Willie Sutton famously answered the question of why he robbed banks by saying, “That’s where the money is.’’ And if you asked Christian evangelicals why they are trolling for souls on the Internet, they would answer, “That’s where the people are.’’
I suppose it was inevitable that the web would become ground zero for the never-ending battle for salvation. After all, you get everything else on the Internet: a new girlfriend; a “hot” summer read; medical advice guaranteed to be at least 80 percent accurate.
So why not an abiding belief in the gospel of Jesus Christ? “The truth is God loves you,” a neatly tailored hipster assures us from a posh cappuccino bar attached to a church on Australia’s Sunshine Coast. “If you do have any unanswered questions, we have a team of people that would love to help.”
That video is promoting an online “thunderclap” scheduled for June 8, when a virtual army of the online faithful will e-mail, tweet, tumbl — is that a verb? — and Instagram the message of God’s love. “The Internet has given a voice to the masses,” announces the #YesHeis campaign. “If we all stand together, in a single moment, with a single voice, the world will hear the gospel.”
British-based Christian Vision operates YesHeis and at least 13 other evangelical websites around the world, e.g., godmedia.ru, a “powerful inspirational video site for Russian-speaking young people.” A spokesman told me YesHeis has been up and running for about four years.
Guess who stole a march on the evangelicals when it comes to the virtual Godsell? The Mormons, that’s who. In 2008, the church tentatively added a “Chat with a Mormon” feature to its website. The chat app blossomed into a multi-platform social media effort that, surprisingly, proved to be much more effective than the door-to-door “tracting” still carried out by young missionaries.
In a typical day, a missionary sitting behind a computer in Provo, Utah, has more meaningful conversations with potential converts than the boys and girls knocking on doors. Likewise, the online proselytes convert more “investigators,” or prospects, than their streetwalking counterparts. Furthermore, those converts stick with the church longer than men and women contacted offline.
“The Mormon church is doing for religion what Amazon did for stuff,” according to Bianca Bosker, who described the online “Hook of Mormon” for the Huffington Post; “embracing the web to make shopping for a new faith easy, convenient, and accessible 24 hours a day, seven days a week.”
Success in this line of work breeds retribution. On his evangelical blog, NotAshamedofTheGospel, Peter Guirguis recently explained “5 Things Christians Can Do to Slow Down the Mormon Social Agenda.” Guirgius is concerned about the online gains of a religion that worships “a fake Jesus who is the brother of Lucifer himself!”
He continues: “The Mormon church isn’t . . . winning souls for the Kingdom of God, they’re winning souls for the kingdom of darkness.”
Guirguis told me he’s not a professional Mormon baiter. In fact, he hadn’t written about the Latter-day Saints before. That post “got a lot of play in social media this week” he e-mailed me, “mostly because the Mormons feel like they are Christians but I don’t share that same thoughts.”
Evangelical churches are gaining members in the United States, while traditional Protestant and Catholic congregations continue to dwindle. Sure, Pope Francis and the archbishop of Canterbury have Twitter feeds, but if the Vatican has a “Chat with a Monsignor” app, I haven’t found it.
As the 21st-century Jesus might have said: Perhaps it is time to become online fishers of men.Globe contributor Alex Beam is the author of “American Crucifixion: The Murder of Joseph Smith and the Fate of the Mormon Church.”