Internet and Mission
16 June 2000
Copyright © 2000 Eberhard Beilharz
- What is the Internet?
- Use of the Internet in missions
- New possibilities for evangelism
In the last years, the use of the Internet spread widely. More and more people get access to the Web and use email. "In less than two years, the Internet has jumped from being a minority hobby to a 'must-have' communication system. Month by month, its growth has been phenomenal." 
This enormous growth, together with easier and cheaper access facilities, brings new possibilities for using these new technologies as a means for reaching people with Christ. Additionally the new communication techniques bring new possibilities for use within mission organisations. The following chapters discuss these issues.
The Internet is a global network of independent computers. Individuals can get access to the Internet via an Internet Service Provider (ISP), to whom they connect their computer via a modem and a telephone line. Once they are connected they have nearly instant access to all the services of the Internet worldwide.
One of the most used resources of the Internet is electronic mail (email). Another often used service is the World Wide Web (WWW). "Computers on the Internet serve hypertext and hypermedia documents which contain links to other related documents contained either on the same server computer or anywhere else on the Internet."  All kind of information can be found on the WWW. Search engines try to make this information easier accessible by indexing all or some pages of web sites.
An Intranet is a part of the Internet that is accessible only inside an organisation. It can be spread across the whole world and it allows the organisation to provide all the services of the Internet for internal use. "The main purpose of an intranet is to share organisational information amongst the workers of that organisation." 
The wide spread of the Internet brings many advantages for mission organisations. The availability of email allows faster and cheaper communication. Instead of sending a letter which will take several days to reach the recipient or sending a fax which requires a long distance call, the email reaches the recipient almost instantly. It is easier to discuss things with people that are far away. Email allows better communication in the mission organisation, but also between the mission organisation and the missionaries on the field. For missionaries that live somewhere far away of "western civilisation" and who could pick up their mail only every few weeks, email could be an enormous improvement for their communication with their mission organisation and friends. Even where there are no telephone lines, often at least email access could be made possible via radio or satellite.
Email gives missionaries and mission organisations the opportunity to inform their prayer partners with actual prayer requests - it is easy to send an email when an urgent request appears. This allows the prayer partners to be more involved in the situation and work of the missionary.
The Internet makes further training possible and easier. The Berean University  in the USA offers several theological training courses over the Internet. "Such an application of the Internet has great potential to provide both theological and missiological training by extension to those unable to attend schools and colleges, many of which are in the expensive West, because of limited finance or other commitments."  Although this is another kind of distance learning there is the possibility of greater interaction between student and teacher.
The World Wide Web makes it easier to access and obtain any kind of information. This can help in the ministry, in decision-making and in providing information for the supporting churches.
Mission organisations can also use the Web for recruiting new members. It is easy to provide information about the organisation on a web site, to describe the vision of the mission and to have some pages with information about possibilities for working with the organisation.
Intranets provide additional possibilities. Mission organisations can make all kind of information available that their members may need for their ministry or that they want to know.
However, there are also dangers in the new possibilities, especially in the new ways of communication. There is the danger that too much emphasis is laid on the communication with friends and supporting people back home, so that the relationships with the people at the working place suffer.
There is a danger that decisions are made to hasty or replies are written to quickly. Email makes it easy to reply, often without having thought enough about the topic and prayed through it. On the other hand can it be difficult to make decisions when there is so much "relevant" information on the Internet. "Collecting and analysing the shear volume of accessible information which can be obtained from the Internet can lead to procrastination when there is a need for prompt decision making." 
Then there are security issues. Especially in sensitive countries, emails from people who are not aware of the situation can be dangerous for the missionary. It is important to instruct the people who know the email address. It is necessary to avoid obvious key words like 'missionary' or 'convert', and it is good to use family or business related terminology. "Since software exists to search for key words, it can be argued that sending email is less secure and less private than sending an open postcard which must be censored by hand."  The use of encryption software like PGP (Pretty Good Privacy) makes emails more secure. It is nearly impossible to get the content of the email without having the appropriate keys. However, if only few people use encryption, its use can be suspicious and can draw attention of the police. Therefore the mission agencies disagree about whether encryption should or could be used.
Jesus has commanded his disciples and us to go and to make disciples of all nations. "In the man-made virtual worlds with computer-mediated communication, the opportunities are legion. The global structure provides a unique possibility for proclamation of the gospel to the whole earth, and the number of virtual 'inhabitants' will continue to grow." 
One often-used possibility are cyberchurches. A. H. Fjeldsted defines: "A cyberchurch facilitates worship and Christian education, evangelisation and community on the World Wide Web."  A cyberchurch can be a ministry of a local church or an independent initiative with no formal connection to an established church. A cyberchurch does not have to implement all the mentioned criteria and may still be a cyberchurch. "Yet, a cyberchurch is the opposite of 'just a Web page.' A local church does not have a 'cyber church ministry' by merely having a Web page with information about a local church. A cyberchurch is above all, interactive. It communicates with people and aims to establish a relationship with the visitors." 
Besides cyberchurches, simple web pages can serve the purpose of evangelism on the Internet. There are different types of possible web pages. One possibility are general purpose pages. These pages may have no mention of the Gospel, but may cause the reader to get thinking, and they may have links to other pages with more Gospel content. Another possibility are pages with articles on non-religious topics that show the Christian point of view. Pages with testimonies can tell true stories about how people experienced God. Apologetic pages can give answers to questions about Christianity. Other pages can explain the basic Gospel, or they can have an evangelistic Bible study of some type.  There can also be pages that use the WML format so that they are accessible by WAP capable mobile phones. 
However, one must be aware of the layout of the pages. Only interesting pages with good layout will make the visitor read through the whole page. And it is still no guarantee that people will visit the site. It is important to make the site known. This can be mouth-to-mouth recommendation, advertising in specific directories, and making the site known to as many as possible search-engines.
Another possibility are discussions in chat rooms, newsgroups and email forums. There are thousands of discussion groups to a large variety of topics. There are plenty opportunities for sharing the Gospel in these groups. However, best results will happen if relationships will be built to people in these groups. Fjeldstad states: "A major model for this could be 'friendship evangelism,' calling Christians of any denomination to join the more than 20,000 active user groups and e-mail conferences on almost any imaginable subject, to explore the tremendous opportunities of international interaction and building real friendships where sharing the faith in Jesus Christ is a natural thing to do." 
The great challenge of evangelism on the Internet is that every Christian with a computer and an Internet access can participate. Mission organisations and churches have to motivate and inform the Christians to take these opportunities and to provide training for effective use of these methods.
This chapter lists some of the resources of the Internet that were used for this essay. It is only a very limited selection, but may give a starting point for finding further resources.
Tips how to use chat rooms for evangelisation: http://www.weboutreach.net/chat.shtml
Directory of Christian web sites: http://www.fishthe.net
Example of an evangelistic web site for people learning English: http://www.soon.org/
List of cyberchurches: http://www.geocities.com/ResearchTriangle/1541/cybchur.html
Tutorial how to build a web site for web evangelism: http://www.brigada.org/today/articles/web-evangelism.html
Andrews, T.: "Internet evangelism conference highlights problems, possibilities", in: World Pulse 34:11 (1999), p. 4
Blackmore, V.: God on the Net (London: Marshall Pickering, 1999).
Bohanon, P. C.: "Go ye… into all the World (Wide Web!)", in: Mission Bulletin 18:3 (1998), pp. 7 - 13.
Cargreaves, K.: "Prayer partners in cyberspace", in: Wholeness 41 (1999), pp. 14 - 15.
Cleaver, C.: How is the Internet used in mission? (Ware: ANCC, 1999).
Dixon, P.: Cyberchurch (Eastborne: Kingsway Publications, 1997).
Fjeldstad, A. H.: "Communicating Christ in Cyberspace", in: World Evangelization 82 (1998), pp. 4 - 7.
Fjeldstad, A. H.: Communicating Christ on the Net (http://www.geocities.com/ResearchTriangle/1541/art0.html).
Fjeldstad, A. H.: Cyberchurches (http://www.geocities.com/ResearchTriangle/1541/cybchur.html, 2000).
Kirsch, T.: "Christianity Online", in: World Evangelization 82 (1998), pp. 10 - 11.
O'Rear, M.: "Talking mission on the net", in: World Evangelization 82 (1998), pp. 12 - 13.
Oliver, D.: "The virtual church and the Internet", in: Areopagus 8:2 (1995), pp. 26 - 29.
WEC: Communications Directory 1999 - 2000 (Gerrards Cross: WEC International, 1998).
Web Evangelism Guide (http://www.brigada.org/today/articles/web-evangelism.html).
 Web Evangelism Guide, http://www.brigada.org/today/articles/web-evangelism.html#intro
 Cleaver, p. 3
 Cleaver, p. 7
 Cleaver, p. 6
 ibid., p. 11
 Fjeldstad, Christ on the Net, http://www.geocities.com/ResearchTriangle/1541/art16.html
 Fjeldstad, Cyberchurches, http://www.geocities.com/ResearchTriangle/1541/cybchur.html
 Web Evangelism Guide, http://www.brigada.org/today/articles/web-evangelism.html#eight
 Fjeldstad, Christ in Cyberspace, p. 6f