United Methodists explore CyberSAFEty in Ministry

October 09, 2007

NASHVILLE, Tenn. /GBOD/ – About 150 United Methodists from around the country, including Cal-Nevada Youth and Camping Coordinator Kelly Newell, met last week at the General Board of Discipleship to explore topics dealing with CyberSAFEty in Ministry.


“I think it’s important for churches to consider a presence in cyberspace because that is where the people are. So much of the population uses cyberspace on a daily basis and searches for answers in that space so we need to be there where they are,” said Paul O’Briant, director of technology for the Currituck (North Carolina) County Schools and opening plenary leader for the gathering.


Since 2000, the Internet has exploded with content, new technologies and users. O’Briant’s session, “Ministry and the Cyberspace Landscape,” explored how the church can use technology tools in ministry and kicked off a three-day conference to arrive at strategies and tools that will help churches harness the huge potential the gift of technology promises.


“Cyberspace offers a new missionary field for the church … People are already using it. There are 143 million people in the U.S. using the Internet and two-thirds of Internet users have searched for spiritual topics online. We need to be there, too,” O’Briant said.


“All these things are wonderful opportunities, but they also bring their own dangers. I think it’s important if we are going to go into that space [that] we understand the dangers and how to keep our people safe. Understanding that our kids and congregations are already in those spaces, we need to provide them the tools they need to keep safe,” he said.


Sexual issues and cyberspace: A big, big issue

According to O’Briant, some 27,000 registered sex offenders have My Space accounts and half of American youth have My Space accounts.


The average age of exposure to first Internet pornography is 11 years old and there are more than 100,000 websites, by some estimates, that feature child pornography.


“CyberSafety needs to be a part of our Safe Sanctuary planning and implementation. And lest we think we are safe from this or immune to it—one of the news stories included a pastor and another, a schoolteacher,” said O’Briant, referring to a state-by-state listing of stories that he came across in his research.


A 2000 survey by “Christianity Today” indicated that some 40% of clergy had acknowledged visiting sexually explicit websites.


Cal-Nevada’s Kelly Newell found the conference to be instructive.


I thought it was helpful to hear about this issue from all sides: from someone who was an information administrator for a school district, from a panel of teens, a law enforcement officer who served on a task force for this type of crime, and a youth pastor. Some information was not new, some information I thought I knew but has changed – and some information was ‘eye opening,’” she said.


Organizers hope that the ministry teams representing local congregations, 44 conferences, four agencies, and camping and retreat professionals will learn about the dangers inherent in the use of technology and begin to create policies, goals and action plans related to the safe use of technology.


The format of the conference was productive,” Newell said, “in that after each session we broke out into focus groups of ministry types to discuss the relevance, questions and further action needed. The Camping and Retreat Ministry group formed a task force that will address and come up with specific guidelines and information for training that addresses the specific issues for our camping and retreat ministry.”


In 1996, the United Methodist General Conference, the denomination's top legislative body, passed a resolution calling on every church to develop policies and procedures to reduce the risk of child sexual abuse in its ministries and facilities. Regional training sessions followed, inviting conferences to send representatives who could return and train local churches on safe sanctuary procedures.