George Gilder

Why pastors detest email

For millions of users, the World Wide Web has turned into a Devil's den packed with urban legends, pop-up porn, Nigerian get-rich schemes and tidal waves of spam pushing medical products that make sailors blush.

That isn't how the Internet Evangelism Day team sees things. It notes that "over 1 billion people use the Web," the "Internet is changing the world" and "God is using the Web to transform lives."

"The Internet has become a 21st century Roman road, marketplace, theater, backyard fence and office drinks machine," proclaims the site's webmasters. "Web evangelism gives believers opportunities to reach people with the Gospel right where they are, just as Jesus and Paul did."

Tech guru George Gilder knows where the Web evangelists are coming from and offers a hearty "Amen." He remains convinced that cyberspace is territory that religious leaders have to explore and, hopefully, master.

"The Internet is very good for building communities and, obviously, churches are communities. It allows a particularly charismatic, or brilliant, church leader to reach potential followers not only in his community or in his immediate locality, but all across the country and the world," said Gilder, the author the trailblazing books "Microcosm" and "Telecosm."

"This is the power of the Net," he said. "It can free people from this sort of entrapment in a narrow locality and allow them to find support for their particular faith, wherever it may arise."

But there's a fly in the digital ointment. There's a reason that Gilder's online "Telecosm Forum" is for subscribers only -- he needs to focus his time on serious questions raised by committed readers who are truly interested in the issues he wants to research. Gilder invests his time and energy in this one online flock.

That's the bottom line: A decade or two down the digital information highway, people who are serious about the Web are learning to invest their time more wisely.

That includes religious leaders, who are as buried in digital junk as everyone else. Many ministers who once were anxious to think outside the local-church box have been stunned at the time commitment this kind of "online ministry" requires.

The good news is that ambitious religious leaders can do 24/7, online, multi-media, interactive ministry at the local, national and even global levels. And the bad news? Users will expect them to build and maintain these 24/7, online, multi-media, interactive ministries at the local, national and even global levels.

This is a mixed blessing for ministers who are already struggling to keep up with the fast-paced realities of life in the flesh-and-blood, analog world. Websites, blogs and email can become curses, as well as blessings.

The Net is, for better and for worse, a tool for interactive communications, stressed Gilder, who is an active churchman. Anything that amplifies speech has the potential to help evangelism and other crucial ministries in most churches, which are communities of believers that need to interact with the world around them in order to survive or thrive.

However, religious leaders need to ask serious questions about the size and shape of the online ministries they attempt, he said. Should forums about sensitive or controversial issues be open to all comers? If a congregation offers an interactive website for people who are asking religious and personal questions, is there anyone with the time and skills to maintain it? Will posting a minister's online address produce contacts with people who truly need help? Who will screen all those emails?

There's one more tricky issue that must be addressed. Many believers are highly skilled when it comes to talking to and arguing with other members of their own flocks, using a kind of "preaching to the choir" lingo that is mere gibberish to outsiders. The religious corners of the Web are packed with websites of this kind, which do much to promote insider debates, but little to reach people outside church doors.

"It's crucial to break out of this kind of parochial language," said Gilder. "If you are going to try to talk to people in the secular world, you have to have people who actually have the ability to do that kind of work online. ...

"It's quite exciting to actually go out into the wider world. But you have to have something to say and you have to know what you are doing."