Moving from a Web Site to a Web MinistryAdapted from an article by J. Sebastian Traeger and Duncan J. Rein, co-founders of LifeAudio.com and the new owners of Christianity.com
Yesterday, on my morning walk, I met some newcomers to my neighborhood who said they were starting a church. They seemed to be sincere, godly people, and they were overflowing with excitement as they spoke about their vision for ministering to their new, adopted community. They invited me inside a half-built sanctuary to take a look, and as we walked around, they unveiled their vision for the church. There was the pulpit where the Word of God would be preached with great power to a thirsty congregation. There was the old organ, and right next to it a great new sound system for the high school praise band that would lead the worship music.
As they spoke, it was clear to me that they’d thought through every detail, from the color of the hymnals, to what kind of coffee they were going to serve after the service—Starbucks of course. They’d sent postcards to the neighbours asking probing questions in a sensitive and culturally relevant way. They had recruited people to make visitors feel welcome, and others to create a nursery that would be a toddler’s paradise.
A few months later, the church opened, and it was a smashing success on Day 1. The turnout was more than expected, and people were greatly helped by the service. The next week the crowd was much bigger, but the confused congregation heard the same announcements as the first week, sang the same songs, and listened to the same sermon from the same preacher. Bewildered, but still liking the new church, a good number of people came back the following week, but again, nothing changed. The people heard the same announcements, listened to the same songs, and heard the same sermon from the same preacher. After a while, the initial excitement had waned, and no one came to the church any more. After so much time and effort in the initial planning, the new church was a terrible failure.
At Christianity.com, we talk to hundreds of church and ministry leaders every week, and while the fictitious church I described above seems ludicrous, I think it is a good analogy for many church websites. Many churches have very attractive web sites. There’s great attention to detail – what should the banner look like, which colours should be used, and how can graphics be used to draw people’s attention? Clearly, a lot of time and effort went into planning and designing the web site. But if you go back the next week, and then the next week, and then the next week, nothing seems to change. You read the same announcements, look at the same pictures, and read the same articles.
Now on one level, this isn’t a terrible thing. In a very real sense, a church’s web site is like a digital billboard, giving people access to important information about the church. Just as a sign may not change for years, there are certain sections of your website – your mission statement, your statement of faith, your contact information, and driving directions that may never change. But just as a church would get stale if nothing ever changed in a service, a church web site gets stale if every page stays exactly the same.
In talking to churches and ministries each day, our primary mission is to help them make the transition from website to Web Ministry. Having a website is great, but having a Web Ministry is essential. A Web Ministry is not fundamentally about technology, it’s about helping people experience God and connect with each other, just like any other ministry. You’ve spent time building other parts of your ministry, like a youth ministry or a music ministry. These ministries require an investment in time, in effort, and in resources, but those seeds that have been planted have borne fruit. The same principles apply to Web Ministry. It takes time, effort, resources, and commitment. But seeds sown today can bear a bountiful harvest tomorrow.
Why Should I Develop a Web Ministry?
When tragedy struck on September 11, the traffic on our sites increased 50%, as people struggled to find answers to their deepest questions. We attend a church on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC, and the tragedy struck very close to home for many of us. Within hours, our pastor had posted an article addressing the Problem of Evil. Hill staffers who had never before discussed spiritual things with their co-workers were now being asked the difficult questions. They were greatly helped by being able to forward that link to an article that many people needed to read.
The invention of the Internet is no less revolutionary than the invention of the printing press over 500 years ago. With the Internet, the barriers of time and geography are eliminated. Any message on the Internet is available to anyone in the world with an Internet connection at any time. When the printing press was invented, Christians were the early adopters, printing and distributing the first Gutenberg Bibles. As Christian organizations are in the business of communicating a powerful, life-changing message, we think it makes sense that they should be the first to take advantage of these new communication tools.
At the same time, there is a great demand for Christian resources on the web. In December of 1995, there were 16 million people on the Internet; today there are 560 million people worldwide who use the Internet, and this growth will only continue. Not only are there a lot of people online, but there are a lot of people online who are looking for spiritual resources. According to USA Today, over 25% of people who have been on the Internet have searched for religious content. The Barna Research Group estimates that by the year 2010, 10-20% of Americans will rely on the Internet exclusively for their religious experiences. What are they going to find?
As communication in our society migrates more and more to digital distribution over the Internet, increasingly, the Internet is where people are going to be. The Internet as a whole is a huge mission field. With the greatest message in the world to communicate, Christians need to flood the Internet with life-giving teaching to the glory and praise of God. Together, we can help build a vibrant Christian witness online.
Closer to home, a Web Ministry is a great resource for your membership and for your immediate community. Remembering once again our previous analogy of the church that never changed, now imagine a real church with a thriving Web Ministry. Each week, a volunteer films video testimonials from members of your church. What did they like about the service? What did they learn from the sermon today? What do they like best about your church? Ten years of sermon tapes, your life’s work, can be rescued from the closet downstairs, converted into digital format, tagged with meta-data like topic, Bible reference, and date, and posted to the Internet, where the world can listen to them. People are able to post questions about the sermon and discuss finer points and specific application on your church’s message board. You begin to develop an email ministry, so that every Monday, your members and other interested parties get an email with prayer requests, and with links to this week’s sermon. You may preach to 300 on Sunday, but to over 1,000 through the Internet on Monday, as your members forward this email to friends and family. In this way, your members are empowered for evangelism. After non-believers have had a chance to check out your church in the privacy of their own home, they may be more likely to accept an invitation to attend a service. A pastor of a small church in Jacksonville, FL remarks, “I stand amazed at how God is using the Internet to reach the lost for Christ. A month ago, I baptised a new convert who first became acquainted with our ministry through the Internet.” There are countless stories of churches seeing real life-change in their communities as a direct result of their Web Ministry.
What Makes for an Effective Web Ministry?
When thinking about a website, we’ve found that the most common question people ask is, “What features do we need?” This is important, but in our view it’s not the first question that should be asked. Instead, the question that drives all others is, “Who are we trying to reach?” While features might be part of an effective Web Ministry, the features are not the point. People are the point of your Web Ministry. Just like your Youth Ministry or Music Ministry are geared towards serving people, so the purpose of your Web Ministry must be focused on serving the needs of those who interact with your ministry.
When ministry leaders define a Web Ministry in terms of technical details, they make their Web Ministry overly complicated and the focus of ministry is lost. So, rather than diving directly into a list of features, consider that people really do three things online:
Find information (resources)
Connect with other people (communications)
Take care of business (transactions)
Discovering the purpose for your Web Ministry is really as simple as answering two questions: Who? and What?
Your Web Ministry needs to provide ministry benefits to different audiences. You don’t minister to everyone in your congregation in exactly the same way, and you shouldn’t minister to everyone online in the same way either.
Since your Web Ministry touches different kinds of people, you need to provide different types of resources and features for each group. For example, you have different expectations for members and visitors at your church on Sunday. You expect members to contribute to the ministry of the church and to attend it regularly. You expect that visitors are guests and there is not the same obligation for them to be involved in the life of your church. Your Web Ministry also needs to be designed with this idea in mind.
Thinking about the “Who” and “What” of Web Ministry makes it much easier to understand what features you should add and when. Whatever framework you choose, don’t start by deciding what features you want to support your Web Ministry. Start by deciding who you will be ministering to and then select the features that will support that ministry.
Cost of the ministry?
What kind of impact would you like to have? Think about what you are spending on outreach in your community and around the world. Why would you expect ministry through the Internet not to take time and effort as well?