Churches Discover Outreach Easy as Click of the Mouse

When Brad Johnson left Kentucky two years ago for Saddleback Valley Community Church, he vaulted to the forefront of Christendom's communications revolution. Led by best-selling author Rick Warren, the church is known for innovations that have seen the Southern Baptist congregation mushroom from a handful of people to about 16,000 in six weekend services.

Such growth makes it impractical for Warren to mail letters when he wants to inform members about important issues, said Johnson, a teaching and missions pastor at the Southern California church.

Now, such communication happens with the flick of a button. Similarly, Johnson uses e-mail to keep in touch with parishioners, as well as old friends in Bowling Green, Ky., where he was pastor of Living Hope Baptist Church.

But electronic letters are only one aspect of the church's Web-based outreach. Through its Web site, leaders of home-based cell groups can add or delete names of participants. Members can check on cell group meetings and activities.

For the estimated 20 percent of attendees who don't have e-mail, Saddleback maintains several computers on a patio outside the sanctuary, with helpers demonstrating how to retrieve information. The church also broadcasts its worship services live over the Internet, which allows members traveling to tune in to keep in touch, Johnson said. Web broadcasts also let prospects view a service before visiting, exposing them to the gospel before they darken the church door.

"It is a method, one of several hooks we drop in the water," Johnson said. "Four weeks before Easter, anyone who logs on will see a list of Easter services, can discover how to become a Christian, and they can indicate if they made a decision to do so.

"If they did, within 24 to 48 hours they will get phone contact from someone at the church. For this area, that's very personal. We used it last Easter and at Christmas." In addition, the staff has designed an "e-invitation" for use during those two holidays. The church sends members a greeting card that they can customize and e-mail to friends.

As for worries that electronics eliminate the human touch, Johnson said Saddleback's experience has been overwhelmingly positive. "The same concern was voiced by Christians when the telephone was invented," he said. "People worried that we'd all stay home and just talk to each other over the phone. But there's something in the human spirit that demands human contact. Technology hasn't prevented that from happening and I don't think it will."

Indications are the Internet revolution is gaining steam. A report issued last year by Barna Research Group forecasts that in the coming decade more than 10 percent of America's population will rely on the Internet for their entire spiritual experience.

Some will be individuals who haven't had a previous connection with a faith community, but millions will be people who drop out of a physical church in favor of the cyberchurch, according to president George Barna. Barna said that virtually every dimension of the faith community will be influenced by online faith developments. "We will have an explosion of self-produced and self-marketed worship music as an outgrowth of a sophisticated and affordable digital technology that turns an artist into a full-fledged recording company," he said.

"Within churches we will see e-mail broadcasting, theological chats, online meetings, broadcasts to congregants who are immobile, live webcasting of mission trips via webcams, and (round-the-clock) ministry training," Barna added.

Barna also forecasts that about 45 percent of Protestant churches will have a Web site by May of 2002, it added that half of non-participants won't add one, either. That means one-third of all Protestant churches are expected to ignore the Internet the next five years, the report said.

Despite statistics showing swelling numbers of computer users accessing the Internet for spiritual information, the principal author for a report from the Pew Internet & American Life Project said it is difficult to measure the depth of those inquiries. Issued in December, the study backed by the Pew Charitable Trust said more than 3 million people per day use the Net to retrieve religious or spiritual material, a 50 percent increase over the previous year.

Research fellow Elena Larsen said that more people use the Internet to get spiritual information than to gamble, trade stock, bank online, place on-line phone calls or use Web auction sites.

However, Larsen said it is difficult to determine exactly what kind of information people are seeking or how long they investigate a particular site. Nor does she believe that technology will send people on a spiritual quest. Social scientists identify certain beliefs, such as political party affiliations, as "sticky," meaning they are resistant to change, she said. "I believe that religious beliefs are also quite sticky," Larsen said. "People can change or revise their religious beliefs over time, but it would be very difficult to isolate an 'Internet effect' in the role." Still, Johnson said Internet usage trends mean Southern Baptists and other Christians everywhere should prepare for the future.

"Ten years ago people who jumped on the Internet were seen as speculators, people jumping on a passing fad," he said. "Now my mom and dad have their gas company as their Internet service provider. This is something that is here to stay."