When you think of evangelism, you might not automatically link it to computer technology, phone banks, and Web sites; and you might not associate it with witnessing by phone to a person on the other side of the country. But that could change as the North American Mission Board's (NAMB) Evangelism Response Center (ERC) connects churches and people within a growing network of technological resources.
Dr. N.S.R.K. Ravi, coordinator of the ERC, delights to tell of Southern Baptist volunteers who, from their own homes, have led thousands to faith in Christ over the phone through this cooperative effort between NAMB, local churches, phone volunteers, and LifeWay Christian Resources.
Patricia Zimmerman, a 71-year-old widow in Arkansas, was the ERC volunteer of the year for 2007. She has led nearly three hundred strangers to Christ. But the retired registered nurse and substitute teacher never had to leave her home in the heart of the Ozarks to do so.
Samuel Hill, an 87-year-old retiree from Virginia, was the ERC volunteer of the year for 2006. He has logged on to the ERC telephone network for over 2,400 hours and reported more than 370 salvation decisions.
Zimmerman and Hill are among 3,900 "telephone encouragers" for the ERC who answer phones and share the Gospel from the convenience of their homes.
Using the ERC's high-tech "virtual" telephone network, volunteers remotely answer calls to 1-888-Jesus2009 (toll-free) twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week. The ERC also has "Internet encouragers" who use computers to share the Gospel with users who link to the ERC website, www.thegoodnews.org.
While volunteers set their schedule to take calls on certain days, they may actually "log on" whenever they wish, much more frequently than the ERC's monthly minimum of two and a half hours. It doesn't take a computer to log on, just a touch-tone phone.
After completing two hours of training, ERC telephone volunteers receive a password. When they are ready to answer calls, they simply dial the ERC phone number, input a PIN (personal identification number) and their password, and type in the phone number where they can be reached. The ERC system then automatically forwards calls to that number. Calls are handled in either English or Spanish.
Telephone encouragers may field calls from all fifty states and Canada, and share their faith over the phone with Jews and Muslims, along with truckers on America's highways who see the toll-free number on a billboard.
Ravi, said the ERC exists to advance the intentional presentation of the life-changing Gospel of Jesus Christ.
"We respond and pray with persons who contact us through various media, and refer them to local Southern Baptist Convention churches where they can obtain further ministry and spiritual growth opportunities," Ravi said.
The ERC fielded some 94,000 calls from 2006-08, an average of more than 2,600 per month. More than 5,000 callers made first-time salvation decisions over the three-year period, Ravi reported.
Ravi compares this method to Paul's pattern of contextualizing his approach as he proclaimed the Gospel in his travels. He emphasized that this is presenting the Gospel in a manner that is consistent with our hi-tech culture, saying, "We are not creating something new; Paul himself showed us how to do that."
In partnership with Holman Bible Outreach, a ministry of LifeWay Christian Resources, the ERC will send out free, Holman-donated Bibles to all callers who make decisions for Christ.
At the same time, Holman Bible Outreach now prints the ERC toll-free phone number in all of its new and reprinted Bibles and New Testaments, totaling more than 500,000 each year.
"God is clearly at work at NAMB, and we wanted Holman Bible Outreach to come alongside NAMB and help support the Evangelism Response Center," said Phill Burgess, Holman's executive director in Nashville, Tennessee.
"Having a place that people who receive a Bible can call to speak with a trained counselor about Jesus Christ, and then be able to connect that person with an ERC church, completes the evangelism loop in a way that could never be achieved otherwise," Burgess said.
Ravi said that as NAMB launches its GPS evangelism emphasis, the ERC is looking for relationships with 6,000-8,000 SBC "covenant" churches nationwide — four or five in each local association — who will commit to follow up on callers in their areas within three days. During the follow-up, the covenant church encourages the person to be baptized and discipled, and join a local SBC church. He also indicated that the ERC is seeking partnerships with various language groups to extend and expand the potential impact.
"About one in four people calling the ERC makes some kind of decision — a commitment to ministry, to volunteer, or a decision for Christ," Ravi said.
Calls are generated from a myriad of ministries and media, some outside the Southern Baptist Convention. For instance, the ERC handles more than 10 percent of the calls to the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association. Other calls may be generated by special events or mass media campaigns (TV, radio, billboards) launched by state Baptist conventions or other ministries.
Ravi said that as the GPS strategy unfolds the ERC will be in desperate need for more covenant churches and more volunteers, noting, "We have a goal of having 10,000 volunteers handling 100,000 calls a year."
Telephone encouragers are carefully trained and certified by one of forty-three regional facilitators or NAMB staff on how to field calls and share the Gospel. They can choose the time they want to handle calls — evenings, late nights, or weekends — based on their schedules.
Ravi indicated that churches can also post the ERC phone number and utilize it locally on multiple levels in multiple ministries, such as on church Web sites, billboards, newspaper ads, TV ads, and more. And every caller is referred directly to a covenant church in his or her community.
In addition to training telephone encouragers (TEs), Ravi also indicated that the ERC trains Internet encouragers (IEs) on how to develop a Web site and use it to share the Gospel.
He emphasized that the Internet provides a growing avenue for reaching the world, pointing out that the number of users around the world has grown from 360,985,492 in 2000 to 1,463,632,361 in 2008. In addition, Ravi said by the end of 2008 there were more than 2 billion wireless phones in use.
"We need to use technology to reach people for Christ. The tragedy of the church today is that evangelicals are biblical but not contemporary in technology. The world uses contemporary technology more than us. We need both faithfulness to the Word and sensitivity to the modern world," Ravi said.