Saving souls, one click at a time
All in all, it will be a typical lecture series, with one major difference: No one cares if the audience stays home.
The World Wide Lectureship will be geared toward Internet users, said Jenkins, a minister at the Avondale church in Decatur and founder of the Digital Bible Study Network.
“Some locations may have a ‘studio’ audience,” Jenkins said. “However, the local audience is to be treated as observers … and not the main audience.”
From the basement of his home east of Atlanta, Jonathan Jenkins set out to evangelize the world.
With a video camera and a computer, Jenkins started teaching nightly Bible studies — via live online streaming and chat rooms.
As Jenkins describes it, “The Internet is the greatest mission field there’s ever been.”
His online ministry led to the creation of a Web site called DigitalBibleStudy.com. It’s sponsored by the Avondale church in Decatur, where Jenkins shares preaching duties with Eric Owens.
Owens, who developed a close friendship with Jenkins when both attended Memphis School of Preaching in Tennessee, said Internet ministry is Jenkins’ passion.
“He probably hesitates to be called an expert on it, but I don’t know anybody who knows more about it or who has done more … in trying to take the Internet and make it a vehicle for spreading the gospel,” Owens said.
A SOUL-SAVING NETWORK?
Computers always have interested Jenkins, 36.
In fact, before turning to ministry, he started as a computer science major at Freed-Hardeman University in Henderson, Tenn.
“I had some detours along the way and never got back to writing code,” he said.
But in recent years, he began experimenting with ways to use the Internet for God’s purposes.
Besides live Bible studies, the Digital Bible Study Network site offers thousands of hours of archived sermons, searchable by topic.
The Brown Trail church in Bedford, Texas, and the Palm Beach Lakes church in West Palm Beach, Fla., both broadcast services live each Sunday on the site.
But while Jenkins sees benefits to making traditional services available online, he suggests that the Internet’s true potential lies in personal networking.
“Have you ever sat and watched somebody take the Lord’s Supper online?” he said. “It’s not the most compelling video.” He characterizes the Internet as “very intimate and personal,” a one-on-one experience demanding the same style of ministry.
Jenkins said he tries to keep his online studies informal — at a minimum, he wears no suit or tie. He also speaks as if he were having a direct conversation with the person holding a laptop computer a few blocks or a few thousand miles away.
“There’s enough anonymity that folks will ask what’s really on their heart,” he said.
But his ministry faces challenges, such as keeping up with the technology that Internet-savvy users demand.
“I’m trying to find ways of upgrading that right now,” he said. “In ’03 or ’04, just a basic chat room was acceptable, but nowadays, chat room communities have microphones embedded in them and Web cams attached to them.”
ANYBODY GOT A REQUEST?
Another challenge is finding more ministers and teachers willing to help host live Bible studies, 24 hours a day.
“Every church has a capable Bible teacher who probably has a digital video camera at home, who probably has a broadband connection and is frustrated that he only gets to teach the Bible for 40 minutes on Wednesday night,” Jenkins said. “It just takes one member to say, ‘Hey, I want to make this my ministry.’”
At the Avondale church, Owens teaches a weekday morning women’s Bible study that has been streamed online.
Jenkins said he would love to see other churches become involved that way.
For example, a group of members might decide to sing online and take requests via instant messages, he said.
In an age when persuading folks to visit a church is not always easy, introducing friends or neighbors to a small-group gathering or singing online might be a way for them to “open up, chat and build a relationship,” he said. That could lead, in turn, to them feeling comfortable enough to explore a congregation in person.
To help build interest in the concept of Internet ministry, Jenkins is organizing a five-day World Wide Lectureship set for early December.
The lectureship will feature live, online presentations by ministers from congregations in five states.
“I think our model is probably still wrong — taking the existing five-day lectureship model and importing it to the Internet,” Jenkins said. “But it’s one step at a time.”
At the very least, he hopes the effort will expose the congregations involved to the potential of reaching souls — one click at a time — on the World Wide Web.