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NetCasters: Weaving the Nets of Internet Evangelism

Excerpt from NetCasters: Using the Internet to Make Fishers of Men

Chapter Three: Weaving the Nets: Building Your Internet Presence

The Time magazine 2006 Person of the Year was you—the individual. The Internet made this possible.

In declaring every person the Person of the Year in 2006, Time was recognizing a basic, fundamental shift in the state of communication, information, and ideas in this new millennium—and this was all made possible by the advent of the Internet—and more recently Web 2.0.

The editors of Time said this to justify their controversial selection of the 2006 Person of the Year:

Look at 2006 through a different lens and you’ll see another story, one that isn’t about conflict or great men. It’s a story about community and collaboration on a scale never seen before. . . . It’s about the many wresting power from the few and helping one another for nothing and how that will not only change the world, but also change the way the world changes. The new Web is a very different thing. It’s a tool for bringing together the small contributions of millions of people and making them matter. Silicon Valley consultants call it Web 2.0, as if it were a new version of some old software. But it’s really a revolution. [1]

Today the Internet is about relationships and communication—information, while still important, is secondary.

Definition of Internet Evangelism

To understand effective Internet evangelism, we first need to define what it is. Tony Whittaker is a leading NetCaster based in the United Kingdom who edits the monthly Web Evangelism Bulletin. He is also the driving force behind the annual Internet Evangelism Day, cosponsored by the U.S.-based Internet Evangelism Network (IEN). I asked him to describe what he believes to be effective outreach on the Web.

“Effective Internet evangelism almost always is one-on-one because a person reading a page is, of course, always one person. And so a writer should always be writing as if to one person, not preaching as if to a congregation. The gifts needed for a Web writer are those of a journalist, not a preacher. A preacher has a captive audience who has already decided to attend church, or another church-like event. A Web writer has no captive audience, since they can click away within seconds if they do not like the page. He or she must know how to write enticingly and keep the reader going down the page.

“Any conception of Web evangelism as some sort of magical broadcast effect that reaches people automatically is, of course, misplaced, just as TV broadcasting does not either. People actually have to decide to tune in for TV or click on a link, for the Web, and then decide to stick around.

“This concern about ‘real’ evangelism only being face-to-face evangelism is certainly something I come across. I guess some answers to this concern would be that most actual conversions I ever read about online usually result from a considerable time of e-mail (or similar) discussion and mentoring. Although I am sure it happens that people read something and come to faith immediately, just as they may when receiving a tract or watching something on TV, in practice these things are only one link in a chain, and ongoing contact with a real, praying, person is actually the way it happens most of the time, just as in the non-Web world.”

Web evangelists, or NetCasters, have found ways in which an Internet-based relationship is both different and less deep than a face-to-face relationship. There is, on the other side, that sense of being able to ask and discuss with someone online things you would perhaps find hard or impossible to talk through face-to-face.

“For many people, face-to-face evangelism is not an option,” Whittaker explains. “Only if every person in the world had a good relationship with someone they knew as a Christian, or were likely to frequently meet a known Christian in a setting where they could share their faith, would other methods of evangelism not be needed. In many countries, the chances of ever meeting an evangelical are slim—Eastern Europe, Japan, or the Middle East, for example. Therefore Web evangelism becomes even more strategic in these places.”

The 99 to 1 Problem

Millions of Christians around the world are now on the Internet every day. As I have pointed out, globally, approximately 1.7 billion people are logging onto the Web on an ongoing basis. [2] The world is flocking to the Internet and digital media outlets. The Web is now the new electronic meeting place, especially for people age thirty and under.

The problem is that, just as in the real world, Christians and non-Christians are barely talking to each other online. While it seems that everyone is on the Web, there is a major disconnect between the majority of Bible-believing Christians and the rest of the online subculture.

Tony Whittaker has named this phenomenon the “99 percent rule since Christian Web sites are created for other Christians, while only 1 percent of Christian Web sites are designed to evangelize the lost. [3]

We can see this same rule reflected in Christian book and music publishing as well; an examination of titles and videos reveals that the vast majority of material, in terms of language, content, and worldview, is produced entirely for Christians. The lack of truly evangelistic Web sites in the English language (let alone other languages) is a tremendous problem facing the church today. The vast majority of Web sites with Christian content are targeted to a Christian audience for the purpose of information or discipleship.

In order for the NetCaster to overcome this 99 to 1 problem, he or she must first recognize the importance of stepping out of his or her comfort zones and into something that might be new and different. And they must have a thorough understanding of what the Internet is and what methods are effective in catching the attention of the masses and directing them to Christ.

That chasm between those who need to know Jesus as their Savior and those who are actually doing Internet evangelism is very wide indeed. But people around the world are going online every day seeking truth. There is an incredible opportunity for evangelism and discipleship on the Internet.

“God is behind Internet evangelism in a very real and powerful way,” says NetCaster John Edmiston. “People do their secret thinking on the Internet, and because of that people explore things on the Web—such as who Jesus Christ is—that they can’t or won’t explore in public.” [4]

Walt Wilson, founder and chairman of Global Media Outreach, agrees that the Internet provides a golden opportunity to reach the nations for Christ. “You and I are the first generation to hold the technology to reach every person with the gospel and to accomplish the task of the Great Commission. What is our strategy to tell people about Jesus?” he challenges. “Will we act on what we believe?” [5]

In order to harness the power of the Internet for evangelism, the NetCaster must have a firm understanding of the current state of digital technology, and also a sense of where the Internet is going from here.

Internet and Modern Communication

The Internet is rapidly evolving—constantly reinventing itself. Convergence, community, collaboration, and interactivity are the words that best describe the direction the Internet is taking in this new millennium. In his groundbreaking book Wikinomics, futurist and Internet analyst Don Tapscott, along with Anthony D. Williams, shares the results of a $9 million research project that investigated how collaboration through Internet communities is creating an explosion in innovation, communication, creativity, and mankind’s overall knowledge.

“From the Internet’s inception its creators envisioned a universal substrate linking all mankind and its artifacts in a seamless, interconnected Web of knowledge,” Tapscott and Williams observe. “This was the World Wide Web’s great promise: an Alexandrian library of all past and present information and a platform for collaboration to unite communities of all stripes in any conceivable act of creative enterprise.

“The Internet is becoming a giant computer that everyone can program, providing a global infrastructure for creativity, participation, sharing, and self-organization. . . . The new Web is fundamentally different in both its architecture and applications. . . . Whether people are creating, sharing, or socializing, the new Web is principally about participating rather than about passively receiving information.

“The bottom line is this: The immutable, standalone Web site is dead. Say hello to a Web that increasingly looks like a library full of chatty components that interact and talk to one another. . . . This makes it very easy to build new Web services out of the existing components by mashing them together in fresh combinations.” [6]

This “new Web” that Tapscott and Williams describe has come to be known as Web 2.0. The thrilling news for the NetCaster is that most people who receive Christ online come to the point of praying a prayer of salvation through one-on-one relationships that are built naturally. These kinds of personal relationships and conversations have exploded in growth through the advent of Web 2.0—and all the interactivity it encourages.

The Emergence of Web 2.0

Web 2.0 represents the convergence of a number of elements that make up the modern Internet: broadband penetration, online video, and communication tools like e-mail, chat, forums and message boards, individualized content creation, social networking, microblogs, blogs, vlogs, mobile digital devices, and podcasting. This phenomenon presents a plethora of opportunities for the Internet evangelist to connect with seekers and point them to Jesus.

Web 2.0 can also be applied to changes in the ways software developers and end users view the Web. According to Tim O’Reilly, “Chief among those rules is this: Build applications that harness network effects to get better the more people use them. This is what I’ve elsewhere called ‘harnessing collective intelligence.’” [7]

Author Rex Miller thinks tools like these present ministries with a huge opportunity for reaching the next generation. “Web 2.0 represents a new revolution on the Internet—open participation,” he says. “It also provides a wonderful model for change and creates a critical mass that I hope unleashes an iGeneration revolution.” [8]

Kevin Hendricks wrote of the phenomenon, “The simplest way to understand Web 2.0 is that it has given power to the people. While Web 1.0 was all about passive surfing, Web 2.0 is about letting everyone contribute—whether that contribution is written opinion (blogs), feedback (comments), video (YouTube), photos (Flickr), connection and community building (MySpace/Facebook/LinkedIn), or knowledge (Wikipedia).

“More than technology or community, Web 2.0 is about a new frame of mind,” Hendrick’s explains. “Less is more; design matters; it’s OK to start small; mistakes happen; do it cheap; anyone can do it; and share. Web 2.0 is about decentralizing power and information and putting it in the hands of amateurs. And it’s OK if they get something wrong or it’s not as good as professionals would do it, simply because the sheer volume of information available makes up for a few deficiencies.” [9]

Web 2.0 and NetCasting

Evangelism on the Web occurs as a result of relationships, and relationships online happen in large measure as a result of Web 2.0—this second generation of Web-based communities and hosted services, including social networking sites, and wikis (collaborative information sharing sites) that are intended to allow collaboration, syndication, communication, and sharing between users. [10]

So what does the emergence of these global online conversations mean for evangelism on the Web? In a word: everything.

Jesse Carey, a social media strategist, explains the importance of Web 2.0 in building relationships online and how someone can take these concepts and incorporate them into a strategy for Web evangelism. “We always want the readers to engage with the content. With some traditional forms of media, whether it’s print, radio, or television, it’s on the terms of the media outlet. You have to tune in at a certain time. You have to have the right channel. You have to subscribe to the magazine. It’s all on the outlet’s terms. The Web 2.0 thing started with putting media in the user’s terms. They can take the podcast with them wherever they go. It’s the same with Web sites.

“The outgrowth is people taking ownership of the content. And that’s when you start seeing user submitted content and people being able to interact with it. So in terms of using that for evangelism, on a basic level, it enables users to comment and contact other users, or to contact the author with more questions. And if that’s not practical, if there are too many users, have a comment area where they can have a small community forum to discuss the ideas. If they have questions, or if they have comments, or ideas that they want to put into the conversation, enable that.

“That helps them, not only to engage and take ownership of the content, but from an evangelism perspective to get any answers that they’re looking for and kind of dig deeper with the issues.”

So in light of this Web 2.0 revolution, it’s a mistake to create an evangelistic Web site with the idea that it will be merely “tracts on a screen.” Such an approach is simply not in keeping with what the Internet has become. Instead, we must understand the Web’s nature as a communication medium, recognizing that people viewing the information placed on the Internet—whether it be text, audio, video, graphics, or photos—beg to have conversations about it.

Once we see the Internet as a modern-day forum for ideas and relationships, then we must learn how to work with its inherent strengths and either avoid or understand and use its weaknesses. When we do this, we will begin to harness and use the staggering opportunities that await the NetCaster online.