The Cyber Touch of Grace (Jan-Feb 2002)

By Matt Dabbs

by Phil Ware
January – February, 2002

On September 11, I was waiting in a grocery store parking lot to join my business partner, Paul Lee, for a trip to Houston< to visit with several folks from Eastern European Mission. We were taking the first steps to get several Russian Bibles and follow up materials online as part of our new Bible study and search engine, www.StudyLight.org. StudyLight was the latest addition to our web ministry known as Heartlight (www.heartlight.org).

I was listening to sports updates on the radio when they broke in with a news bulletin about the World Trade Center being hit by a plane. Then, during a live update at the scene, the second plane hit. For the first hour or so, we listened in stunned silence to the horrifying updates as the facts began to unfold. After gathering many of the initial facts, I began to write an article for Heartlight that we would post to our web site and also send to our daily devotional e-mail list (at that time, about 70,000 people).

A few minutes later, Ben Steed, a senior at Harding University in Arkansas and a key part of the Heartlight team, called and set up the purchase of a web domain. Paul designed a new web site as we traveled. By the time we arrived in Houston, we put off our meeting for an hour, posted the article with pictures, and began www.PrayerfortheNation.com. By mid-October, the traffic jump was amazing. We saw our monthly traffic jump from 250,000 distinct users (12-13 million hits per month) to twice that. At one point, we were averaging a request every .79 seconds. People were hungry for Christian ways to react to this crisis. The web offered a fast way to respond with articles, video presentations, board discussions, and timely information.

Heartlight arrived online nearly six years ago. It was a modest beginning, with weekly articles by Paul Faulkner, Randy Becton, and me. It was early on the scene and grew rapidly with very little spent on advertising. The addition of Today’s Verse (free daily devotional featuring a Scripture, devotional thought and a prayer now sent to 150,000 per day) sped the growth. Including Scripture Graphics multiplied it (images from the HeartGallery are used in thousands of churches each Sunday). Free e-cards helped us spread the word about Heartlight. Requested development of emergency web sites and specialty ministry sites extended the impact (we helped do a site for Laotian Christians seized and imprisoned 3 years ago, one for school shootings, Forty Days of prayer and fasting for the election, and a current prayer and fasting site for President Bush). Adding free tools for churches and Christian web site developers through Christian Banner Exchange (cbx.Heartlight.org) has enabled us to spread the ministry further. However, it was the grace of God and his providential blessing that propelled the ministry’s growth as we stayed true to our original sense of mission: To provide resources for positive Christian living in today’s world.

Cyber ministry is no longer the wave of the future. The Internet is an incredible tool for churches and ministries today. Don’t be misled: this ministry is not easy, nor is it simple. Yes, anyone can throw up a few web pages, but keeping web sites current with quality content is challenging. (Notice how many “cob web” sites there are for churches.) Building a strategy for ministry outreach is crucial. Learning how to get noticed on the web search engines is important for traffic, especially for ministry and evangelism sites. Advertising is an important issue if you are going to reach a wider audience. Despite the challenges, the web is a great open door for ministry for those who are ready to step through it with commitment and creativity. I know of no other resource that offers us a way to touch the world with grace like the Internet.

Some practical insights from those who have been there

Help people understand the web and the potential for ministry. The web is not some esoteric thing out there. It is very much like a city (we’ll call it Cyber City) with good and bad neighborhoods. There are dangerous places to go, there are evil places to visit, but most of all, there are millions and millions of people who are looking for hope and need redemption. If we are going to put church facilities in cities, how can we not put one in this mega city?

Be strategic in your approach. Church web sites generally function in Cyber City much like a church building. Interested people will come and inquire about your church and about what you believe so you need to provide online tools to help them do that. A church web site should also be about building community in your congregation and providing resources for those people to live for Jesus.

If you want to evangelize, understand you will need something more than a church web site. Link to evangelism sites, such as www.wbschool.org, that are focused on evangelism. Build your own evangelistic site with a catchy domain name. But realize that just as evangelism means leaving the church building to reach out for folks in the everyday world, it means that as well in the cyber world.

Make sure you can keep what you do current. The only thing worse than no web site is a bad one that is never updated. Put together a team to keep the web site updated and have a “buck stops here” person that is accountable to the ministry staff or elders for content, quality, and staying current. For many, using a resource like www.Faithsite.com to run their site so that content can be updated easily is a great way to have a good church web site.

Take advantage of online resources on your church web site. For example, you can get a lot of free Heartlight content for your site by using the tools of Christian Banner Exchange (http://cbx.heartlight.org/tools/content).

Link to important web resources for your local ministry. Help your people find important Bible study tools online, like www.StudyLight.org with its multiple versions of the Bible in multiple languages and its commentary, dictionary, and original language resources. An indispensable resource is Terry Taylor’s www.ebibleteacher.com which has many resources for Bible teaching online.

Guard personal information about your members carefully. Be careful about putting too much personal information (addresses, birthdays, etc.) online. For small churches, one example to do this is to have a pictorial directory with only first names. That’s usually enough for folks. For directories and personal information, many churches are going to password-protected areas so their members have access but others don’t. Decide who your “guarded communities” are and be especially careful with information about them (e.g., single moms, children, and widows should never have personal information available that could be used by a stalker).

Help provide resources to help your folks surf the web safely. Information on safety filters for families and local internet providers that offered filtered web access are great tools. In addition, providing links to online resources helps get them started safely in their travels through Cyber City.

Use the web to support your mission’s ministry. Having reports with pictures and even online PowerPoint shows of your missionaries is a great way to help keep the congregation informed. Set up e-mail support partners to regularly encourage and communicate.

Make ministry in Cyber City a ministry in your congregation. Put it into the budget, pray for it, and publicize it. Develop a church wide e-mail list and special lists for prayer warriors and emergency response teams for ministry emergencies. The principle of Acts 1:8 applies to the web: begin where you are, reach out to our area, and share God’s grace with the world!New Wineskins

Phil Ware

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This author published 1598 posts in this site.
Matt is the preaching minister at the Auburn Church of Christ in Auburn, Alabama. He and Missy have been married 12 years and are raising two wonderful boys, Jonah and Elijah. Matt is passionate about reaching and discipling young adults, small groups, and teaching. Matt is currently the editor and co-owner of Wineskins.org.

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