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Internet yielding more opportunities to reach people lost in cyberspace

WAKE FOREST, N.C. (BP)–The statistics alone are enough to choke almost any computer’s hard drive.
Currently, about 100 million people worldwide “surf the net.” More than 500,000 sites on the Internet’s World Wide Web offer everything from groceries to automobiles to mortgage loans. Analysts project that purchases made over the Internet will reach $327 billion by the year 2002.The federal government reports receiving an average of 4,000 requests per day for Internet web site domain names.
As more and more people are going global via the Internet, this once-vast universe is becoming smaller and smaller. While it took radio 30 years to reach 50 million people and television 13 years, the Internet did it in just four years.
Since its introduction in 1992, the World Wide Web has quickly become the window to a new world called “cyberspace” — a land free of geographical boundaries where planes and ships are obsolete and Internet Service Providers — not visas — are required for international travel.
At the dawn of a new millennium, this communication medium has given new meaning to the phrase “reach out and touch someone.”
So what implications does this rapidly flourishing technology have on the fulfillment of the Great Commission, the biblical mandate to reach the world with the gospel of Jesus Christ?
Consider this: It took William Carey, “the father of modern missions,” five months to travel by steamboat from England to India in 1793. Today, in a matter of minutes, Timothy Abraham can share his testimony with devout Muslims in Egypt from his home in Bunn, N.C., by simply logging onto the Internet.
“It’s an excellent method,” says Abraham, a master of theology student at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary in Wake Forest, N.C.
Abraham, a former Muslim from Egypt, has led about 20 people to salvation in Christ over the Internet during the past two years. He bought a computer with money saved from preaching at churches. “Ever since, the Lord has been glorified in it and we want it to be the Lord’s computer,” he says.
Abraham, 30, is no “techie,” just computer-savvy. He posts his testimony on the Internet under his “user profile” created to identify people who have similar interests. Now when someone goes on-line in search of information under categories such as Muslim, Islam or Jesus, Abraham’s testimony is referenced as a research option. “Through putting my testimony on the Internet, there has been a sort of reunion between me and my old Christian friends in Egypt,” Abraham says. He also credits the Internet, through God’s providence, with helping him meet his bride-to-be. Timothy first met his wife, Angela, while on-line.
But Abraham’s evangelistic efforts have not always been warmly received. He had to forfeit one of his Internet accounts when Muslims complained that he was proselytizing on-line. He has also received several death threats by extremist Muslim groups. “They can threaten as much as they want, but may the Lord give us the strength so we don’t fear those who kill the flesh,” he says.
Alvin Reid, associate professor of evangelism at Southeastern, employs a different strategy for evangelizing via the World Wide Web. He strikes up conversations with complete strangers conversing in “chat rooms” created for people with common interests such as careers and family.
“By the way,” Reid introduces himself to a chat room, “I just want to say to the room the greatest thing that ever happened to me is many years ago I met Jesus Christ in a personal life-changing way and if you want to know anything more about this please e-mail me.”
Once, a woman from Oregon who had logged onto a chat room for the first time e-mailed Reid with follow-up questions. “That’s more than a coincidence I think,” Reid says.
Reid continued to witness to the woman over the Internet for about three months. “She was really searching. I just continued to share how Jesus had changed my life.” Last November the woman e-mailed Reid to say she had accepted Christ as her Savior. “She started sharing her faith with other people,” Reid says. “She’s been taking some stands for the Lord.”
The Internet, Reid says, promises to play an important role in reaching the world for the cause of Christ in the 21st century. Reid hopes to launch an evangelistic web site from the seminary when its new Center for Great Commission Studies is built.
“We would assign students in our evangelism classes so many hours to answer the hits on the web site. It’s a terrible thing to have a lost person wanting to know answers and there’s no one there to answer them, so we’re going to have that set up.”
In August, Southeastern debuted its new web site (www.sebts.edu) complete with the gospel presentation as well as information about the school’s programs, faculty, students, history and seminary news.
Still, Reid warns, with the evangelistic opportunities created by the Internet so come the perils. “Anything with the potential for good has the potential for harm, and this is very much a double-edged sword. Many of these people are completely secular and you would never get a chance to talk to them at their door, you would never get them to church but they will talk to you on-line. The strength is almost the danger because they can be anonymous.”
Bill Cooley, a mental health professional at Keesler Air Force Base in Mississippi, says the anonymity of Internet communication has great potential for misuse because it allows a person to escape from reality.
“Many individuals go on-line and gain a sense of acceptance from people they don’t even know,” Cooley says. “It’s a coming-home feeling that can entice people to the detriment of family, home, career and health.”
For example, in April, a 29-year-old computer programmer confessed to killing his 5-year-old daughter while on-line with a support group of problem drinkers. Larry Froistad confessed in an e-mail to setting his house on fire in 1995 in Bowman, N.D. Froistad escaped from the house leaving behind his daughter who was killed in the blaze. Froistad was charged with murder following his confession on the Internet.
Douglas Estes, a master of theology student at Southeastern, knows firsthand about the problems created by the Internet’s veil of anonymity.
Last summer while on-line in a Christian chat room, he met a 16-year-old girl from Fayetteville, Ark., who was considering having an abortion. Estes witnessed to the girl for several months over the Internet, leading her to salvation in Christ. The girl told Estes she kept her baby and four of her friends on the cheerleading squad became Christians as a result of attending Bible studies led by her aunt.
As time passed, Estes began to question the legitimacy of both the girl’s stories and her aunt’s. He confronted the aunt on the telephone who later admitted to fabricating the stories. The woman, who said she was a Christian, claimed that she suffered from a personality disorder and was undergoing counseling with a therapist. She said the 16-year-old girl was a fabrication of one of her multiple personalities.
Estes, 25, says he doesn’t consider the time wasted he spent on the Internet talking with the woman.
“One of the positive things is that I was able to share the gospel with her,” Estes reflects. “I think it impacted her life in a good way. Although sharing the gospel on-line cannot always be measured accurately for its effectiveness, the Internet still remains a viable evangelistic tool. After all, as Christians we are responsible only for sharing the good news of Jesus Christ and ministering to those who are hurt and brokenhearted.”
Reid warns that those who use the Internet to share the gospel should guard their time closely and have an accountability partner. “It can be so addictive because you can almost have another identity and that’s the dangerous thing about it,” says Reid, who writes about using the Internet as an evangelistic tool in his new book, “Introduction to Evangelism,” published this year by Broadman & Holman, the trade books arm of LifeWay Christian Resources.
With the growing popularity of the Internet, words such as “netaholic,” “cyberjunkie” and “Internet addict” are no longer dismissed easily as joking references.
“Internet addiction has gained credibility among mental health professionals as a clinically significant disorder which negatively impacts social, occupational, family and financial functioning,” says Kimberly Young, director of the Center for On-line Addiction at the University of Pittsburgh-Bradford.
Young, who has studied more than 400 Internet addiction disorder cases, says, “Anyone with access to a modem and the Internet may become addicted.”
Describing the typical addict as a “middle-aged female with limited education,” Young says the stereotypical “computer nerd” is not the only person at risk.
But the anonymity of the Internet is not all negative, says Chad Tucker, a bachelor of arts student at Southeastern Baptist Theological College. “You can be as bold as you want to be,” Tucker says. “Many times people are not as bold as they should be or could be in a face-to-face confrontation, but when it comes to the computer they can be bold because you’re in your own home.”
Tucker of Hickory, N.C., says he routinely creates chat rooms under topics such as “Answers from God,” to generate discussion about issues of faith and the meaning of life. “Many times there are lost people who come in who have no where else to turn,” Tucker says. “They’ve never been able to sit down and really ask a Christian questions about what they believe and why they believe it.”
Judy Calheiros, a master of arts in Christian education student at Southeastern, says she enjoys witnessing to women who log on the Internet and enter Christian chat rooms to discuss topics such as home schooling and parenting.
“There are a lot of people who will come to the Christian chat rooms who are hurting and looking for hope. Just being able to share the hope that I have in Jesus has meant a lot to me.”
Calheiros says she works to establish relationships off the Internet with those she’s led to salvation in Christ. “Unless you develop a pretty strong relationship and get to know these people outside the Internet, it’s real easy to lose track of them and not be able to disciple them like they need to be discipled.”
Larry Grover, a master of divinity student at Southeastern, and his wife, Pennye, use the Internet to reach out to Mormons. Larry’s family have been Mormons for five generations. He left the Mormon Church at 18 and accepted Christ as his Savior 10 years later.
Larry identifies himself as an ex-Mormon on his Internet user profile. When people go on-line to research information on Mormons or Mormonism, Larry’s testimony, titled “Why I Left the Mormon Church,” is referenced.
One week last summer, Larry and Pennye led three women to faith in Christ while on the Internet. One of the women, Lisa, a 20-something from San Francisco, was converted from Mormonism. “She started witnessing to other people, telling them how to accept Christ in group chat rooms,” Pennye recalls.
“The main idea we use in gaining a relationship with those we witness to is to affirm that they are special in God’s sight,” Larry says. “Pennye would show them how God cares enough to arrange for others to be available on the Internet at just the right time to help just them. Her favorite saying is, ‘I know our meeting is not a mistake. God directs my path and he has placed me here just for you! He loves you that much!'”

    About the Author

  • Lee Weeks