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Using the Internet to Build Christian Communityby Dr. Ralph F. Wilson
Appears in Worship Leader, Fall 2000
Churches and religious organizations have been experimenting with the Internet since the mid-1990s. But adoption has been slow; only a small fraction of churches have their own website. This should change gradually as organizations like the American Bible Society's ForMinistry.com (http://www.forministry.com) and Christianity.com (http://christianity.com) offer free wizard-driven starter websites that can be updated easily with only a web browser.
Websites are important because they provide information, but they don't build "community." Community requires interaction and relationships, and those can hardly be built with the one-way medium of a webpage.
Types of Interaction
Fortunately, there are several interactive tools that Christians can use to build communities. Each has its own strengths and weaknesses.
Chat Rooms are immensely popular with Gen-Xers and Gen-Yers. Andrew Careaga, author of E-vangelism: Sharing the Gospel in Cyberspace, observes that, "The chat room environment is a kind of hang-out for people, especially for teenagers. It's their version of a malt shop."
Chat rooms allow many people to interact with each other in real time. One of the most popular among Christians is The Christian Chat Network (http://www.cchat.net). Part of the fascination is the amazing variety of people you encounter in chat rooms. You'll find some regulars, but most dip in for a few minutes to see what kind of conversation may be going on, and then drop out to find another chat room. Users commonly give aliases rather than their real names. In a recent visit I saw "handles" such as Sword, SillySally, Romeo, Rent-a-Cop, and Sunflower.
Conversations can seem pretty disjointed, too, since there's a lag time of 30 seconds or so between a question the time it takes the other person to type out an answer and send it to the chat room. If two or three conversations are going on at once, it can look pretty scattered. The Christian Chat Network has 129 "rooms" where people can go to discuss various topics, such as the Lobby, Abuse Outreach, and Bible Q&A. While most conversations seem pretty inane, you sometimes find people that are dealing with real issues and looking for help. For them, chat can be an introduction to the Christian gospel.
A second kind of real-time chat tool is called instant messaging. Typically, you'll give out your username (with AOL Instant Messenger, http://aol.com/aim/) or ICQ number (http://icq.com) to an online friend, and then you can type instantly-relayed messages back and forth anytime both of your are online at the same time. ICQ even makes a sound when one of your friends logs onto the Internet. Many teenagers have a long list of friends on their buddy list and spend hours online chatting back and forth.
While instant messaging is primarily a one-on-one communication device, I can see youth pastors using it to check in with people in their group in the evenings. It is possible, though not too common, to hook up three or more people in a kind of private chat room. On the other hand, when you give your name or number to many people, you don't get too much work done. I've restricted sharing my ICQ number with a very small circle — just to survive.
A third community building tool is the Web board or forum, which is similar to BBS systems of a decade ago. These bulletin boards are arranged into topics by the moderator. Under each of these topics are the various "threads" of conversation that members have started. One person may pose a question or make a statement. Others will reply to the same thread, agreeing or disagreeing, or adding a different perspective. Over time, the more popular threads can contain 20 or more messages, and reading the whole thread can teach you a lot — at least what the participants know and think about a topic.
CrossWalk.com (http://crosswalk.com), a popular Christian portal site, has hundreds of such forums. Their Family Life section, for example, includes forums on marriage, family, parenting, the marriage covenant, and support for family life workers in churches.
Because they can separate out threads of conversation, Web boards are the most organized of the various community-building tools. They retain previous messages indefinitely — or until the moderator moves the thread into the archives or deletes it. While chat and instant messaging take place in real-time (the technical word is synchronous), Web boards can be read or added to at any time, no matter what time zone you are in (called asynchronous).
Web boards are the ideal tool to conduct an ongoing discussion of a topic where it is important for newcomers to be able to see how the ideas developed. Businesses commonly use them for product or technical support, since often a reader will find his question answered on the Web board, and then have no need to contact a real person by e-mail or phone.
The final interactive community building tool is e-mail discussion. In contrast to chat rooms, instant messaging, and Web boards, these discussions take place entirely via e-mail. They are empowered by software called a listserver that is hosted by an Internet Service Provider. Members join by "subscribing" their e-mail address to the "list." Then when any member of the list sends a message to the list, it is immediately "echoed" to all the members of the list within a few minutes. If there are 50 members, that message is sent to all 50 members. As you can imagine, if there's an active discussion, members can receive a lot of e-mail. So members may choose to receive the "digest" version, an accumulation of the day's messages sent out at the end of the day. It's a large e-mail, granted, but at least it doesn't overwhelm your mailbox.
You can imagine the potential for a disgruntled member or someone with a doctrinal position to promote to wreak havoc in a such a group. For that reason some groups require messages to be "moderated" prior to distribution to the larger group. It slows down the communication a bit, and keeps the moderator on her toes, but inappropriate messages can be filtered out that way.
E-mail discussion groups are immensely popular. When I browsed eGroups (http://egroups.com) for "Christianity," I found 7,797 different groups, with all sorts of different emphases: apologetics, arts, Christianity for seekers, denominations, education, pastoral resources, etc. E-mail discussion groups don't require much from members. Once you've subscribed, you don't have to fire up your Web browser. The discussion comes to your e-mail box automatically. All you have to do is read; often only 10% or less contribute on a regular basis.
There's a tendency, however, for e-mail discussion groups to degenerate to chatty talk about every imaginable topic or problem. So to keep them on focus they need a clear statement of purpose, and an active moderator who, while she may not screen messages, keeps the group on track by framing important questions and communicating with members who are getting off-track with public or private e-mails. There's seldom a need to remove an errant member, but it is possible and occasionally necessary for the good of the group.
Interactive Bible Studies
When I first began exploring the Internet in January 1995, I was fascinated by the potential of this medium for communicating the gospel. I joined a number of discussion groups and could see how effective they could be for learning. I also saw how members of an e-mail discussion group began to get to know each other through their postings, and begin to trust each other. Gradually, people would begin to share some of the real issues they were struggling with.
In the fall of 1996 I set up Joyful Heart Ministries (http://joyfulheart.com) as a vehicle to explore conducting effective Bible studies via the Internet. For some time I had been collecting e-mail subscriptions to my free newsletter, The Joyful Heart, so when the time came to begin the first Bible study, I had a number of individuals to invite.
My first attempt was with a chat-room format, but I found that the problem of time-zones, the limited amount of time available, and the necessity for fast typing limited this as a serious Bible study medium.
Since then I've moved to e-mail discussion, and found it a very effective platform to teach the Word. I taught a number of inductive Bible studies, sharing questions over the weekend, and then sending out a couple of questions to be discussed each day, Monday through Friday. On Saturday I would wrap it up with an exposition of the passage. Currently I am conducting a two-and-a-half year JesusWalk study through the Gospel of Luke (http://jesuswalk.com) with the purpose of training disciples. The process of meditating all week long on one of Jesus' teachings, ministry, attitudes, or words is designed to change lives to conform to the Master. This study is more deductive, with an exposition sent with questions at the beginning of each week. Members can choose be a part of an e-mail discussion group (we've had as many as 14, but currently are at 6), each with an active moderator. Of the 2,650 members of JesusWalk, about a thousand are involved in one of our discussion groups. A significant number of participants have indicated "profound" spiritual growth through this type of ministry.
In addition to providing a powerful teaching channel, people in discussion groups bond early with one another, and encourage one another both publicly and privately in prayer support. Many members value their discussion group as a real spiritual family.
Resources for Interaction
Churches and ministry organizations can add community-building tools rather easily and inexpensively to a website by linking to tools hosted by service providers. Since they are advertising supported, many are made available at no cost. Two companies stand out as tool providers.
eGroups (http://egroups.com), recently acquired by Yahoo!, provides a powerful listserver that enables easy formation of online communities as e-mail discussion groups. The listserver can be configured to be a one-way e-mail newsletter or a many-way e-mail discussion list, either moderated or unmoderated, with options for single e-mails, receiving a digest, or even viewing the messages only online. The group owner can designate several moderators, each with authority for a limited number of functions. Each group also has its own private chat room. For $4.95 per month the group can receive e-mails with no advertisements appended to them. Another similar option is Topica (http://topica.com). Ministries that want to bring all these functions in-house ought to consider the excellent but expensive Lyris list manager software (http://www.lyris.com). While the Majordomo listserver is widely available as freeware, it is much more difficult to configure and maintain for a large group.
Everyone.net (http://everyone.net) offers "Plug-in Community" at no cost, providing a sophisticated Web board and chat room. The Web board can be configured with the church or ministry's logo and color scheme, and various sections can be designated by the owner. Each section can be moderated by a different person if you like, and message posters can either remain anonymous or be required to identify themselves (to the moderator, at least) by registering. Ministries that want to bring the Web board function in-house can opt for the $199 Ultimate Bulletin Board (http://ultimatebb.com), which can be configured to fit into any site design.
These four tools — chat, instant messaging, Web boards, and e-mail discussion — can be used to strengthen existing Christian communities, especially in situations where most members have access to the Internet. But they can also open up new ministry opportunities to build ministering communities among a much larger population nationally and internationally.
Copyright © 1985-2017, Ralph F. Wilson. <pastorjoyfulheart.com> All rights reserved. A single copy of this article is free. Do not put this on a website. See legal, copyright, and reprint information.
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