NASHVILLE, Tenn. — The remarkable success of evangelist Billy Graham's Crusades for Christ did not come from his preaching alone, but also the immense amount of preparation and follow-up that went into planning each revival.
Now, the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association is taking that experience and harnessing it to save souls through the Internet in a way that perhaps only such a large and established organization can.
The basic premise is simple: Use search engines to find people who are looking for answers to life's big questions and direct them to a website, www.peacewithgod.net. From there, seekers are led through a series of readings and videos loosely tied to John 3:16: "For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life."
At the end of the series, they are offered a chance to pray and to accept Jesus. Those who do become a little point of light on a Google Earth application, showing more than 476,000 souls around the world who have been saved through the site since it went live last year.
But that's not where it stops.
"People don't make decisions and then show up in church the next week," Director of Internet Evangelism John Cass said. "These same people who are hurting in this world are still walking by churches on every corner."
Although the site has been running in a beta mode, it is expected to be fully functional within a month. At that point hundreds of volunteers will also be online, doing everything from answering basic questions about God and Christianity to leading interested visitors through a 5-week online discipleship course.
Those new Christians will be encouraged to join local churches that are cooperating with the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association on the project.
"It's taking the model of what we've done for so many years, with the crusades, celebrations, festivals and applying that in an online environment," Cass said.
Internet evangelism has become one of the four core ministries the BGEA directs from its Charlotte, N.C., headquarters, along with revivals, The Billy Graham Library and The Billy Graham Training Center. Only time will show whether the model that worked well for Billy Graham's crusades can be successfully translated to a virtual environment.
David W. Key Sr., the director of Baptist Studies at Emory University's Candler School of Theology, says the Internet creates a tremendous challenge for the church in a variety of ways. Part of problem the BGEA faces is that people on Internet don't have to look at anything they don't want to.
"I truly wonder how many non-Christians are going to be attracted by this," he said.
Then there's the question of whether this website will get lost in a crowd of others trying to do something similar. The Billy Graham Evangelistic Association's organizational skills and credibility across denominations may mean nothing to a random person surfing the web.
Drew Dickens is president and CEO of Need Him Global, which operates several evangelistic websites and also provides support for the digital initiatives of many other Christian organizations. He said the BGEA is one of many established Christian groups trying to find their way on the Internet.
"Everyone wants to be the Christian Facebook," he said.
But he doesn't think it is the older, established groups that will actually succeed at that goal.
"I think it's going to be a couple of 18-year-olds in a dormitory somewhere that have zero seminary experience (but) completely understand how to engage their culture and peers," he said.
Dickens, who said he came to Christ through a Billy Graham crusade, said the peacewithgod.net site was "world class" but he wondered whether the excellent presentation would be enough to draw the attention of younger people who are more attuned to videos on mobile devices than text on a computer.
"I really do think the key to reaching this generation is a focus more on offering live conversation versus creative presentation," he said.
And then there's the question of how many of the 476,000 visitors to the BGEA's site who have prayed the prayer of salvation have taken it to hear and truly changed their lives. The ministry doesn't have a number, but there is no doubt that for some, peacewithgod.net has lived up to its name.
John Preston, 54, of Lenoir City, Tenn., said he stumbled across the website about a month ago after seeing a link that said "Peace with God" on a different website.
"I felt like a heavy burden had been lifted," he said. "I felt more alive inside."
Preston is a retired mechanic who says he has struggled with drugs and alcohol since he left home at 14 to escape an abusive father.
"I lived a rough life, doing things I shouldn't have been doing," he said. "I didn't realize it was wrong until I got saved."
Preston said there was no single event that drove him to search for help on the Internet. Instead he feels that God has been tugging at his heart for a long time.
"Finally after that prayer on Peace with God, everything changed," he said. "It's kind of weird how it happened. ... When I said the prayer it hit me what I'd been missing. It was like I could hear God saying, 'You've done what you need to do. Now you belong to me.'"
Billy Graham Evangelistic Association: http://www.billygraham.org/