updated 12/17/2008 5:44:20 PM ET 2008-12-17T22:44:20

Dozens of shrieking, smiling schoolchildren tore into Christmas gifts on Tuesday, the holiday coming nine days early thanks to hundreds of people they'd never met.

Pastor Shaun King watched the joyful scene unfold from his perch on the stage in the gymnasium at Frank L. Stanton Elementary School in Atlanta. It was the end of a journey that began four weeks ago in cyberspace, when he took his crusade of buying toys and uniforms for 500 needy children this holiday season to the Internet.

King solicited donors through social networking sites such as MySpace, Twitter and Facebook, on various blogs and through a Web site. He posted videos of the children on YouTube and shared their story with strangers, who responded with more than $21,000, all raised online.

It was the latest effort by the 29-year-old — who calls himself "The Facebook Pastor" — to make the ecclesiastic more electronic.

"The challenge is converting online relationships to real community, turning Facebook friends into active parts of a community of faith," King said.

More than 300 people in 22 states participated in the toy drive, King said. Though he began with his own personal network, more than 80 percent of the people who gave were people King didn't know.

He has also used the Internet to grow his fledgling ministry at The Courageous Church, which plans to officially open next month in midtown Atlanta. Of the 100 people making up his nascent congregation, 60 found him online in the past three months.

Rochelle McAllister found King's Facebook ad a month ago and added him as a friend. On Tuesday, she was one of several volunteers helping pass out toys at Stanton Elementary.

"It's exactly how you need to connect," she said of King's strategy. "It promotes a dialogue that is missing in so many churches. On Facebook, you're more real."

For King, incorporating social networking into his ministry was a natural segue and a practical plan for ye of little means.

"I'm a young guy, so it's part of who I am," he said. "These networks are already a part of my daily life. And it's free."

Copyright 2008 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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