by Marcus Hackler
The world of web development is enormous, complicated, and ever changing with a multitude of options for creating your online space. Churches especially struggle with how to present themselves online and often face financial as well as technological barriers that ultimately prevent them from having a website that not only represents their organization well, but acts as an effective communication tool. This becomes even more complicated in the world of social networking where communication and conversation continuously flow in arenas that the church is not traditionally equipped to participate in.
Blogging, Twitter, Facebook, MySpace, and other web-based social networking tools have become the standard of communication in the online world, and as a consequence, traditional websites become obsolete due to lack of traffic, and ultimately interest.
So what’s the solution? How can a church of any size craft a web strategy to engage in online community and conversation?
Dynamic versus Static Content
First it is important to draw an important distinction in how you intend to present information to the online world. This is where dynamic and static content come in to play. Dynamic content is content that is continuously updated. Examples include blog posts, news feeds, regularly updated information (such as online newsletters, events, calendars, etc.) and media such as audio and video sermons and podcasts. Static content is content that doesn’t change or doesn’t change very often. Things like your church’s statement of faith, contact information, or your staff directory would be examples of static content.
One of the characteristics of the Web 2.0 world is the constant flow of dynamic content – and for good reason. The flow of information can be captured, customized, and consumed at the preference of the user. And the more you, as a publisher, participate in content creation, the more likely you are to be found. Google for instance, indexes websites based on popularity. The more people visit a site, the higher on the search list it will be. Thus the more activity on your site in the form of dynamic content, the more traffic you will generate, and the more likely you are to be found. This is particularly important for churches due to the fact that most visitors will visit your website before they visit your church building.
As a church, a web strategy that includes dynamic content fits perfectly within the construct of ministry activity. There are always events happening, relationships forming, connections being made with people, not to mention the presentation of thought-provoking content every Sunday morning from the pulpit. It doesn’t matter how large or small the church is, every church is intrinsically dynamic – so it should come as no surprise that a web model that supports dynamic content would fit the majority of ministry strategies.
Unfortunately most churches fit they dynamic category, but are stuck in static mode. With a static site, a dynamic organization moves quickly beyond the ability of their online space. Content is rarely updated, design becomes dated quickly, and due to the amount of work required to change it, the site gets stagnant.
Considering that the rest of the world is full of ‘on demand’ information consumers, churches who maintain static content sites de-prioritize their online space and eventually end up abandoning the web as a primary communication strategy all together. The answer? Develop your online space with a framework that enables the organization to easily and consistently publish new content in a aesthetically pleasing fashion.
Developing a Website for Dynamic Content
There are a number of frameworks that are available for developing web applications that publish dynamic content. Our concern here isn’t to cover the development of tools themselves, but to cover some options that currently exist upon which you can build a website. For those of you with code writing skills and complementary knowledge, you will be familiar enough with various programming frameworks such as asp.net, vb.net (Dot Net Nuke), .php, Ruby on Rails, and others for developing such tools – there really isn’t anything that I could tell you that you don’t already know 🙂
As far as frameworks that already exist, again there are a multitude of options. Some successful products include Drupal (drupal.org), Movable Type (movabletype.com), and WordPress (wordpress.org) and all basically work the same way. For the sake of brevity, I’ll focus on WordPress as the preferred framework to build your site upon, namely because I’ve had a great experience with it both for my personal blog (marcushackler.com) and for our church’s multi-user blog network (capitalchristian.com). Additionally WordPress is the most supported and used platform for self-hosted sites available. I would certainly encourage you to take a good look at WordPress (particularly the multi-user version) first and explore other platforms as you discover your particular needs.
WordPress is an open source blogging framework that has developed into one of the most widely used content management systems (also known as a CMS) in the online world today. Originally created in 2003, WordPress has grown to be one of the most dominant frameworks for not only blogging, but now for websites in general. In fact, as of last August, there were over 2.6 million sites who use WordPress as their framework with thousands a day being added. Once thought of as only a blogging tool, many organizations have turned to using WordPress to run their entire website due to the ease of use, the low cost, and easy development. A few well known examples include The Wall Street Journal (magazine.wsj.com), Fox News (foxforum.blogs.foxnews.com), Flickr (blog.flickr.net/en), and the New York Times (blogs.nytimes.com). Additionally quite a few well-known Christian bloggers use WordPress such as Tony Morgan (tonymorganlive.com), Carlos Whittaker (ragamuffinsoul.com), Anne Jackson (flowerdust.net), John Saddington (human3rror.com and churchcrunch.com) and Pete Wilson (withoutwax.tv).
What make WordPress so appealing? For me it comes down to easy development, easy design, and easy publishing. An individual with moderate computer skills can install it, pick a design, build pages, and begin publishing all within a single day. Additionally, anyone who can send an email can update content. This is especially helpful for churches who utilize volunteers for updating content. For those individuals who are more technologically savvy, the options for customizing the build are even greater including integrating online storefronts, online giving, and interactive media. If you don’t have the skills to execute the build of the site like you envision it there are also companies that provide services for developing your site on WordPress. Luma3 (luma3.com), and iThemes (ithemes.com) are just a couple examples of available resources.
To get started explore wordpress.org and check out the simple installation process. You will need to purchase hosting if you don’t already have that set up. Take note of the documentation and support forums that are available as well and good luck!
Marcus Hackler is the Director of Communications at Capital Christian Center in Meridian, ID. You can keep up to date at www.marcushackler.com