A couple thousand years ago, the Apostle Paul certainly had no idea that such a monolithic beast as the internet would exist, so he couldn’t see specifically how his prophetic statement would play out in the “net” era. Nevertheless, he predicted that “evil people and imposters will go on from bad to worse.” [2 Timothy 3:13] Instead of “imposters,” one translation renders the Greek term “seducers.” Both aptly and succinctly describe “one who habitually fools or deceives people through pretense.” While such have always been around, the web has provided an endless array of possibilities for plying their deceptive trade.
Recently I received an email through our church’s website, written by a pastor-colleague in England. At the end of November, he wrote, his church—Grace Church, Blackwood—is hosting “Power Conference 2019” in an effort to bring deeper commitment to Christianity among their people. Pastor Hobbes was inviting me to come as a keynote speaker. He claimed that they found me on the internet, listened to some sermons, read some of my writing, and were convinced I’d be a good fit for their conference. All my travel arrangements would be covered, and I would be given an honorarium for my efforts. Included in the email was a link to the church’s website, a reply-to email address (firstname.lastname@example.org), and the pastor’s personal phone number.
Curious, I followed the link to the website. The homepage advertised “Power Conference 2019” in a banner just below the masthead. A video of a recent sermon appeared on the righthand side of the page. Typical links directed the visitor to Ministries, Beliefs, and Staff pages. I thought it’d be interesting to find out a bit more about Pastor Hobbes, so I clicked on the Staff page. Sure enough, there he was along with the photos of a woman whose position was “Cleaner,” another guy charged with finances, an elder , and the church secretary, if I recall correctly. Each had a brief bio. To the casual visitor looking for a church, it all looked legitimate.
Now let me make clear. I knew from the get-go that this was bogus. In the first place, who am I? I pastor a church of under 100 in rural western Illinois. Nobody knows me—definitely no one in England! And who randomly selects a keynote speaker for a conference off the internet? I may not be the brightest bulb in the box, but I’m quite confident I’m not going to get invited out of the blue to go speak for someone I don’t know a fourth of the way around the world! So I wanted to get to the bottom of this hoax.
As I looked at the website, a couple things stood out. First, the church’s masthead included the logo of the United Methodist Church in the USA, yet the church claimed no affiliation with the denomination. Second, the “recent” sermon was the only one on the site and it was from 2017. Third, Pastor Hobbes’s bio mentioned that he wrote a book that has blessed thousands around the world. The title? It Takes a Thief to Catch a Thief. What?? Not even Amazon heard of that one. And who has a “cleaner” on their church staff? Is that what they call a custodian or janitor in England? I seriously doubted it. “Sexton” I’ve heard of; but “cleaner”? And then there was some of the language in the original email—it wasn’t the writing of a Christian minister, it seemed to me.
So I took this a step further. I replied to good ol’ Pastor Hobbes at the provided email address: You must have made some kind of mistake, or someone’s hacked your church’s website, because I received the following invitation from you (and I copied and pasted his email). Within hours I received a reply. It was no mistake, Pastor Hobbes assured me:
The Lord directed us to email you for this assignment after we stumbled upon your website on www.bing.com and prayed about it. This is our maiden conference and we have invited local speakers here in the UK as well and you are the only international speaker invited.
The purpose of this event is to re-brand the mind, body and souls of Christians who have gone astray and are diverting their whole attention into mundane affairs. Also to trigger the pursuit of deep Christianity among youth, young adult, old and partial Christians and we chose you for this engagement because we believe you has the real insight and intuitiveness of delivering a heart piercing speech after reading through your profile on your website.
We will take care of Honorarium and Ground Transportation, Hotel Accommodation, Airline Ticket and Meals expenses of you and any assistant that may wish to accompany you here as soon as you honor our invitation.
Kindly get back to us as soon as possible with a tentative yes if you will be available for those dates so we can proceed with further preparations and forward you a formal letter of invitation and schedule of event including the dates and times you will be speaking during the conference.
Honestly, this reads like someone from a non-English speaking country wrote it using his second language (and not knowing the rules of grammar very well, either)!
After that reply, I did some more digging. Really, I was just trying to figure out the angle for this elaborate, but narrow focused-on-ministers, scam. Why was someone going to all this trouble? What were they after? I certainly knew they weren’t looking for a conference speaker.
Finally I found it. Other ministers had received a similar email invitation and actually accepted it. Then in the confirmation correspondence, which all seemed so very professional, came the “gotcha.” In order to finalize plans, the seduced minister was told, he needed to send £530 (about $675) to pay for a “work visa,” which would allow the minister to “work” by speaking at the conference. Bingo.
I wrote Pastor Hobbes back and told him I just couldn’t work it in, sorry. Yes, I felt like telling him I caught the thief, but I wasn’t one! By the way, a couple days later, I went back to Grace Church’s website to see if it was still up. The home page was there, but every link I clicked opened up a search engine page or something. Imposters.
Like I said, there’s no way Paul could’ve envisioned such a thing…specifically. But he sure nailed it when he said “seducers will go on from bad to worse.” You’ve certainly had plenty of your own experiences, right?
Robo calls…spam email…misleading links…identity theft…credit card
fraud…with no end in sight. Just as the Bible says.
 Johannes P. Louw and Eugene Albert Nida, Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament: Based on Semantic Domains (New York: United Bible Societies, 1996), 766.