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Online Ministry: Do’s and Dont’s

I am a “lay vicar” who runs a successful Episcopal Church website and blog called The Daily Office with 1.3 million visitors so far. Assuming this gives me some expertise to tell everybody else what to do (churches are good at that!), let me start by picking on a parish website that’s actually better than most, from Christ Church, Hamilton, Massachusetts:

(Click to enlarge)

What do we see? Name at the top; that’s always a smart idea. Navigation tabs across the top: Home, Worship, Christian Ed, Ministries, About Us, Parish Life Notes. A Flash banner of changing images; here we’ve got a little blonde girl and other kids. Directly underneath is a crawl containing events of immediate interest. On the left, Quick Links; an e-mail subscription and a Facebook signup. But after that, we start to find problems. The lead story is a Shrove Tuesday event that came and went three weeks ago; dead news. The next story, “Lenten Discipline,” begins, “Lent is rapidly approaching.” No, kids, it’s already here.

And what is “Lent,” anyway? For that matter, what might “Shrove Tuesday” refer to?

The obvious problem is the church doesn’t update its website often enough. Why not? Nobody on the staff or in the church is assigned to keep it current. Why not? Takes too much time, “we’re too busy.” Why? “We have other priorities.” Why? “Our website never has paid off for us that much.” Why? “We don’t keep it updated.”

That’s circular reasoning. If you’re going to have a website, do it right. Don’t just have a website because every other church has a website and you’ve heard it’s the thing to do.

Christ Church Hamilton offers a feature I’ve never seen anyone else make available, and it’s right on the front page: Music by the organ scholar, which you can play and download anywhere in the world. That’s excellent! Music is a priority in churches, which is why there’s always a staff person assigned to music. (I’m going to steal his podcasts and put them on dailyoffice.org.)

This church has spent some time and money on its website. It’s not a very big church but it’s sophisticated. At first glance its content is fairly comprehensive; remember those navigation tabs up top. If you know what you’re doing, and if you already speak their language, you can easily find out a lot of information with just one click. However, the website is also a failure, because it does not immediately answer the most basic questions a visitor wants to know. These are:

• Where is this place?
• What time is church?
• What’s the preacher like?

To find Christ Church Hamilton, you have to scroll to the bottom of a rather long page to find the address. It’s in tiny type, so I hope you have 20-20 vision and you’re not older than 40. You can find the location, and even a link to a map, AFTER you’ve run past the organist’s podcasts, a paragraph and two photos of the Annual Meeting, news of a death in January, something about a “kegger” before that, helpful news of Community Groups, a Note from Eileen Thomas (as if you care), a blurb for All Saints’ Day five months ago, surprising and welcome information that the church serves a substantial lunch right after the main 11:15 service every Sunday—and then, only then, do you learn where all this wonderfulness is happening.

I guess the graphic designer thought s/he was doing business letterhead, with the name of the company at the top and the address in 6-point type at the bottom. (They’re on Asbury Street in South Hamilton.)

I would like to see every Episcopal congregation answer the key questions at the top of its website: where are we, when is church and who runs the place. For the latter, run a mug shot at the top of the page. I don’t care whether he or she is young or old, male or female, Black or White or Hispanic or Asian, pretty or not; run a photo of the main minister so that I, a web visitor, can judge whether or not this church looks promising.

(In my own parish the priest, who’s just retired, had a thing about not wanting his picture taken. And we allowed his neurosis to interfere with our mission. He has a kindly face; he is a kindly man. But no-o-o, he’s secretly vain and doesn’t think he’s pretty enough to be in pictures where other people can see him, because he doesn’t like seeing himself. Tough luck, buster!)

Meanwhile the Episcopal Church on a national level is forever running articles bemoaning declining attendance at church. They seem to think A) this is unique to us, when it’s happening to all American denominations; and B) we should moan and groan about it instead of coming up with solutions.

For these and other reasons I find myself owning the biggest Episcopal megachurch in the country. It’s only virtual, not bricks and mortar; we don’t have a soup kitchen or an organ scholar; we can’t baptize babies, marry or bury you; we have no sacraments at all. These are very big drawbacks, but we’re more popular than anybody. And it’s not because I’m brilliant or handsome, but because I work on my website every day. Those 1.3 million visitors tell me I must be doing something right.

All we offer is prayer. That’s it; you can’t even get a hug out of the deal.

Major advantage of a real church.

On the other hand, by offering prayer and nothing else, we don’t have a light bill to pay.

Major disadvantage of a real church.

No cynic can accuse me of being “in it for the money.” I’m not; I’m in it for the prayers—because they are how we make contact with God no matter where or when.

I am all in favor of this next photo: Jesus said “Do this” and he wasn’t kidding.

Holy Communion, the Mass, Eucharist is the other major way we make contact with God. The only problem is you have to be in the right place at the right time.

Therefore, church webmasters, tell me where and when! Don’t make me search, don’t make me wonder, don’t make me click.

We always do this with bricks and mortars, but we make it tough to find out online.

Still, these Do’s and Don’ts are only technical; I’m not saying anything that isn’t taught in Advertising 101. And advertising isn’t the real point of a religious presence on the internet; we haven’t figured out how to do ministry online yet.

Or actually, I have and you haven’t. 🙂

If church webmastering were understood as ministry, it would become a priority. We wouldn’t find leftover blurbs for a service in November still running at the end of March.

The fact I find odd about all this is that it really doesn’t take much time to run a church website correctly. Every congregation of more than 25 people has somebody who can do this—someone with a few leftover minutes per day or per week, who already knows or can easily learn the technology. (I don’t write internet code and I’ve still got a million visitors.) At this very minute in every church in the world, an idle member is watching TV and telling herself, “There’s nothing on.”

You get 10 bonus points if you can tell me which actress played the mother.

Church websites aren’t advertising, they’re ministry. Find a need and go meet it. Your church could be getting my million visitors if I hadn’t beat you to it. Copy me if you have to, don’t reinvent the wheel! Link your site to mine, your members and visitors will appreciate it: “Prayers for Right Now.”

And please, purge your site of every bit of churchtalk you can. If I’m a stranger, the person you want to meet, the possible new member of the church, don’t fill your website with jargon that only the in-crowd understands.

The Episcopal Church is terrible about this. We’ve got a churchy word for everything. Our buildings are full of places called the narthex, the nave, the undercroft, the vestry; where’s the freakin’ front door? (Or the back one, lemme outta here.) I’ve seen parish websites that think they have to explain what the Worldwide Anglican Communion might be, or apologize for Henry VIII. I don’t want to meet that old fat gasbag, I want to meet Jesus Christ.

Don’t tell me about the Collect of the Day; help me pray.

Most of all we are failing to make our sites interactive. All the information we publish is from the in-crowd to the out-crowd. No wonder our websites don’t draw people in.

It’s fine to show people that “we had a great time at the parish picnic,” but that’s just somebody sayin’. Show me pictures or video of the parish picnic and let me comment: “I had a blast at Lake Shafer, let’s do it again!”

Don’t tell me you have a Sunday School and nursery; show me the pictures, let me see the space, introduce me to the teachers, tell me their qualifications and all the things you do to keep my kids safe: “Anna Jones, our preschool teacher, is certified in First Aid, has passed a criminal background check and graduated from the KidSafe training program.” Plus a video of a typical activity would be nice.

Minister to people online. Know what their questions are. Provide visual examples of what you do. Got a praise band? Let me hear them. Show me what it’s like to sit in your pew. Show me the kinds of people who already go to your church. Help me decide whether I want to try you out.

This may seem pretty basic, but show me what people wear.

No, I do not care to visit your blog discussing the 39 Articles of Religion. (Sorry, Scott Gunn.) Nor do I want to listen for 20 minutes to an old sermon—though a 3 minute video of what you try to accomplish when you preach would be nice.

If the church is ritualistic/liturgical, show me it’s easy to learn so I don’t feel embarrassed if I make a mistake. A video of a layperson would help; “We always stand up to sing. We sit to hear the Bible readings and sermons. We kneel on these little cushions to pray—but you don’t have to. At communion time we walk up to the altar, ushers show us where to go, we fold our hands to get bread, [we drink from a common cup but they wipe it off,] then we go back to our place. It’s easy, but it helps to know what to expect.”

If you don’t care whether I’m rich or poor, say so. Spell it out. Make it clear—and mean it.

On the other hand, if you’re rich and powerful, don’t apologize; it’s a selling point. Maybe I like being around educated people who know what they’re doing. (This was the Episcopal Church’s strength for centuries, until about 1970 when we started feeling guilty about it.)

If you’re progressive and you believe in social action, show me. If you’re (also) conservative, show me that. If you bless cats and dogs on St. Francis’ Day, I’ve got a dog, can he come too? If you have special services to bless firefighters, cops and EMTs, I want to come.

If I have to believe exactly what the preacher does, tell me. If I’m allowed to think for myself and that’s okay with you, please, God, let me know.

I wasn’t born an Episcopalian; is that okay? Show me a video of an ex-Catholic or Baptist or Pentecostal.

It’s all about who’s in and who’s out. I might want to be in, but don’t push me out. Is it okay if I never learn where the “narthex” is?

Finally, this is important and problematical in most Episcopal churches: Do I have to juggle books to keep up? The more I have to turn to page 502, the harder it gets.

Either announce loud and clear where to go next, or print it out in a booklet. I know it takes time and costs money, and small churches may think they can’t afford it. BUT the more I have to locate the right book and turn to the right page, the easier it is to forget why I’m even there. Keeping up with the Joneses becomes more important than saying Hi to God.

Dailyoffice.org got those 1.3 million hits by abolishing book-juggling. We are Your Online Chapel of Ease™. We juggle the Bible and Prayer Book so the congregation doesn’t have to. Simple as that.

We are the biggest online “cathedral” in the Worldwide Anglican Communion.

And we are constantly looking to make the experience better—more timely, more pastorally sensitive, more useful. We have a rich spiritual and artistic culture to draw from and we put it out there.

The vicar isn’t handsome. Isn’t famous. Isn’t even ordained. Doesn’t preach. Doesn’t tell you what to think. Doesn’t care whether you know his name. He just offers what he’s got, come one come all.

Final thought: if you create your church to be a true Christian community, accessible to all or at least to many, people will come from miles around—because true Christian community is rare and very desirable.

If our churches are shrinking it’s our own damn fault. Far more often than we realize (though we’re sensitive on this point), the message we send is in-crowd vs. out-crowd—and this is the opposite of community.

Decide today that you will never hold another meeting in the undercroft; hold it in the basement instead.++

Love,

Josh

Episcopalians might as well be speaking Latin for all the good our jargon does.