Why your parish Web site is so important and how you can cultivate its true potential.
Upgrading to Web 2.0.
A few years ago, when I was working as a reporter at a small daily paper, my editor asked me to write a story about a local church. She handed me a press release, which explained that this church was putting together a public event for the community, and told me to type something up.
I immediately jumped on my computer and looked for the church's Web site.
Well, next to nothing. There was an old page with only the most basic information: We're a church; we're located here; and you can come and visit us at these times.
Needless to say, such a site didn't impress me. From what I could tell, there wasn't much behind the basic headline: "Local church to hold food festival."
In fact, if this had been a story about any other kind of church, the reporter in me would have probably let things peter out with the press release. I would have edited it down, loaded it into the system and let the copy editors slap it on page B17 below the fold.
But this wasn't just ANY church. It was an Orthodox Christian church. And I, as an Orthodox Christian, knew that this press release could be spiced up in a number of ways: An engaging lead, a vignette about a colorful parishioner, maybe even a story from someone who ended up joining the parish after last year's festival.
So, defying my impression from the Web, I picked up the phone and made some calls.
While this particular story had a happy ending, many similar ones do not.
The lesson is clear: An average Internet surfer, potential visitor or local resident certainly isn't going to go the extra mile to uncover your community's vitality if they are unimpressed with what they find on your parish Web site.
And that's more than an opportunity for evangelism lost. In today's online culture, a poor Web site could even affect your parish's ministry to existing parishioners.
According to the Barna Research Group, Americans of all ages use the Internet as a way to explore their own faith and different faith traditions in a private, non-threatening environment.
Soon, that sort of Internet-based religious activity will be the normal course of action for any interested person -- seeker or parishioner. In fact, a recent report from the Pew Internet & American Life Project indicates that only 15 percent of Americans are currently "off the network," meaning they are completely without Internet-based access to news, information and interaction. Even more significantly, 51 percent are regularly engaged in various forms of what has been dubbed "Web 2.0", a new culture of sorts, in which participants use various forms of online media and technology to regularly consume information and communicate with the world of cyberspace.
That means that your parish's online presence is more important to its ministry and religious education efforts than ever before. And the old patterns of static Web sites, without regularly updated content or the opportunity for user participation, aren't going to hold people's attention.
While all of this may sound like bad news, it's actually an amazing opportunity for ministry and religious education. Social trends like Web 2.0 are so powerful and pervasive because of the technological advances that have allowed average people to produce a variety of attractive and interactive Web sites without much difficulty. In other words, the hard work has already been completed. All we, as Orthodox Christians, have to do is tap in to existing resources.
Here, then, is a brief overview of several practical ways that your parish can begin to turn your Web site into a full-fledged ministry.
The first challenge is content. Web surfers and parishioners won't begin to identify your parish Web site as a place to visit regularly -- much less a place for real Web 2.0 community -- until they know that each time they visit your site there will be fresh, updated content.
Of course, coming up with new material on a weekly (or daily!) basis can be an authorial and design nightmare -- if you try to do everything from scratch. But now there are several ways to make it easy.
1) Re-purpose What You Already Have
Pretty much every parish already has a "media ministry." In fact, the sermon is still the most fundamental Christian medium for communicating the Gospel. Many parishes also have weekly bulletins and monthly newsletters. These are all excellent sources of parish-related media content that can easily be re-purposed on a parish Web site.
Many successful parish Web sites are already doing this in a variety of ways. The easiest method is to convert your weekly bulletin and monthly newsletter into a pdf file and upload it on your Web site. If you don't already have the means to do so, you can download any number of free programs for this purpose, including those at pdfonline.com.
Of course, the power of re-purposing what you already have depends on your publications' original quality. Make sure your publications were intentionally designed as a means to communicate the power of the Gospel message and the ways in which your local parish is actively touching people's lives through God's grace.
For an excellent example of re-purposing, as well as designing good parish publications in the first place, go to the Web site of Holy Trinity Greek Orthodox Church in Concord, NH. Notice, in particular, the use of pictures, attractive ads and theological articles from other sources.
2) Keep It Simple
Web 2.0 is supposed to be easy and that's why one of its fundamental building blocks is something called "RSS." RSS stands for "Really Simple Syndication." And that it is.
Using RSS technology, your Web site can automatically gather and re-publish all kinds of content from other Orthodox sources. By simply subscribing to some of the RSS feeds available from the Greek Archdiocese's Web site, you'll be able to feature the daily scripture reading, news and information from the Archdiocese itself and even news from various SCOBA agencies. For an example of how this can work, go to the Annunciation Orthodox Church's Web site and look under "Orthodox News Feeds."
This does more than provide you with an easy way to get new content on your site. It actually communicates a powerful message: Your local parish is part of something much greater, i.e. the One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church.
You can even syndicate audio content on your site using RSS. The Annunciation Greek Orthodox Church in Akron, OH (www.annunciationakron.org) produces a daily podcast called "The Orthodox Word Podcast," which features an audio version of a daily meditation based on the Synaxarion and Scripture readings of the day.
3) Build Your Bulletin
This one is obvious, but I'll include it anyway. The Department of Internet Ministries of the Greek Archdiocese has developed a program that allows parishes to "build the various parts of your parish bulletin online and then publish your finished bulletin on your parish website, via email, and as a printed booklet." It's free, it looks good and it's another way to re-purpose your existing content in an appealing manner.
While new, engaging content is definitely necessary, it's really not enough. In the age of Web 2.0, you also need interaction. Again: This isn't bad news. This is an opportunity to build your online parish presence into a means to actually create a sense of community. Here are the three easiest ways to get started.
Blogs, short for "Web logs," are truly legion. Basically, they're a Web site where the author writes short reflections about what's going on in the world and his or her life. At one point, there were some 50 million blogs on the Web. Now, there aren't nearly so many that are regularly updated, but they're still an excellent way for your parish to immediately introduce new content and -- more importantly -- things like comment features.
When you create a free "parish blog," or even a "pastor's blog" on any of the sites listed above, your newly created site will most likely come with everything needed for visitors to leave their own mark. They can post comments, ask questions and interact with parish staff and each other. This is essential, both as a means to grow your site's popularity and as a context for interactive religious education.
Of course, if you use one of these free sites, your blog won't actually be on your parish Web site itself, but you've got to start somewhere. Check out the Web site of the Orthodox Christian Network for an example of a blog contained within a larger Orthodox site.
Added bonus: The OCN Blog is "a forum for the discussion of all things related to spreading the Gospel through modern media," so you can read more about topics like this and even ask questions or post comments.
There's an old adage in journalism: Pictures. Pictures. Pictures.
Uploading pictures to your site, or creating an online photo album to which you link, is one of the best ways to increase community interest in your site. Who doesn't want to see pictures of themselves or their family?
That's why I've included this under the "interactive" section. Unless you use a service that allows comments, a picture is a static image. However, it communicates a very corporate and inclusive message. In other words, it builds a sense of community.
3) Internet radio
This one is truly ground-breaking. With the assistance of the Orthodox Christian Network, an agency of SCOBA, your parish can have its own Internet radio station, broadcast online 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. It would feature a full mix of Orthodox music and nationally syndicated Orthodox teaching programs with speakers like Metropolitan Kallistos Ware and Fr. Stanley Harakas. It also comes with the ability to be customized with content from your own parish, including audio recordings of your sermons, worship services, catechetical events and more.
These customized stations are more than a professionally produced Orthodox media product. They are also true community-based ministry. Take, for example, the station hosted by Holy Trinity Greek Orthodox Church in Concord, NH. According to the parish priest, Fr. Demetrios Tonias, the station is turning into a popular online "meeting place" for parishioners and their families throughout the country.
The reason for this success is largely the same as that of a photo album: The station includes voices, greetings, announcements and reflections from a variety of parishioners, parish leaders, altar boys and Sunday School kids. Thus, when people visit the parish Web site to listen to the radio station, they get fresh content AND they are reminded of the faces and voices of the people they hear. Who doesn't want to hear themselves or their friends?
These are all great ways to move into the world of Web 2.0.
Of course, your Web site can never replace the vibrancy of face-to-face contact in your community. But it can certainly supplement that vibrancy by giving everyone another "meeting place" to use on a daily basis. Such contact and interaction is essential to the success of religious education and community in this Internet-dominated age.
And who knows? If you revitalize your parish Web site, it could make a young journalist's job much easier next time your festival comes to town.
Seraphim Danckaert is currently a staff member at the Orthodox Christian Network, a media ministry of the Standing Conference of Canonical Orthodox Bishops in the Americas (SCOBA). OCN produces Come Receive the Light, the national Orthodox Christian radio program, and other Internet-based media products for local parishes. Seraphim earned an M.Div. with highest distinction from Holy Cross Greek Orthodox School of Theology. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org and read his other articles on media and ministry at www.myocn.net.