Evangelism Catches Up With the Times

Today’s hip, young things — make that hip, young, Christian things — are surfing the Net in search of God … and finding Him.

A gaggle of ministries have taken their biblical messages down unconventional paths to appeal to 20- and 30-somethings.

Using Web sites, multi-media, pop culture and edgy language, organizations like www.relevantmagazine.com and Fireproof Ministries (and its anti-pornography Web site www.XXXchurch.com) are reaching out to young Christians in more modern ways than established organized religion ever has.

“We take a different approach to the traditional preacher role,” said Fireproof Ministries founder Craig Gross, a 28-year-old ordained minister and former youth pastor. "We use comedy and video and real-life experiences. It's not just one of us up there with a Bible."

The Web sites are a virtual meeting place where Fireproof followers can be informed about the ministries' schedule of events, monthly newsletters and overall mission. On its anti-porn site, XXXchurch.com (co-founded by Mike Foster), there's a "prayer wall" where people post questions, topics for discussion or prayers; the site also sells trinkets like XXXchurch trucker hats and Jesus action figures.

The hipster, Webby Christian movement is part of the larger trend of getting online to stir up excitement about a cause and capture the interest of the easily distracted youth. (Think of former presidential candidate Howard Dean's (search) grassroots Internet campaign made up largely of loyal, young supporters.)

The Web's activist role, especially among the 18-to-34 set, isn't surprising considering that more than half of homes in America have Internet access.

“If you want to reach them, you’ve got to speak their language,” said Paul Boutin, contributing editor at Wired magazine. “It makes perfect sense to take the ministry in that direction. I really think that if Jesus were around today, he would have a blog.”

In addition to its online endeavors, the 5-year-old Fireproof Ministries holds summer youth Christian camps, works alongside churches and visits colleges. The nonprofit has worked with everyone from porn film director "Jimmy D" (James DiGiorgio) on a recent anti-porn public service announcement to Jon Stewart (search) in an appearance on Comedy Central's "The Daily Show."

Relevant Media Group, based in Orlando, Fla., is a publishing company founded by 28-year-old Evangelical Christian Cameron Strang. It began with the 2002 launch of www.relevantmagazine.com, then added the print version of the magazine and a book imprint with such titles as "The Man Comes Around: The Spiritual Journey of Johnny Cash," "The Gospel According to Tony Soprano" and "Walk On: The Spiritual Journey of U2."

“We wanted to create stuff that was well-written, relevant, but wasn't afraid to grapple with the spiritual questions our generation is asking," Strang said. "It's different from other Christian media — it's not overtly evangelist. We're trying to challenge the church and culture at the same time."

Gross said Fireproof's base is the Bible as the word of God, but the group is non-denominational Christian. Its religious message hasn't exempted it from becoming inflammatory — among more traditional churchgoers, primarily.

“A lot of people don’t like it and don’t stand by it,” Gross said. "The main people who don't like us are from the church. It's a pretty mixed reaction. But we really believe this is what Jesus would be doing. Jesus was a controversial figure."

As for Strang, he said he hasn’t ruffled too many feathers yet.

“You’d think in a conservative Christian world, an issue with Bono (search) on the cover would cause some controversy, but it didn’t,” he said. “The people who get it, support it, and the people who don’t, don’t even know we exist.”

In that vein, the Christian Coalition’s national spokeswoman said she hadn’t heard of Relevant Media but didn’t love the idea of an issue featuring Bono — who last year caused a ruckus when he uttered the f-word on live television during the Golden Globes.

“I don’t agree with what Bono did — the language is terrible,” said the CC’s Michele Ammons. “We should not promote him. I don’t agree with putting Bono on the cover.”

But Ammons said she understands what groups like Relevant and Fireproof are trying to do.

“If that’s appealing to the young people and changing their lives and making them more spiritual, then it’s good,” she said. “Anytime you can make someone closer to God, that’s a good thing.”

There has, in fact, been a whole wave of Christianity-themed pop culture — from Mel Gibson’s (search) film “The Passion of the Christ” to pop music with Christian themes done by bands like Creed and POD (Gibson and POD have both been Relevant Magazine cover stories).

“We can look outside the four walls of church and see God in culture — in U2, Lauryn Hill (search), Creed,” Strang said. “It’s important that Christians wake up to that and understand the heartbeat of our country.”

And extending the biblical messages to the Web is like the 2000s version of folk-music church services that were common in the ‘70s, Boutin said.

“To kids today, the Internet is what rock ‘n’ roll was to another generation and TV was to the one before that and swing dancing was to the one before that,” said Boutin. “Kids aren't going to go to some stuffy church with stained-glass windows. They want to get online.”