For evangelicals, the allure of mass media evangelism has always been the potential to reach ever-more-distant “unsaved” populations across the globe. However, as the print and broadcast revolutions quickly revealed, targeting individuals’ needs and developing a sense of personal intimacy between evangelists and audience via these media proved a perpetual challenge. The digital revolution transformed this relationship: the interactive capabilities of the Internet and the ability to inexpensively target niche audiences re-shaped mass media evangelism. However, a close examination of evangelistic practices online reveals that, in fact, this latest “revolution”—rather than representing entirely novel ground—actually more closely approximates the type of evangelism that has taken place in brick and mortar churches and non-virtual environments since Christianity’s origins.
The concept of “rhetorical space”—drawn from rhetorician Roxanne Mountford’s work on how the design of pulpits and church buildings directly impacts the types of pastoral and congregational behaviors promoted—helps us to see why. Using Global Media Outreach’s Jesus2020.com and The Billy Graham Evangelistic Association’s PeacewithGod.net websites as exemplars, I explore how, by conceptualizing evangelistic websites as rhetorical spaces with architectural features functioning persuasively in a manner similar to physical spaces, scholars of digital religion gain a theoretical framework for effectively describing the unique draw of these sites. Three elements of design in particular reveal how web design works imperceptibly to create a personalized, intimate, and interactive experience, while quickly moving users to make the decision to convert: the rhetorics of interface, navigation, and virtual relationship design. Understanding evangelistic websites as rhetorical spaces thus allows scholars of digital religion to see ways in which Internet evangelism has many similarities with evangelism in non-virtual spaces, pushing us to view it as a more familiar and historical strategy than is commonly recognized.
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