Here’s a feature article USA Today wrote about our ministry for their November 13, 2000 issue, which focused on how the Internet is changing the way people work.
Web pastor spreads God’s word on the Net
New breed of evangelist goes beyond the church to reach out to thousands of cyber-visitors a month
by Leslie Miller
High Tech executives may put “Internet Evangelist” on their business cards, but Eric Elder is the real deal.
“Some people would say I’m a Webmaster. Some people would say I’m a Webcaster. Some people would say I’m a Web Pastor,” he observes dryly. “But I like to say I’m doing what God’s called me to do – reach out to others around me.”
Elder, 37, is a new breed of evangelist – a high-tech, low-key minister who runs TheRanch.org, a spiritual retreat center that exists only in Cyberspace.
Thousands of visitors a month stop by to chat, see half-hour videos of Elder preaching, meditate with music and Scripture, or read people’s stories about how God has touched their lives.
“My particular message is that God is real, and he cares deeply about each one of us,” Elder says. “I have this message that I want to get out, and the Internet was made for delivering messages.” He says he’s “not trying to transfer the concept of church to the Internet. I love church. I belong to a church. Church is great. But in a church, my message only goes about a hundred feet. On the Net it goes to a hundred countries.
“As a Christian, Jesus has called us to reach all the world. Preach the gospel to all creation. This is just one more way to do that.”
That’s something a growing number of believers – clergy and others – are beginning to realize. In a survey by Christianity Today magazine, 56 of 1,400 subscribers to Christian e-mail lists said they shared their faith online regularly, or often, mostly via e-mail. Women (62%) were more inclined to do so than men (47%).
“This is grass-roots people on the Web who are talking to their friends, says Keith Stonehocker, senior vice president of Christianity Today.
He presented survey findings Nov. 4 at a conference sponsored by the Internet Evangelism Coalition, a group made up of more than 30 Christian organizations, including the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association and Campus Crusade for Christ International.
Almost half of those surveyed (49%) said their church has a web page, and 18% said they personally know someone who has become a Christian as a result of online evangelism. For respondents under age 24, it was almost 25%.
“The last couple of years have seen just about every ministry organization recognize that this is a long-term need, to have a presence on the World Wide Web,” says Robbie Richardson, director of Gospel Communications Network, one of the organizers. “This conference is focused on helping stimulate Christians to begin to realize that this tool can be used not just for resourcing other Christians, but for evangelization.”
Not a hobby
Elder is ahead of the curve. Unlike some techie pastors or layfolk who create church websites as a hobby, he’s a full-time Net minister, as well as a full-fledged tech professional.
He learned the intricacies of computer networks as a researcher for Texaco’s Advanced Technology Group for nine years where he developed the companies first Web site – and came to recognize the Web’s potential for encouraging people in their faith.
He was ordained in 1995 and served as an associate pastor at a church in Texas for a year, then started his own non-profit ministry to focus full-time on Cyberspace.
Eric Elder Ministries is based out of his home in Streator, a central-Illinois town of 14,000 about an hour from Peoria. Both he and his wife, Lana, grew up in the area and like being near family. She’s homeschooling their five kids, who range in age from 9 years to 4 months.
Elder understands that some people are turned off or intimidated by churches: he hopes the image of a laid-back retreat center will attract them and show them there’s another way to deal with the stress and trouble in their lives.
“I believe God’s message, that he loves people, is for everyone,” he says. “The Ranch taps into the idea that people need a place to slow down and take a break.”
He uses the web to draw visitors in, then backs off. “People searching for God usually want to explore on their own, without people getting in their face,” he says.
The 180-page site feels spacious and easy to navigate. It’s also technologically cutting edge, with live Webcasts, streaming audio and video, and chat options. Extensive text is there, too, so those who can’t access multimedia don’t miss out.
Elder attempts to help lonely and depressed people find The Ranch by coding its pages with words they might type into search engines, but he notes that his goal, and the thrust of his site, “is to point people back to God and the Bible and seek him out themselves.”
Still, many visitors end up seeking Elder out to talk because something is weighing on their conscience that “they don’t feel comfortable talking about to a pastor or spouse or friends,” he says.
The Net feels more anonymous, and Elder seems non-judgmental. He shares intimate details of his own faith journey on the site, and in photos smiling with his family, he looks relaxed and approachable.
“People will open up with me and say, “I have never told anyone this in my life. But you look like someone I can talk to,” he says.
Elder’s modest demeanor and sophisticated grasp of technology often disarm those who expect Bible-based evangelists to be all fire and brimstone, and his approach seems to appeal to those “who have been turned off by some of the louder people.”
But he recognizes that his style doesn’t work for everybody. “Some people need a football-coach kind of guy to really kick-em’ in gear, frankly. We all have different gifts and can reach a different segment of the population.”
He also differs from many church-based preachers in that he avoids discussing denominational affiliations. He believes it tends to alienate people. “I try to remove any barriers,” he says.
‘What’s important to us’
Another potential barrier is the blatant pitches for money that people often associate with televangelists. So Elder steers clear of fundraising on the site. Instead, he sends out a regular newsletter to those who request it, with updates about the ministry and its needs.
He can do this because the cost of preaching on the Web are much less than for those evangelizing on TV – just “my salary and a nominal amount” for computer costs. About 85% of his support comes from donations, mostly from friends and family. Only a small fraction is from website visitors he’s never met. The other 15% of his income is from his part-time work designing Web sites for other ministries, a project he started last year at 101sites.com.
His family lives in a house owned by his in-laws, and Streator “is not a high-rent district,” Elder notes. It’s a matter of scaling down how we live in order to do what’s important to us.”
Elder is well aware of the limits of technology. “Even though I do an Internet ministry, I’m not dependent on the Net to get my message out. God is interested in the hearts of people, and he will use any means possible to reach as many as possible before the end comes.
“If my Web server goes down, it’s frustrating. But God will still break through to people’s hearts.
“Before there was a World Wide Web, there was a world wide God. And he still works overtime.”