The Internet is an electronic frontier which, like other frontiers, holds endless possibilities - and limitless challenges - for the Church and its members, said Elder Jeffrey R. Holland of the Quorum of the Twelve.
For now, Church leaders will continue to review the medium "carefully and methodically" as they gradually expand the Church's official site on the World Wide Web, explained Elder Holland during a Church News interview about the Internet and the Church's official presence there.Without fanfare or an official announcement, the Church activated its Web site (http://www.lds.org) in early December.
"We are not brethlessly smitten by the Internet, nor are we in any way underestimating its possibilites," Elder Holland said of the World Wide Web. "We are just moving steadily, and we think wisely, to consider it along with every other way we know to communicate with each other, teach the gospel and futher the work of the Lord."
Visitors to the Church's Web site are greeted by a full-color reproduction of Del Parson's well-known painting of Jesus - undoubtedly helping to dispel the misconception that Church members are not Christian.
Although Web surfers can access information about the Book of Mormon and family history, the initial impetus for the site was to provide information to the media - such as the Church's core beliefs and doctrines, elements of the missionary program, and key facts and figures. Information about languages spoken by Church members, temples, and the principle of tithing are also available at the site.
Since the Church first came online, an average of about 1,600 people visit the site every day, exploring an average of 30 different topics (hits) on the page.
While in a sense the site does work as a missionary tool - by making information available to people who do not know about the Church and by providing information about the Book of Mormon - Elder Holland said it will not affect the basic way the Church approaches missionary work, though it may be a new source for self-referrals.
"Nevertheless, in the end, the gospel will always be preached by a missionary testifying to another person and that person feeling the Spirit of that testimony."
Elder Holland said the Church did not feel a need to enter the medium any faster than it has, noting that the number of people around the world who access the World Wide Web is still "very, very small." In fact, the percentage of people with Internet access in relation to the total world population is so limited that it rounds to zero, according to Darwin A. John, managing director of Church Information and Communications Systems.
Elder Holland said, however, that the Internet has proven to be a good way to provide basic information about the Church for people who have the technology and want to know more about the Church.
The Internet frontier is explored daily by people seeking information about thousands of topics.
For example, on the medium, students can practice for spelling bees, visit museums, or communicate with other students across the world. They can read about sports, current events or entertainment. But they can also find pornography, and other information "of a very destructive nature," warned Elder Holland.
"Anything that has the potential for good almost always has the potential for damage and danger as well," Elder Holland said, explaining that the contemporary world will have to wrestle with the fact that there is absolutely no restriction on what can be posted on the Internet. "Any man, women, or child with a few dollars and a little software can be a publisher on the Internet. And they can `print' virtually anything they want."
He encouraged Church members to approach their use of the Internet as they would any other medium - based on the fundamental principles of the gospel.
If this technology is in the home, parents should jump in and enjoy the blessings of it with their children - teaching them edifying ways to use it. "I would participate with my children, having fun with them and guiding their use of it creatively and constructively. I would learn with my children and I would find all the righteous, edifying ways I could to enjoy the computer," he said.
In a world where people have so many choices, hear so many voices, and can turn on so many machines, Elder Holland said it is ever-important that Church members remember the 13th Article of Faith.
"We believe in being honest, true, chaste, benevolent, virtuous and in doing good to all men. . . . If there is anything virtuous, lovely, or of good report or praiseworthy, we seek after these things," he read from the scriptures.
Elder Holland cautioned members to seek to distinguish good from the bad as they use the Internet, just as they should in every other form of media.
He said the fact that anyone can have a home page was one more reason for the Church to have an official presence on the World Wide Web. "We have Relief Societies and Elders Quorums with their own home page. We have returned missionaries with their own home page. We have freshmen at BYU with their own home page."
Not wanting to minimize the joy Church members find in sharing athletic scores, favorite recipes, missionary reunions and single-adult dating services on the medium, Elder Holland said the Church felt it was important for others to know that these individuals are not speaking officially for the Church. "When it comes to official doctrine and policy, we would rather tell our own story than have somebody try to tell it for us."
Even as they develop more materials and better uses for their home page, Elder Holland said Church leaders feel no compulsion to be leaders in the field or to compete with the corporate world for the "hottest home page in the industry."
"We are in this to stay," he said. "We will measure our delivery and our message, trying to do this as wisely and as well as we do other things in the Church."
And, Elder Holland speculates that the day certainly could come when Internet access could be part of every meetinghouse library in the Church, or that multiple Church sites could interact with one another.
He emphasized, however, that at present the Church does not intend to use the Internet as a primary medium of communication with its members, simply because most of then do not have Internet access. For now, he continued, the Church is simply taking deliberate steps to make certain "that those who wish to know more about us receive accurate information."
The Internet, he said, is just one part of "the wonderful frontier that stretches out ahead of us in this, the greatest of all dispensations. As individuals, as families, and as a Church we need to use it to bless the lives of people and further the work of the Lord."