Using The Internet As An Evangelistic Tool

Raymond Francis, Brighton [SEE PROFILE BELOW]

Perhaps one of the most significant technological developments of the late twentieth century was the establishment of the Internet, or the (World Wide) Web. It is very simply a network of computers that communicate with each other. In it’s early days it was just a small number of computers based in America, used by academics as a means of rapidly sharing their research data. However, in recent years the commercial sector has seen it as a very useful tool for marketing and selling their products. As a result of large corporate investment, the Internet has grown phenomenally and is now used by hundreds of millions of users world-wide.

Like anything else in the world, the Internet can be used or abused. What is more, because anything on the Internet has a global audience, its use or abuse will also have a global impact. Sadly, it tends to be the worst uses of the Internet that make the headlines. However, with twenty million users in the UK, it also provides an excellent opportunity to present the gospel to many people.

WHAT IS A WEBSITE?

A website is a group of computer pages containing words, pictures, and perhaps also sound and video that are located on a computer that resides in the Internet network. Using a computer program called a Web Browser, such as Internet Explorer or Netscape access can be gained to any website. Each website has an address that uniquely identifies its location within the Internet, in the same way as an address uniquely identifies your house. This address is often called the domain name and is a sequence of letters and numbers that are personalized for the company or organisation that the website is about. An example of a domain name is www.preciousseed.org. It is the domain name that is typed into a Web Browser to view the pages of that website.

WHAT IS EMAIL?

Often associated with a domain name are email addresses, such as info@preciousseed.org and these are distinguished from a website address by the ‘@’ sign. Emails are electronic text messages that are sent by people to each other on their computers via the Internet system of communication.

WHY USE A WEBSITE?

The Internet is increasingly becoming the first point of reference for many people. If people want to know something, the huge resources of the Internet, with billions of pages of information, are bound to provide an answer! However, the beauty of the Internet for many people is that they can search for answers in the comfort of their own home, and they can hide behind the anonymity the Internet provides. This is particularly true on issues they feel embarrassed to discuss with friends or family.

There are many broken-hearted people, many people searching for spiritual reality and many dissatisfied people. These often turn to the websites they find on the Internet to help solve their problems. This is where a website offering hope and a haven of friendship can make a real difference to someone. A simple gospel message, and perhaps a photograph of welcoming faces, can give someone that small glimpse of the love of Christ that could be found in a local fellowship.

We are all increasingly aware of how hard it is to get people to come in and hear a gospel message. A website offers an opportunity to let people know what actually goes on within the four walls of our building without them having to run the gauntlet of stepping through the door. A first point of contact could be made with them comfortably sitting in their own home. Testimonies, special events and discussions of relevant issues could be included, giving a very broad picture of the interests and concerns of the believers. As well as the curious onlooker, the Internet thrives on people who like things being done ‘here and now’, and such people often contact on impulse. Even if contact initially remains distant, perhaps via email, wise correspondence will help transform it into something more fruitful over time.

A website is also a very cost-effective form of evangelism, as for just a small sum it can reach thousands of people a year. The very fact that a visitor has himself chosen to view your website, suggests that he is more likely to read it.

HOW IS A WEBSITE SET UP?

The first thing to do in setting up a website is to actually construct the pages. Simple websites are written in a text formatting language called Hypertext Mark-up Language (HTML). HTML commands are written in a standard text file, which, when opened by a web browser, are interpreted into formatted text and images. For those who are serious about designing their own website, a good reference book on HTML is the best place to start.

An alternative is to purchase a computer program that helps make websites, such as Microsoft’s Front Page. Such programs are designed to be like drawing packages and hide away all the complexities of HTML, making them more appealing to the novice website designer. It is also worth noting that a lot of the most recent word-processing and drawing programs will also save files to HTML, such as Word 2000.

It is always worth looking round the Internet for ideas that could be incorporated into your website. Whilst looking at your favourite sites, use the 'View Source' menu option on the web browser to see how other people create their effects and try implementing similar things into your own website.

Remember that the website is the first and possibly the only impression an outsider will have not only of the local believers but, far more importantly, Christ and the gospel. As in all aspects of witness, it is vital that the very best impression is given. Due to the extremely public nature of a website the content should be carefully considered, and should be constructive, concise and challenging.

The best way to encourage contact is to use a questionnaire where visitors can be prompted for specific things like their name, whether they would like to do a correspondence course, whether they would like a visit, their comments, etc. This tends to be far more effective than promoting an email address, because not only does the visitor supply relevant information, but also satisfies the ‘here and now’ demands of some. Visitors’ comments could be stored in an electronic guest book on your website that can then be viewed by other visitors. Search the Internet for free guest books to incorporate into your website, but watch out for the adverts you may have to endorse. Whilst guest books are open to abuse, experience has shown it to be very rare, and inappropriate comments can always be removed.

For those that feel unable to design their own website, there are website design companies who will create a website based on any ideas you have. However, even the most simple website is likely to cost in excess of £100.

Once the website design is approved and complete, the next stage is to contact an Internet Service Provider (ISP) and ask them to register a suitable domain name. Typically the same ISP will also put your website on the Internet, technically called hosting. Domains can cost £20-£50 for two years registration, depending on the domain name. Hosting can range from free to £100 a year depending on the features you require. It is worth noting that free hosting usually is funded by adverts splashed around your website, which you may not always be happy to endorse.

WHAT NEXT?

To increase the number of visitors it is worth registering your website with search engines. These are the huge electronic directories of the Internet. Because your website represents a nonprofit organisation, registration is free, though it may take some time to get registered. Look for ‘Submit a site’ at leading search engines like Lycos, Google and Yahoo!

Itis very easy to set up a website and then forget about it. However, the website should be seen as an activity of the whole fellowship and not just the activity of those who may be delegated responsibility for its maintenance. All contact received through the website should be responded to promptly by someone in the fellowship. Whilst some may come to nothing, many will develop. Established contacts should be mentioned at prayer meetings on a regular basis.

It is also worth regularly updating the website. This will encourage visitors to return, increasing their awareness of the local church and it’s activities. Some ideas for regular updates include adding testimonies, extracts from newsletters and next month’s speakers.

A website can also be used in conjunction with a literature campaign, perhaps developing the thoughts that are contained in the tracts for those who are challenged and want to find out more 

MORE INFORMATION?

A lot of what has been mentioned has been learned from the author’s experience in running a website, which, for the very few believers in fellowship, has been a huge encouragement in terms of contacts established. If you would like to know any more, please do not hesitate to contact Raymond Francis, 21 Trinity Street, Brighton, BN2 3HN or email websites@attracts.co.uk.

RESOURCES  

AUTHOR PROFILE: Raymond Francis is a freelance computer programmer and web-developer. With a vision to encourage Christians to use high quality, relevant evangelism resources, he helped establish @tracts, a small Christian Literature and web-services company.