|Ministry in Cyberspace
(C) 2003, Don Mize
|Cyberspace is not a term thrown around as much as a few years ago. Perhaps that is because we have become more familiar with the world of online computer networks. Yet, cyberspace does exist and in some ways is a new dimension of reality. People from all over the world can communicate and interact in a fraction of a second.
Cyberspace has, of course, some of the same characteristics of physical space. For one thing, cyberspace is inhabited by “good” and “bad” people. Terrorists are in cyberspace as are child molesters and criminals who would steal your identity. We would not buy our ten-year-old a ticket to New York and tell him to have a good time. However, many parents buy a computer, connect to the Internet, and believe they have a baby-sitter. A child’s curiosity can quickly lead into the dark side of cyberspace, and a child cannot deal with people who would prey on her.
Cyberspace, like physical space, also contains many wonders: easy access to information, shopping, news, entertainment, and museums. Sites feature online libraries, help with homework, games, and communities based on common interests.
Real people inhabit cyberspace. People who enter cyberspace have problems, have unmet needs, and are seeking understanding, solutions, community, and personal growth. Students are in cyberspace seeking homework help. Parents are in cyberspace try to find answers. Lonely people, curious people, unfulfilled people, and hurting people are all in cyberspace.
Extending a ministry into cyberspace is like extending a ministry in physical space. One must make contacts, know needs people are feeling, have resources available to meet those needs, be able to introduce a person to Christ, and help people grow spiritually. Two of the major limitations to ministry exist in both cyberspace and physical space: time and money. People don’t automatically find you in cyberspace any more than they automatically find your church in physical space. First impressions matter in cyberspace and just as in physical space. Friendliness matters in cyberspace just as in physical space. Acceptance, love, community, and ease of access matter in cyberspace just as in physical space.
Advertising, labor, domains, technology, access fees, software, and set-up fees all require money in cyberspace just as products require money in physical space. While cyberspace has the magical quality of instant communication, someone must answer emails, conduct courses, interact with clients, and give attention to public relations just as in physical space. Someone must develop materials, keep web sites current, and plan the next set of resources to meet needs. In addition, people who want to minister in cyberspace must learn new skills, keep up with innovations, change as technology changes, and adjust to changing conditions.
Yet, the possibilities of ministry in cyberspace are fantastic. The costs are minor compared to building buildings, maintaining buildings, and updating physical space requirements over time. People can communicate instantly. Prayer requests can be shared, information can made almost instantly available, classes can be conducted, and
other resources can made available through links to other web sites. A community can come to exist, privacy can be maintained to a reasonable extent, and no one has to know your race, background, economic status, or location in many formats. You don’t have to worry about what to wear or which fork to use at a dinner.
I read somewhere about a seminar where the leader blindfolded the people, randomly paired up individuals, and required blind conversations. The people were shocked to find out that their interesting partners were not the expensively dressed or the more attractive people. In fact, the learning experience was that people who would have been summarily dismissed turned out to be the most fantastically interesting people in the room.
A cyberspace ministry can create a situation in which your personality rather than appearance, age, or the price of your shoes predetermines your opportunity for developing a friendship. Also, a person of means can interact with others without wondering if a new acquaintance is only interested in money, social status, or contacts.
The book of Acts in the Bible can be studied by listing all the racial, economic, and social barriers the gospel shattered as Christianity spread. We have, unfortunately, lost that revolutionary ingredient within various Christian communities. Cyberspace is a medium that can aid in the breaking down of barriers and help us rediscover the revolutionary nature of the gospel.
On the other hand, I saw an online experiment in which a man’s marketing and computer skills outran his foundation for a cyberspace ministry. He bought an email list from a marketing group and sent out random email asking people if they were interested in an online church. He received an immediate and overwhelming response that swamped him. He desperately tried to enlist untrained workers to respond and disaster followed. In desperation, he wanted to pay minimal salaries to two technically trained workers to help, and a negative reaction occurred from people who suddenly felt he was a religious con man.
Thus, a cyberspace ministry needs prayer, work, a foundation, resources, technical skill, and a measured and controlled rate of growth. Otherwise, misunderstandings, confusion, and a negative witness occurs rather than a positive witness of faith and love. Yet, cyberspace is there, filled with people longing for the abundant life Jesus promised his followers.