Our Co-founder Christopher Harris reflects on why we do what we do here at Faith Growth.
“So faith comes from what is heard, and what is heard comes through the word of Christ.” Romans 10:17
I was given the assignment of preaching on this text, and it was suggested I might “Talk about how it is important to hear the word spoken in person despite all the media platforms available.”
And I thought “No, I don’t think that is what I’m going to talk about.”
For sure it is important to hear the Word. But surely that can’t mean only in person from a voice, with ears. That would not be good news for people with hearing disabilities. That would not be good news for people unable to leave their homes to hear live preaching because of mobility issues. That would, in fact, be very limiting for the Word indeed.
What Paul means by the Word is the live giving good news of the love and grace of Jesus Christ. And the word he uses “to hear” (akouó) doesn’t just mean sound. It literally means a sound that has meaning, but in the context, it means to deeply understand and comprehend a message. Somewhere I read a good translation “to have a message come alive in your heart.”
The faith that comes from what is heard which comes from the word of Christ is the life-giving message of God’s love for all people that grabs hold of you and is deeply understood and comes alive in your heart.
In this section of Romans, Paul talks about how God uses people to share that message of love and grace so that others can hear, that is, deeply comprehend and understand it, so it comes alive in their hearts.
And people can certainly hear that message in person from a preacher in the pulpit. Or they can hear it the way people originally heart it from Paul, by reading what he wrote in a letter. Or they can read it on a Facebook post. Or a tweet. Or on a beautiful photo on Instagram. Or a blog post they found through Google. Or they can hear it on a podcast. Or watch it on YouTube.
You get the picture. Faith is a gift from God, but God does not magically implant the gift of faith outside of human relationships. “Faith comes from what is heard” God chooses to use human beings to give the gift of faith to each other. That happens through community. Digital Ministry enhances and strengthens community. Digital ministry enables more people to “hear the word” and embrace the message of God’s love and grace that comes alive in our hearts.
So go, show ’em, Jesus!
Bishop Steven Ullestad of the Northeastern Iowa Synod, ELCA had to fill his synod’s Director for Evangelical Mission position in late 2013.
With the growth of social media blooming and its importance in society becoming more clear, Bishop Ullestad wanted someone who could help bring the position into the 21st century with digital ministry outreach.
“Because I had a lot of experience in that area, [Bishop Ullestad] offered me the position,” Rev. Dr. Joelle Colville-Hanson said.
Task No. 1 for Rev. Colville-Hanson: create a blog for the synod for digital outreach
Rev. Colville-Hanson originally created a basic blog on Blogger as an easy way to get the ball rolling. But eventually, she decided she need the blog to look more professional, and for that she looked to Christopher Harris and Faith Growth.
Rev. Colville-Hanson and Harris first met through social media and then met again at the 2015 ELCA Youth Gathering in Detroit, where they learned they had a lot in common with their ideas about the importance of digital ministry.
“I was very impressed with the work of Faith Growth and I trust Christopher,” Rev. Colville-Hanson said. “He understood what we were trying to do and had good ideas of how to accomplish that. There really never was any any question of anyone else doing the redesign of the blog.
Through the discovery process, she realized it needed to be more professional given the potential reach of the blog.
“I was preaching to other leaders that they needed to own their own real estate on the web and I needed to set an example,” Rev. Colville-Hanson said.
Instead of creating a new theme from scratch, Harris decided it would be best to use a theme out-of-the-box. He andRev. Colville-Hanson eventually decided on Publisher, a magazine theme for WordPress.
“It’s a good magazine theme,” Harris said. “They write a weekly blog post about what’s going on in their synod highlighting different things and resources. This highlighted the stories well. They all have a big featured image.”
But the challenges saved by using a pre-made theme were met with challenges in migrating the content from Blogger to WordPress.
“It’s not as straight-forward as we would like for it to be,” Harris said. “So making sure the import [worked] and setting up 301 redirects because the URL structure is totally different in the Blogger world than it is in the WordPress world.”
Rev. Colville-Hanson also faced the challenge of going from Blogger, something she had used for a while, to WordPress. But she said the training provided by Harris helped get her up to speed quickly with her new blog.
With that learning curve in the rear-view mirror, Rev. Colville-Hanson said the new blog has certainly achieved the goals they laid out for it.
“The goal of the synod blog is educating leaders and congregations in outreach,” Rev. Colville-Hanson said. “I think having our own WordPress, professional-looking blog gives more credibility that we know what we are talking about. Visits to the blog increased since we moved it. Our reach extends far beyond our own synod.”
Harris has also seen the new blog help grow the synod, especially with a night and day difference between the two sites.
It wasn’t the whole website and it wasn’t like some of the websites we do, but what we did we made a major impact and it was a huge change between what the site looked like before,” Harris said. “That’s what made me so happy.”
Harris said this type of site with an out-of-the-box theme can be big for churches looking for a low-cost entry point into the world of digital ministry.
“We helped them get into an off-the-shelf solution with no customization so it was a big win,” Harris said. “It helped them meet their budget, but it gave them leaps and bounds improvement in functionality because their now on the WordPress platform. It’s something they can grow with.”
View the Northeastern Iowa’s Synod’s new blog here: http://blog.neiasynod.org
The members of Ascension Lutheran Church knew that they needed to do something with their aging website.
The 673-member congregation in Colorado Springs, Colo., created a website years ago, but never really used it to promote themselves or for internal communications. Now, with the digital age fully at hand, they knew they needed their website to do something more.
But as the church began to look into the website, the more they began to realize there was an issue with their overall communication as a congregation.
“We have a structure that works pretty well, but they can become silos,” Rev. Daniel Smith said. “So finding ways for those silos to talk to one another was important.”
Ascension created a task force to create a new communications plan, including a new website, to grow as a faith community. Andy Saunders, a member of the church who specializes in communications, was picked to lead the task force and knew right where to go for help.
Saunders had met Christopher Harris during their time in Odessa, Texas, and knew about Faith Growth. But his decision was less about the personal connection and more about the professionalism of the company and the modern look of its portfolio.
“I looked around at other competitive people, but I just didn’t like their work as much as I like what Faith Growth had done,” Saunders said. “I found them to be more modern, fresher and had a little more youthful look and feel to them, which was something were trying to go for.”
Work on a new website didn’t start immediately. Instead, on May 16, 2014, Harris flew up to Colorado Springs for two days of interviews to get to know the congregation better. He interviewed eight integral members of the congregation.
Saunders and Rev. Smith both said the interviews were as meaningful to them and the members of the task force as they were for Harris.
“It just helps you see things that are already there,” Rev. Smith said. “He did it in a way where he was trying to learn stuff instead of just immediately banging on us for not doing this right.
“I felt he was thorough which then meant we could trust his report even more so.”
Harris returned back to Dallas to begin putting together feedback for the congregation. In the meantime, the members of the church put together a quick new website to have the basic information.
Then in late 2015 work started on the church’s new website with designs being put together, and in December 2015, development work began on the website. Harris said creating the designs for the site went much smoother because the church new exactly what they wanted.
“They identified their core audiences and for them it was really two core audiences,” Harris said. “It was one, when people google ‘church on Sunday’, that they are able to find them and here’s where we are and here’s directions.
“So we designed [the website] to make that really easy.”
For Rev. Smith, seeing all of their ideas and thoughts come onto paper in the first draft was the most rewarding part of the process.
“To see how this could look … you didn’t know what was going to come out of it, so when it popped out it was neat,” Rev. Smith said.
By June 2016, the new website was in the hands of Ascension to a very warm reception.
“Most folks have enjoyed getting more in touch with the congregations than just in the bulletins on Sunday morning,” Rev. Smith said.
The new website no longer has the boxy feel of their old one. Gradient backgrounds have been replaced with solid colors and a more welcoming feel. Visitors now know exactly who this church is, where it’s located and what time they worship. Everything is now more organized for visitors and members alike to find.
And that’s helped out the church’s offline success with their ministries. Rev. Smith said the new website has helped them become more connected as a faith community and started to build faith through the website rather than just promoting events.
“We’re a medium-sized church and you don’t know what everybody is doing and that’s a way to get people connected,” Rev. Smith said.
“And as we post our sermons online, our hope is actual faith formation and nurturing instead of just events. So doing ministry through our website instead of just promoting.”
Ascension’s online success hasn’t just been limited to their website. Their Facebook group now has 213 likes and posts photos and links to sermons and blog roughly once a day. Harris said seeing the church share the stories of its ministries has been the most rewarding part of the project.
“I still follow them on Facebook, and I see when they are sharing articles, and now I know they’re sharing the sermons weekly, and then I’m seeing other little things,” Harris said. “I’m seeing they’re able to share their story online. They’re actually using what we gave them.
“I’m in Dallas and they’re in Colorado Springs and I’m still being affected by the stories of what their life as faith community is. That’s the power of this digital platform.”
And for the staff, the emailing and passing of files has been replaced with Google Drive, keeping everyone on the same page.
“It makes it so much more efficient,” Saunders said. “And it helps us all look at the same version of the same thing. When you look at a doc you’re looking at the latest one. It makes a lot of other problems go away.”
Now the church views communications in a whole new light. Ascension now sees communications as an opportunity instead of something they just have to do.
“We saw the more importance of communications and the opportunity,” Rev. Smith said. “I remember Andy [Saunders] saying, ‘You’re always communicating whether you know it or not, so a lack of communicating is communicating.’ We started thinking about how we are communicating in everything we do.”
Both Rev. Smith and Saunders admitted that they haven’t quite utilized the website to its fullest potential yet. Rev. Smith said they’re hoping to add in video and a place to give on the site.
But, while all churches and situations might be different, Harris, Rev. Smith and Saunders each said what Ascension did is something other churches should look at doing for their own communications.
“I think getting an overall picture of how you’re communicating and putting some thought into an overall strategy there helps a lot.,” Saunders said. “We’re addressing different people in away that fits them.”
Assessing Your Church Website as a Ministry Platform
With our world increasingly moving toward digital, it’s imperative that churches have an effective online presence. By that I mean a dynamic, engaging church website that not only communicates what is happening at a church’s physical location but actively engages and builds a connection with those who will only experience your church online. If you’re not yet “digital,” it’s time to move there. Fast. Because people are searching for your church, experience online.
Increasingly, the church website is functioning as a church’s communication hub. Without a website, a church will lose its relevance and stagnate, at least in the minds of those using their smartphones to search for church info. Visitors want church websites to serve as the single portal they can visit to learn the church’s heartbeat: to watch sermon videos and live streaming, to peruse activity calendars, to interact with church staff, perhaps even to communicate with particular church committees or groups via private chat rooms. A website, increasingly, is so much more than a promotion for the weekly parish bulletin.
So how might you determine if your website is currently meeting—and will meet—the future needs of your church communities?
Step 1: Analyze your current website
A thorough understanding of how you are using your current website will help you to determine where and how it is falling short. This audit is how we start each Faith Growth project with clients. The audit enables us to get a clear view of where your church is—and where it needs to be, to meet the needs of your parish.
Questions to consider:
- Why do you feel you need a redesign of your current website?
- In what ways is your website stalling or preventing your communicating effectively?
- In what ways is your website not meeting parishioner needs?
- Is your website easy for your staff to update and maintain?
Step 2: Define and Evaluate Your Communication Workflows
Your church website will need to be regularly updated with new content. Why? To keep both Google and your viewers interested. A website with old content quickly grows stale—and useless. So, knowing that you will need to add new content regularly, you might as well build a website that is easy to update and maintain. One thing we always do when creating custom websites for our clients is to build staff workflow into the website—and do it early in the process to save ourselves coding time, and keep the website development costs within budget.
Questions to consider:
- What staff will be responsible for adding content to the website?
- What training will staff need to have to add content efficiently to the website?
- What new content needs to be added to the website?
- How frequently does each content category need to be added to keep the church website fresh?
- How does adding content to the website integrate with your other communication channels (print, email, etc.) to ensure it becomes the authoritative place for information?
Step 3: Define Your Potential Web Visitors and Identify Their Needs
As I said earlier, websites no longer have the luxury of being just “basic online brochures.” To function as powerful hubs, your church must look hard at the types of information your site visitors are seeking when they peruse your site—and how easy it is for them to find that info. The bottom line: make that search hard, and you will lose a lot of potential visitors and future community members. If you’re not sure how your website visitors are currently using your church site, you might have to ask them via surveys, polls, or simply by asking that comments be directed to specific staff via email.
Questions to consider:
- Who is visiting your website now? Who do you want to attract that you’re not?
- What “personas” (biographical sketches of your perceived web visitors) might you include?
- What tasks might these users be trying to accomplish on your church website?
- What information might these users be seeking?
- How can the website, and your other digital channels, further a relationship with them?
Websites, increasingly, are powerful tools for digital ministry. They have become the strong foundational hub that supports all church’s communication activities. They not only serve as the repository and archive for event information, but they can also serve as the place to curate content that deepens spiritual formation. Your new website can also power your church email newsletters, collect volunteer information, and so much more.
It’s important to think long-term when building your new website, so that your church website grows with you, able to handle features that you might not currently be ready to use. These might include a robust church calendar, managing event registration, and payments, accepting online donations, live streaming of worship, and chat rooms. We have these discussions with each of our clients so that we build in these functionalities, or at least build their new custom site in a way that will easily absorb these build-ins down the road.
Step 4: Define Ongoing Maintenance and Support Needs
It’s a given that your new website will need ongoing support and maintenance, just like your parish buildings. The website software will need to be updated periodically. The site will need ongoing protection from malware and hacking. Your site will need regular, if not daily, backups. Your domain name registration will need to be renewed annually. And from the start, your church site will need to be on a reliable host that guarantees you an optimized web server. Church staff can elect to manage this maintenance, as long as they create a schedule to ensure tasks are completed. But it’s a lot of work. Our maintenance plans at Faith Growth not only ensure peace of mind but guarantee site reliability and speed.
Step 5: Establish Your Budget
Budget is always the hardest part of this process, even if your parish has funds readily available. Your budget will determine how far you can build out your wish list—and create a timeline plan for adding in other wish list items. A good web developer will help you to lay this foundation for growth so that you don’t have to start over each time you wish to expand the functionality of your website. Faith Growth excels in this area.
Building a dynamic, custom church website is, frankly, a lot of work. But creating a website that meets your current needs—and grow with you when you need it to—is a smart investment. You can expect a website project to take as little as several months to complete, or several years, depending on where your church is specific to research, planning, staffing, and funds. Pricing can also range widely. It becomes easy to secure funds via capital solicitations.
Go and Do
Approach this as an iterative process that you will learn along the way. You will not start off perfect, but you need to start. Technology is rapidly changing so it is hard for anyone to master. What is important is that you get started engaging the world with the Good News of Christ in the digital arena. Planning for your next church website will get you one step closer to your digital ministry goals.
Faith Growth excels at church websites. Contact us if would like us to help.