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Enhancing Your Church’s Online Communication

A noted urban planner once reflected on the difference between a road and a street. “A road,” he said, “is a means to get somewhere else. A street is a place to be.”

With the adoption of social networking over the past couple of years, the Internet has transformed itself from a road or “Information Superhighway” into a street. The Internet is no longer a virtual encyclopedia, rather, it has become a destination for groups of people to gather and express their views, learn from one another and provide support.

Throughout time, the tried and true community has been the one rooted in faith. In our digital age, however, there has been a steady decline in church involvement. It is thus no surprise that congregations are beginning to explore ways to make use of Web based community tools, which would open the doors to the church and its programs 24/7.

Aside from allowing more time to interact within a faith-based community, providing young people access to the perspectives, core values, and program ministries of your church in their preferred environment will result in:
– Attraction and retention of youth and young adult members
– Increased participation in educational programs and service opportunities provided by the church
– Better communication among church leaders, families, members and potential members
– More collaboration among and within social, outreach, and educational committees as well as clubs and family, children, and youth groups.

The number of Web-based communication tools has come a long way since the Internet bulletin boards of the 1990s. Their main premise of communication, though, is still a vital element of modern community sites.

For our purposes, an online community tool is anything that allows a group of people to interact with each other virtually while contributing to the value of their experiences and judgments. So rather than simply providing content like articles, videos and audio files, online tools enable the user to express him or herself by creating commentary in the form of written reactions or blogs.

This interaction within a faith-based community lends itself to further hold the interest of the younger generation that has now become accustomed to voicing its opinions virtually on any given topic. However, because a faith-based online community varies from the secular version, the following are some useful applications for it:

• A chat conference, where members can gather and schmooze about anything that interests them.
• A study group, where people commit more formally to engage with the study material – anything from sacred scriptures to a bicycle repair manual – and participate in the proceedings.
• A place to register books and resources that have helped people in their spiritual journey, along with ratings and reviews.
• A welcome center, where members of the outside community-at-large can learn about your community of faith and, ‘test drive it.’
• A place to survey members of your congregation about their attitudes to a proposed change or their suggestions for dealing with a perceived problem.

The sky is really the limit. Just think of all the activities in which your congregation engages, from formal worship to purely social events. All of them can be extended through online community tools.

But not everyone is eager to explore online community. There are some legitimate concerns about interacting online. MySpace and Facebook, two of the giants, have both been subject to scrutiny over whether they help make teenagers more vulnerable to predators or pedophiles.

Many of the concerns cluster around questions of privacy, specifically the degree to which you can choose to share information or keep it confidential. Therefore, it’s important to familiarize yourself with the social network you plan to join and engage with it at a level that is comfortable for you. Similarly, as a parent, you should monitor your children’s interaction on any online community.

If approached in a responsible manner, participating in an online community does not pose any danger. In fact, the pros heavily outweigh the cons. To stay relevant in our day and age, it is important for congregations to become more aware and involved in online communities.

In addition, there are other tools with which congregations need to become familiar. Two examples are RSS (“Really Simple Syndication”) feeds and podcasting.

An RSS feed makes it possible for people to get content from their favorite blogs or Web sites automatically, without having to visit them each time they want an update.

Subscribing to a feed is easy. First, a user should download an RSS reader/aggregator. Some of the more popular ones available for free include Bloglines, Google Reader, FeedDemon, BlogBridge and Sage.

After a user has subscribed, he/she can enter his/her favorite blogs or Web sites into the reader. Another way to add feeds from blogs and sites is to click on an RSS icon on the Web site being viewed to initiate the subscription process.

Creating an RSS feed on your congregation’s Web site is also a terrific way to keep your members informed of special events, programs, meetings, prayer concerns, sermon topics and blog entries on a regular and timely basis. After installing the feed, simply alert your congregation to its existence and suggest that they sign up for it. If they don’t have an RSS reader, you can provide them with the simple instructions given above.

Podcasting is another excellent online tool that congregations can use to engage their members online. Podcasts, or broadcasts created for the Internet, are a means of distributing audio and video content online.
Here are five reasons your congregation should consider using podcasts:

1. It really is easy. There is no expensive equipment to buy and only a modest learning curve. You create the digital resource, upload it to the Internet, make it available through an RSS feed and you’re done.

2. Despite being simple to use, it’s enormously powerful. It makes your audio content accessible anywhere, any time. Podcasting is a logical extension of time-honored practices like making worship services available on audio cassettes or CDs. For you, there’s no hassle producing multiple copies of cassettes and then bicycling them around. For members, there’s no need to get physical access to the tape or worrying about returning it. They can download the audio file any time they want, from any computer with Internet access and watch it from the convenience of their home or on the go on an iPod or other mp3 player.

3. Podcasting can make it easy for you to add depth to your online resources. Chances are you have quite an archive of audio content filling several shelves and gathering dust in your House of Worship. You can convert your older audio material into a digital format and make it available through podcasts. In its digital form, it is much easier to catalogue, search for and retrieve.

4. Connect with your members. Many congregations produce a weekly email newsletter. Some of your members would prefer to receive that newsletter as an audio file, just because they have more time (while driving, for example) to listen than to read. These folks will benefit even if you do nothing more than find a volunteer to read the newsletter text into a microphone. Others, especially younger members, are more attuned to an audio culture. They will like the convenience of a podcast subscription because that’s how they already relate to many other resources. Don’t be afraid to get creative with podcast elements like daily meditations, mission updates, opportunities for service, or other aspects of congregational life.

5. Reach out to others. Beyond placing your audio resources on your own web site, make use of podcast aggregators (i.e. Apple’s iTunes) to make your audio resources available to others. Again, many people, especially younger people, are now attuned to the podcast culture and – when they seek spiritual resources – will look there first. Of those 134 million Google results for “podcasts” less than 2 percent also include the word “faith.” There’s room for your congregation to change that percentage.