Making The Internet Connection
By Bourne Smitt
More than a billion people use the World Wide Web. According to the Internet Evangelism Coalition (IEC), church Web sites are an essential part of local churches’ public profiles to their communities. Indeed, in some parts of the world, church Web sites draw more people into face-to-face church activities than any other method. More and more visitors report they visited the church’s Web site before they visited the actual worship service or building.
All of this surfing provides churches with great potential for community impact. Church sites can be used as powerful outreach tools. However, research reveals a discouraging picture:
* Most church sites are written purely for members, using “religious insider” content, style and lingo.
* Many do not create a sense of welcome to outsiders or include any material that they would perceive as relevant to them.
* Either they do not provide any hint about the life-changing gospel, or else they present it in heavy-handed terms which may be “too much, too soon,” or in a counter-productive Bible bashing.
The IEC has developed Internet Evangelism Day—this year on Apr. 29—to place Web outreach in an annual focus for churches. The www.InternetEvangelismDay.com Web site offers tips and tools for churches interested in reaching out successfully online. For example, some strategies the IEC recommends for effective church Web sites include:
* A natural, informal sense of welcome, even humor, placed throughout the site.
* Lack of insider, churchy language and jargon.
* Photos showing not only the church building exterior, but also interior shots including people. These will help prospective visitors feel the church is familiar even before they first visit the physical building.
* Clear directions with an online map to find the church, where to park and notes about any public transportation links.
A summary of these strategies for a church site intended to attract the unchurched is available from the Internet Evangelism Coalition. You’ll find their 70+ Tips and self-assessment questionnaire explain this approach in more detail.
Another popular Internet option for a large number of pastors is a Web log, or blog. Blogger Ken Gosnell shared four blogging tips recently with the blog Monday Morning Insight to inform church leaders on how blogging can help your church.
In a nutshell, blogging increases and enhances communication within the church; helps hone a sermon to a particular audience; breaks down barriers between people; and helps the church engage the culture.
“Soon a preacher that does not blog with his congregation will be out of touch and behind the pack,” Gosnell asserts.
Hard to say whether Gosnell’s assertion about this trend will materialize, or as with so many technology trends, morph into yet another trend. Already blogging is giving way to “vlogging,” a sort of video-based blog.
Podcasting, which is audio or video that can be viewed online at any time, has become the new broadcasting for churches intent on posting their sermons, worship services and other video content to the Web.
The IEC recommends combining a church video with a social networking site to maximize the exposure for Christian content. In a web evangelism context, short video clips are a strategic way forward, according to the IEC. For example, YouTube.com, iFilm.com, Google Video and Yahoo Video are leading examples of popular secular networking sites where short videos can be uploaded by users.
The most popular video clips receive the highest exposure and positive user feedback, sometimes resulting in download figures approaching one million and beyond. These video sites are popular: people upload 35,000 new video clips a day to YouTube, and watch 35 million daily downloads (late 2006 figures). MySpace.com (which is more than just a video system – it’s a social networking site) serves even more videos daily.
Again, the potential for virtual technology is overwhelming because of the large number of users that can be reached. However, the way Christians often handle these tools squelches this potential for outreach.
According to the IEC, what Christians and church leaders should realize when preparing to use the Internet for evangelism is that most people are not surfing to become believers in Jesus. Although research shows that a surprising number of people do search the Web on broadly religious topics, these topics relate to all types of religions, including searches for horoscopes and fortune telling.
Another factor in Web evangelism is that most Christian Web sites are designed for Christians. The language used and the issues addressed indicate that these sites serve only the Body of Christ. Even those sites that intend to be evangelistic tend to use insider language or Christian jargon.
Therefore, harnessing the connecting and communicating power of the Internet for church evangelism should not be an afterthought or byproduct of implementing technology for ministry within the church. Instead, the Internet should be viewed as a mission field where language and outreach strategies must be appropriate in order to reach the culture.
Used effectively, the Internet can give churches opportunities to reach people with the gospel, right where they are.
This article “Making The Internet Connection” written by Bourne Smitt is excerpted from www.churchcentral.com on April 24, 2007.