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Online Chapel shares Jesus with seekers on the Internet

ADAMS, Tenn. (BP)–“Can anyone help me?”

The question appeared on Bill Tober’s computer monitor as he surfed the Internet Relay Chat boards. He checked his watch. It was almost 2 a.m., when most ministers would be in bed. After a quick yawn, he typed his response to the 16-year-old girl who had sent the request.

She then told Tober her father had just died of a heart attack, “and I thought, ‘What’s she doing on the Internet?’ But she said she didn’t have any friends or anybody to talk to. She asked, ‘Is Daddy going to heaven?’ And I said, ‘Well, I don’t know that answer, but I can get someone who can help you.’ She said, ‘I wish you would.'”

While continuing the on-line chat, Tober raced through his database of churches to find the phone number of a pastor in her town. Between typing and reading, he phoned the pastor of a Southern Baptist church near her and, before the Internet conversation was finished, that pastor was knocking at the girl’s door. “As it turned out,” Tober said, “he did the funeral, and that girl and her mother are now members in his church.”

Tober, of Adams, Tenn., a retired Southern Baptist Navy chaplain, is the senior chaplain of the Online Chapel, an Internet-based counseling ministry that does most of its work between 10 p.m. and 3 a.m. Central time. According to Tober, the chapel began because he was an Internet hobbyist who had too much time on his hands after retirement.

“I saw these IRC boards for what they really were, which was not a pretty picture,” he said, “and I felt that there needed to be some kind of Christian presence on them.”

After contacting people in the Undernet, one of the largest chat systems, Tober found they liked the idea but hadn’t been able to find anyone who was willing to organize and lead it.

“It was originally just going to be a chat room,” Tober said, “but when people saw that there was someone nicknamed ‘Chaplain’ in there, they tried to get some help. Then we found other ministers who were interested in doing something like this but weren’t sure how to go about it. So I developed a training program, and I contacted the state (Baptist) convention here in Tennessee and the interfaith witness department at the Home Mission Board (for materials).”

Currently the chapel has six chaplains who regularly monitor the IRC channels, and except for about four hours, the chapel is staffed all day. The chaplains handle such tasks as marriage counseling, parent-child relationship counseling, coordinating Bible studies and prayer groups and reaching out to people local congregations might have trouble finding.

“Much of our work involves cultivational evangelism,” Tober said. “We simply build friendly relationships with folks, including those involved in the occult and alternative lifestyles. Over time, they ask questions and we remain ready to answer them in a non-threatening way. I used to have this thing that witches were going to hell and the whole nine yards … . They don’t believe that, and I would do nothing but start an argument. If you can get them to like you, there’s your stepping stone to Jesus.”

It’s a stepping stone that’s getting a lot of traffic. At least eight new Christians have met Christ in Tober’s corner of cyberspace in spite of the pitfalls of getting knocked off-line at critical moments.

“There was one girl who had come on-line, and when she was ready to pray, we got … knocked off-line. She came back on-line the next day, saying she had something to tell us: ‘I gave my heart to Jesus, and I want to thank you people for making that possible.’ … She had called a Christian friend from school. It was the middle of the night, and she got this girl out of bed. Her friend led her to the Lord, and she wanted to tell us that. While she was giving her testimony, revival broke out on-line.”

Tober is excited about the potential for on-line ministry and hopes eventually to host regular seminars and conferences on-line. “It’s untried ground,” he said, “and I can see some exciting things coming out of it. The Bible says to go into all the world; it doesn’t say to make the people come to you.”

The Online Chapel’s home page can be found at http://home.earthlink.net/~billtober/chapel.html
Taylor is research editor at the Home Mission Board.

    About the Author

  • Sean Taylor