Kayla Staton seems like a typical 14-year-old: She listens to pop music, loves to shop and enjoys spending time with her friends.
She also spends time at her favorite site, MySpace.com, an online community where young and old alike can create profiles, send messages and write blogs.
Staton uses her profile not only to chat but to share with the world her faith in Jesus Christ. She has posted a poem about God on her Web site where her friends and visitors can see it.
“I use it every day to talk to friends. It’s easier to talk to people online about God. There’s less pressure, and you can say whatever you want. You don’t have to worry that people will look at you and think you’re dumb or something.”
Staton is not the only one talking about her faith online.
Teenagers’ use of the Internet for spiritual or religious experience grew by 200 percent between 1998 and 2001, according to a study by the Barna Research Group. Forty-six percent of teens expected to use the Internet to talk about what they believe.
Youth pastors across the country are embracing this non-traditional evangelism, chatting with students over AOL Instant Messenger and creating MySpace profiles.
“I have a MySpace, too,” said Drew Sher, a youth minister at First United Methodist Church. “It’s another way to connect with them and keep in touch. So many of my kids are on there, I can use it to stay up to date with what’s going on with them.”
The youth ministry at Sher’s church has made the Internet a part of its program.
“Our sixth grade confirmation class has faith-based homework assignments that encourage them to use the Internet to look for answers,” Sher said. “We are trying to get them thinking about their faith outside of church and outside of a lecture format. They investigate their beliefs on their own instead of being spoon-fed.”
For Elizabeth Pappis, 16, sharing her faith online seems easier than in person.
“It’s easier to get people’s attention,” she said. “If you’re out at a restaurant it’s a distraction. This way you can focus better and talk to them directly.”
Opportunities to share her faith occur frequently.
“I’m always talking to someone, at least one person a day,” Pappis said. “Usually they ask me questions … It gives me a chance to talk to them about God.”
Questions from friends are good for conversations about God, Staton said. “One kid said he had a bad life and wondered how I could be so happy all the time. So I told him that I had Jesus in my life and he made me happy.”
With the wonders of being able to share religious beliefs with people across the country comes the worries of online predators. For Staton’s parents, it’s all about constant supervision.
“We make sure we know her screenname and password and that she only lets people we know have access to her site,” said her father Roger. “MySpace is a dangerous place for kids, we want to be careful.”
But he also knows she can use her site for good.
“She’s having a good time with it. She displays some of her photography on there – she’s very talented. And I’m glad she uses it to tell people about her belief in God.”
Those who work with teenagers also have come to embrace the Internet as a tool to reach out and share experiences.
“I do talk to my girls through MySpace,” said Sarah Moseley, 26, who works with teenagers, including Pappis and Staton, at Christ the King Church.
“I make it a point to keep my profile as open and transparent about who I am, and they like that. I also go and check some of their sites and leave comments for those I know and am concerned about. I just want to remind them that I love them.”