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Email Evangelism:
The NEW 21st Century Evangelistic Tool
 
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Email Evangelism:
The NEW 21st Century Evangelistic Tool
By Alan Ruth
The writer is founder and Webmaster of the Biblestudy.org Web site. He is self-employed as a Web designer and computer consultant.

Read about recent baptisms in Hong Kong from this evangelism and view unedited comments from brethren about their experiences using this technique.

FARMINGTON HILLS, Mich. — The 20th century witnessed the Church of God possessing the vision to use the latest technology to spread the good news of the Kingdom of God worldwide. We were one of the leaders in taking full advantage of newly opened doors. A good measure of fruit was born out of the church's willingness to seize upon emerging mass-communication opportunities like radio, magazines and television.

The opening years of the 21st century, however, find the greater Church of God at a critical crossroads. The church as a whole continues to pour considerable resources into mass-evangelism tools now more than 50 years old. In spite of the money and manpower thrown at them, the old outreach methods are steadily declining in their overall effectiveness.

We have sadly gone from being leaders in evangelism to mere repeaters.

Is it just a coincidence that one of the issues groups still grapple with is an aging ministry and membership?

I think not. But, if such decline is really happening, which I firmly believe it is after studying 300-plus Church of God (COG) groups, what are the churches' options? Are any new ideas helping the churches reach the world with God's timeless truths that could complement, or replace, some of our current methods?

Have new concepts been tried, and what are the results? What is the potential of such new gospel-outreach tools in the years ahead?

This article explores one such option whose powerful possibilities are only just beginning to be manifested.

Tool for the next generation

We are witnessing the infancy of the most advanced information-exchange tool man has devised. It will be the single greatest means of conveying the gospel to the masses that what I call "The Church of God: The Next Generation" will utilize.

This tool unites past champions of mass evangelism into one dynamic package. It can transmit video (as with television) and audio (as with television and radio) information to and from a location.

It's capable of two-way, real-time voice communications (like a telephone). It can send and receive text-based data to an addressable destination where it waits for review at the recipient's convenience (like postal systems).

It can deliver image and text information simultaneously to one or many locations where a paper copy, in black and white or color, can then be generated (just like magazines and newspapers).

Fifty million U.S. users adopted this revolutionary mass-communication method faster (in just five years) than either television (13 years) or radio (38 years)!

As of 2004, 75 percent of the American population 2 years old or older has access to this technological wonder (says the Nielsen and NetRatings report of last February).

The use of this new tool is also growing in other countries. There are already 80 million users of this communication method in China. Japan boasts 100 million users. Estimates are that in 10 to 15 years one half of all users of this technology will live in India and China!

This remarkably versatile, evolving and expanding means of humans connecting with humans around the world is the Internet.

An idea bearing fruit on its forefront is the use of electronic mail (Email) to spread the gospel. E-mail allows Christians unprecedented access to people around the globe who are hungry to know God and what the Bible says about problems and other issues they face daily.

It offers those outside the church's ministerial class a meaningful evangelistic role and an affordable opportunity to personally serve the public.

And it gives the Churches of God another way to adapt to the newly interconnected world of the 21st century and again play a dynamic part in the great commission of Matthew 28:19-20.

Opening Day

In the spring of 2002 I talked with Norm Edwards, editor of Servants News. During our discussion the Bible Study.org Web site's need for volunteers to answer questions was mentioned. Until then no regular assistance from brethren was available to launch such a question-and-answer service.

After our talk, unbeknownst to me, Norm decided to create a short article mentioning the Web site and its need for help. He ran a notice in his May- June 2002 edition.

It wasn't until E-mails started arriving offering a helping hand with site questions that I discovered what he had done. Within a short time several mature Church of God folks volunteered their talents and time.

The fast-approaching fall season meant there was little pre-Feast time available to create the necessary pieces for this new service. The laptop computer I took to a Florida Panhandle Feast site allowed developmental work to continue.

Progress on the project advanced so rapidly that near the end of the Feast the answers-to-Bible-questions outreach was ready to go. The completed Web-site files were loaded onto the Internet while I was still in Florida.

The "Personalized Answers to Bible Questions" section of Bible Study.org had its Internet debut on Friday, Sept. 27, 2002.

Amazingly, when I arrived home in Michigan on Oct. 1, 27 questions were awaiting answer. The unexpected flood of requests so soon after the service became operational was so overwhelming that the link from Bible Study.org's main Web page to the question-submittal form had to be removed for a time.

The removing and restoring of this link, just to catch up, occurred several times in the first year of service. This proved people around the world are still hungry for biblical answers to life's questions.

The Email Evangelists

The term "E-mail Evangelists" describes the labor of hardworking COG folks in advancing the gospel. Through their answers and interaction with visitors via E-mail, they zealously evangelize or otherwise introduce new people to God's truth.

E-mail evangelists represent the enormous dedication and love of the most powerful yet under-appreciated resource the Church of God possesses: the brethren.

More than 25 people have willingly given their time to answer Biblical inquiries. They average 20 to 30 years as Christians, with some converted for 40 or more years. The E-mail evangelists comprise a wide variety of church brethren who are all mature in the Christian faith.

Active E-mail evangelists include:

Rick and Eileen Beltz
Adriano Borean
Ken Browder
Charlotte Grantham
Arnold C. Mendez Sr.
Art Mokarow
Al/Debra Murrey
June Narber
Don Smith
Eric Snow
Mike Summers
Les Turvey
Margaret Vidal
Tommy West
Clay Willis

Former E-mail evangelists include Dr. Jack Lane, Calvin Lashway, Dave and Trish Manning, Ed Oettel, Eddie Staggs and Allen Turner.

How it works

How does the site process a question? It begins when a site visitor completes a simple form at biblestudy.org/question/question.html. It requires only his E-mail address and question. When he presses the submit button, his question is E-mailed to me.

Most of the brethren, when they offer their services, send brief biographies. The bios contain information like church experiences and history, family life, jobs, hobbies and whatever else they wish to convey. They also define Bible subjects the E-mail evangelists feel knowledgeable about and comfortable answering.

Each question is reviewed and, using information given by each evangelist, is matched with a volunteer whose knowledge and experience are judged best suitable to help the person in need.

When the answers are complete, they are sent directly to the questioner, with a copy sent to me. This allows me to review the answers, note possible ways of improving the service, and save the E-mail for possible inclusion to BibleStudy.org's "Personalized Answers" section of Web site.

Public Benefits

Some of the benefits the public receives from the site's online answering service and factors that have contributed to its popularity are:

  • Personal, real-life answers. The E-mail evangelists put love and personal experience, as well as Scripture, into their responses. No generic, canned answers are used, and no answers from ministers or counselors who never worked in the world. Site visitors get real answers from volunteers who live in the real world with all the struggles that being a Christian entail.

  • Privacy protected. In the endtime the love of average people will grow cold (Matthew 24:12). As lawlessness builds, so will a person's distrust of others, as well as his concerns regarding safety and privacy.

    E-mail is relatively safe and by itself reveals little personal data. Unlike other contact data, such as phone numbers or postal mailing addresses, E-mail addresses can be quickly changed or deleted, or one can possess multiple addresses at the same time.

    E-mail as a common means of communicating with others will continue to increase due in part to its inherently low risk level.

  • To-the-point answers. Because of their years of Bible-study experience, the evangelists can offer right to- the-point answers. As experienced Internet users, they are aware how quickly folks can scan E-mails and therefore make brevity one of their goals. Brief responses increase the likelihood that an E-mail answer will be read in its entirety.

To boldly preach

  • Follow-up with personal counseling and baptism. Times and technologies have profoundly altered the mass-evangelism landscape. The individual Christian is empowered to boldly preach the gospel where only huge organizations went before. This revolutionary evangelistic empowerment, which can arrange personal contact and fellowship opportunities on a global scale, is just starting to emerge.

    On Feb. 15 of this year the Baptism Referral Service (BRS) at BibleStudy. org debuted. It complements and enhances the personalized- answers outreach. It connects a world audience requesting discussion about Bible topics and possible baptism with mature COG Christians living near them who can provide these services.

    As of June 20 of this year, 60 BRS requests were submitted from 11 countries. On the day the site's E-mail list was notified of the BRS's availability, 12 requests were submitted.

    All verified requests have been matched with mature COG members, who can arrange meetings with requesters, answer questions via E-mail or perform a baptism.

    Requests have come from such diverse places as:

    • Accra in Ghana
    • Amsterdam in the Netherlands
    • Belfast in Northern Ireland
    • Bucharest in Romania
    • Chennai in India
    • Egypt
    • Klerksdorp in South Africa
    • Kuala Lumpur in Malaysia
    • London in England
    • Peterborough in Canada
    • Port Harcourt in Nigeria
    • Suna-Migori in Kenya

    Ideas like the BRS are a verifiable example that 21st-century mass evangelism can be carried out with the click of a mouse button and the willingness of mature brethren to serve.

  • Quick response. Around half of the questioners receive an E-mail answer within 24 hours. Most are sent a response within three days.

Volunteer Benefits

Why would a person want to answer Bible questions electronically? What unusual advantages are offered for COG folks performing E-mail evangelism through BibleStudy.org? Here are a few of them:

  • Serving from home. The Internet makes possible instant global correspondence offering help right at home. It provides a dynamic serving opportunity to the handicapped, elderly and others who must stay close to home.

    Do you want to play an active part in advancing the gospel but don't want to leave your driveway? Then cruise the information superhighway.

  • Gospel to the masses, not members. BibleStudy.org's priority is to reach the world, not COG members, with the gospel. Its non–church branded nature, and generic Web-site address, attracts an audience largely composed of those with no previous COG exposure.

    In contrast, the visitor base of most COG sites is mainly composed of COG brethren. The E-mail evangelists spread God's truth to new folks, not their brethren.

  • Affordable. E-mail is affordable. In the United States, unlimited Internet access is well below $20 a month for a dial-up account. Complete PCs have grown steadily more affordable.

    Companies like Dell offer full desktop computer systems that can immediately go online for less than $500. Such manageable costs have allowed folks on a low or fixed income to offer their insight and Bible knowledge as E-mail evangelists.

Because the church highly regards those who project the world's businesslike image of leadership, decisions regarding the church and gospel are far more image or SUIT-based than FRUIT-based.

Or, in other words, within the Church of God
It's not the fruit you bear, but the SUIT you wear!

Fruit yourself

  • Unbiased. Our COG tradition has regarded, and continues to highly regard, those who project the world's businesslike image of leadership, success and depth of character.

    This translates into decisions regarding the church and the gospel that are far more image or suit-based than fruit-based.

    This means only a privileged few are deemed qualified to participate in evangelizing the nations, while the rest are encouraged only to "pay, pray, stay and obey."

    The Internet and E-mail are tremendously egalitarian. The way you look, how successful a businessperson you are, the image you project, and so on, make no difference. What matters is a willingness to serve, an understanding of God's Word and the content of a person's character expressed in typed words.

  • Flexibility and freedom. There is no set time or date for answering questions. Volunteers can use whatever time they need to research, pray about, compose and edit answers before they are sent.

    The E-mail evangelists are free to discontinue receiving questions or can quit for a time and come back at their convenience.

    They can request to be limited to receiving one or two questions each week or even each month.

    They are welcome to refer people to study materials not on the Bible Study.org site if they believe the questioner would benefit from such information. And they are ultimately free, as mature Christians, to do what is needed to serve and love those who come their way.

Most Common Comment

The most frequent remark COG brethren make after the personalized answers service is described, and its fruits delineated, is a version of "How do you insure correct doctrine is taught? How are you sure all the answerers speak the same thing?"

These comments deserve exploring before we arrive at an answer as it relates to the evangelists.

Underlying these questions is the major assumption that a human can guarantee a set of beliefs will be understood and expounded a certain way by other humans.

Can such unity occur? Can any person make others understand and teach the Bible as he does to such an extent that they act as if they have one mind?

Let's assume unity is achievable. Since this lofty spiritual goal is, let's say, possible, the most logical place we'd expect to find at least one example of it occurring should be among groups composed of the most mature, powerfully used of God leaders in the church.

The top eight COG organizations (the Big 8) in terms of income possess some interesting characteristics.

All of them receive more than half a million dollars in yearly donations. They collectively received in 2003 approximately $47 million in support.

This figure is easily more than 95 percent of all the money contributed to all the known Worldwide Church of God (WCG) splits.

175 Splits and counting

Together, the Big 8 comprise the overwhelming majority of all ministers and other members within the splits. Within their ranks are a high percentage of perceived mature and powerful leaders within the greater church. But what do we find in terms of unity?

The Big 8 have spawned 175-plus splits. The largest organization of the eight had more splits (30-plus) within its first six or so years of existence than any other COG group, past or present, for the same period. Two of the Big 8 had splits that created half of the other six big groups!

The part of a church where unity is most critical would, one could argue, be between the recognized head of the organization and the small set of leaders entrusted to help guide the group.

These are not only the closest advisers to the group's head man but also are to be his chief supporters. Yet men who previously headed a COG group, but were shoved out of the organization by such handpicked advisers, created three of the five top Big 8 groups!

Research of 300-plus splits has shown me that no leader or group of ministers has achieved true biblical unity by their efforts.

Merely having ministers act as if all is well doesn't make it so. The pattern of kicking out those in disagreement, punishing others and dangling veiled threats of correction over those not feigning conformity creates only a mirage of unity.

Unity doesn't happen

All illusions disappear, however, when differences possessed for years bubble out and help create a split. Our track record shows it is not reasonable to treat unity as a minimum requirement for a church or outreach and as our foremost concern, when no one has been able to bring it into existence.

Certainly, as COG brethren, there exists a common body of biblical knowledge and understanding among the E-mail evangelists. They are mature COG brethren with years of Bible study under their belts. God has given them the character to handle some pretty tough questions.

Lest anyone misunderstand, Bible doctrine is important, which is why BibleStudy.org has significant sections dedicated to Bible teachings by a variety of COG writers.

I respect, but don't always agree with, some of the answers the E-mail evangelists give. Not all answers will be put on the BibleStudy.org site.

Simple guidelines

That said, I know some evangelists (and no doubt all) at times disagree with certain material on the site, or with each other's doctrinal stands. They are under no enforced commitment to refer visitors to materials they do not agree with. What is required is that they love those they serve and do what they can to help them along their journey in life.

Before a volunteer begins serving via E-mail, he or she agrees to a simple set of guidelines. One of these is that below each answer is included a version of the site's Bible-study philosophy, which I state as follows:

"As the Bible is the written authority of truth given by God, we encourage you to check out our answers with God's Word. Don't ultimately believe us (or anyone else, for that matter) just because we (or they) say so. Believe your Bible!"

Referring people to their Bibles, on their knees before God, is one of the best policies any church or outreach can promote.

Finally, what's my answer to comments about how I insure that correct doctrine is taught and that volunteers speak the same thing?

I can't. That's God's job. Unity is an awesome goal but one best left in the hands of the only Being able to make it happen.

Interest in Baptism

Can God use the Internet to lead people to be convicted of sin, repent and want to be baptized? Can it produce the same fruit as television or radio?

Darryl, who builds grain bins in the province of Manitoba, Canada, thinks so. He lives in a remote area several hours from Winnipeg, which he once described as being "south of a bend in a river." He was the first person to submit a request to the site for someone to baptize him. After his baptism, in February, he E-mailed:

". . . I am glad that you have a wonderful Web site like this to help people on their way towards baptism. I truly believe the Lord led me to your site first, early in my conversion. "

Before his baptism Darryl had corresponded several times with two COG E-mail evangelists who answer site questions.

One of the pleasant surprises of preaching the gospel on the Net is that the fruits of one's effort can ripen unexpectedly.

While visiting a COG Feast site in 2003, the leader of the group announced that in the spring three baptisms were performed at one time in Florida. He stated that the new folks were frequent visitors to BibleStudy. org. They had visited the Bible Study site, then followed a link to this group's Web site, where they requested baptism.

Recently Clay Willis, an E-mail evangelist, E-mailed that he knew of at least five baptisms in which the Q&A service played an integral role.

New Ground Found

New ground found Has the Internet allowed the Churches of God to reach places where they don't have an active fellowship? Can new ground be found where the seeds of the gospel can be scattered?

In August 2003 Kin "Jack" Leung of Hong Kong E-mailed the site requesting a referral to a Sabbath-keeping church. He had been attending Protestant groups for years when he discovered the seventh-day Sabbath. This was Jack's first contact with the Church of God.

A search of personal contacts anywhere near Hong Kong came up empty, so I began research to see if the top 10 or so of the largest COG groups had a fellowship or even a representative near Jack.

Not one of these organizations had a contact within such a prominent world city. Even the Denver, Colo.– based Church of God (Seventh Day), which has a significant international presence, proved to be a dead end.

Next I E-mailed 120-plus COG brethren and asked if they possessed a possible referral for Jack.

Only one several-years-old potential contact was found. It also proved unfruitful. It looked like Jack's request would go unfilled.

Continued Corresponding

Something unexpected by the hand of God, however, would soon alter the situation.

About two months after Jack's contact with our Web site, another Hong Kong resident, named Stephen, submitted some Bible questions. His Email went to evangelist Clay Willis.

Although two months earlier Clay had handled Jack's inquiries, I sent him Stephen's questions simply because he was the next available E-mail evangelist. Although I didn't know it, Jack had continued corresponding with Clay.

After a few weeks of exchanging Emails with Stephen, Clay took the Christian initiative and introduced him to Jack. Stephen and Jack soon began meeting for services and working together. A third person, Udaya, from Sri Lanka, joined them for worship in early 2004.

Consider the potential; it could be easily overlooked: A COG member, from home, now has the power to do what multi–million-dollar corporate churches in the past couldn't. He can inexpensively correspond many times in a short period (no waiting for postal mail delivery) with people anywhere on earth. From nine thousand miles away, such people can connect up two people who are hungry for the truth and live in the same city.

After Jack, Stephen and Udaya began meeting, God caused something wonderful to occur. Stephen asked Jack to perform his baptism!

So, in the late part of March 2004, Jack, with Udaya as a witness, baptized Stephen Wong in Hong Kong.

Sometime later Udaya requested, and received, baptism through Jack.

New Web Site

Stephen has become so zealous to spread God's word that he created a Web site called the Hong Kong Sabbatarian Church of God at hkscg.bravehost.com/index.html. Jack also helps Stephen translate some of the articles on BibleStudy.org into Chinese.

One amazing, timely occurrence needs to be added to this story. Late in 2003 discouragement concerning BibleStudy.org's future reached a peak.

Because of inadequate site finances, apathy of the COGs toward new ideas and other reasons, I seriously considered closure and the auctioning of the site's domain name.

While I was composing a notice announcing the end of the site's outreach, a postcard arrived in the mail.

On the front, just above a picture of a city skyline, was the inscription "Hello from HONG KONG." On the back was a brief note stating how revealing and edifying BibleStudy. org's ministry was to people. It included the invitation that, should I one day travel to the city, to look up the writer so he could be my personal tour guide.

Though small, it was enough encouragement at the right time to keep me persisting a while longer.

Who sent this unexpected postcard? It was Jack.

Picture of Hong Kong Skyline
WISH YOU WERE HERE - The BibleStudy.org Web site received this postcard from a reader in Hong Kong. The contact led to the founding of a Church of God congregation that meets in Hong Kong and the baptism of a man the card sender met because of the contact.

Odds and Ends

The following are facts and other tidbits concerning BibleStudy.org and the personalized answer service :

  • Total questions submitted: 3,378 (September 2002 to November 2004. Average is about five a day).

  • Popularity of BibleStudy.org: The site for this year will attract 1,000,000 visitors that will access 3,200,000 of the site's Web pages (page views).

  • Busiest Month: Our busiest month happened when 193 people sent in questions in June 2003.

  • Most-read answers: The top five E-mail evangelists' answers read by the public in 2004:
    1. How did the apostle Paul (first called Saul) finally die?
    2. Is the Gospel of St. Thomas a lost book of the Bible?
    3. Was Jesus black?
    4. Do animals go to heaven (when they die)?
    5. What does the Bible say about tattoos and body piercings?

  • What about Prophecy? Does the topic of prophecy generate the most questions from the public? On the surface it would seem it should, given the prominence the church awarded it during much of the 20th century.

    Yet, of the more than 3,300 visitor initiated questions submitted to the site, fewer than 3 percent relate to prophecy or prophetic interpretation. This low interest in prophecy is apparent even though BibleStudy.org has maintained for several years a large section dedicated to this one subject.

  • Type of Person Asking Question: The most consistent classification of persons submitting questions is made up of those attending a weekly Bible study or Sunday school. They seek answers to that week's study questions or desire explanations of scriptures they were given to read and comment on.

    Many visitors come right out and state they need answers for class. Some try to rephrase questions as a way of hiding the fact that they may feel they are "cheating" by asking questions for that reason.

    Some simply retype and perform minor edits on questions from workbooks. Sometimes someone sends a question that is blatantly obvious it came directly from a workbook. For example, the following question is exactly as it was sent to the site:

    "By his call to Samuel, God both confirmed his blank ministry and called him to a blank ministry?"

  • A Bit of Humor: From time to time questions and comments come in that are a bit hard to take seriously. Here are two:

    "Disregarding Luke 20:35-36, who, of her six husbands, will Elizabeth Taylor marry after the second resurrection?"

    "Thank you [for providing study questions on Revelation], but I found I really disagreed with you on the Rapture. I'm going, will wave to you as I go up. "

A shifting of gears

We seem to be a church stuck in neutral. The greater Church of God has yet to fully shift gears into the power and potential of the new mass evangelism age. Many continue to cling to the status quo out of their fear of change and their desire to stay comfortable. But we must change.

We need to reexamine our means and methods for carrying out the great commission. We need to honestly weigh and judge the fruits of our efforts against the resources needed to produce them. We need to stop our self-defeating denials and plan as if Jesus will not return for many more years.

Whether you love it, loathe it or wonder what all the fuss is about, the Internet is here to stay, and we must deal with it.

We have to think and plan for future harvests. If we are willing, our most productive years need not be behind us, but before us.

We must risk again, dare to dream again, invent and initiate and be invigorated again.

The possibilities are endless because we serve an awesome God with whom nothing is impossible.

May God bless His church.

Read unedited comments from church brethren about their experience answering questions from the public.


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