From Consumerism to Testimony: What Makes a Good Church Website?

I spent a decent chunk of time last week updating the content on Upper Room’s website. It’s gotten me thinking about what makes a church website good. Some of the standards, of course, are the same for any website – appearance, ease of navigation, etc. But are there certain content or features that churches should include on their websites? These church websites all look great, but the content is all pretty much the same – information about service times and other events, ways to get involved, information about the church’s leadership, core doctrine and values, etc. All are fine things to include, and it’s likely that this is information that visitors are looking for. At heart, though, limiting content to this kind of information is nothing more than marketing and consumerism.

I wonder if churches can go deeper and communicate something more meaningful. What if instead of making church websites primarily about information about activities for people to get plugged in and about setting your church apart from other churches, they were more about testimony? What if church websites were deliberately presented as invitations to “come and see” what God is doing in the midst of the community?

Here are a few possibilities I can think of:

– Written reflections from members of the church about what Jesus is teaching them. (This is actually one of the things we’ve added to the Upper Room website. You should check them out.)

– Testimonies of how different members of the church came to faith. Written testimonies are fine, but posting youtube videos would be a great way of giving people faces and voices to associate with the church before they even arrive.

– Stories from first time visitors about their initial impressions and experiences of the church. (Although I would only recommend this if your church is hospitable!)

This type of content would not only testify to God’s work, but it would also show that the church is a community of people experiencing God’s grace together, and not just  a group of people consuming the same religious goods.

What other types of content should church websites include?

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The Gospel According to Your Facebook Profile

A couple weeks ago I started reading the book The Hopeful Skeptic by Nick Fiedler. I’m planning on posting a review of the book once I finish it up. For now, though, I want to point out something that makes this book unique from anything else I’ve read. This is the first theology/Christian life book I’ve ever read in which the author uses his Facebook profile religious views as the starting point for a whole book.

A couple years ago, Nick changed his “religion” in his Facebook profile from “Christian” to “hopeful skeptic.” Reading about this got me to thinking about how many people choose to enter something unique on the religion line in their profile, as opposed to choosing from one of Facebook’s preset, institutional options. I did a quick scan of 25 random Facebook friends (and by ‘random’, I mean the first 25 people to either show up on my news feed or comment on my status requesting help with this). Here are the ‘religions’ I saw listed:

“Pastafarian; Former Voodoohist”

“I’ve been relentlessly pursued and mercifully forgiven by the great Lover of souls, Jesus Christ. :)”

“Evangelical Liberal Charismatic Catholic Christian”

“On the path…”

“Pro-Jesus”

“yes. thank you. http://www.huronhills.org”

“anything in isolation cannot be God.”

“see the Nicene Creed.”

“and He said, Follow Me.”

“Yes.”

Among the more traditional choices…

“Christian” Was listed by 6 people.

“Christian – Presbyterian” was listed by 3 people.

“Christian – Reformed – Presbyterian” was listed by 1 person.

“Agnostic” was listed by 1 person.

“Deist” was listed by 1 person.

3 people had nothing listed.

Why do people choose to insert their own, unique title for their religion? I have to admit, when Facebook first added the religion to profiles, I opted not to list myself as “Presbyterian” or “Christian.” I decided to write in “Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.” Honestly, I have no recollection as to why I thought it would be better to do that. I can think of a few reasons now, for Christians at least, but am also doubtful any of them are really satisfied by a Facebook profile.

Some people, it seems, have an evangelical motivation. We’re supposed to be witnesses for Christ and proclaim the gospel. We need to make the most of every opportunity. If Facebook is going to ask us about our religion, we’re going to make our answer count. So, if we put something unique and unexpected, people will take notice. I think the intention here is good enough, but there are also so many problems with this. For starters, it assumes that people actually take the time to read our profiles. My guess is most don’t, and of those who do, none of them are going to your profile asking “What must I do to be saved?”.

For others, there seems to be a fear of being misunderstood. Calling ourselves “Presbyterian” or any other denominational affiliation makes us look too institutional. The  term “Christian” carries too many negative connotations with which we don’t want to be associated. So, we’ll enter something unique that our friends won’t be able to misconstrue. Again, one of the false assumptions behind this fear is that people actually read our profiles, and even fewer care whether we’re “Christian” or a “Follower of Christ.” Even fewer will be scandalized by reading that we’re “Presbyterian” or “Episcopalian.”

I think even more problematic is the fear many of us have of being associated with other Christians of a different breed. Saying that we’re “Christian” may in fact  associate us with the Pat Robertsons of our time, or some of the great injustices committed by Christians throughout history. But, we also can’t write our own faith’s prior history, or choose who our brothers and sisters in Christ are. Perhaps we’re called to own up to that history and reputation, and proclaim it with a spirit of humility and confession.

On top of that, maybe Christians listing their religion as Christian will be more effective evangelically. Let’s face it, a bunch of unique religion preferences is pretty poor branding and p.r. Maybe it’s time the Christian community on Facebook took a more united front in their religious Facebook preference.

Then again, I doubt anyone would notice…

E-care?

Last Saturday night, the PC(USA) General Assembly elected Bruce Reyes-Chow as its moderator. Something that made Bruce unique from other moderators and moderatorial candidates in the past is his use of the internet in his campaign. Bruce used a blog, a facebook group, and I’m assuming a bunch of other online social-networking resources to share more about himself and his positions, and, perhaps more importantly, to listen to the concerns of his fellow Presbyterians. The “Web 2.0” approach to ministry is a natural extension of Bruce’s personality, it seems. In fact, he mentioned during the moderator election that much of his pastoral work at Mission Bay is done online. He also made a point of saying that the medium of the internet in no way lessens his pastoral work.

As someone who’s worked for the past two years in college-age ministry, and someone who’s going to be doing more campus ministry and church planting with young adults, I’ve been intrigued for a while now about the appropriate use of online communication in ministry, particularly in pastoral care.

Working at KUPC, I found that using the internet helped my ministry a lot. Being on Facebook helped me learn people’s names much more quickly. Reading the blogs of students in the church helped me better understand who they are and the contexts I was called to preach into. Being on AIM opened up the possibility for some conversations with students that probably wouldn’t have happened otherwise. These are just a few examples among many of my ministry being enriched because of the internet.

At the same time, though, I saw ways in which the internet created barriers in ministry, especially in pastoral care.  In fact, my first experience in pastoral care at KUPC came to me via email. Without breaking any sort of confidentiality, I’ll just say that it was a pretty significant crisis. At first I found myself grateful that I was contacted by email. I didn’t have to be caught off guard, and it gave me the chance to really pray about and discern the situation. I found myself pacing back and forth in my dorm room and reciting what I had heard in Pastoral Care class… “Ok. Where’s Jesus in the situation? How do I bear witness to Jesus in this context?” Eventually I worked through these and more specific questions and sent a response.

Soon after, though, my gratitude for the internet turned into frustration as I got no immediate reply from the person on the other end. Was my email  helpful? Did I say everything that needed to be said? What if I missed the point of the problem entirely? I was quickly finding the isolation that the internet creates a frustration for ministry.

Now, I later realized that these questions that I was asking myself were really more reflective of my wanting to be affirmed than they were for doing faithful ministry. But, as I continued to handle this and other pastoral care “cases”  by communicating through IMs, emails or both, I also began to realize that other things were missing that were more important, like eye contact and (when appropriate) physical touch.

Perhaps the biggest piece that I’ve seen missing in doing “e-care” is the opportunity to pray with a person. In doing any one-on-one pastoral care, I always make a point of concluding a session by praying with and for the person. Frankly, I think the time spent in prayer with the person has always been the high point of any pastoral care I’ve done.  Most people will rarely hear someone actually pray for them, and that’s a gift we as pastors can give to people.

So, I’ve seen how “web 2.0” culture has opened up doors for ministry. At the same time, though, I’ve seen its limits. The same resource that makes us more connected to one another than ever before also seems, in some ways, to isolate us and keep us from communication on a deeper level.

Rather than draw any definitive conclusion, I simply pose a few questions:How much technology is too much in doing ministry? Is it possible to do pastoral care completely online without ever meeting in person? To what extent is our culture’s (over?)reliance on the internet to communicate an asset we can use for the sake of the gospel, and to what extent is it a fallacy that needs to be critiqued by the gospel?