Director of John Mark Ministries. He encourages Christian involvement in the Internet – a challenge now being tackled by many churches and ministries.
You too could reach a million people
A question in John Mark Ministries’ seminar on creativity asks: ‘If you were to reach more people in the world via one communications medium, what would you use?’ (Correct answer: Coca Cola containers ‑ they’re in more places than radio!). What would your message say?
As a teenager, having just made a ‘decision for Christ’, I dreamed about reaching millions with the Christian gospel. The motivating text was ‘Preach the word; be instant in season and out of season…’ (2 Timothy 4:2 KJV).
So I put gospel tracts into letterboxes and left them in library books. Later I wrote a large slogan on a storm‑water drain near a railway line; ‘witnessed’ on talk‑back radio; conducted evangelistic missions in universities and colleges; and pastored a church where at least two people were converted every week for nearly nine years (Blackburn Baptist Church in Melbourne). My book Grow! is an attempt to explain the Good News to thoughtful young people and adults.
My ‘evangelistic hero’ was Billy Graham ‑ who’s probably spoken face to face to more people than anyone in history.
Some of this I would not do again, or would do differently. The gospel tracts probably turned a lot of people off; my apologetics was often simplistic or even plain wrong!
But I still have a strong desire to reach those Jesus and Paul called ‘lost’. Now anyone can do it, from a home computer, via the Internet ‑ part of the third great human revolution (after the agricultural and industrial revolutions). Vast amounts of information ‑ to and from everywhere ‑ are now moved very quickly: faster than mail and cheaper than faxes and long‑distance phone calls. And ‘cyberspace’ technology is developing at break‑neck speed.
What is the internet?
These days you can’t read a computer magazine or the newspaper computer pages without seeing constant references to the ‘Net’.
What is it? Imagine a huge village square, with 30‑50 million people (or more) milling around. Some are in groups ‑ small‑talking, arguing, telling jokes, laughing, buying and selling, hugging, or fighting. Some are deep into one‑to‑one philosophical ‑ or romantic ‑ conversations. (Others are lurking in the bushes doing just about anything you can imagine ‑ and more). Many groups have a sign indicating they’re a special‑interest club: some have a ‘moderator’ who won’t let you join unless you meet their conditions. Around the square people are browsing in shops and libraries, where books and papers on any subject are offered free!
The Internet is the biggest network of information in the world. For as little as a few cents an hour, if you have a telephone line and a computer with a modem, you can get onto the ‘Information Superhighway’ from home or office, and ‘talk’ about anything that’s on your mind, or get free information on just about anything.
A friend who is a university graduate plans to have his evangelistic pieces read by a million people. That’s quite feasible. One report suggests that 200 million people have access to some part of the Net. Almost all U.S. universities and most schools are now ‘on‑line’ ‑ as will most educational institutions in the West in the next few years. Australia, with a computer in one in four homes is the fifth‑largest Internet‑user.
It all started in the 1960s. The U.S. Defence Department wanted a communications system which could survive a nuclear holocaust. Then the academic community used it to transmit and access information. For a while it stayed that way ‑ bureaucrats and technocrats and academics swapping ideas and software.
Then, from about 1990, with cheaper computers and improved software even the semi‑computer‑literate are getting in on the act. However, it’s still dominated by left‑brained ‘technos’: gradually more from Humanities/Literature are coming on‑line. And more theologians are needed, urgently!
What’s on the ‘Net?
Actually there’s no one ‘network’, but lots of them ‑ like Fidonet, Compuserve’s for‑profit network, denominational networks (PresbyNet, EpiscoNet, SBCNet) etc. The Internet is really a network of networks.
What’s on them? Mailing‑lists of people who pray for one another (eg. Agapenet); newspapers and journals (Time Magazine, Christianity Today, this Renewal Journal); e‑mail where you can talk one‑to‑one to a friend in Zimbabwe or Poland or Antarctica or Iceland (some have met and courted ‑ and eventually married ‑ via e‑mail!). You can buy stuff with a credit card; browse through university libraries; converse in ‘real time’ on the IRC (Internet Relay Chat); exchange ideas in ‘fan clubs’; read the latest U.S. Congress legislation or talk to the U.S. president (yes, he’s ‘on‑line’); watch movie previews; or chat with a monk at the New Norcia Benedictine Monastery in W.A. Kids can get help with homework (through Prodigy’s ‘Infonaut’s Homework Helper’). Or you can argue about vintage cars or atheism or movie stars or, well, anything…
Or this: on a Christian newsgroup I read an urgent message from missionaries in Kazakhstan. Their 3‑year‑old, Nathan, had fallen into scalding water, and was in a critical condition. Local medical facilities could not help. They’d e‑mailed mission HQ in Oregon, and a plea was ‘posted’ around the world asking for prayer, and help to get Nathan air‑lifted to a German burns unit. All this within minutes! Amazing! (By the way, if the cross‑cultural missionaries you support haven’t got a modem in their computer give them the $ to get one. Many emergencies can now be publicized, prayed for and dealt with almost instantly).
In fact, it’s almost impossible for a country to be ‘closed’ to the ‘Net. After failing to regulate faxes and TV satellite dishes the Chinese government has bowed to the inevitable and opened China to the ‘Net, installing two commercial links to the outside world. We learned first‑hand about the dramatic 1989 events in Russia via e‑mail from private individuals in Moscow.
Let’s look at one Internet facility: Usenet, comprising more than 5000 special‑interest groups. They are organized into categories ‑ ‘alt’ (alternative discussion groups), ‘comp’ (computer stuff), ‘rec’ (recreation, hobbies), ‘sci’ (sciences), ‘soc’ (socializing, social sciences), ‘talk’ (for debates on a range of subjects), ‘biz’ (business), ‘k12’ (for teachers and students), ‘misc’ (topics that don’t fit anywhere else) ‑ and more. I ‘subscribe’ to about 50: favourite religious groups include ‘aus.religion’ and the largest, ‘alt.atheism’. Others I like ‑ ‘alt.conspiracy’, ‘rec.music.classical‑recordings’, ‘rec.org.mensa’.
This week I ‘posted’ about 30 messages on such topics as why churches are a boring for young people, ‘atheism and rationality’, biblical literalism, F.W.Boreham books I’m after (I collect him ‑ the most prolific Australian religious author until recently), homosexuality, worship‑styles, why baptism isn’t in the O.T., who are the Quakers? American evangelicalism, ‘The most powerful person on earth’, recovery from sexual abuse, and so on. Discussion follows ‑ sometimes heated ‑ with maybe up to 40 people or more joining in. Fun!
And on the lighter side…
It’s fun reading the pithy quotes people use with their ‘signatures’. Here are some I like:
# ‘The fourth law of computing: anything that can go wr
# ‘I just met a person who is a nun.’ ‘How do you know she is a nun?’ ‘She told me.’ ‘Maybe she was lying.’ ‘Nuns don’t lie.’
# ‘It’s best to read the weather forecast before praying for rain!’ (Mark Twain)
# ‘Abou ben Adam’s name led all the rest because the list was compiled alphabetically’ (Isaac Asimov)
# ‘Never criticize anyone until you’ve walked a mile in their shoes. Then, if they don’t like it, you’re a mile away and you have their shoes.’
# ‘Imagine if horse‑racing had no horses… thousands of people could go to the race‑track each day and save millions of dollars.’
# ‘Everything can be fixed by driving a nail into it. The only problem is finding the right sized nail’
# ‘Millions long for immortality who don’t know what to do with themselves on a rainy Sunday afternoon!’
So where do I start?
Well, get a computer ‑ almost anyone will do, but the more powerful the better ‑ with a modem, and hook up to a telephone line. Then contact an ‘access provider’: these have different costs, so you’ll need to figure out how often you use the ‘Net.
You need some software ‑ often supplied when you sign up with a service provider.
Any computer shop will guide you. Read Ed Krol’s The Whole Internet: User’s Guide and Catalogue, or the shorter 10 Minute Guide to the Internet by Peter Kent.
If you want a few hours of free access to the Net, phone Ozemail or Compuserve and ask! Or join an adult education class: they’re now offered everywhere.
* Pray about your motives for using the ‘Net: computer users tend to have a basic urge to control the world through their keyboard.
* Look over someone else’s shoulder as they ‘surf’ the ‘Net. Learn all you can before committing yourself.
* Spend a few months familiarizing yourself with the ‘ethos’ of the various groups on the ‘Net. Read newsgroups specially created for ‘newbies’. Read the FAQ’s (Frequently Asked Questions) for the groups that interest you. There’s help everywhere, once you know where to look for it.
* As a ‘missionary’ be sensitive to the ‘Net’s sometimes strange culture/s. You’ll learn some new languages (eg. a bit of Unix). ‘Net groups and mailing‑lists have their own protocols. It’s called ‘netiquette’ (for example, it’s not good form to use CAPITALS ‑ that’s shouting)!
* Don’t get turned off by weirdness or profanity: U.S. college students enjoy shocking wowsers! Some will parade their erudition (‘this debate got hijacked by a solipsist’). Others (‘Single mum college student…’) ask for money. Because of the anarchistic nature of the Net you can’t easily remove the ‘village idiot’. Be tolerant, loving ‑ and humourous! Remember Jesus related well to all sorts!
* If you post something to a newsgroup or mailing‑list, be brief, well‑researched, accurate (particularly if you quote an author ‑ it’s amazing how many non‑Christians have read C. S. Lewis and Josh McDowell), and conversational. Be prepared to have all your views challenged, by some very clever people. If you put a personal testimony or preachy gospel message on alt.atheism for example, they’ll chew you up and spit you out, fast! By the way, children’s access to the Net ought to be carefully monitored: the most popular newsgroups are pornographic.
Navigating the Net isn’t easy to begin with. You’ll experience hours of frustration. It’s like a maze ‑ or a blind person negotiating a minefield while dribbling a basketball ‑ only more difficult and less dangerous! Over the next few years it will get more user‑friendly.
We at John Mark Ministries want to encourage others to pursue this strategic and ubiquitous means of evangelism, and in particular link pastors and Christian leaders via the Net. My signature message? ‘If you have God and everything else, you have no more than having God only; if you have everything else and not God you have nothing!’ (Medieval mystic).
© Rowland Croucher. Used by permission.
© Renewal Journal 10: Evangelism, 1997, 2nd edition 2011.
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