CHARLOTTE, North Carolina (Christian Examiner) – Most people cannot explain how they happened onto the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association's PeaceWithGod.net website, but more than five million have made decisions for Christ after linking onto it.
Lauren Merryfield of Northern California says God must have directed her, and Erin Dillards agreed.
BGEA does not release the names of those who contact them through the internet or any other way, said Brent Rinehart, BGEA's manager of public and media relations, but at the request of Christian Examiner, they asked some of those who had made decisions for Christ if they would be willing to share their stories publicly.
"I didn't have a Braille Bible and was looking for an online one," Merryfield told Christian Examiner. "I Googled and found Bible Gateway," and things began to change after that.
Merryfield, blind from birth, had been ill for 2.5 years but every doctor told her to just take an over-the-counter medication. She went to a party, got sick again, made it home and "fell apart," she said.
"I prayed, said I couldn't take it anymore, and would Jesus please send me to the right doctor," Merryfield said. "Now I don't have that problem anymore."
Such an immediate response and wonderful relief from what turned out to have been a twisted bowel led her to want to read more about Jesus, which is when she turned to the internet and somehow found her way to the BGEA's PeaceWithGod website, where she learned about God's comfort.
On March 22, Merryfield said she was sitting on the couch, holding her cat, when she realized this kind of comfort, of being wrapped in God's arms, is what the website was talking about.
"I said I wanted Jesus in my life and with me," the young woman said. "I had started going to this church, and I told them about it the next day, and the next Sunday I was baptized by full immersion. I felt His presence and it was really neat."
Since then, Merryfield has completed the BGEA "Know Jesus" discipleship course as well as several studies at her church, where she is part of a small group. She has spoken with several others about her commitment to Jesus, and encouraged two people -- in an online chat room of blind people -- to be baptized.
"I don't have to physically see Jesus," Merryfield said. "I pay attention to His presence and listen for Him to guide me. I love Jesus very much and am so glad He loves me."
Merryfield's connection to the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association started many years ago.
"I heard Billy Graham on TV when I was young, when he [broadcast] those crusades," Merryfield said. "I would listen to the testimonies and wish I had one. Now I do!
"And it was from hearing him years ago that I was familiar with his ministry, so that helped me want to take the 'Know Jesus' course," Merryfield continued. "I plan to take the 'Going Farther' course too, perhaps after the holidays. I am grateful that 'Bible Gateway' and the courses are online and that they're accessible with my screenreader that speaks the text on my laptop."
"To be completely honest, I have always known that God created me and is watching over me," said Dillards, who lives in South Carolina. "But I just felt like I was doing everything wrong in life and I knew I needed to seek Him in every way.
"I just had a sense of something missing in my life," Dillards continued. "That's what I was doing on the internet, just searching. I typed in 'How can I know Jesus?' and it showed me PeaceWithGod.net.
"From that I then went to the [BGEA] website KnowJesus.net and signed up. They paired me with a life coach to get started. I am still confused about a lot of things about God and Jesus but I know I need them. They are the only way to heaven."
Her great-grandmother, who died a few months ago, took Dillards to church until she was 13. She floundered after that, realized at 24 she needed to trust Jesus, but she did not seek Him at that time. Six years later, after reading and watching PeaceWithGod.net, she was more than ready, even eager for a life with Christ. She downloaded an offline Bible that she listens to as she reads for extra comprehension, and surrounds herself with friends who are Christians.
"I am far from being a perfect Christian, but I believe in God Almighty and Jesus, who died for me," Dillards said. "I still would love to have people pray for my friends and me. I thank God for allowing my eyes to open to see a new morning, and I thank Jesus for dying to save me."
PEACE WITH GOD
Regardless of how they got there or what it is that so arrested their attention, the fact is that 5 million people -- a milestone met Nov.10 -- in the last 3.5 years have made a profession of faith in Jesus after clicking on PeaceWithGod.net.
"Five million is exciting, but a second later, a minute later, somebody else is going to make a decision, and that's just as exciting," John Cass, director of internet evangelism for the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association, told Christian Examiner.
"But it is significant because we're following Billy Graham's legacy of taking the most advanced technical capabilities available and reaching people where they are with the hope of Jesus," Cass continued. "Internet evangelism has given us the opportunity to go to the ends of the earth."
Cass, who has been part of the BGEA team for 19 years and had training and experience in the online world, was named director of internet evangelism when it started in May 2011. He pulled together people from six departments of ministry for the new endeavor, he said, which started when a man who works with one of BGEA's forty Jesus.Net partners in France suggested the internet evangelism idea to the much-better-known American evangelism entity. BGEA liked what he had done and incorporated it into what they were doing, Cass told the Examiner.
"We had a website but it wasn't focused on doing evangelism to the point it is now," Cass explained. "Within that name [SearchForJesus.net] is how the Christian community engages the ministry, where they sign up for it, to give, to volunteer."
Those searching for answers such as "Why doesn't anybody love me?" or "Why am I even alive?" or a variety of other questions often inexplicably find their way to the PeaceWithGod.net website.
"The internet allows people who are struggling, hurting, thinking of suicide, to look for answers," Cass said. "They'll search. There may be a word that links back to us. ... They're very bold in the questions they ask.
"They're literally asking God for their answer," Cass continued. "We're a resource, one of many on the internet, but we're a resource for people who want an answer from a biblical perspective."
More than 20,000 people a day worldwide view a presentation of the Gospel via BGEA's online evangelism platform. In October, for example, 45,000 people in Iraq found their way to PeaceWithGod.net, plus 34,000 in Syria and 33,000 in Saudi Arabia, among hundreds of thousands of others in dozens of other nations.
"For decades we have worked to fill venues with people so Billy, Franklin or Will Graham can proclaim the Gospel," Cass said. "The way we look at it, this [internet evangelism] is similar to welcoming a full arena to hear the message on a daily basis. The difference is that our audience may be in Russia or Saudi Arabia or other places where we may not normally be able to go."
The goal and challenge of BGEA's ministry has always been to bring the person who indicated a decision for Christ to discipleship, Cass said. To take them from online clicking to offline discipleship, SearchForJesus.net has developed an extensive network of at least 330 trained volunteers who are available to live-chat, serve as discipleship coaches or respond to email from those who visit the PeaceWithGod.net website and have additional needs or questions.
BGEA has also developed follow-up materials for new believers, and actively works to assist the person in finding a local church there they can grow in their new faith.
To date, more than 25 million people have been exposed to the Gospel since the BGEA internet ministry began.
"The internet commands the largest and fastest-growing audience segment on the face of the earth," said BGEA Vice-President Duane Gaylord. "We at BGEA realize that to share the Gospel, you have to find ears to listen and eyes to watch, so you have to go to where the audience is gathering."
Cass added, "Jesus' words to us were, 'Go into all nations.' This technology has given us the option to go into all nations. We can do internet evangelism in countries we can't get into!"
Anyone on the English-language SearchForJesus.net website can see in real time with Google Earth where decisions for Christ are being made.
"We had people coming from all parts of the world," Cass said. "But when things heated up in the Middle East this past spring, it also started spinning our globe there more frequently."
For Cass, that's a sign of God's hand in the ministry. "Even if the website isn't actively targeting these nations, God can open doors for people there to be reached."