When it comes to dispensing reliable, constructive and compassionate advice, the Internet often ranks on a par with the Magic 8-Ball. Responses to an earnest query can be flip and even downright cruel.
"A lot of times when people post on forums they get a lot of negative feedback when it comes to their family issues," said Carrie Kintz, lead publicist for Focus on the Family. "There aren't a lot of people encouraging them to stick it out and encouraging other avenues of help."
The Colorado Springs-based ministry hopes to provide both to Internet advice-seekers worldwide through its state-of-the-art Family Help Center/Digital Outreach command center.
A grand opening was held Thursday for the sleek $143,000 space, in a glass-walled room in the main building of the nonprofit's Explorer Drive campus.
There, full-time family help specialists use powerful social media "listening" software. It crawls the Internet for relevant posts to blogs and open forums on sites such as Facebook, Twitter and CafeMom, keying off words such as marriage, family and parenting. Specialists then jump in to offer encouragement and kind words and may go on to refer posters to a staff counselor or to other faith-based Focus programs and information.
"The bottom line for us is using today's technology to do what the church has done for 2,000 years, which is help meet the needs of the hurting world," said Focus president Jim Daly, who was on campus with other board members for the unveiling. "That's what we're going to do with this room and that's what we're going to do with the technology we have today."
The Family Help Center has been at the core of Focus since the ministry's founding 35 years ago. Among other things, the center connects those in need with one of the organization's licensed Christian counselors, who offer support, prayer and referrals to other Focus resources.
Chief Operations Officer Ken Windebank said the new technology represents a "Gutenberg moment" in the way information is shared.
"Physical missionaries need to get on a plane and travel to a country. We can actually sit in this room and engage with people that are on open forums around the globe and bring hope and help and healing to them in their current situation," he said.
Focus staffers have been using the Web-crawling software for more than two years, said Paul Bae, vice president of digital media and strategy.
The software lets businesses listen in on what's being said about their products on the web.
"We're the only ones using this software in a nonbusiness perspective ... as digital missionaries," Bae said. "We're meeting people right where they are, listening to them so that we can provide answers and prayer and resources."
The new Focus space, Bae said, will also represent "the only social media command center in the Rocky Mountain region." The ministry plans to open the center to the community in times of crisis, he added.
When initially engaging with someone online, family help specialists may strike up a conversation with condolences or reassurance.
They won't necessarily lead with their Focus credentials.
"We don't want to just bludgeon people over the head when they're opening up about their wounds and things that are happening. We don't just ride in and say 'We're Focus on the Family, listen to what we say,'" said Jake Roberson, a family help specialist. "I'm a person just like you and I've been there, too. We've been there. We can help."