When God challenged Carl Brettle to ensure that the nation of Wales was soaked in prayer, the Rhondda-based believer turned to the Internet for the answer. “God inspired me to do a million hours of prayer for Wales” says Carl, the founder of Mission Support. “I had around 35 e-mail addresses and so I sent a simple letter asking people if they would commit some prayer time to Wales. We had responses from all over the world – many of whom forwarded on the request to their friends.”
By February Carl had received promises of a million hours of prayer, from people in 32 countries. A prayer card on his website (www:four13.net) gave the prayers fuel for their petitions to God. This was downloaded over 1,000 times within the first week. The campaign finally reached 10 million hours in November 2000.
“I think that as well as using a cheap method of communication we had hit on something that was on God’s heart too,” says Carl. No surprise then that Carl Brettle is one of a growing number of Christians keen to harness the strengths and potential of the Internet for the extension of God’s kingdom.
“The challenge is not where we might end up within the technology realm as will we ever start the process” he observes.
The challenge is certainly immense. A recent survey by Netvalues found that the number of home Internet users in Britain now stands at over 12 million with over a third of homes connected to the net. As a consequence one recent commentator has suggested that this means the amount of available knowledge doubles every 100 days.
Peter Worthington, Director of Netreach, a UK based company which exists to help others use the net suggests that it is difficult to know what we mean by the Internet because: it means different things to different people. “It is staggering that all this has happened in a little over five years. The speed of change is so great no wonder people struggle to keep up with it and are confused how it all works. The Internet has brought so many options that finding the right information is not only a multi- billion pound business but is often time consuming and difficult. The Internet has changed the rules and opened up so many possibilities that many people are left confused on how to grasp hold of it ”.
The Evangelical Alliance (EA) is keen to seize the opportunities the net is now presenting. Their Senior Communications Officer, Lorna Madden agreed that the net is “playing an increasing role. It is a key channel for equipping and encouraging EA members and it provides a link to useful resource tools and up-to-the-minute information on current social and religious issues.”
EA’s Leaders-digest.com, which was launched in January aims to fulfil that equipping role. Its features include a monthly e-mail bulletin with cuttings of news stories relating to young people which is sent to youth workers around the UK. The EA is also facilitating a group that is developing a evangelistic website.
Swansea Sounds DJ Kevin Johns is not as pessimistic as Carl Brettle. Kevin who hosts the breakfast show for the popular Welsh radio station says, “I am a big fan of the web and use it for an hour or so a day looking for gags and comedy ideas. The Christian church seems to have taken to the web like no other group with church web sites by the thousand, Christian homepages and ministries, both national and local”. It’s certainly not difficult to find good sites. Typical of these is Woodlands Christian Centre in Bristol (www.woodlands-cc.com). Its bright attractive format quickly gives you a clue to the church’s heartbeat for students and the poor and it ’s not without a dose of humour either.”
But not every church has a budding web designer. Companies and organisations such as Netreach (www.netreach.co.uk) are able to help churches maximise their opportunities by developing and maintaining church websites. As Peter Worthington explained, “A website often portrays and image, and a well-thought out design is important. There are many ideas for local sites, including “where to go for help”, “post your prayer request” and online discussions on local issues for example. It is best to spend some time looking at the vision of your church, the knowledge and the skills of your people and then developing your plans around that.”
However, launching a church website is only half the story. Being able to sustain and maintain a site is vital for its ongoing success. Companies like Netreach offer on- going services so websites can be regularly updated without the need for a complete redesign or costly outlay. Peter Worthington claims it is possible to view the net from a Biblical perspective, and considers that the story of Nehemiah can help us do it. “Like Nehemiah rebuilding the walls of Jerusalem, we’re involved in such a large task that communication is the key. When workers are working on one part of the wall we need to know about it, to pray and support them. We also need to know where our ‘bit’ fits in the master plan. The Internet is a powerful and fast communication tool within the Kingdom. The popular myth is that this will cause less personal relationships. In actual fact it can help,” he insists.
Highlighting its use in prayer Worthington points to the hugely popular prayer website www.24-7 prayer.com which now has led to thousands of people providing a constant 24 hours a day, seven days a week prayer coverage. Pete Gregg, who heads up 24-7 has produced a web site which aids networking, connections, mutual support, sharing answers to prayer as well as enabling interactive discussion forums.
Meanwhile another Welsh church, Parklands in Swansea, is using the Internet like never before. “We buy on-line because it is quicker and sometimes cheaper when purchasing things like books, children’s materials and even furniture,” says Church Administrator Glyn Davies. “Most of the time it is cheaper and generally the delivery has been good too. And the net has certainly changed our communication around the church. It has proved especially useful for engaging in youth discussion forums. Also, it’s much quicker to send out minutes and agenda via email, although I have to admit that we still need to educate folk to use it wisely. Many do not read or respond quickly and we have to be mindful of the generation gap.”
Simon Hall who heads up a church in Leeds which is targeting young adults, particularly those who have found it hard to engage with traditional church, finds the Internet contributes significantly to the life of his community. “We are targeting young adults and a lot of these are on the net” he explained.
“We have a couple of sites, including a chat room, and we have discovered that there is a committed core for whom it is an important place of community. They are into this other world and for them it’s not another communication device - it’s a community, and one we should target”. And they do. “Students have free access” he explained “and this offers us very definite opportunities. To facilitate this we put out flyers and postcards with our web address and as a result we’ve had one or two into our services. I’m not sure how cost effective it will be but we need to remember too that new people moving into the city will often look for a new church on the web.”
Hall welcomes the growing amount of on-line resources for Christians wanting to utilise the web. “For example I would recommend the creative attempts being employed by Christian Publicity Organisation (www.cpo-online.org) with their interactive site www.holyspace.org). Flyers can point people in this direction where they will find a clear presentation of the gospel ”. One intriguing development is the way in which the net seems to encourage quieter, more introverted people to participate in community life. “Our chat room has proved a liberating experience for those who find it intimidating to speak in more formal congregational settings,” says Hall, who regards the net as a means to enhance a wide range of communities. “I have a wider cyber community all across the world. It’s great to be able to communicate with them” he enthuses. However he’s aware of the dangers too. “I can see some people getting to the point where they say my strongest community is with those I don ’t see. This will probably prove especially attractive to those who find it hard to fit into more traditional models of church.”
Simon Hall isn’t sure where this will finally lead, indeed he doubts if anyone does. The best laid plans may result in unexpected surprises. The experience of Ship of Fools, a fast growing Christian website exemplifies this. Specialising in humour, satire and popular theology, the voyage of the Ship of Fools has taken some unexpected turns. Founder and Editor Simon Jenkins explains; “The biggest surprise is that the online magazine we thought we had launched has turned into an online community. People from all over the world meet up daily at our discussion board to chat, joke, talk theology, share problems and ask for prayer”.
Bookstores have had to come to terms with rapidly evolving scene too. Steve Mitchell, owner of Chapter and Verse, a modern and well stocked store in Kingston-On-Thames launched a online shop in 1998 (www.chapterandverse.com). He considers most people are becoming much more realistic about the role the Internet is going to play in the future. Although many people choose to buy online Mitchell considers there are “as many plusses as minuses compared to making a purchase in a traditional shop. I think it would be fair to say the churches use the net for communication rather than for purchase. In fact I think we’ve reached the point where people are moving beyond the ‘isn’t it wonderful stage’. Instead people are beginning to appreciate that it can’t replace face-to-face interchange.”
The dangers of the Internet –particularly the snare of pornography are all too real. But like the arrival of the printing press in the Middle Ages – it is resulting in fundamental changes in our society. Growing numbers of Christians are grasping its usefulness as a tool for building the Kingdom of God. It will mean changes, not least in the way we do church. Peter Worthington believes it will lead to a more dispersed, mobile but greater connected church.
“It means getting serious with God, spending time in His presence, dedication to prayer, unity and getting hold of His plan for life. It means empowering and releasing those with dreams, visions, skills and gifts so that we might rebuild the wall like Nehemia ”. To which I can only add “Onward Christian surfers!”