Stealth digital evangelism?

The New York Times recently offered a fascinating article about an interesting cyberspace trend -- Christian groups starting WWW sites on interesting topics and then slipping in the Gospel under the radar. As Andrew Sullivan would say, here are the money quotes:

The indirect, or bridge strategy in online evangelizing continues a broader trend among Christian evangelicals, said Randall Balmer, chairman of the religion department at Barnard College and author of "The Encyclopedia of Evangelicalism." In 1975, the Willow Creek Community Church in South Barrington, Ill., after surveying local residents to see why many did not go to church, dispensed with all Christian iconography, crosses or stained glass windows to appeal to people who were turned off by these. In the 1990s, many evangelical churches dropped the denomination from their names, switching to names like Oak Chapel.

Alan Wolfe, director of the Boisi Center for Religion and American Public Life at Boston College, questioned the long-term value of online religious conversions, no matter how many hits the sites got. He pointed to the Internet outreach in Howard Dean's presidential campaign, which generated furious activity online but so far has not translated into first-place finishes in the primaries. "The Dean camp suggests that meeting through the Internet didn't work," Mr. Wolfe said. "I wonder if a similar Christian strategy is going to work either."

Yes, interesting. But did anyone stop to notice that this approach is not new, in the world of digital spirituality? There are legions of sites in various religious flavors (and anti-religious ones, too) that use the same approach on everything from parenting to dieting to stress managment to coaching.

So what precisely is the news, here?

That fairly traditional Christians are doing this? Now, is this news because Christians have changed and adopted a more missionary approach to culture? Or is it news because the ink gods of The New York Times have deigned to notice it?

I am not sure. But the article broke new ground either way.

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