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Visitors take a test-drive on the information superhighway

People looking for a church to attend are increasingly turning to the Internet for first impressions.

By Kevin Duke

Josh and Emily Jones were excited about a new church experience, visiting the Web site first. The building was attractive and an easy drive from their new house. The congregation was diverse and focused on service to others, heartfelt worship and Bible study. The church offered a variety of groups and events and a range of compelling ministry opportunities that excited them. The minister’s sermons touched and challenged them. They believed they might have already found their new church home, even though they had only just moved to the city.

Emily looks at Josh with a hopeful expression and says, “Well, what do you think? Shall we go there this Sunday and visit in person?” Josh clicked on the Schedule page. “Let’s do it. They have a ‘Visitor’s Coffee and Conversation’ at 9:30,” he says. The Jones already had a sense of excitement and confidence and were making plans to connect, even though they had never stepped foot into the church building.

The above scenario illustrates a practice that is increasingly common. Mailed collaterals or a physical visit used to be the church’s first visitor touch-points. Today the Internet is the first (and sometimes last) opportunity for churches to reach out to those in search of a church home.

With a wide range of churches to choose from and a fear of getting stuck in an uncomfortable situation, more and more people are using Web sites to test drive the church. Recent polls reflect that more than 70 percent of Americans now use the Internet on a regular basis. Out of all the available communication tools such as radio, TV and print, the Internet is unique. It allows two-way communication, where the other media communicate one-way, or only as a transmission tool.

The anonymity and easy access offered by the Internet makes approaching a new church much easier for many people. Randy Renbarger, an elder at Perimeter Church in Duluth, GA, says, “People are leery nowadays. The world is a scary place unless you can filter it through a comfort zone, and the Internet provides that comfort zone. You can get information before you even cross the threshold.”

Prospective members investigate doctrinal foundations and seek cultural fits. They search for ways to plug in and serve, ways to be needed and give back to the community. The Internet can provide this information, while avoiding uncomfortable pressures and wasted time. Unlike other communication media, the Internet is dynamic and relational. It allows ongoing, two-way or group discussions as well as mass communication and information management.

Response time and centralized information management is critical for any church. Response is a make-or-break point. If prospects engage with your church after test-driving your Web site, it is imperative that the church responds with immediacy. Other Web tools, such as online prayer requests, not only require a thoughtful and timely response but also may require multiple touch points for the person in need. How quickly you respond and how thoroughly you use your ministry resources, depends greatly on your systems and the management tools you have in place.

The blog factor

Web logs (blogs) are becoming a more common component of sites as a tool for sharing ideas and information, even communicating about last minute event changes. Podcasts of sermons and workshops not only provide prospective members with a real view of the church’s mission, message and beliefs, they offer great outreach to the homebound or traveling members. Other social networking tools create and manage ministry efforts at a grass roots level, while affording leadership the ability to stay in touch and aware.

There are viable solutions offered by innovative ChMS (church management solution) providers. While the actual construction of the site is still a place for professionals (do not let someone’s son with a new computer program handle something this important), today’s software can keep your site easily updated. A few quality ChMS solutions manage your Web presence as well as many other back office functions.

There are products in the church market that are the right fit for you, whatever the size of your church, your technical acumen, your budget or the amount of two-way communication you prefer. Enterprise systems, or all-encompassing management systems, manage database and inter-office business (such as accounting), as well as outward facing needs such as Web authoring and social networking.

Affordable Web solutions

There are very affordable Web solutions that manage your membership, print your bulletins and communicate with your people, no training required. The key with any solution is trust in the provider. Check out support and what “upgrading” options are available if your church starts small and grows quickly. Another valuable point to consider is the construction of the database. Tracking your membership and ministry information centrally and securely will decrease the likelihood of something, or someone, slipping through the cracks.  Interaction between church staff, congregation members and prospective visitors can play a vital role in making people feel both engaged and welcomed by the church.

Excellent organizational and communication tools eliminate many of the barriers currently facing churches. These systems are organized and safe, but flexible to your needs. As Alfred Johnson, director of business development at Shelby Systems, says, “I was recently asked how technology has changed the church. My response was a staunch, ‘Not at all! Far be it from us that we should change the church.’” He says, “I find it immensely offensive that a solution provider would try to change a church. Churches know best what they were called to do and how best to do it. What innovative technology should provide is the ability for churches to do their ministry their way, with less effort and more reach. We’re in the business of knocking down walls, not putting them up.”

There are an increasing number of “Josh and Emily Joneses” out there, looking to find a church home. An engaging Web presence will turn casual Internet surfers into visitors and will empower the active Christians to plug in and serve. It may all start with a virtual visit.

Kevin Duke is a writer and consultant based out of Wynne, AR.

Web site ‘curb appeal’

Of course, it always helps to see ideas like this in action. Here are some examples of church web sites which have gotten a firm handle on making sure their virtual front door has the right kind of curb appeal for today’s prospective seekers.

  • Canyon Ridge Christian Church, Las Vegas, NV: canyonridge.org
  • Christ’s Church of the Valley, Peoria, AZ: ccvonline.com
  • Watermark Community Church, Dallas, TX: watermark.org

For more information on creating a Web presence for your church with the integration of a powerful ChMS solution, contact Arena at arenachms.com.

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