by Daryl McMullen
“And this Gospel of the Kingdom will be preached in all the world as a witness to all the nations, and then the end will come.”
Matthew 24:14 (NKJV)
There is a pervasive stereotype in the world today that boils church down to pews, dusty hymnals and counting the minutes until closing prayer. And while we haven’t done a good job in the past to change this, there is a movement in churches today toward cultural relevance. You see it in the physical buildings, in the way people are connecting to the Church, and in the use of nontraditional service elements such as contemporary music, movie and television clips, stage sets, dramatic presentations, and created media. But nowhere is there greater potential for advancement than in the use of the Internet to develop community and expand the reach of the church.
In this digital age of desktops, laptops, mobile devices and online social networking, we must develop a digital strategy that not only keeps up with the culture, but also leverages it so that our message can be available to everyone, everywhere, at any time. This can be done no matter where we are on the technology spectrum. From the church with no Web site to the church with a team dedicated to digital strategy, we all have a next step. Here is a small sampling of what is available to us:
The Web site
I know it sounds basic, but without a Web site, we may as well stop talking. It is the foundation upon which we build our strategy. Here we can offer easily accessible information about the history of our church, service times, directions and the current message series. We can offer a virtual tour of the facility and, through video, give people a taste of what to expect if they come to a service. We can integrate our Web site with our church management system and offer things such as online giving and registration for events. But these are just the basics. From here, the possibilities are endless.
Really Simple Syndication (RSS) technology is the backbone upon which many of today’s Internet technologies are built. It is nothing more than a standardized way of tagging information (content) so that it can be published and read by other applications or programs. Blogs (short for “Web logs”) are online journals made up of posts. Each post includes a title, content and a date and time stamp. You can read a blog by finding it on the Internet, or you can subscribe to it and have the information come right to your inbox, via the “feeds” section of your browser. You can also subscribe to a feed through an aggregator such as Bloglines or Google Reader.
Podcasts are blogs (or RSS feeds) that contain an audio file. Since it is a feed, you can subscribe to it, and it will automatically be downloaded to free programs like iTunes or the Zune Marketplace. If audio isn’t good enough, you can subscribe to vodcasts, which allow you to download video the same way. Both podcasts and vodcasts can be listened to or watched on a computer. Or, with a quick sync between your computer and your personal media player (such as an iPod or Zune), you can listen to or watch a weekend service while running on the treadmill at the gym.
The term “rich media” refers to a variety of things but has become synonymous with online video. Technology has advanced to the point where video is becoming the preferred method for presenting information. For churches, this presents at least three opportunities.
The first is the ability to present created media and small clips pulled from services on church Web sites in some form of media player. The second is the ability to upload these clips to YouTube and take advantage of the viral marketing that occurs when people can quickly access and share our video clips with those in their social networks. If you are already creating rich media for use in services, there is no reason not to make it available on YouTube. We have the ability to stream entire services online. There are limitations to the size and quality of the video we can stream, but we will soon be able to stream high-definition (HD) video for use on computers and HD televisions. Internet Protocol TV is an emerging technology allowing digital content to be downloaded directly to televisions for convenient viewing. In the future, we will be able to download or subscribe to digital content that will be available to us at any time for any device (computer, television, PDA, mobile phone, etc.).
Social networking became possible in part because of the Web 2.0 revolution – the move from the static to the interactive Web. Blogs, podcasts, vodcasts, MySpace, Facebook, Flickr and YouTube are all Web 2.0 technologies allowing the free presentation of ideas in a variety of formats from basic text to video. They are interactive because people can not only consume the content, but can also interact with it. Things like commenting, rating and tagging content are now possible with Web 2.0.
Applications like MySpace and Facebook are well-known places for people to connect, network and maintain relationships. Levels of exclusivity (friends, groups, networks, etc.) allow people to open up and share personal information without the entire world seeing it. Because they are free and widely distributed, there is a good chance people attending our churches already use them. This raises a good question. Should we create social-networking applications like these on our Web sites?
The simple answer is no. First, it is costly and time intensive to re-create social networking applications. And second, people don’t like clutter. If they are already using an application like Facebook, they won’t want to switch or add another complex system to their life. Instead, we need to find ways to use the tools that already exist. For example, Facebook allows us to create pages for the purpose of advertising. This is a simple and effective way to develop a presence in the Facebook community. People find our page and can choose to become a fan, thereby linking their profile to that page. With time, these connection points help broaden the impact we are having, and an online community develops around our ministry.
Just Getting Started
Believe it or not, this is just the tip of the iceberg. The Internet has unleashed the church from existing only inside four walls. The ability to stream high-quality video has allowed churches to create Internet campuses where complete services are held online. People become members of these virtual churches. They attend weekly, invite friends to watch, give tithes and offerings, and even serve in their communities as an extension of their commitment to the online church.
Getting nervous? If so, it is probably due to questions such as these: Are we creating superficial forms of connectedness? Are we replacing face-to-face conversations with computer keyboards and monitors? Are we actually reducing community by increasing our use of technology?
These are common concerns, but what if they don’t matter? What if we don’t get to make these decisions for people? What if they choose to connect this way whether we like it or not? What then? Do we just let them go? Write them off as too hard to reach? I pray this isn’t the case.
Perhaps we, as the Church, should rethink the questions we’re asking. We need to start asking what we can do to reach people in this new environment and how we can leverage the technology that exists so people know they matter to God. We need to figure out how to ensure those in the connected global community hear the message we’ve been commissioned to deliver.
Daryl McMullen is the Web director at Granger Community Church in Granger, Ind. He oversees gccwired.com and wiredchurches.com. Visit webdrivenchurch.com or reach McMullen at firstname.lastname@example.org.