Online Evangelists Tap Millions Looking for God

God

Two million people look for God each day -- not in church, but in a search.

"The number is staggering," said Mark Weimer, a self-described techie evangelist whose ministry has tapped the Internet to capture those looking for spiritual answers.

Weimer is CEO of Global Media Outreach, the technology arm of Campus Crusade for Christ International (CCCI), which hosts 91 Web sites in 11 languages to spread the "good news."

Weimer, who previously ran his own Silicon Valley start-up, insists this is not virtual proselytizing.

"We are always up front about the fact that we are presenting the Christian message," he told ABCNews.com. "We don't want to deceive anyone. That would be offensive."

Global Outreach estimates that 1 in 1,000 Internet searchers is looking for information about God. Just last year, their sites had 3 million visitors.

On an average day, sites like Jesus2020 get 150,000 visitors, and about 25,000 of them click a button to say they want to learn more. Of those about 5,000 a day fill in a form so an online missionary can contact them via e-mail.

Their questions are often surprising, according to Weimer: "Now that I have accepted Christ, what do I do next? Do I need to be perfect now? How do I pray?"

Internet Provides 'Anonymous Intimacy'

"One of the great things about being on the Internet is you feel comfortable sharing things you might not otherwise," said Michelle Diedrich, communication director for Global Media. "It's anonymous intimacy."

According to the Pew Internet and American Life Project more "religious surfers" are turning to the Internet.

But the vast majority are "not hurting for God," according to project director Lee Rainie. Most are Sunday school teachers planning lessons, ministers writing sermons and "church shoppers."

"It's a time saver," said Manuela Castro, 20, a marketing major at University of Florida who was raised a Catholic but hasn't been to church in years. She has been exploring alternatives online.

"You can Google God in your pajamas," she told ABCNews.com.

For those who are testing the waters of faith, going online has advantages.

It protects against religious leaders who are overzealous or judge, according to Rev. A. K. M. Adam, a Biblical scholar, technologist and blogger.

Shopping for God

"I don't think that online spiritual inquiry is fundamentally different from online dating or buying shoes online," he told ABCNews.com.

Going online avoids seekers from feeling self-conscious and they can get answers without risking an "awkward, potentially guilt-inducing" interaction with a minister.

And, according to Adam, it's "just plain more convenient than hopping in the car and going to Sunday morning worship, or making an appointment with Pastor Jones."

Religious groups, especially evangelicals, have been "savvy" at using media like radio and television to spread their message, so it's no surprise that they have also tapped into the Internet, according to Michael Kress, managing editor of Beliefnet, which offers information on all the world's major religions and draws 3 million unique visitors per month.

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"We have always looked to books, magazines and other media to find meaning and deepen our faith," Kress told ABCNews.com. "And the first book off the Guttenberg press was the Bible."

'In its breadth, it can feel impersonal, but it's there to help you find what you want," he said. "Whatever you want, you can find there. The Internet experience is tailor-made for you."

Global Media uses search engine optimization and ads to link surfers with sites that explain Christianity.

Who is God?

Ask, "Who is Jesus?" and CCCI pops up number 8 on the search. "Who is God?" brings up an ad for Global Media's largest Web site, Jesus2020.

After a short introduction to the tenets of evangelism, the site asks if you are interested in more information and directs you to a form providing contact information.

Searchers indicate their religious affiliation, if any, and interest level and can also sign up for a weekly prayer that arrives via e-mail.

One, a man from Tanzania who found the ministry online at 4stepstoGod wrote, "I read and I was comforted. In those days I had lost my family due to war."

A young woman in England wrote that she too, had found solace online: "My five-year-old daughter died a few weeks ago in a car accident. I was raising her alone."

Wanted: Online Missionaries

In 2008, Global Media fielded 649,000 e-mails regarding prayer requests, Bible studies and other issues.

But with those numbers and only 2,900 online missionaries, they are having trouble keeping up with the traffic.

The ministry has enlisted the support from Northland, A Church Distributed, one of Florida's mega-churches to recruit and train 5,000 online missionaries by 2010, but admits it needs about 10,000 to meet the demand.

Many are stay-at-home mothers or retirees, who like not having to travel half way around the world to do missionary work.

"It's the future of the church, and it's fun to be a part of it," said Joel Hunter, pastor of Northland, in Longwood, Fla., who has personally signed on to help.

The Spanish language portal was so "jammed" recently with traffic it was "virtually shut down" when the requests could not be answered, he said.

Hunter has made contact with God-seekers from all around the world, many of whom have never been in a church.

"These are people looking for God but they don't have a clue," he said.

Swedish Seeking God

A surprising number of requests have come from Sweden – a country where secularism has dominated for decades.

"I love it because they ask me really basic questions that Americans are too embarrassed to ask," said Hunter. "Is there really a God? In church people's eyes start to get glossed over. But when you do the basics with people it takes me back to why I got into this and it's very invigorating."

But technology can only take humans seeking spirituality so far. Because Northland has so many smaller ministries around the world, it can help religion seekers find a church or give them the resources to start their own group -- wherever they are.

"In order to grow in any faith, you need a faith community," he said. "It's true for any faith. You can't do it on your own."

"We don't care what the denomination is," said Hunter. "It doesn't matter to us. Our concern is that they don't walk alone."

Whether modern man suffers from a spiritual emptiness or the Internet just makes the number of searchers more quantifiable is anybody's guess.

"There is more open questioning going on," said Robert Gregg, professor of religion at Stanford University.

"For people with religious and spiritual inclinations, there are troubling discussions going on in the culture that may cause them to want to get a firmer grip on what they believe and who they are," he told ABCNews.com.

Still, Gregg said, searching for God "has been going on since time immemorial."

"Now you don't have to travel as a pilgrim to a holy place to sense power is accessible -- you don't even have to turn on your computer, it's already on," he said. "All you do is take a few minutes and visit a couple of Web sites and you can get an answering service."

Though he concedes it's "less communal and personal" than old-time religion, Gregg says the dynamics have not changed.

"It's an updated virtual revival tent," he said of Global Media's online effort. "A preacher comes in for two nights and stirs folks up and then the people on his team sit down with those called to Jesus and help get them to church."

But, according to Gregg, the questions about God have always been the same: "Are you out there? Do you know my name? Do you care about me?"

ABC's Andrea Alarcon contributed to this report.

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