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Internet church seeks to evangelize, direct new believers to local churches

NEW ORLEANS (BP)–It’s an incorporated church which has no building, has worship services and devotions held in hundreds of homes all over the world, and boasts 200 members who’ve never seen one another. It’s Totalechurch, one of the first totally Internet churches in cyberspace, and though it’s only been in the ministry for five months, it’s seeing rapid growth.

With Christian researcher George Barna predicting that 20 percent of the population will get all religious training from the Internet by the year 2010, Lyndon Glaesman, pastor of Totalechurch and an alumnus of New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary, said he and his family’s burden for an Internet church was part of a logical progression in using technology for the kingdom.

An Internet church has been in a lot of people’s minds, but the idea had received little follow-through, said Glaesman, who learned that the Satanic church beat preceded Totalechurch to the Internet. “That shows that we need to jump onto the technology bandwagon or lose to those that do,” he said.

The church, and its technology, have garnered an overwhelming response. Though the church has only been open since June 15 of this year, it has recorded more than 14,000 visits to the site (an astounding figure even for the Internet) and has seen more than 50 professions of faith in Christ from all over the world. The church roster presently includes members from across the country and from Bulgaria, Japan, Australia and South Africa, its daily devotions are sent to more than 450 participants every day, which are usually forwarded to hundreds of others.

Through what Glaesman calls nothing short of divine intervention, the church has seen overwhelming publicity beyond what he’d imagined. It has been featured in newspapers in Chicago and in Sophia, Bulgaria; has been featured on radio programs in Chicago, in Alaska, and in Montreal, Canada; and was recently one of the headlines on DataCast, a news service that goes to every compatible pager in the nation.

“After that we got something like 3,000 hits in one week,” said Stephen Glaesman, pastor’s son, who with his brother, Jesse, makes up the technical staff of Totalechurch. “We still don’t know how it happened. It was just God. We’re having to change servers because we’re pulling so much bandwidth [too many people are using up the limited space on the server].”

Phillip Bullard, minister of evangelism and a student at NOBTS, said stirring up interest in the church has been a process that started long before the site officially opened. Months before the June 15 opening, Bullard not only sent out e-mails but did some old-fashioned witnessing work to garner interest, going to New Orleans’ French Quarter to hand out tracts with the church’s Internet address marked on them. To target the more computer-savvy population, Bullard went to the parking lots of RadioShack, CompUSA and other computer stores to leave tracts on the cars.

During this publicity phase, Bullard said he was able to minister to various people from the Littleton, Colo., area right after the shootings at Columbine High School in April. He said several were just looking for someone to talk to, not necessarily about the shootings, but just to talk. He said the Internet environment lends itself to openness, but building trust is important.

“It really just takes being open with them and showing them you’re not part of a scam,” Bullard said. “Face to face you have to build a relationship before you can move into talking about God, but on the Internet, after about the second or third time you talk with them they will open up immediately.”

One respondent who has opened up in such a way is seeker Jeff Pancoast of Phoenix, Ariz., who talks regularly with the pastor with questions galore. In an interview, he said he was “on the edge” after a 17-year marriage fell apart and was left with only a shattered life and a lot of questions.

“They’re my spiritual support structure,” he said. “They’re there when I have questions and they’re there when I need support. The daily devotions were a constant reminder to me to stay on the right track.”

Admittedly against most organized religion, Pancoast said the church has ministered to him and strengthened his faith in God again. He has a lot of questions, he said, but he’s finding the answers.

“I was born and raised Roman Catholic,” he said, “but I’ve been kind of a spiritual gypsy all my life. My religion is mostly internalized, which is why Totalechurch appeals to me. Rev. Glaesman and I have written several letters to each other, and he’s given me the most straight-forward, intelligent answers I’ve gotten to all my questions.

Glaesman said his vision for Totalechurch is not to get a list of members who have the Internet church as their only church home. His vision, he said, is to work with the physical church, and get his members into an active fellowship as growing Christians.

“I’d like for Totalechurch to enhance the work of the local church,” he said. “We are going to start a pastor’s page and get other churches to form a network of churches where I can get pastors to work with Totalechurch members.”

“We want to share the gospel with them and get them into a church,” Bullard concurred. “A lot of people say, ‘I’m not going in there. I’ve never been there, so why should I go now?’ We want to show them why they need to be there.”

As for the ministries of the church, there are many. Each week, Glaesman sends out a RealAudio sermon for his members; Penny Glaesman, his wife and a student at NOBTS, leads a women’s ministry through the Internet church; Misty Raybon, a staff member at NOBTS, leads a prayer ministry for the church; the music ministry page offers Christian CD’s and MP3 downloads to listen to Christian music on the computer; the church offers a youth ministry page as well as a pastor’s page: and in the future are hopes for launching ministries for men and children. The church also is presently working on a chat room for members and staff to interact in real time.

Glaesman said he is also presently working on a way to have a wedding over the Internet for two of his members.

“We’ve got a few ideas,” he said, “but we’re still working on that one.”

With so many things in the works, however, Penny Glaesman says when all is said and done the goal is simply to reach people.

“There are a lot of people who are just struggling and need someone to talk to,” she said. “This has been a safe way for them to pour their heart out once that trust is built.”

Pancoast said there are many still to be reached.

“This has the potential to reach a widespread audience,” he said, “and there have got to be people out there like me. There has got to be millions of seekers out there like me.”

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