By Barry Weaver
The Internet is constantly changing. From its infancy about 15 years ago, “Web 1.0” was a place where businesses and organizations could broadcast information to the public. Users in return could then search for related topics based on their needs.
Many churches jumped on the bandwagon, while others are still trying to play catch-up. Some of the problems with the initial Internet were that the message was one-sided, people only tuned in when they wanted and feedback was essentially nonexistent.
As the Web has evolved today into what was first titled “Web 2.0” four years ago by Internet pioneers Dale Daugherty and Tim O’Reilly, churches on the forefront are incorporating their concepts as they move into this new phase. The major difference between Web 1.0 and Web 2.0 is engagement.
The impact on society
Web 1.0 is information directed from the organization to the reader. Web 2.0 is engagement between the two parties. Consider the impact eBay, MySpace and Wikipedia have had on the Web and society. All three necessitate user interaction. Web 2.0 offers the church an opportunity to effectively communicate with its attendees. Here are four ideas to initiate conversation between the church and its community.
1. Blogs: Four out of 10 Internet users read someone else’s online journal or blog. One of the greatest arenas for learning what your people really believe and think can be a blog. A blog in its simplest form is an ongoing discussion board where thoughts are presented and reply comments are posted. Unlike chat rooms, users do not have to be present in order to participate. When a new thought is posted, a notice is sent to its author and subscribers informing everyone.
Blogs could provide a way to receive feedback on your sermons. If your ego can handle it, start a sermon blog to get feedback on Sunday’s message. Provide a forum for people to ask a question to get clarity on a point you were trying to drive home. Maybe they want to share a personal testimony, but were afraid to come forward after the sermon. Sermon blogs are a great tool for knowing whether your preaching is relevant or not.
Like sermon blogs, teaching blogs are a great way to engage your students after the class has ended. Whether it is a small group, Sunday school class, or elective course, the blog can be a great way to continue classroom learning as well as sharing ideas for fellowship events, service projects and prayer needs.
When I was in youth ministry full-time, I led many senior high weeks of camp. One of the elective classes offered was titled, “Ask Anything.” Students could show up with their Bible and ask a panel of leaders any question about life, the Bible, or religion.
This open forum provided opportunities for students to share their questions, thoughts and concerns and gave leaders a relative thermometer of what their students were wrestling with. An “Ask Anything” blog allows people to ask tough questions they are afraid to ask in a public setting.
2. eNewsletter: The number one use of the Internet is e-mail. Ninety-two percent of all users read and send e-mail. Seventy-one percent read news online. One church I know produced a monthly 12-page color newsletter for $1 a piece. Electronic newsletters on the other hand, can be done for as little as three cents on the dollar when compared to traditional paper newsletters.
Besides cost savings, consider these other factors. Construction of e-mail messages is much easier with e-mail companies. Like the tool bar features with MS Word, you can create an e-mail message with formatted text, pictures, and backgrounds. Most provide numerous templates to help get you started. Links can be added to your e-mail message to send readers to your Web site, blog page and even online giving page.
Many organizations begin an article with the introductory paragraph to get a reader interested and then send them by link to the full article posted on their blog or Web page. This practice keeps the initial e-mail short, allowing readers to skim through to gather the information important to them. Pictures can also be included with links to online photo albums. The next time you write an article about your VBS program, include one picture and a link to your online photo album showcasing pictures taken at the event.
Opportunities for interaction
E-mail can be used to thank guests for worshipping with your congregation. A message can be sent with a simple thank you, concise description of the church’s ministry, and a link to a short video message from the pastor posted on YouTube. Again, add a place for them to respond back and links to additional information to get them engaged.
3. Social network sites: MySpace put social network sites on the map, soon followed by FaceBook. Social network sites are online communities where users with like interests share information about themselves and their activities. Users create a profile and invite friends to join their friends list. They can upload photos, favorite videos and music. Discussion forums can be held in the form of a blog and e-mail can be sent between friends. Churches are now getting on board by creating profiles on sites like MySpace, FaceBook, and MyChurch, an alternative site designed specifically for churches to start social networks. Church communities can connect safely, blog, share, get to know other members and learn what other churches are doing. Groups with like interests can be formed within the organization’s account.
Amazing concepts in use
On a trip this summer to San Francisco to see our oldest son, my family had the opportunity to attend a service at the Cornerstone Church where he worships. That evening, I visited their Web site to learn more about their ministry to the city. I was amazed at the number of Web 2.0 concepts they were using. Among them were FaceBook and MyChurch accounts. There were groups for the children’s ministry, creative arts team, healthcare professionals, singles and people in their 20s. There was a post for someone needing a ride to church, an apartment to rent, and another needing a personal financial advisor.
About 92 percent of people ages 18 to 29 use the Internet. MySpace and FaceBook each have more than 100 million users, the majority of which fall into that age group. Churches and ministers would benefit from having an account where they could engage this generation and they could learn a great deal from them by doing so.
4. eCommerce, eForms and eSurveys: Another area where churches can engage with members is the domain of online forms and accepting tithes and offerings. Many nonprofit organizations recognize it is much more convenient for their donors to give online and set up that gift on a recurring basis. Churches are now offering a method for their members to give online or to have their gifts automatically withdrawn from a bank account, debit card, or credit card. When a regular schedule of giving is automatically set, members who miss a particular Sunday due to illness, travel, or just oversleeping still make their contribution.
Most student ministries of the church have numerous events for which their junior and senior high students need to register. The event is publicized, students may or may not give the flier to a parent, the paper registration form is lost or forgotten at home the day it is due, the parent and teen frantically ask for a new form, the youth minister receives stacks of paper forms and checks, the treasurer deposits the checks into the church’s account, and someone calls on Monday morning asking if it is too late to sign up.
With an online registration form, parents can fill out information and pay for the event in a matter of minutes. The money gets processed and sent directly to the church’s bank account. The youth minister receives an e-mail notification of the student’s registration and the parent receives an e-mail confirmation. Web-based “Software as a Service” companies even provide products and services which integrate both online giving and event registration information directly into the church’s database. This automation lessens the data entry duties of the office administrator, financial secretary and the youth minister.
Find out what others think
Online surveys can now be created cost effectively and in some cases free of charge. SurveyMonkey is a “Software as a Service” company which allows subscribers to create various online surveys, e-mail a link to their constituents, collect survey results in the form of reports, and download a summary of the results in a spreadsheet or database format. This format is easy for your members give you their opinion about ministry programs, guest services, building projects, and preaching and teaching series topics.
There are a myriad of other Web 2.0 applications the church can employ: video casting through providers such as YouTube and GodTube, podcasting messages on iTunes, online photo albums with Flickr and Google’s Picasa Web Albums, and Donor and Member login options to look up account information or find fellow church members in a database.
Whatever application you decide to use, it must be maintained diligently. For that reason, not all ideas can be implemented at once. Choose one and get started. Once it becomes a part of your life, it becomes fun and contagious. While the Internet should never be used as a substitute for face-to-face relationships, the tools that it offers can supplement existing interaction between people in the church and in the community. The next phase of the Internet is here. Effective use of these tools can profoundly impact the church’s efforts to reach and engage the congregation and community.
Barry Weaver is a faith-based account executive with eTapestry, a leading provider of donor management database software as a service to nonprofit organizations. [etapestry.com]
Touchstones of Web 2.0