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Why Digital Ministry?

June 9, 2017 By: In: Digital Ministry

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Did you know the question, “how to pray” is searched on Google on average 18.1k a month?

One of the top 5 searches on Sunday morning is, “churches near me.”

Today a large number of people’s faith journeys will include an online component.

In this video, shot on Good Friday 2017, I explore the why of digital ministry and specifically my why for this ministry.

In this video you will learn:

  1. Why I do What I do
  2. The Stages of Church Websites
  3. Where many people will begin their faith journey today
  4. How to repurpose content to be found online

Watch the video to learn the why of digital ministry and a few strategies for implementing digital ministries in your context.

Are you repackaging your content for digital distribution so that searchers can find it online?

Leave a message and share your #1 tip with the community.

If you do it right, searchers will find you on Google, and you will have the opportunity to begin a relationship with them.

Can’t wait to read your responses

Have a great day!

A screenshot of a cell phone

Martin’s List

May 14, 2017 By: In: Case Studies

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Martin’s List was a mess.

Created as a place for youth leaders to upload different resources to the ELCA Youth Ministry Network, the website hadn’t exactly been designed with growth in mind. The site — database and all — was still connected to the organization’s main website.

Now it had outgrown its original home.

“The database was messy and it was hard for anyone to use,” Shannon Savage-Howie said. “No one used it.”

Savage-Howie knew she needed to create a new website for the resources, but couldn’t find a developer who could take her ideas and make them work. She spent two years searching for someone to take on the project.

Finally, she found Faith Growth.

Reverend Todd Buegler, director for the ELCA Youth Ministry Network, connected with Christopher Harris at the 2015 ELCA Youth Gathering in Detroit where they worked on the communications team.

“We were chatting and he talked about the work Faith Growth was doing,” Rev. Buegler said. “I mentioned what we were trying to do and it went from there.

Savage-Howie said she knew right away Harris and Faith Growth were the right group to partner with for the project.

“They were way well more equipped to deal with what we were asking for,” Savage-Howie said. “They had problem solvers and knew what they were doing. They knew web stuff and ministry stuff and caught the vision.”

Harris and Savage-Howie went through an extensive discovery process in order to figure out what the site needed. The two had weekly meetings for XX weeks to hammer out the details for the new site.

“It felt like he knew what I was saying,” Savage-Howie said. “He had energy about it. He was the first person I talked to who said what I was imagining could be done online.”

In the end, the site design came down to four key processes.

First, the site needed to be easy to maintain.

“We have to make it easy for people to share, easy for people to interact, but at the same time we’re not going to build the next Facebook or something,” Harris said. “It’s just her on the whole network board that maintains that site.”

Second, Martin’s List wanted the different resources to be able to be divided into different categories and for there to be a way to add more categories if the need arises.

Also, each of the resources needed to have a place for discussions where other could comment with tweaks they made to the resources that worked for them. Harris said it’s something they got from recipe websites.

“They always have the recipe and then there’s a long discussion of ‘I tried this,’ or ‘You should try it this way,’ or ‘Add a little bit of cinnamon and it gives you this flavor,’” Harris said. “It’s kind of what customizations worked for them, what worked for them and what didn’t work type of things.”

Finally, instead of being able to “like” resources, the Harris and Savage-Howie decided that users can “nail” items to their profiles similar to Pinterest, a callback to when Martin Luther nailed the 95 thesis to the church door.

“I knew were going to want something as a signal,” Harris said. “All of the sudden I just had this idea that it needs to be a nail. It’s Martin’s list; it needs to be a nail. I’m a Luther fanatic I guess.”

While the site looks like a typical website, it’s actually more of a web application. Instead of just viewing a site, users end up interacting with a site, uploading resources, commenting on others’ resources and searching the site for resources. Harris and lead developer Jon Campbell also had to come up with different algorithms to make it all work.

Harris said creating the site as a web application was the toughest part of the process.

“We had to figure out an algorithm for how, if we’re going to say most recent, what does that really mean,” Harris said. “Is that what’s happening last week? How is that going to display? So we have an algorithm that’s doing most recent, and it’s taking into account when it was uploaded, how many nails it has and how many comments it has.

“It was a fun challenge.”

The site went live on February 5, 2016, just in time for the ELCA Extravaganza, a four-day conference for adults who with youth in ELCA churches to network and share ideas. Savage-Howie said that was the most rewarding part of the whole process.

“Seeing it come to life and people finally see what we were talking about … it was finally a real thing,” Savage-Howie said. “People were excited about it. They were excited to see that it was usable and accessible.”

Rev. Buegler said seeing the final product after so many years of trying to make their idea reality was the most rewarding part of the whole process.

“It had been an idea that we had been floating for a couple of years, and we hadn’t found a mechanism to make it happen,” Rev. Buegler said. “To release it was a huge thing for us and the organization. When you have a vision in your head and you have an idea in your mind and then you actually see it on the screen, that’s just a real joy.”

Harris, who spent some time as a youth minister, said being able to help out an organization that helped him earlier in life was the best part of the whole project.

“This project was really special to me,” Harris said. “I went to the second ever Extravaganza and when I was serving in the parish, I went every year. It was an organization that always supported me and my ministry when I was in the congregation and it was always very important to me.”

“I saw the potential for Martin’s List, and it’s very rewarding to know that Faith Growth played a part in many other people with their ministries.”

While it might not be the best approach for every group, Harris said a web application site like Martin’s List has some definite advantages.

“Web applications are going to allow their user base, whoever it is, to access data or maybe even crowd source data,” Harris said. “Websites by and large are a one-way medium. Web applications start letting us be a little more two-way collaborative in including the users and giving the users something to do.

“It takes the website to the next level of interaction.”

Meanwhile, Savage-Howie said the new site has completely revitalized the organization.

“It’s so much more usable now,” Savage-Howie said. “It helps people share resources who may not have been otherwise connected. You don’t have to reinvent the wheel. You can see what’s happening around the country and pull from there.”

A group of people sitting at a table in a room listening Faith comes from what is heard

Hearing the Word with Digital Ears…

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“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!

Martin Luther, Martin Luther et al. are posing for a picture

Northeastern Iowa Synod Blog Case Study

January 16, 2017 By: In: Case Studies

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Before screenshot of the NEIA synod blog.
Before. Click to enlaarge.

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.

Martin Luther, Martin Luther et al. are posing for a picture
After. Click to Enlarge.

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

Ascension Case Study

November 2, 2016 By: In: Case Studies, Portfolio

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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.

ascension-site-comparison“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.”

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