The Mission Field on Your Desktop
Bob and Gretchen Passantino
A New Mission Field
Almost forty years ago the late Dr. Walter Martin challenged the Christian church to widen its missions commitment to include the millions of cultists "on the doorstep" of the church, cultists who had fallen away from their former Christian upbringing and who were as close as our next door neighbors, our coworkers, our friends, and even our family members. Through his ministry and that of others who followed in his footsteps, American Christianity developed a strong evangelical and apologetic presence that resulted in thousands of cultists forsaking the cults and coming to biblical faith in Jesus Christ.
At the close of this millennium, there is an equally "close" mission and apologetics opportunity that is too often ignored by Christian churches, organizations, and individuals. The Internet reaches more individuals by far than any other single media source, whether it is the Los Angeles Times, U.S. News and World Report, even Cable News Network (CNN). It is, almost literally, a mission field on our desktops.
On the Internet one can find web sites for all of the major (and most of the minor) world religions, cults, and even occult practices and movements. Because of its low cost and easy production, Internet web sites enable even small, relatively unknown and poorly financed religious options to present an appealing and provocative front in the world of cyberspace. Access to the Internet is also easy and inexpensive, meaning that millions of people world wide can explore religious options from nearly limitless resources. Christians need to promote Internet apologetics in response to these challenges to Christian truth.
Opportunities for Apologetics and Evangelism
In addition to direct responses to Internet religious options, Christians have additional opportunities to reach the lost with the truth of the gospel. First, Christians should recognize and take advantage of the widespread spiritual hunger that spurs many Internet users to search for spiritual fulfillment "on the Web."
Many cults and most major religious movements already recognize this recruitment potential and use their web sites as active evangelism forums. There is actually a strong Christian presence in this regard, although the almost unlimited potential for evangelism via Internet web sites could be much more widely embraced and promoted.
Christians who are looking for good information about Christian faith, doctrine, and practice should take advantage of the wealth of information available on the Internet. A recent survey we conducted regarding Internet apologetics resources reveals the staggering amount of information available. Checking five of the most popular "search engines" (Web Crawler, Yahoo, Hotbot, Alta Vista, and Infoseek), we found a total of 63,894 sites listed under "apologetics," 1.7 million under "Christian apologetics," 223,168 under "cult apologetics," and 243,084 under "Christian philosophy."
Sites and More Sites
Many of these sites contain "links" to other sites of interest, giving the interested Christian a virtual "guided tour" through the wealth of information available. In addition to Cornerstone (www.cornerstonemag.com) and Answers In Action's (www.answers.org) copious links, some sites go overboard and include everything but the kitchen sink. A good example is Lambert Dolphin's Web Links (www.ldolphin.org/URLres.shtml), which contains around 20 pages of suggested links. As with most web site links, the host site does not necessarily agree with all or even some of the materials produced by linked sites. Dolphin's links are great if a browser has plenty of time to explore the haphazardly organized topic indexes, but it can be frustrating for someone who is looking for a particular kind of site. Another drawback to site referral links and even search engine indexes is that electronic addresses change so frequently that hardly any link/address sources can maintain all-active referral sites.
Some of the best apologetic and evangelism sites include Leadership U (www.leaderu.com), Midwest Christian Outreach (www.midwestoutreach.org), Personal Freedom Outreach (www.pfo.org), Stand to Reason (http://str.org), TruthQuest Institute (www.truthquest.org), and Watchman Fellowship (www.watchman.org). Sites of this caliber include a large amount of useful, fully retrievable data, including articles, debates, position papers, pamphlets, chat rooms, bulletin boards, and/or e-mail options for people searching for good apologetics materials.
Web Sites for Information and/or Marketing
There are significant numbers of sites that come from well-established apologetics organizations which, unfortunately, sometimes look at their Internet presence primarily as a new market and only secondarily as a data resource. For example, the Christian Research Institute has a large portion of the apologetics market, and a correspondingly large array of tapes, videos, booklets, books, tracts, and, of course, the daily Bible Answer Man internationally syndicated call-in talk radio program hosted by CRI President Hank Hanegraaff. Consequently, their web site initially contained frequent appeals to visitors to purchase materials and few resources that were actually available on line, although with the prominent availability of the Bible Answer Man both live and archived.
In a recent interview Hanegraaff noted that CRI now has the staffing and expert outside consulting to increase the free availability of a wide variety of materials on line. Other sites that are heavy on marketing and light on data, such as Saints Alive in Jesus (focused on Mormonism — www.Saintsalive.com) should follow CRI's example.
A Wealth of Support
Additional general apologetics sites well worth visiting are Alpha and Omega (www.aomin.org), Apologetics Online (http://home.earthlink.net/~mcbrst), Apologia Report (www.gospelcom.net/apologia), Christian Answers Net (www.christiananswers.net), Christian Apologetics (www.apologetics.org), Christian Apologetics and Research Ministry (www.carm.org), Christian Research Institute (www.equip.org), Come Let Us Reason (www.pe.net/~lennyesp), Does God Exist? (www.doesgodexist.org), Probe Ministries (www.probe.org), Ravi Zacharias International Ministries (www.rzim.com), Reasoning from the Scriptures (http://home.earthlink.net/~ronrhodes), Southern Evangelical Seminary (Dr. Norman L. Geisler) (http://ses.digiweb.com), Summit Ministries (www.ChristianAnswers.Net/summit), The Ultimate Christian Apologetics (http://home.sprynet.com/sprynet/lenardos/page2.htm), and Xenos Christian Fellowship (www.xenos.org).
Web Site Specialization
There are web sites that focus on a particular topic, such as the site devoted exclusively to answering alleged Bible contradictions (www.ugcs.caltech.edu/~werdna/contradictions) or the ones dedicated to science and origin issues, like Access Research Network (www.arn.org), Origins (www.origins.org), and Reasons to Believe (www.reasons.org). There are a myriad of sites focused on a particular biblically aberrant movement, such as Light of Truth (focus — The Local Church of Witness Lee — www.mcs.net/~jimmoran), Reveal (focus — The International Churches of Christ, commonly referred to as the Boston Church of Christ or Crossroads Church of Christ — www.reveal.org), The Watchtower Observer (focus — Jehovah's Witnesses — http://watchtower.observer.org), Answering Islam (http://answering-islam.org), and FACTNet International (focus — Church of Scientology — http://factnet.org).
Other "specialty" Christian sites are too many too detail here, but even a sample of what is available should encourage Christians that they can find specific sites that can help them defend the faith and share the gospel. Christian Action Net, for example, has general apologetic materials available in foreign language versions as well as in English. The Center for Reformed Theology and Apologetics (www.reformed.org) is unabashedly consistently Calvinist in its materials as well as provided excellent resources to "download." for apologetics, especially against atheism. The Center's web site is its primary ministry forum, unlike most other substantial sites that support a ministry external to the Internet.
There are a number of sites dedicated to defending the faith from a Roman Catholic perspective. One of the largest and most popular is from the lay Catholic apologetics organization, Catholic Answers (www.catholic.com). By contrast, individual Catholics host personal web sites that chronicle their own journey to Rome and link to a variety of Roman Catholic information and data. One example of this more modest approach is Biblical Evidence for Catholicism (http://ic.net/~erasmus/erasmuss.htm).
Among specialty groups there is even one from the late Dr. Walter Martin's daughter and son-in-law that proposes to make Martin's materials available in cyber space (Religious Information Network — www.WalterMartin.org).
One of the most important specialty site groups includes materials either directly evangelize atheists, agnostics, and skeptics or, on the contrary, sites that attack the Christian faith with arguments, information, experience, and evidence they say disproves Christianity. The opportunities for individual evangelism, apologetics, and even subsequent discipleship are nearly limitless and provide us with one of the most fruitful forums available to Christians today.
Such sites include Christian Apologetics Presented by Trinity College of Florida and the C. S. Lewis Society (www.apologetics.org) which especially encourages dialogues with such doubters, displaying a "Skeptics Welcome" sign on its home (main) page, including a message (linked to an inner page) which says, "Atheists, Agnostics, and other Skeptics are eagerly welcomed to this web site!
There are a number of Christian philosophers who maintain their own web sites or give authorization for someone else to develop and maintain sites including their materials. Christian philosophers have the edge when they dialogue with non-believers, and the "mission" work done by what are wrongly characterized as useless "ivory tower" pundits has a significant impact on non-believers. Browsers can choose from the Society of Christian Philosophers (www.siu.edu/departments/cola/philos/SCP), Professor Francis J. Beckwith (associate professor at Trinity Graduate School (California) many articles on his site (www.iclnet.org/pub/resources/text/beckwith/beckwith-home.html), that of Boston College professor Dr. Peter Kreeft (www.biophysics.mew.edu/BRI-people/rtk/kreeft.html), Retired Trinity professor Stuart Hackett (www.accessone.com/~trcole/hackett), Dr. J. P Moreland, professor at Talbot School of Theology (www.chasss.utoronto.ca.8080/~davis/morel.htm), and Dr. Alvin Plantinga (www.chase.utoronto.ca.8080/~davis/plant.htm).
Other intriguing Christian philosophy sites include The Veritas Forum (www.veritas.org), a group of Harvard Christians, the Theistic Philosophers on the Web (www.chass.utoronto.ca.8080/~davis/phil.htm), or The Southern California Center for Christian Studies (www.scccs.org), which focuses on a reformed response to arguments about the existence of God. Each of these web sites engages in some sort of direct interaction with skeptics, atheists, and agnostics through their web sites.
For example, at our own Answers In Action web site we receive numerous e-mail challenges from non-believers, to which we respond with a stronger, true challenges on behalf of the Christian faith. Self-styled teenage Satanists usually don't read our available material on Satanism, but that doesn't stop them from dispensing e-mail full of blasphemy, curses, and ridicule. We always respond that we gather from their e-mail that they feel strongly about this issue and are convinced that we are wrong and they are right. We also point out that if they had a larger vocabulary, they wouldn't be forced to use the four letter words that bloat their messages. It would also give their messages more cognitive value. Then we challenge them to investigate the truth claims of Christianity. After all, the supreme hedonist (Satanists generally describe themselves as hedonists) would be the person who would do whatever it took to enjoy eternal bliss and personal fulfillment. It the claims of Christianity are true, they only betray themselves as hypocrites if they pass up eternal peace and joy for juvenile rebelliousness.
Because of the careful, well-researched, accurate data we disseminate regarding Satanism, the occult, neo-paganism (witchcraft) and spiritual warfare, we are able to dialogue with members of those movements who would otherwise be convinced that Christians are mean spirited, narrow minded, mentally challenged people who can't get along without the pathetic crutch of the Jesus- God.
Skeptics and non-believers contend with us via e-mail regarding many of the positions presented in our wide variety of pages, and they seem markedly more eager to dialogue honestly by e-mail rather then by regular mail or telephone.
Individual Evangelism and Apologetics Interaction
In this realm the opportunity for Christian evangelism is the ability to participate in direct, individual dialogue with spiritual seekers. Christians should eagerly embrace the Internet's heavy emphasis on personal dialogue through e-mail, "chat rooms," "list services" ("listserves"), bulletin boards, and other interactive options. The Internet appears to be an eminently friendly forum for direct dialogue with spiritual seekers and advocates of non-Christian religious world views.
After more than 25 years in apologetics ministry, we have a fairly good idea of the kinds and quantities of correspondence and phone calls we and other organizations receive. Most inquiries are for general information, or information to share with a loved one who is in error. Sometimes callers request personal help in intervening with a loved one who has joined a cult or fallen away from Christ. The media turns to Answers In Action, Cornerstone, and other apologetic organizations for research information and evaluations of religious issues that make the news, such as the cult suicides of the Heaven's Gate Cult in 1997 or the sensational and imagined "Satanic Ritual Abuse" fad of the late 80s and early 90s. Churches look to apologetic organizations to augment their adult and youth education programs and their domestic missions program. Christians frequently call with their own questions and needs, such as whether they can expect physical healing if they "claim it," or whether they can be "demonized" if they have habitual sin, etc.
However, rarely do we or most other apologetics organizations engage in extended, candid dialogue by telephone or letter with those who embrace contrary religious ideas but who are willing to investigate the claims of Christ.
This is where the Internet provides a bridge not readily crossed in more traditional means of communication. A variety of factors may play parts in the relative abundance of direct apologetic and evangelistic dialogue enjoyed on the Internet. It is easy for the questioner to maintain confidentiality and/or to disguise one's real name and address. This provides a sense of security to the questioner who is afraid that he will be disciplined by God or his group if he is uncovered as a "doubter." The speed of communication (almost the speed of light in the case of "live" dialogue, such as in a chat room) allows those with transitory doubts about their religious beliefs to ask questions and receive answers before they regret their "lack of faith" and retreat from those who disagree with their beliefs. Additionally, the relative anonymity of Internet correspondence allows individuals of other faiths to criticize (often mockingly) Christian views with little accountability. While the critic may see this as an opportunity to denigrate a Christian view, such criticisms actually provide an opening for a more reasoned exchange of ideas and beliefs.
In the four years Answers In Action has had a web site we have been encouraged by the volume of candid communications from those of other faiths. Among the kinds of messages we receive are those from teenage self-styled Satanists, organized neo-pagans (witches), members of cults such as the Jehovah's Witnesses, the Mormons, Unificationists ("Moonies"), etc. We also receive messages from Buddhists, Hindus, New Agers, Muslims, and Jews. We receive a high number of messages from those who reject religion altogether, such as agnostics who mock us for thinking we can know anything about God, atheists who brag that they have fulfillment without God, and skeptics who belittle us for believing that the Bible is the inerrant Word of God.
Each message is an opportunity for us to respond directly with good evidence, reasons, and information not only to evaluate the individual's position, but also to promote a rational theistic Christian world view.
Another way this extra sensitivity to religious discussion can be used for apologetics and evangelism comes when we take the offensive rather than defensive. Defensive Internet Apologetics means posting something on the web, waiting for someone to pick it up, and then hoping he will dialogue with you. While the amount of communication, evangelism, and apologetics is substantial, when we go on the offensive we place the burden of proof on the non- believer rather then the Christian.
This involves accessing the wide variety of web sites dedicated to a non-religious, naturalistic world view. In our previously described survey of general search engines, we found 84,672 atheist sites, nearly 10,000 agnosticism sites, and almost 88,000 skepticism sites. Take a look at some of the Christian bashing available on the Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal (www.csicop.org) — even lumping "Flat Earthers" with Christians! Not all of the CSICOP web site is spiritually worthless. The organization has done a good job over the years to investigate from a scientific basis a broad range of issues, such as psychic healing (it doesn't work),Equidistant Letter Spacing (at least as deceptive), alternative medical treatment, levitation, etc. A good CSICOP method is to find someone who promotes the practice, event, talent, or creative energy and examine the claims carefully, procluding any falsification on the part of the "believer." A suggestion for those who would like to do apologetics "Internet style" is to find one section of the web site with which you disagree and for which you have good evidence and argumentation. Also find a section with which you do agree. Begin your conversation by complimenting the recipient on the area of agreement, and then approach the area of disagreement.
Skeptic Jim Leppard (www.primenent.com/~lippard) has one of the most active chat room/debate/resource web sites among the atheists, agnostics, and skeptics. If you can ignore his sometimes "colorful" language, you can learn lots about his approach and modify your argument for the existence of God. Similar sites are at The Secular Web (www.infidels.org), Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance (www.religiooustolerance.org),
The secular Net has a number of excellent web sites on some of the issues that have been the subject of our careful scrutiny over the years. Many journals reference us in their articles and books, thanking us for our honesty and non-threatening objections, especially in the areas of Satanism, Satanic Ritual Abuse, False Memory Syndrome, and the occult. One of our favorite referrals is to the False Memory Foundation (http://advicom.net/~fitz/fmsf). Additional sites include the Ingram Organization (http://members.aol.com/ingramorg), the Witchhunt Information Page (http://web.mit.edu/afs/athena.mit.edu/user/h/a/harris/www/witchhunt.html), and the Australian Satanic Ritual Abuse website (http://student.uq.edu.au/~py101603).
One of the Internet's best features (cheap, nearly instantaneous communication world wide) is also its biggest vulnerability. For every reliable, biblical, and rational Christian site, there are perhaps dozens more that promote aberrant and untrue ideas that would never be disseminated publicly in traditional media such as books, magazines, and radio/television. And frankly, much that is accepted in the traditional media is scary in its sensationalistic, boastful, and thoroughly ignorant exhibitionism as well.
Check out the organizations, individuals, and affiliations of web sites you plan to depend on for accurate, fair, and Christian evaluation and assistance in apologetics and evangelism. Remember that not all links on responsible sites are as careful and Christian as the site that provides the links. If in doubt, check it out. If not in doubt, check it out again.
Refrain from becoming engrossed in the bizarre that strain all credulity to the point of disbelief. A sample few sensational sites include K-House Interactive (www.khoouse.org), Theomatics: God's Best-Kept Secret (www.theomatics.com), Grant Jeffrey Ministries (www.grantjeffrey.com), Jack Van Impe Ministries International (www.jvim.com), Trinity Broadcasting Network (www.tbn.org), Bob Larson Ministries (htt://members.aol.com/bobontv), and Flashpoint: A Newsletter Ministry of Texe Marrs (www.texemarrs.com).
There's even a Christian web site called "God's Smiley Face in the Bible" (http://www4.enter.net/point/smiley_face.htm). According to this site, it seems that God has provided a novel and utterly unbreakable proof that the King James Version of the Bible is the inerrant word of God, preserved as the only translation that "rightly divides the Word" and gives us God's revelation without error, dilution, or compromise.
This web site promotes the bizarre notion that every colon — : — followed by a close parenthesis — ) —, which when combined looks like this — :) is a testimony to God's faithful preservation of the King James Translation, a testimony that should convince everyone since the translators worked more than three hundred years before the Smiley Face became an Internet symbol for happiness, joy, or laughter. And, to further buttress this ridiculous notion, the site notes that new translations, such as the New International Version, omit the symbols in every instance! A Smiley face code appears in 2 Chronicles 6:30 -- "Then hear thou from heaven they dwelling place, and forgive, and render unto every man according unto all his ways, whose heart thou knowest; (for thou only knowest the hearts of the children of men :) Other citations are said to be in Matthew 24:15, Esther 1:1, 2 Kings 25:4, and many other scriptures as well.
This is no kidding — you can check the site yourself, and we are convinced this guy is serious. Needless to say, this site did not make the cut for recommended apologetics/evangelism sites!
The Internet is almost literally a "mission field on your desktop." Use it to equip you for sound, persuasive evangelism and apologetics. Use it to strengthen your knowledge of the Word of God and your walk with Him. Access hostile sites and use the opportunity to defend the faith and share the gospel. If you have a web site, make it "friendly" to non-believers so that you can initiate and continue a frank exchange of world views as a step in apologetics preparing the way for evangelism. Only a few years ago IBM founder Thomas Watson predicted that the world was only big enough for five mainframe computers and Digital's Ken Olsen claimed there would never be a need for computers in the home. Don't let the world wide profusion of competing world views via the Internet go unchallenged. Replace the falsity of the world with the truth that is in Jesus Christ.