When Doug Reese put up his Web site, he felt he was answering a call. A college wrestling coach with a long involvement in Christian youth ministries, he wanted to spread a Christian message to people who were not getting it.
Instead of working through his Methodist church, he created a site with no overtly religious images or affiliation, and articles about weight lifting, nutrition and profiles of athletes. Only after users click a few links do they start to see biblical passages or the religious testimonials of the athletes.
“I wanted it to look like a sports magazine,” said Mr. Reese, who coaches at the University of Minnesota at Morris and hopes to turn his three-year-old site into a full-time ministry. “It’s a little covert. I know that religion or Christianity is a turn-off with a great part of the population. I didn’t want to shove it in people’s faces.”
Mr. Reese and his Web site, www.tothenextlevel.org, embody an increasingly popular strategy for evangelism in the Internet age. In the segmented realms of the Web, said Tony Whitaker, editor of a guide for online evangelists, sites that use overtly Christian material will reach only people who are already Christians, while everyone else can click by. Unlike Christian radio or television, the new medium calls not for powerful religious symbolism or rhetoric but for the absence of them, he said.
“You’re not trying to trick people,” Mr. Whitaker said. “You can’t appear to be something you’re not. But Christians should legitimately appear to be taking a starting point on a subject that doesn’t appear to be religious.”
A report released in December by the Pew Internet and American Life Project estimated that by December 2002, 35 million Americans had searched for religious or spiritual information online, compared with 36 million who had downloaded music files. Until recently, if someone typed “god” into a search engine, it retrieved as many sites as typing in “sex,” said Quentin J. Schultze, a professor of communications at Calvin College who has written about religion and the Web. “So this has been a deeply evangelistic medium. The influence of religious evangelists has been greatly unreported.”
Instead of Scripture, the sites come on with information about beauty, diet, fitness, sex and celebrities. Some also have links for donations or offer books or other products for sale. But the sites are not veiled pitches for money, and the approach has elicited little controversy.
Many sites have no church ties and they represent just a fraction of the religious traffic online. “The most creative ones are started by individuals” rather than churches, said Robby Richardson, director of international Internet ministries for Gospel Communications International, a nonprofit umbrella group of 300 ministries based in Muskegon, Mich., whose www.gospelcom.net reaches about two million visitors a month, according to Nielsen//NetRatings. “We’re trying to tell church sites, `Don’t forget about evangelism.’ “
Some sites direct visitors to churches or study groups; others hope readers will convert on the spot, declaring themselves by clicking a button or a link. Bruce Biesenthal, editor of www.thegoal.com, a sports-oriented site in Seattle, said about 300 people in the last two years had clicked a button to say they were making a “decision for Christ” after reading athletes’ testimonials on the site. The articles discuss religious themes only after delivering the sports news, he said.
“The site is for people coming because they want to learn about the athlete or the sport,” he said. “It’s subversive. We want to use the celebrity of the athletes as a platform.”
Even as President Bush, in an apparent nod to conservative Christians in his State of the Union address, urged Americans to “work together to counter the negative influence of the culture,” many online evangelists are using the R-rated culture to attract visitors.
Some sites discuss gangsta rap or movies like “American Pie” in relatively neutral language. For example, an article on www.damaris.org, a nondenominational Christian ministry based in England, advises, “Eminem and his rap entourage could be described as radical preachers, speaking frankly about the broken communities they come from.”
David Bruce, an evangelical Christian who runs a movie review site called www.hollywoodjesus.com, said he liked covering racy films, as long as they were popular, because they had the attention of “pre-Christians.” Parts of his site refer people to religious groups, and Mr. Bruce, a former pastor, said he has continuing telephone or e-mail conversations with 100 users at any time.
Mr. Bruce distinguished himself from fundamentalists who protest or boycott the Harry Potter books and movies as occultist.
“I would say I’m part of a new thinking within evangelicals,” he said, adding that he receives angry e-mail messages for promoting sexual or violent movies. “I get so tired of Christians that bash Hollywood.”
“It isn’t content that interests me,” he said, continuing that even exploitation movies provide “common ground” for biblical discussion.
“I was so disappointed `Showgirls’ wasn’t a hit because I would have loved to discuss it,” Mr. Bruce said.
Ted Haggard, president of the National Association of Evangelicals, which represents 43,000 congregations, said that the Internet lent itself to all kinds of approaches, both direct and indirect, because different users were ready for different levels of information. A site that did not declare its intentions was the best way to reach some, just as an evangelist in a public square might begin by talking about secular concerns. “You have a moral obligation not to be deceitful,” he said. “But you don’t have a moral obligation to tell everything you know upfront.”
Yet Mr. Haggard worried that on the Internet, anyone could come on as a religious authority — “even a crazy person.” He added that because there was so much pornography on the Internet, online evangelism might prove a mixed benefit. “We have more people corrupted on the Internet than we have arrive at the church by the Net,” he said.
In Vancouver, British Columbia, Karen Schenk works both direct and indirect approaches to evangelism. She is the director of Web site strategies for TruthMedia, an organization of 20 sites affiliated with Campus Crusade for Christ, an evangelical group. Two sites she oversees are www.womentodayonline.com and www.christianwomentoday.com.
The latter assumes visitors are already involved in churches, she said, and offers articles like “Dive Deeper Into God” and “True Spiritual Change.” The former is for women who might not be Christians, and features articles like “I Am Jealous of His Very Attractive Ex-Wife.”
It is the secular-looking site that is evangelistic, Mrs. Schenk said. “We’re just being sensitive to where people are at and inviting them in. We don’t have spinning crosses on Women Today.”
To illustrate how beauty tips might be used to spread the gospel, Mrs. Schenk noted that the most popular article on Women Today Online has been an advice column about frizzy hair. Before reading advertisements for L’Oreal, readers see a link that reads, “Are you happy with your body?” If they click on that, they get the life story of a model who battled bulimia but then found success after becoming a born-again Christian. “You can receive Christ right now by faith through prayer,” she writes.
Mrs. Schenk said that about 70 percent of the site’s traffic was in the secular areas, but that visitors wanting more could receive prayers, Bible passages or Christian mentoring.
The Web site www.mops.org, whose initials stand for Mothers of Preschoolers, offers mothers advice and chat rooms for topics like playdates, money, sexuality and medical needs, and organizes more than 3,000 groups that meet in churches around the country and abroad. The group has 115,000 members, said Karen Parks, the director of ministry networks. Articles are mostly secular, but the site also has areas for religious testimonials and outreach.
The site avoids discussion of political topics or abortion. “We never hide that we’re a Christian organization, but we don’t want to build any walls or barriers,” Ms. Parks said. “We consider a success anything that leads a mom one step closer to Jesus, whatever that step is. Hopefully she goes all the way to meet Jesus, but that might be through another group, and that’s fine.”
The indirect, or bridge strategy in online evangelizing continues a broader trend among Christian evangelicals, said Randall Balmer, chairman of the religion department at Barnard College and author of “The Encyclopedia of Evangelicalism.” In 1975, the Willow Creek Community Church in South Barrington, Ill., after surveying local residents to see why many did not go to church, dispensed with all Christian iconography, crosses or stained glass windows to appeal to people who were turned off by these. In the 1990’s, many evangelical churches dropped the denomination from their names, switching to names like Oak Chapel.
Alan Wolfe, director of the Boisi Center for Religion and American Public Life at Boston College, questioned the long-term value of online religious conversions, no matter how many hits the sites got. He pointed to the Internet outreach in Howard Dean’s presidential campaign, which generated furious activity online but so far has not translated into first-place finishes in the primaries. “The Dean camp suggests that meeting through the Internet didn’t work,” Mr. Wolfe said. “I wonder if a similar Christian strategy is going to work either.”