Tony at the e-vangelism blog points out an interesting audio interview with TruthMedia's Doris Beck, on the subject of email mentoring and the role it plays in online ministry today. The discussion is specifically about TruthMedia's email mentoring program, but paints an interesting picture of a ministry that changes lives but doesn't get a lot of attention.
The email mentoring program consists basically of a large pool of volunteers around the world who stand by to offer spiritual guidance to people who email with questions and problems. One of the interesting points made in the discussion is that email-based mentoring relationships can sometimes be more open and direct than face-to-face spiritual mentoring, due to the anonymity of the internet and the lack of anything to distract from the actual conversation.
I've heard many culture-observers over the last few years lament the de-humanizing nature of the internet; but I'm guessing that most of us relate to Doris' observation that online communication can sometimes wind up being far more personal than offline communication. Anonymity and the lack of social "rules" can make the internet a nasty place, but they also make it possible to discuss personal problems and situations that people would never, ever confess to a fellow churchgoer or even a spouse.
Speaking as an employee at an internet ministry, I can testify that Christian websites often receive a surprisingly large volume of email from people looking desperately for spiritual help. I think it points not just to a gap in the ability of the physical church to reach the spiritually needy today, but also to the potential of the internet to reach those who have nobody else to turn to for help.
What about those of you involved in internet ministry? Has email (or instant messenger, or blogging) opened up new ways for you to reach people? Have you found that internet communication lacks something compared to offline interaction? Do you use email and its feeling of anonymity to supplement face-to-face counseling, perhaps to discuss difficult topics with people in your community who are uncomfortable talking about them face-to-face?