If the crux of real estate success rests in location-location- location then the crux of online success rests in prepare-prepare- prepare. This article explores some tenets affecting a religious Internet presence. It offers effective strategies for contingency planning and shows how contingency planning can build a better online ministry. The Internet is a global leveler. With a small investment and a little effort, anything anyone wants to say can be given a nonstop published voice 24/7 around the world. The Internet knows no government censorship nor does it embrace any single ideology. With every imaginable audience before you, it is a waste to be anything less than fully engaged. No other form of communication is more open than a Web site and, in launching a Web site, you’ve agreed to become a citizen in this global community that accepts everyone without qualification.
Everything written, displayed or heard on the Internet is taken by its citizens at the face value of here-and-now without prejudice from history, tradition, protocol, or social proclivities. This means that certain emotional and intellectual edicts, which would hold principles like the sacredness of a church site, will not be shared and respected online. The general contention among researchers is that homogeneity (i.e. mutual values) promotes integration, trust, and ease of communication.
Homogeneity exists with your current members/users but the vast majority of the online world doesn’t know you. Everyone else meets online as strangers and, in the absence of homogeneity, assumptions reign. The litany of tenets assumed about Web sites is a virtual Internet termsand- conditions agreement (with only an “accept” button at the bottom). I find three tenets really drive the rest.
ONE: WHAT TRANSLATES AND WHAT DOESN’T
It is assumed you understand that the Internet is a culture unto itself, and the offline cultural practices you are bringing are secondary. In this assumption, you are expected to respect the Internet culture before its citizens will respect you. Understanding the Internet culture means you are offering appropriate interaction on a real-time basis (i.e. offer email, then make sure emails are answered daily). Knowing that most visitors may not know you, your site content should go to extra lengths to explain practices, rites, observances, mandates, programs and culture-unique terms. (Undertaking this may prove a two-fold benefit in helping refresh core values and beliefs with existing members.)
TWO: HAVE YOU TAKEN THE INTERNET SERIOUSLY?
It is assumed that, in launching an online ministry, you are seeking active interaction. Maintaining a Web site is the online equivalent of an offline open house – a perpetual open house – so expect visitors and expect that they will want to engage you across many forums. In making yourself known and inviting people to know you better, guests will intuit whether you are a gracious host by ease of navigation, content relevance and piqued curiosity. Nothing is worse than a disappointing open house where the initial flood of visitors is reduced to a trickle of casual visitors who never return. If you want to be taken seriously, demonstrate that you take your visitor seriously. Find out how different users/ visitors like to interact (their behavior characteristics) and accommodate these needs. (Rome wasn’t built in a day, so implement new technologies in phases.) Your audience will be diverse so, in your planning, you may want to provide language options, have an area where people can follow church life and stay in touch (travelers, college students, deployed military, etc.), offer instant messaging, host Prayer Posts, or let people submit/post ideas for new programs.
THREE: USERS WILL TAKE YOU SERIOUSLY
It is assumed that all views expressed are official stands of your denomination. This assumption brings high accountability. Theologically, it makes sense to support content with references from disciplines or canon. Even if well referenced, you can expect that doctrine will be scrutinized and stands on social issues may be challenged. One item you might not think to clarify is your affiliation. Similarly named groups may embrace vastly different practices, and you might want to be very specific about how you identify yourself (do you know the difference between Roman Catholic and Orthodox Catholic?). Let’s not take one on the chin for the other guys.
For many churches, ministering online can be a unique experience that succeeds with the gain of some acquired thinking. They are surprised to find that understanding the online audience and how to minister to them in a virtual world takes just as much energy as their discipling efforts. Users will bring thousands of individual and multinational perspectives to their experience with you. They will draw assumptions that can raise some response challenges and bring realities to bear you may not have anticipated.
THREE FRONTS TO ADDRESS
Collectively, these Web assumptions will open three fronts which a church (or church agency) should be prepared to address. Religious sites are interpreted social touch points extending an open invitation to join, an open offer of assistance and an open invitation for reaction. Although your goal may be to offer a spiritual home, the invitation-to-join is at least implied so anticipate that new visitors will need content expressed in “unchurched-friendly” language. This means rephrasing “churchy” terms to speak the language of the “unchurched” (offer a glossary). Explain the life of your church by describing spiritual growth through each program and, foremost, be invitational and welcoming. If your site is accepted as an invitation of assistance, users will bring an online ministry appeals for help on a multitude of immediate needs from unexpected corners. Knowing this, if a hotline is offered, a wise eTeam will prepare to respond 24/ 7 and have strategic community partners to help them field appeals on any number of social needs. For example, if your church makes a call for food bank donations then announces distribution for Saturday, don’t be surprised if you receive emergency appeals on Thursday or Friday.
Also, anticipate that your reach may prove wider than anticipated and expect requests to serve the neighboring community, county or state. If this expansive reach is beyond your means, again, have referral resources ready. And last, your site may be seen as a target for reaction where online views can be openly challenged. Given recent headlines, imagine the recent activity levels and exchanges experienced by the Catholic News Service (www.catholic.org) and the sustained level at www.cbs.com/primetime/9_11. If you find yourself charged with damage control, PR experts will advise that responses made be in a single, unified voice of appropriate authority. This goes back to the assumption that you speak for your denomination and if this is not the case, say so openly. Thankfully, most churches do not need to have large scale response plans but ask yourself, how would you want to be able to respond if the Chandra Levy family were members of your church? Moderate activity under each of these front denotes a healthy Web presence; but what happens when a major event tips this scale?
When outside influences drive up site activity, the demands-for-response will not only mirror the perceived magnitude of the event but will also carry the very real potential of becoming exponential (snowballing beyond your capabilities to control). If your site is relevant to the event, it can be catapulted into high visibility. “Weeks ahead of New Yorkers, people in Oklahoma City understood what it meant when the Twin Towers collapsed. During the week of Sept. 11, the hotline at Oklahoma’s department of mental health got 300 calls – triple its normal volume.” [Time, October 29, 2001] Trigger events could be a local natural disaster, a medical emergency, an act of war, religious or political threats or a global event such as 9-11. Prepare-prepare- prepare. Realistic planning puts in place the leadership answers of “how” and “enough” in online and offline terms so there is action agility at the time of the disaster or crisis. “How” is answered online by churches through an eDiscipling team who focuses on providing a unique interface which offers emotional comfort and spiritual guidance augmented with a menu of related resources and opportunities to interact.
“Enough” is answered offline with tasks divided between an eResponse team and an eAdmin team. The eResponse team focuses on delivering the anticipated needs for disaster response or crisis management. They monitor different site areas to act as conduit for event response, collaboration and “how” updates. The eResponse team also works between church/agency members and community or government partners to help filter fact from hearsay.
The eAdmin team takes care of business in technical terms so the work of the eDiscipling and eResponse teams aren’t crippled by down-time. They ensure that a site is serviced by a competent ISP (Internet service provider) who can ensure site security and handle load spikes so unexpected traffic doesn’t crash your site. Down-time is when your Web site is offline and unavailable for any reason. Even though a 5% down-time rate sounds low, in the 24/7 world of the Internet this still means a Web site is out of commission for 18 days a year. Ask your Web host about their up-time rate (you want at least 98%; my Web host guarantees 99.9%). The eAdmin team would be responsible for having a contingency plan in the event the site does crash, and they also take on the work of running chat rooms, conducting Webcasts, connecting to databases, making resources downloadable and troubleshooting site functions.
If you want to see how various agencies are carrying out their missions (acting as conduits), some sites worth visiting include www.disasters.org.uk, www.airdisaster.com, www.redcross.org, or www.medlineplus.gov
MAINTAINING SACRED GROUND
Being an Internet citizen could bring high visibility so there is an element of exposure in undertaking an online ministry that could require a wide circle of offline support. The key to a church site enjoying safe ground online is in the respect gained from being prepared on these three fronts. In reacting to content, visitors will stay or leave according to how well beliefs are conveyed and whether those beliefs resonate with personal beliefs. Sometimes, no matter how well content is wordsmithed, some visitors will weigh content as pure propaganda or advertising. How can you be sure you are focused on being a meaningful online ministry? You have already anticipated content and delivery, now go one-on-one.
Keep in mind that this global community still communicates on a personal level. Review your site and offer names
over titles, limit use of “insider” terms, and be as inclusive as possible. You’ve shown your commitment with the community by becoming an online conduit, and now you can help visitors connect with their offline community. Offer “get around” details for new residents by giving directions and phone numbers for schools, county clerk’s office, and auto inspection stations. Respect – what goes around, comes around. (*My favorite don’t-do-this example is a neighborhood church which offers 39 names on its staff page. Screen after screen, this looks like wonderful information as you scroll down this long page until you realize none of the email addresses are live email links. Thirty-nine opportunities to minister and uplift lost.)
No one wants to prepare for war but the events of 9/11 have brought many an ostrich head out of the sand. 9/11 and the bioterrorism threats strained many contingency plans and illustrate the ongoing need for collaboration across all boundaries. The Internet is the perfect vehicle for coordinating joint efforts. If you have looked at your Web site along the lines of the three assumptions and three fronts, above, then you are in good position to be proactive when greater collaboration is called. You are providing meaningful information and support in delivery methods most used by your users.
Whenever you offer a new service, step through the entire process from the visitor’s perspective. In the case of setting up email, remember to create an email response which is friendly, thanks the emailee for responding and offers a personal invitation to ministry services, offers a prayer partner they can contact or provides related links. Also, don’t forget to share and celebrate your successes. There is a good side to high visibility and achievements are worth recognizing – don’t keep your lamp under a bushel, we all like good news.
People are the heart of a church. A church Web site needs the offline support, ideas and energies of every member of the congregation from Day One. Solicit participation from youth, single parents, senior adults, children and ministers alike, and take their input online. Programmatically, the online church community shouldn’t be any different from offline as both carry the same mission.
Even though contingency planning is usually relegated to the last step in a Web site launch, going through some disaster response or crisis management exercises can actually result in a very vibrant and relevant online community of faith.