Patricia Calderon, a junior communications major at the University of California Davis, looked towards the Christian faith three years ago after a friend was diagnosed with cancer. With a desire to pray for her friend, she turned to the Internet and found a phone number for a prayer hotline. She called the number and listened intently as a man communicated the gospel and prayed with her. But she still needed convincing.
"I had always been an atheist," she says. "I felt I couldn't believe in God until I was sure there was a God."
So Calderon returned to her computer and typed a desperate question into an Internet search engine: "Is there a God?" The search led her to a Campus Crusade for Christ Web site, where she encountered evidence of God's existence and learned what it means to begin a relationship with Christ.
"I was in shock that I had lived most of my life not believing these things and making fun of people who believed," she says. "I fell to my knees and accepted Jesus right in front of my computer."
Calderon's parents never allowed her to have a Bible, but she found the Gospel of John online and secretly began reading it.
"It's changed my life dramatically," she says. "God has allowed me to become a messenger of His gospel and share this wonderful testimony."
Calderon uses the Internet to tell others about the God she first encountered online. She maintains her own blog (or Web log), a personal online journal, and openly shares her faith with people she meets in cyberspace.
"People from the different blog rings who aren't Christians read my blog and e-mail me," she says. "One guy said, 'I've known theologians, but none of them have been able to explain the gospel as clearly as you have.' "
Earl Creps, who conducts research on young adults and technology, believes stories such as Calderon's will become more common as churches embrace the Internet's potential for spreading the gospel.
Christian cyber-evangelists see the Internet as a powerful tool for communicating the gospel.
"There is solid research that tells us a large percentage of adults, especially young adults, are looking for religion online," says Creps, director of the Doctor of Ministry program at Assemblies of God Theological Seminary in Springfield, Missouri. "Religion is one of the top search categories every day."
Andrew Careaga, author of the book "E-vangelism," says the Internet is ideal for reaching people who feel uncomfortable exploring the claims of Christianity in other settings.
"On the Internet, there's a degree of anonymity that allows people to ask questions and bare their souls," he says.
Tony Whittaker, coordinator of an April 24 event called Internet Evangelism Day, is trying to make Christians more aware of the witnessing opportunities available online.
"A lot of churches have Web sites these days," says Whittaker, who lives in Derby, United Kingdom. "Unfortunately, to a large extent, these sites tend to be notice boards for the members. They are not designed for non-Christians to read, and therefore non-Christians don't usually visit the sites - or stay if they do."
Whittaker says congregations and Christian organizations need to use the Internet in more innovative ways.
"A person who is seriously seeking can easily find a lot of good Web sites that will explain the gospel to them and offer answers to questions," he says. "The question is how we can attract those who have minimal interest or no interest in Christianity. A major answer is to write about issues they are interested in - things like sports, music, popular culture, health, felt needs and worries."
By pairing popular topics with the gospel, some Christian Web sites are attracting people who might never pick up a tract or listen to a sermon.
Peggie Bohanon, who operates "Peggie's Place" online, has been using this strategy for the past decade. Her homespun site features recipes, a virtual vacation link, and commentary on current topics and news events. It also includes a virtual church, devotions and various gospel presentations.
Bohanon, who attends Central Assembly of God in Springfield, Missouri, is quick to point out, however, that Christian Web sites were never meant to take the place of the local church.
"One woman e-mailed and said, 'This is my church,' " Bohanon says. "I said, 'I'm glad you enjoy the Web site, but you need a real
Jamie Morgan, a New Jersey schoolteacher who works up to 20 hours a week managing her Christian Web site, regularly receives e-mail from people in nations where the gospel can't be openly proclaimed. She believes the Internet is helping to fulfill Christ's commission to reach all nations, as described in Matthew 28:19,20.
"The Web pulls in visitors from around the world," she says. "Through the Internet, we really can reach the ends of the earth."
Scott Hayes, senior analyst of academic technology at North Central University in Minneapolis, says the Internet is one of many outlets for communicating the Bible's message. "We've used literature, books, fliers, the radio, magazines and television," he says. "The Internet is one more tool that we can use."
"The Internet is the Mars Hill of the 21st century," says Christian technology columnist Mark Kellner, author of "God on the Internet." "Christian, pseudo-Christian, non-Christian, anti-Christian - it's all out there. It's crucial for Christians to be in the digital marketplace. There are tons of folks who are afraid, ashamed or awkward about entering a church, but they might read a Bible lesson online."