God on the Internet

The Continuing Explosion of Online Religion

By Mark A. Kellner –

Special to New Frontier

It’s tempting–

if admittedly dangerous–for someone to suggest a given phenomenon is the event of the decade, especially since the 1990s have another few years to go. But the explosive growth of the Internet surely qualifies this new communications vehicle as epochal.

By now, very few people who use or know of online service are not aware of the Internet. Not since the days of Gutenberg–whose printing of the Bible with movable type sparked a communications revolution of its own–has there been a communications revolution to equal that found on computer screens around the globe. The Internet, a “network of computer networks,” is linking upwards of 50 million people, globally, in an electronic community, where all kinds of information can be found and exchanged.

Originally the brainchild of defense and research scientists, the Internet has grown from a mere forum for such specialists into a massive “town square” operating on a 24-hour, seven-day basis. The Internet is a collection of computer networks that have been designed to interconnect with each other using standardized communications protocols.

With this common data language, Internet-linked computers can then share graphics, text, audio, and video clips in common formats. The combination of these elements came into focus four years ago with the introduction of the World Wide Web (also known as the Web, or WWW). The Web was created by Tim Berners-Lee and a programming team at CERN, the European Particle Physics Laboratory in Switzerland. The standards created here allowed physicists to organize and access research data.

These standards compose a text coding system, or markup language. With this language, you can use special codes to display a text document such as this on a Web browser. You can also search for it using hotlinks, which are cross-references to other Web sites. The browser software, of which Netscape is the most popular, allow users to search the Web by topic and find those sites that are of personal interest.

Specialized sites

All this has given rise to a variety of specialized Web sites that meet individual needs. The Salvation Army, both at its International Headquarters and in the Western Territory (among other places), is on the Web, offering a “virtual open air” available around the clock. Already, several people have made useful contacts with the Army, both to find individuals and offer their thanks for the Army’s unique ministry. Officers and soldiers share program ideas, prayer requests and praise reports across geographical boundaries and time zones.

Even a former territorial commander from the West, General Paul A. Rader, is known to be an active e-mail user and a participant in the “Discussion Forum” hosted on the IHQ Web page. From the General on down, communications is flowing in the Army, enabling many to do their jobs better and to serve others in Jesus’ name.

This spiritual activity online isn’t limited to one denomination or religion. For example, the Lubavitcher branch of Orthodox Judaism maintains branches, known as Chabad Houses all over the globe. Now, one of these is in Cyberspace, and the Lubavitch rabbi who runs it says it is the only Chabad House where he can always find observant Jews, but where he can never reach a minyan, the assembly of 10 Bar Mitzvahed (confirmed) Jews required for a prayer service.

Within the online world, Christian denominations have set up their own shops online. The Assemblies of God, Church of the Nazarene, Baptists, and Episcopalians have each established special areas on one of the major networks, and some have Web sites as well. Followers of Islam have Internet sites of their own, with some offering audio clips of prayers and readings from the Holy Q’uran, their sacred text.

Religious movements that are newer to the West have also become an online presence. Buddhists have several Web sites and “mailing lists” through which information is communicated. Followers of Soka Gakki, the Nichiren Buddhist sect based in Japan, have their own Web site. The Baha’is, a group whose origins go back to Islamic and Persian religious tradition, are also online in various forums and the Web.

Priceless information

The value of these services, is virtually priceless. In a world where even spirituality is pressed by an “instant” culture that favors the microwave over the slow-cooker, acquiring information online quickly is most helpful. When it comes to connecting with others, the value of the online world is not only speed, but a collapsing of time as well as distance.

You could, for example, post a request one evening before going to bed. Overnight, readers in other time zones would see that message and respond, while you sleep. The next morning, your answer could well be in your e-mail inbox, thanks to those who answered while you rested at a speed far greater than air mail and for a cost (usually free) that is less than faxing.

Perhaps the greatest benefit of these forums, as you shall see, is that you can expose your ideas and questions to people whom you have never met. By posting a message electronically, literally thousands of individuals will read it, and one of these readers might well have an answer or comment that you need. If the writer of Proverbs was at it today, “Cast your bread upon the waters” might well be rendered “Post your message on the Net and it shall return to you after a few hours.”

A lifesaver

Saving a man from death, online: a true story.

On an October evening in 1994, two people–a Florida homemaker and a Virginia computer specialist –reached out to save the life of a third man, someone they’d never seen, met, or even knew.

The event began when Sharon Herbitter logged on to the CompuServe Information Service, one of the oldest and largest online networks in the U.S. Checking messages posted on a special electronic “bulletin board,” the Christian Interactive Network.

Ms. Herbitter read a message from a man named John: “Please pray for us. Last night Becky said that she had no love left for me, and money was the only thing stopping a divorce.” Further, John said that he had “tried to end it tonight” by locking himself in his truck and breathing carbon monoxide fumes. A Christian radio station brought him back, but he wrote: “I don’t know how long I can resist the need to be free from the hurt.”

At that moment, Ms. Herbitter took action. Checking with other CompuServe subscribers logged into the Christian Interactive Network section, she tried to find out who “John” was, and failing that, she started an online prayer session, typing in words of supplication and intercession in a group conversation with others.

Soon, the group was joined by Kevin Tupper, then a 28-year-old computer consultant in the Virginia suburbs of Washington, D.C. Tupper had also read John’s plea, and while acknowledging the need for prayer, he took action as well.

Using an online directory service, Tupper soon found out that the potential suicide was John Dodd, then 40, a college student and part-time laundry worker. Dodd lived in Miami, Indiana, approximately 60 miles southeast of Indianapolis. Calling the Miami Country Sheriff’s Department, Tupper had to convince a dispatcher his call was not a hoax and that someone several hundred miles away could know that a local man was in danger of dying.

Deputy Gary Glassburn, however, soon discovered the seriousness of Mr. Tupper’s phone call. Dispatched to the Dodd house, he saw lights on but no movement. Prying open a garage door, he confronted billowing clouds of exhaust. Dodd was unconscious and awoke confused. Hospitalization and counseling followed.

In the weeks that followed, Dodd joined an online chat with Herbitter and Tupper, and thanked them for saving his life.

“He was making a cry for help,” Tupper told People magazine, “and he got some. Now he thinks God must have some sort of reason for him to be alive.”

The phenomenal growth of religion online

This story is true. The names were not changed, only the potentially tragic outcome, and that changed because two people used their computers, their brains, and their hands to reach out to someone in need. If there’s a better reason for believers to find fellowship with others online, I can’t think of it.

In the roughly 15 years that online services have been available to the public, millions of people have discovered their computers as a place for communication and interaction, and not just a way to crunch spreadsheet numbers. Drop down to the last couple of years, 1993 to 1996, and you’ll see multiple millions of people signing up for Internet access and online services such as CompuServe, America Online, and Prodigy. In the past 18 months, AT&T and Microsoft Corporation have jumped into the online fray, launching WorldNet and The Microsoft Network.

Integral part of daily life

For many, electronic mail, online networks, and the Internet form an integral part of our daily lives. When I arise in the morning, before I go out to get the newspaper, I check my desktop computer for e-mail messages and news that has come in overnight. During the day, every 20 minutes, a software program checks my electronic mailboxes on three services and beeps to let me know if a message has arrived.

If you work in an office or a university, you may well have a desktop computer hooked into a local-area network. In turn, that network hooks into a mail server, through which you can send and receive electronic mail to anywhere on the planet. In one office, I know about many of the workers started each morning with a “Word of the Day” message, a Scripture verse selected and sent by one man in Redwood City, California, to an international mailing list. It’s an encouragement for those who receive these daily bursts of inspiration.

Online services and the Internet are worth more to religious-minded individuals than a crisis intervention service or a neat way to receive a daily spiritual vitamin. Electronic communication has created a digital “Speaker’s Corner” where, as at the real one in London’s Hyde Park, anyone can have his or her say on issues of the day. Unlike the British version, however, the online forums are available 24 hours a day, seven days a week–not just on Sunday afternoons. These services have also linked members of large and small churches in ways previously unimaginable: people discover shared interests and exchange ideas.

Further, for those people who want to research the basics of their faith, learn about the beliefs of others, or get help in a special area of research, today’s online technology offers manifold opportunities for those interested in reaching out to a world of information from their desks or dens.

In short, using a computer to reach out for information and fellowship is no longer an odd or unusual practice. It’s commonplace, yet it provides an uncommon capability to reach far beyond local resources.

On the wane?

Will this trend wane? Most likely not. Almost half of all American households (46 percent) now own a computer, according to a mid-1995 study conducted by Casey Communications/Shandwick in cooperation with EPIC-MRA. American consumers are also increasingly becoming wired to the Internet: Of all computer owners, 16 percent subscribe to on-line computer services with Internet access.

According to SIMBA Media Information, Inc., a research firm that studied the growth potential for the Internet in 1995, the picture through the end of the century is bright: Internet usage will grow by 62.4 percent each year through the year 2000. Other studies indicate that between 20 and 50 million people worldwide are connected to the Internet (although these figures are disputed), which means that a 62-percent annual rate of growth would give us an Internet community of nearly 250 million people worldwide by that point, using the lower estimate. That’s a population roughly equal to that of the United States.

Even if the growth figures aren’t that prodigious, the advent of larger groups of online users means more opportunity for us all to connect and interconnect. To those searching for fellowship, information, and inspiration, that has to be good news. To those of us in The Salvation Army, who are under orders to reach out to a lost world in the name of Jesus Christ, with his gospel message of redemption and hope, the Internet represents a tremendous mission field.

As with any evangelistic effort, of course, users need to be aware of the terrain, the kind of people they’ll meet, and how best to approach these individuals. One could write a whole book about this ­ I did ­ but briefly here are some key thoughts for the budding on-line evangelist:

Get to know the Internet before you preach. Spend some time online, using either a Web browser provided by America Online or CompuServe or an Internet provider. Visit a variety of sites, including the Army’s, and see how you can use this information to create your own Web pages and message. (Please know, however, that taking data from other Web sites can only be done by the permission of the site owner or creator; you can “link” your page to anyone’s site, but reproducing other material on your Web page without permission can be a violation of copyright law.)

If you create a Web page, think about what you’re writing, and for whom you are writing it. Be sure to make your page inviting, readable, and useful. Make it interesting, and use language which draws the reader in. If you’re promoting a corps, include a picture of the corps, its officers, or the congregation. (Official Web pages for Salvation Army units are subject to various regulations available from your DHQ or THQ; however, any individual member is currently free to post an “unofficial” Web page promoting their Corps, and several have done so.)

Internet discussion groups are a popular place in which to find people who are curious about your faith–and those who want to dispute your beliefs. Be sure to answer all with a positive, polite message and even though you might get some words which aren’t found in the Bible, remember that a soft answer turns away wrath.

Approach all your online work with a spirit of prayer. God is in control, and trust him to guide your activities in a way that will glorify his name.

Mark Kellner, a soldier formerly resident in the Western Territory, attends the Arlington, Virginia, Corps with his wife, Jean. He writes the “On Computers” column for The Washington Times and contributes to “Christianity Today” and other publications. His third book, “Mastering Netscape Navigator Gold 3.0” is due in bookstores soon.

Copyright acknowledgment: Portions of this article have appeared in “God on the Internet” by Mark A. Kellner, published by IDG Books Worldwide of Foster City, California, and copyright © 1996 by IDG Books Worldwide. Used by permission. “God on the Internet” is available at local bookstores and by calling 1-800-762-2974.

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