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  • Google and Ye Shall Find: The Internet and the New Evangelization

    by Jennifer Fulwiler

     

    People usually laugh when they hear me say that I think the Internet age will lead to mass conversions to orthodox Christianity. Anyone who’s spent much time online knows that the ratio of sites with base or immoral content to those with spiritually edifying content is approximately a zillion to one, so what makes me think this new medium could possibly be a good thing for the Church?

    Having a background in Web site development and marketing, and having observed Internet culture for years, I believe a strong case can be made that the particular type of communication that the Internet facilitates will lead lost souls to discover truth more readily than any medium that has come before it.
    This is a subject with which I have some personal experience. Up until about three years ago, I was one of those lost souls. I was a lifelong atheist — a militant atheist. Eventually I developed a mild curiosity as to whether there might be something more to life than meets the eye, so I began searching for God — literally. Not knowing where else to turn, I began typing search terms into Google. I even started a blog. It started out as a simple thought experiment, a half-hearted search for answers to some philosophical questions. I could never have imagined where it would end: My husband and I both entered the Catholic Church just two years later, and have been practicing Catholics ever since.
    There are three defining characteristics that make the Internet unlike any medium the world has seen before — and because of these three traits, I believe my husband and I are among the first of many new converts who will be flooding into the Catholic Church during the Internet age.
    1. The Internet is Interactive
    When I first started paying attention to discussions of religion online, I was satisfied to see no shortage of content that mirrored my own atheistic views. I encountered the same arguments for the godless worldview that I’d heard from friends and family members my entire life, and that I’d often made myself. And yet, there was something different about these arguments when made online: the combox. A hallmark of Internet publishing is that authors allow readers to immediately respond in a comments box (or “combox”), a form field attached to their articles — and this quick and easy feedback changes everything.
    I watched with great interest as Christians and atheists debated one another on various Web sites and forums across the Internet. At first, I almost flinched when I’d see a Christian enter the debate. I’d always had the impression that it was only we atheists who could ask the tough questions and whose worldview could withstand intense scrutiny. I expected the Christians to get crushed.
    But as the debates played out, it became obvious that any intellectually honest person had to admit that these Christians had some basis for their beliefs. Actually, it started to seem that they might be the ones with reason on their side. I thought I had some good questions for Christians, and I did. But it turned out that they had some good questions for me, too.
    In an interactive medium, falsehoods are called out, bad or incomplete ideas collapse under the weight of cross-examination, and anyone honestly seeking the truth will recognize it when they see it. Whatever our belief systems, we can’t isolate ourselves online the way we can in real life. In my case that meant that instead of being affirmed in my beliefs by my atheist friends, I bumped into Christians and was forced to confront their ideas in a way I’d never had to before. Over and over again I noticed that it was only the Christians — and Catholics in particular — whose belief system didn’t crack under the pressure of a flood of tough questions.
    2. The Internet is Open to All
    The Internet is an open-access, unrestricted medium, open to all. Anyone with something to say can say it publicly. Publishing is no longer the realm of those who have the time to write books, the education to polish them up, and the connections to get them published. The power of the elite to control information is gone. This means more ideas, more questions, and more rapid answers that are more finely tailored to each person’s individual concerns. Because the Internet is so pervasive and unrestricted, you see the theology of working people. That is, you see what works in everyday life, and not just in the ivory tower.
    3. The Internet is Informal
    This is the biggest and most important difference between the Internet and more traditional media: For the first time, we have a forum where we can see what people publish when their guard is down. Reading blogs and other personal publications is like eavesdropping on the thought processes of the masses. It was in the comboxes, the forums, the obscure blogs that the authors thought nobody read, that I encountered living, breathing Christianity. Here was true Christianity, not the distorted straw men set up by atheists to mock and knock down. This window into the lives of ordinary Christians revealed to me that, yes, Christians really do believe the tenets of their religion, and that those beliefs make a striking difference in their lives. I felt a bit like a spectator in ancient Rome watching Christians die in the Coliseum. I arrived expecting to laugh and jeer; I left puzzled and intrigued by what might be motivating these people.
    More information will always benefit orthodox Christianity because it has the truth on its side. And in the Internet age, we have abundant material to appeal to both the intellect and the heart. As I discovered myself, amidst this wealth of information even the most hard-headed nonbeliever can’t help but find truth, even if only halfheartedly looking.
     

    The views expressed by the authors and editorial staff are not necessarily the views of
    Sophia Institute, Holy Spirit College, or the Thomas More College of Liberal Arts.

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    • Andy K.

      The informality is what really does it for me. I find honest conversations are far easier to facilitate online than in reality, where social conventions often aschew opportunities for evangelization.

    • NorthoftheBorder

      And you vocalized it for me! I too am an internet convert, and without the world wide web, and the Holy Spirit of course, wouldn’t be going to Mass with the MC’s tomorrow! Joy!

    • Travis

      I know all about the benefits of the internet to Catholicism. The internet lead to my conversion as well. I was desperate to find the one true faith about 3 years back. I was a disillusioned Baptist. So I searched religions on the internet. That lead me to http://www.catholic.com. That website opened my eyes to the truth of Catholicism. I was fully Confirmed on Easter of 2006. Praise the Lord!

    • Lynne

      Praise be Jesus & Mary – now and forever!!!

    • Pamela

      I have argued with my mother over the “evil” of the internet. She is convinced it is destroying the world, but I always tell her it is like other tools, such as guns; it depends on how one uses it. I have long felt that it would be very beneficial for those seeking the truth that has become harder and harder to find, sadly even from many Catholic pulpits. As one who was lucky enough to be born to a wonderful Catholic father who saw to it that I was at Mass every Sunday, I am immensely happy for those of you who have found the wonderful truth by seeking it. The Holy Spirit works in many ways, even through the “evil” internet. [smiley=cool]

    • The Sheepcat

      Blogs brought me a long way towards the Catholic Church three years ago. As I’ve previously written, when I saw combox debates between Catholics and Protestants, almost universally the Catholics appeared both better informed about and more magnanimous towards the Protestant positions than the other way around–and the few exceptions on the Catholic side, I later discovered, were radical traditionalists not in communion with Rome. That was exactly what I would expect from people who had access to the truth, for truth can understand error, while error cannot understand truth (I forget who first said this).

      That’s one of the reasons it so grieves me to see instances of snarkiness in online banter amongst ourselves. The world is watching, and people can see for themselves how well we Catholics really love our enemies in our unguarded moments.

    • Philothea

      I am an internet convert too! I had been struggling spiritually for about five years before I ever gave a thought to the Catholic Church and that thought was triggered by conversations I was reading on the internet.

      After being a Lutheran for 9 years I left that church for an evangelical/fundamentalist type non-denominational church. I was “on-fire” for the Lord and immersed myself in bible study and service. I grew in faith and knowledge but I had this nagging feeling that a “BIG SOMETHING” was missing. My desire to be a part of that church left me and it felt as if I was losing my faith. I prayed and asked the Lord to send His Holy Spirit, to lead me to the truth. I begged for help! This had to be one of the darkest times of my life. I am very thankful for those years in the desert because they caused me to pray more fervently and to patiently wait, to seek and to listen for God’s whisper.

      At the beginning of my struggle I totally withdrew from church life. For a few months I didn’t go to church at all but eventually I decided that this was not good so I began attending a Reformed Church because it happened to be located conveniently across the street from my house. In the meantime I joined an internet forum of homeschoolers and began reading commentary from not only Protestant Christians but Catholic as well. Instead of talking to those of like mind I began conversing with people who did not have the same theology I did.

      The Catholics on that forum were able to defend their faith and they did this with patience and love. They did not personally attack those from other faiths but they backed up their theology with sound argument, church documents etc. I would google the writings they referred to and this led to reading more and more about Catholicism and visiting Catholic blogs. I was able to read the Catholic Catechism online, I read some of the deuterocanonical books online, I learned about the Saints, I read the Early Church Fathers online etc. Eventually, all this lead me to darken the doors of my local Catholic Church and I have never looked back. I entered the Church this past Easter!

      God used the voices of faith-filled Catholics from Georgia, Illinois, Texas, Montana, Idaho, and San Francisco, CA among others to speak to me…to supply that missing part, that missing “BIG SOMETHING” that I so longed for but that eluded me. That “BIG SOMETHING” was the Lord himself in the Eucharist!
      The internet played a huge part in my conversion to the Catholic faith and I will be forever grateful!

    • Greg

      Through the net I found more that i could imagine as real prooof of my Catholic / Christian faith.Looking into things like Fatima and incorrupt bodies of the Saints to name a couple. I always thought Jesus was a religion type of word, but found overwelming evedence of his existence….I call it near history as this time was only 2000 years ago, compared to other accurate recorded history that happened thousnds of years before the time of Jesus. My overview of discusions between beleivers and non-beleivers I have noticed that comments were more postive and loving from beleivers (not all but most)I found that the comments from the non-beleivers were mainly negative and hatefull(again not all but most) In my years (over 50) I know that having negative or hatefull thoughts lead to all kinds of problems with the person and those around them. So what can I say….my love and prayers go out to all the non-beleivers.

    • Deal Hudson

      Jennifer, thanks for telling your story — the Internet like any medium can be used for good, or for bad. Sometimes I think that the growth of various media has aided in the growth of both powers, simultaneously. The comment by The Sheepcat reconfirms my down-deep faith in human nature, that most people don’t like rudeness, whether in the form of road rage or ad hominem name-calling on our web site. A recent study found that people who put bumper stickers on their car are more likely to act with road rage. The researchers speculated it had to do with the strong sense of personal identity the car owners attach to their vehicles. (Personally I have seen more bad behavior from cars with “Kerry 2004″ bumper stickers than any other, no kidding.) I wonder if there is a comparison to be made to those who read and comment on an avowedly Catholic web site? I’m not sure, but I can only hope our identity doesn’t dispose us toward what The Sheepcat terms “snarkiness.”

    • David W.

      So I agree wholeheartedly with the benefits of internet evangelization. However, I think Deal is right in being wary of some aspects of this “revolution.” The internet has also given rise to Drudge Report and given the Punditocracy a bigger bullhorn. Giving every nutter regardless of political persuasion a bully pulpit. Such drunkenness of power, “the ban button.” I know that some have sneered at the so called “Old Media’s” criticism of the blogs that they are not journalists and that it is an Op-Ed Page run amok…I actually agree with that assessment, although I don’t necessarily view it as Doomsday.

    • Todd

      Over the past ten years, I’ve seen word exchanges without the nuance of facial expressions or physical presence lead to great misunderstandings. That aspect of person-to-person communication is a loss.

      Over the past five years, I’ve seen more of a tendency for like-minded people to band together. They tend to reinforce both the good (finding friends, allies, and support) and the bad (mob mentality, gossiping, perpetuating rumors and conspiracy theories).

      With hundreds of millions online, I suppose one can find what one wants to find on the internet. If the reinforcement of strong faith is one facet of many, and of dozens of friends gives one encouragement, that is a blessing.

      As for us Catholics, good thing we still have to go to Mass every week.

    • stef

      another thing i love about the Internet: you can evangelize to people who even IRL probably would not listen to you, or that you might never have a chance to have a faith-related conversation with otherwise.

      e.g., my 17-yo daughter is on Facebook, so as a precautionary measure i’m on it too along with a bunch of other adults that are involved in our local youth ministry. by doing so we’ve had the unexpected benefit of my being able to connect with her friends, kids i know IRL. through this medium, i’ve been able to have conversations with them about the things that matter, things they might not necessarily bring to conversation at the dinner table, and about which they desperately need to talk to a practicing Catholic adult. issues like abortion, same-sex marriage, etc. it’s really opened up some doors. we’re tackling Obama next.

      oh, and it’s so good to see Philothea here. i think i know the forum she’s talking about :)

    • Tito Edwards

      Jennifer,

      It is very heartening to read stories such as yours. Granted that I have seen good Catholic discussions and debates and the radical traditional Catholics can be uncharitable, I would also add the intellectual cultural Catholics can be just as uncharitable, a la Vox Nova (the Daily Kos of Catholicism online).

      If we can remain charitable (honey draws more than vinegar theory) in our blogs I can visualize many people seeing the light of Christ through these very same blogs.

      In Jesus, Mary, & Joseph,

    • Dora

      These stories about the impact on people’s relationships with God and their conversions are great! Reading them gives me much hope. I read and contribute to blogs as well, some are very “Christian” friendly, but many are very hostile. If we continue to share things charitably, without coming down to their level, I believe they will one day come to believe, as shown by the stories here. I would encourage anyone who reads/posts on blogs, to say a prayer every time for those who post there and those who read it. God will do the rest! I too believe that in the coming years we will see more people turning to God and to Jesus Christ because of the internet. I am ready for the conversion explosion. God bless all!

    • Mary Rose

      Jennifer, great article. I love the internet for many reasons, not the least of which was finding my wonderful husband. But I really love it for the virtual public square it creates.

      Decades ago, intellectuals had their “salons” and discussed many topics in people’s homes. Today it seems as though we’re busier than ever; plus some live in very rural areas. The internet has bridged the gap and made these types of discussions available again.

      After 25 years away from the Catholic church (I was attending other churches), I finally “came home” and the internet was a huge part of it. I have no idea how I stumbled across “The Curt Jester” (obviously I was ‘googling’ something Catholic), but his site led me to one blog, which led me to Fr. Zuhlsdorf’s blog, which led me to investigating a parish in town that celebrates the Gregorian Rite (Latin), which led me to completely fall in love with it and start discovering other orthodox resources.

      When I think of my journey, I cannot explain it other than to say the Holy Spirit used this medium to put me on the right path. I’ve met some amazing people over the past two months (It seems like much longer..) who’ve helped me learn even more.

      One of the books I read was Colleen Carroll Campbell’s The New Faithful: Why Young Adults Are Embracing Christian Orthodoxy. Young people are “natives” with technology and they’ve experienced more relativism than their parents. It is no wonder they are intrigued with orthodoxy.

      I suspect we’re going to see more Catholic orthodoxy on the web within the next few years and I’m looking forward to it.

    • Roger

      I found my way home to the Church through the net!
      I listened to Mother Angelica and read up about B16, who was my favourite cardinal, and even ordered a free rosary from the internet. I wasn’t sure what it was; i knew it was something to do with prayer but i thought it had more to do with flowers! I frequented catholic blogs and read a lot of good catholic apologetics. All of this I did before setting foot in a Catholic Church.

      I found the anonymity of the net great, as i wasn’t prepared to tell the world i was looking for God.

      The net has created a place where ideas can move rapidly. Untruths can’t stand up under scrutiny, so the more scrutiny there is the faster that will happen.

    • Bex

      This is wonderful. I too was converted to Catholicism later in life. It’s not so much about a “religion”, for me it was about being drawn to the fullness of truth and without bias. I entered the Catholic church because I had not been taught (or learned) to hate it. Rather I felt the faith out and did much reading and watching re the Saint of the ages, the miracles etc. How the Catholic Catechsimis fully backed up with scripture and tradition, how there was a sense of the sacred when upon entering a Catholic Church that I could never completely describe.

      The bible and the Catechism perfectly complimented the other. The criticism of the Catholic church were completely distorted and unfounded and I remember before I became a Catholic hearing of such things, but never (for some reason) buying into it myself. I never understood why, when so many Catholics had been as Christian as I could have imagined. Why all the judgements?

      I also found the supernatural Miracles connected were another sign that Christ was indeed very much alive and manifesting Himself in many ways to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable (or wake them up). True to His word in the bible, I found Him and more fully in the Catholic church. No, not amongst the fallen sinful liberals or Judases, not in the midst of my own failings, but through His word, through His flesh and blood, which we consume at mass. Truly He is alive! Truly He meant what He said. Though it maybe hard for some to swallow, as it was for many of His disciples (who left Him when they realised they were to consume Him in the form of bread and wine and considered it repelling/cannibilistic perhaps). He never said “look, come back, I didn’t mean it literally, I just meant it symbolically”. No, Christ meant it and He even gave the other remaining disciples the chance to leave also. The passage in the bible that speaks of this should leave one in NO doubt what Christ meant.

      He is truly present in the bread and in the blood after consecration and many have been the miracles to testify that He is indeed present. There have been bleeding hosts, hosts turning into flesh etc. Please google them if you can. They have indeed happened. Why are these things not being televised? Well, I think we all know the answer to that!

      By their fruits you shall know them. And the fruits of the Catholic church have been plenty. Full of SAints, full or miracles, even amongst the liberal judases, it’s survived and remained one United Church. Only the HOly Spirit could have guided it, no man could have possibly kept it going when it has been so heavily attacked from all sides. Especially the Devil!

    • Therese Z

      I am an Internet revert. I fell away from the church, didn’t attend any services or proclaim any belief for probably twenty years, but always had a spark and curiosity in my heart. But trying to go back to church or pick up a book, I kept running into things that drove me away (my fault, not necessary theirs).

      The internet is as varied as the people who blog. I found wit, intense intellectual discussions, challenges to my long-held positions, boldness, gentleness.

      Initially it was the happy witty confidence of so many bloggers. Then it was the arguments in the comboxes. I had new eyes for everything: Mass, Confession, the Bible.

      Did my own blogging for awhile (kind of burned out at the moment) and even did a little evangelizing, and THAT’s the point at which I knew I was wholeheartedly Catholic through and through! I am so happy to be back!

    • Clayton Emmer

      Great article.

      Another benefit of the Internet is that — via blogs and forums — you can have “persistent” conversations. Other people who aren’t participating at the time can become participants days, months, even years later. It’s the online equivalent of reading through someone’s correspondence and the historical development of their thoughts. Pretty remarkable, when you think about it.

    • Kevin J Jones

      I’m a bit skeptical. Christianity is an incarnate faith, while the internet can simply re-enforce anti-physical habits of mind.

    • Bruce

      I have experienced face-to-face religious exchanges at RCIA class in which people seemed to understand the points being made, but then left and never came back. After contacting them to see what was wrong, they laid out their doubts and questions. Some of them said they didn’t ask in class because they didn’t want to annoy everyone one else and they didn’t want to look like a bad person.

      I think the anonymity of the internet is a very good way skeptical people can ask lots of questions without feeling they are annoying the group or coming across like a “bad person”

      The internet is a means, not an end, which we need to remind ourselves.

    • davin

      The Internet was also instrumental in my conversion. It is great to be able to go to a safe place and ask questions (or already have them asked) and find the answers.

      The Internet is also working in ways like education of Catholics. http://www.cdu.edu

    • Tausign

      For me it has provided encouragement because people share faith much more readily and in a focused manner: it’s really like attending a small bible study in a way. The topic is guided by the Blog author and people’s reaction tend to stay on target for the most part. The public formun serves to provide its own ‘checks and balances’ which is healthy, especially for Catholics who have a ‘teaching authority’ for guidance.

      And for those who are Catholics, whatever inspiration is gathered usually is directed toward local Church worship experience in Liturgy or it simply vanishes into thin air. Even fallen away Catholics either ‘get it’ and are drawn back or they weary and leave. Great article!

    • Hermit, without a permit

      PAX>
      a very good, and true article. one major struggle i find though, is a unreal false sense of “true’ Community , an ;online fellowship…which can give a false sense you are involved in the militant Body. yet, for those of us in the middle of no-where it is a great aid within the Mystical Body..:)and can be s step towards Common LIfe My Blog, i am told has already helped 3 young poeple from 3 countries go to oberverships in Religious Communities..Praise HGod!

    • Terry H Jones

      One of the groups working to lead the way into the use of the Internet and new media is SQPN, the Star Quest Production Network. Come check out the sites, blogs, podcasts and video at

      http://sqpn.com
      http://saints.sqpn.com

      Get a summary of recent material at the newsletter archive

      http://datelinesqpn.wordpress.com

      -Terry

    • llewelly

      Written by Deal Hudson:

      (Personally I have seen more bad behavior from cars with “Kerry 2004″ bumper stickers than any other, no kidding.)

      Perhaps because Kerry was Catholic?

    • Fr. Miron

      Thank you for your article… I agreee. I have a lot of good experiences. We try to use the the medium…