Proclaiming the Gospel in the Modern Marketplace
A Discussion of Ministry Opportunities in Cyberspace
By Elgin L Hushbeck Jr.
When the apostle Paul was in Athens we read that "he reasoned in the synagogue with the Jews and in the marketplace day by day with those who happened to be there" (Acts 17:17). This is what one did in Athens if they want to reach others with the Gospel. Later when he was in the city of Ephesus we find that for two years he and his disciples "had discussion daily in the lecture hall of Tyrannus" (Acts 19:9b-10). Again, in Ephesus, this is where one went to find people discussing the issues of the day. Wherever Paul went, he did not wait for the people to come to him, nor did he imposes himself where he was not wanted -- for example, leaving a synagogue and going to the gentiles when they rejected the Gospel (Acts 19:8-9a). Instead, he took the Gospel to those places were people were already discussing the issues of the day.
Throughout history, Christians have sought to use whatever means were at their disposal to spread and defend the word of God. Early on this involved advances in transportation and knowledge of languages to take the word of God to people and to translate it into their own language. In more recent times Christians made extensive use of printing to distribute the word of God. As newspapers and then later magazines became an important means of communication, Christians versions were published. In this century as Radio and Television became popular, they were quickly followed by Christian ministries aimed and using these new technologies as a tool for spreading the word of God.
But until recently these newer technologies had the major obstacle of ever greater costs. Printing a newspaper meant a significant investment in a press and materials. A radio broadcast meant an even greater financial commitment, and a television ministry even greater still. And as the costs went up, the cost-effectiveness of the ministry declined. In some cases the cost was so great that simply keeping the ministry financially sound became the primary focus and in the case of television, the large amount of money involved has sadly led to several highly publicized problems.
The newest horizon of technology, the Internet, when compared to earlier technologies such as printing, radio and television, it is relatively cheap. The costs of information can be broken down into four main areas. Creation, Production, Distribution and Marketing. Creation costs go mainly for the people preparing the information itself. While common to all ministries it is also usually the least expensive part of the process. Production costs consist of printing cost for newspapers and magazines, studio time for radio and television. Distribution cost are those cost incurred in getting the finished product to the individuals you wish to reach. In printing it usually involved the cost of mailing. For radio and TV it involved buying air time. Distribution cost are often the highest costs of all and can be very expensive in the case of television. Finally there are Marketing costs. These are the cost of letting people know that your information is available. The best presentation and defense of the Gospel does no good if no one know about it.
The Internet largely eliminate many of these costs. Like all other ministries, an Internet based ministry would still have similar cost for the creation of the information. But unlike other ministries this would be the major expense, not he least expensive part of the process. Production cost for an Internet based ministry would consist of maintaining a web site. This can be done at a fraction of the cost of even printing, much less radio or television studio time. Distribution for an Internet ministry is worldwide, automatic and included as part of maintaining a web site. Finally, because of search engines and discussion forums, a lot of the marketing can be done with little additional cost. Thus in an Internet based ministry, the major cost would be incurred in the creation of information, and letting people know about it. These are the most important parts of the process. Little money is spent in secondary areas such as production and distribution. As such an Internet based ministry is by far the most cost effective means of getting information to people.
But such advantages are of little value if the Internet is not a good medium in which to present the Gospel. Here again the Internet far exceeds these earlier technologies as a means for presenting the Gospel. With its world wide reach, the ready availability of information 24 hours a day, its multimedia and text capabilities and it interactive nature, the Internet almost seems tailor made for presenting the Gospel. The following are just a few ideas for what could be done.
A Magazine published in cyber space can have all of the features of a regular magazine, and more, without incurring any of the printing or distribution cost. An added benefit, especially for an apologetics based magazine would be it reference value for earlier editions could be easily accessible. For example, say a coworker raises a question about the Bible that you are not familiar with. You could go online, search for an article on that issue, print out a copy, and give it to your coworker in just a few minutes time.
In addition a cyber Magazine had abilities that printed magazines don't. Prime among these is the ability to write at multiple levels. For example an article could be written at an introductory level and include hyperlinks to more detailed discussions. This would allow articles to address a much broader audience. In addition, more detailed references could be made available along with hyper-links to related topics, glossary of terms, etc.
Finally, not all articles in a cyber Magazine need be static. As new developments occur these articles can be updated with the latest information. For example, an article on archaeology of the Bible might be updated to include the latest announced findings and the changes marked such that someone who had already read the article could easily review those places that had been changed. Such articles would make it very easy for people to keep up to date in many areas.
As seen with the Magazine a key feature of the Internet is to maintain information for long periods of time in a format that is easily accessible. But this need not be restricted to past issues of a magazine. All sorts of information could be kept on line. In fact the amount of this information can be so vast that a main focus of the magazine would probably be as an introduction to the latest and newest things online.
Again the key features of any Cyber Library would be its easy access, hyperlink and search capabilities. As such, any information that one would want to access could be stored. As but one possibility consider how a "Bible Problems" section could be done. A large part of apologetics is dealing with a small number of questions that are asked over and over and over. Almost all of the questions that are raised against the Bible have been raised before and answered many times in the past. As such, a lot of time is spent by apologists in repeating work that has already been done by others. By building a database of answers, people anywhere in the world could get access to these at any time. Again these could be in hyperlink format such that that basic answer could be given with links to more detailed answers. One could also list the various responses that are given by critics to these answers along with replies to those responses. As such you could have a complete discussion on a question in a fashion that is easily accessible and at the level of detail that is required. In short you would not require the reader to wade through a lot of material that they are not interested in, just to find an answer to a simple question. Imagine the confidence and boldness with which people could proclaim the gospel, if they knew that whatever questions were raised against the Bible, they had ready access to a complete and detailed answer. Consider the receptivity of the public to the Gospel, if it once again the general belief became that the Bible was reliable because answers to the critics were easily available.
Again this approach could be applied to a whole range of areas and not just biblical problems. Most importantly it would become a base of knowledge that would grow and expand, rather than have to be recreated with each new generation. One could for example envision a day when every verse in the bible was hyperlinked not only to commentaries discussing that verse, but to discussions of any translation issues, the textual evidence, the archaeological finds related to that verse, the questions raised by critics and the answers to those questions, with all of this kept up to date with the latest scholarship.
An lest one thinks this is only text based, it must be remembered that the Internet is a multimedia medium. One could not only have articles, but pictures, maps, sound, and video. As technology advances, for example, one could place on line a virtual reality views of Biblical locations. For example, one could walk through the streets of Jerusalem during time of David. They could see what it would have been like to attack the city. Or they could see what it would have been like to walk from the Temple to the Mount of Olives during the time of Jesus. All maintained with the latest advances in scholarship.
The first two areas we looked at were largely one way transfers of information, i.e., information going to people. But a key feature of Internet is it ability to interact. Thus while we can have a list of frequently asked questions, if the particular question a person needs an answer to not on the list, that is no problem for the person could simply Email their question and receive and answer. In fact this will probably be one of the major ways this list grows.
But there is even greater potential for interaction. As we saw at the beginning, Paul went to wherever the discussions were being held to present the Gospel. In Athens, this was the marketplace. In Ephesus, this was the lecture hall of Tyrannus. Today, with its tens of thousands of newsgroups, chat rooms, and discussion forums, the place to discuss ideas is the Internet. And with its reputation for depravity no place is in more desperate need for the light of the Gospel to shine.
The simple fact is that every day there are countless discussion taking place in this online marketplace of ideas and the number is growing. On the Internet, the Bible is constantly under attack. I have personally been involved with such discussion for many years now and have always noticed the severe need for qualified and train people to take place in such discussions. It has not been uncommon for me to be defending the Bible against the attacks of several people, like atheists, Mormons, and New Age people, simultaneously, and to leave many other attacks unaddressed simply due to lack of time. The need is great, but the workers are few. Many times I have seen a person sincerely ask a question about the Bible and out of the many replies, mine was the only one that came from a historically Christian point of view. The rest of the replies being from atheist, non-Christian religions such as Buddhism, cults such as Mormonism or Jehovah witnesses, or from people in the occult. The forces of darkness are on the web and are reaching people, as the Heaven Gate cult demonstrated. Christians need to be there to defend their faith.
Thus a large part of this ministry would be in shining the light of truth into these discussion. Using the Magazine and the Library as a basis, missionaries into cyberspace would be very much like Paul. They would be going to those places were people are discussing the issues of the day and presenting and defending the Gospel of Christ.
These are but a few of the potentials for a ministry centered around the Internet. As the importance of the Internet grows, so will the need for the body of Christ to reach out into this medium. The infrastructure to reach the world is already coming into place. Unlike, other advances in technology, the Internet does not require large expenditures of money in order to produce and distribute information. The forces of darkness have already seen the potential in the Internet and have used it to cause great harm. The main requirement is to support the people who will be directly proclaiming the word of God and who reason "in the marketplace day by day with those who happened to be there" (Acts 17:17).