by Victor Kuligin
With hundreds of millions of people using the Internet daily, countless opportunities abound for Christians to share their faith online.
With the advent of the Internet has come a plethora of junk. Lewd sites are everywhere, and many Christians view the Internet as the scourge of the earth. Granted, there is much to avoid on the Internet, but should believers be avoiding it completely? With hundreds of millions of people daily trafficking the Internet, can we, as Christians, not view this as an opportunity to spread the gospel?
A FEW DEFINITIONS
There are three common Internet forums where potentially fruitful interaction between numerous people can occur. The first are chat rooms. Although there are specific rooms which host more substantive discussions, the vast majority of chat rooms are trivial or superficial areas for chatting, often frequented by less-than-serious participants; these are seen as the Internet equivalent of a pub or pick-up joint. As such, it is probably best to avoid chat rooms.
Weblogs, more commonly known as blogs, have exploded on the Internet scene. Indeed, blogs have become so mainstream that the word “blog” was Merriam-Webster’s word of the year in 2004.1 These web journals are of a more personal nature and can include some areas for general discussion. However, they are normally confined to the personal opinions of the one hosting the blog. Blogs are also not the best place to engage unbelievers with the gospel.
More serious discussion boards are the place to look for opportunities to share the gospel. While certain Christian sites, most notably Christianity Today, have general discussion forums which may attract unbelievers, the best ones to frequent are the secular sites.2 We will concentrate on these.
Since 1997 I have frequented several discussion boards, most notably the one started by Slate magazine (http://www.slate.com ) in the mid-1990s. Slate was one of the first e-zines (Internet magazines) to begin charging subscription fees. Although it began as an experiment by politically left contributors, Slate still exists today as one of the top Internet e-zines. Their discussion forum, The Fray, attracted hundreds of participants, almost all of them non-Christians, from around the world in those early years. I was one of the only evangelical believers to contribute to The Fray.
Most discussion boards have the same basic format. You enter a particular thread, let’s say “Religion and Culture,” and you post your comments for all to see. Someone else will come later (anywhere from a few seconds to several days, depending on the website’s traffic) and post a response or rebuttal. Thus, the discussion continues. Some discussions can involve hundreds if not thousands of separate posts by dozens of participants. I have been in discussions and debates focused on topics such as the Trinity, the inerrancy of the Bible, evolutionary theory, the ethics of cloning and whether or not good Christians can be Democrats or Republicans. Many of the participants in these secular forums have little to no exposure to evangelical believers, and what exposure they may have had has often been negative. While there are some mega websites which have discussion forums (such as MSN), I prefer the relatively smaller sites. Following are five basic guidelines for those interested in jumping into this difficult mission field.
1. Choose your moniker wisely. Much care should go into the moniker or name you use to identify yourself in the discussion forum. Do not use your real name, as there are many people interested in overstepping the boundaries of Internet protocol and looking to cause you trouble in real life. I have seen numerous people banned from sites because they have made real-life threats against those with whom they vehemently disagree. Your moniker should reflect your basic purpose for being there; often the choice of a known, historical figure can be a fine selection (e.g., William Carey or Martin Luther). Guard your personal details closely. In my early years in The Fray I was invited to one forum by a friend who told everyone I was a missionary in Namibia. This was not good because in the minds of many involved with the forum only fanatics become missionaries.
2. Prepare for heated discussions. You must have a thick skin when you visit a discussion board. The abuse can be harsh and extremely personal at times. I have been in heated debates with (1) atheists who view all “religionists” as intellectually incompetent, (2) militant homosexuals who literally hate evangelicals and their typical stand against homosexual rights, (3) feminists who view the Church as chauvinistic and (4) many liberal-minded Christians who see callous intolerance in the evangelical doctrine of salvation solely in Jesus Christ. Ad hominem attacks are frequent, and many people look only to pick fights with Christians in order to see them get angry. I have been called everything ranging from the mildly amusing “idiot” to the overused “homophobe” or “bigot” to much more vulgar names.
Foul language is common, although some sites look to discourage it. Even vulgar pictures can be posted in many forums. Do not take these things personally. Recall that Jesus said the world will hate his followers. As long as you are clearly proclaiming Christ, attempt to separate the personal attacks on you as the messenger from the message of the gospel itself. Remember, you are representing Jesus Christ and not yourself in these forums.
3. Keep it as civil as possible. In my eight years in discussion forums perhaps my greatest downfall has been not always remaining as civil as possible. I tend to bite back when bitten, and the relative anonymity of the forum adds to the temptation to do so. I have said things in discussion boards that I would never say in face-to-face situations. This can obviously be counterproductive, especially if your purpose is to share the gospel. Speaking the truth in love is the goal in these interactions, but the temptation to strike back can be very real and at times irresistible. Attempt to not do so, but if you find yourself easily dragged into the name calling and mud slinging, take a breather for a day or more to regain your composure. Never post a response in haste or in a moment of anger. Also keep in mind that words in cold font on the computer do not communicate body language, facial expressions, tone of voice or other verbal cues which normally aid in personal conversation. Posted words are almost always taken more harshly than not, and rarely is the benefit of the doubt given. Remember how easy it is to miscommunicate with someone via email; this will give you some idea of how easily the same thing can occur in discussion forums on the Internet.
4. Stay focused. In some threads the posts come quickly. Often I have been the only evangelical Christian posting and many opponents post comments against me simultaneously. Some simply take personal potshots, while others drop red herrings meant to get you off topic. It is not easy to remain focused and on-topic, but if you do not, your time in the forum will end up being wasted time. Learn to filter the junk posts from the more substantive ones. Sometimes this simply involves getting to know the regular participants. In a short time you can quickly distinguish between the serious inquirers and the ones just looking to cause trouble.
5. Consider the lurkers. Despite some of the more difficult elements enumerated above, most forums have rather civil participants who are genuinely interested in seeking truth. However, many of these people, when faced with the prospect of “verbal” abuse, would prefer to not actively participate. They would rather remain on the sidelines and “lurk.” These lurkers can far outnumber the actual posters. Your arguments for Christ’s supremacy may, for example, fall on the deaf ears of the atheist with whom you are actively engaged in debate, but there may be several lurkers swayed by your arguments who will never admit it in the forum.
Some readers may feel that trying to use the Internet as a mission field is too much work; others may think that frequenting secular discussion board sites is sinful. Christians who do participate must do so with a clear conscience. When they do so, they will find that there are many unbelievers who are genuinely seeking interaction with knowledgeable Christians who can teach them the truths of the Christian faith. The anonymity of the Internet is often perceived by these seekers as an attractive and harmless way of gaining this interaction. With the existence of the Internet, the mission field may be no further away than your own personal computer.
Victor Kuligin is a missionary with Africa Inland Mission. He is a lecturer in systematic theology and church history at Namibia Evangelical Theological Seminary in Windhoek, Namibia. He and his wife Rachel have served in Namibia since 1994.
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