Wikipedia describes Web 2.0 as an often-misused phrase that refers to second-generation Internet-based services that allow people to share and collaborate in previously unavailable ways. If you cut through the marketing hype of this term, you're left with a simple concept: the web is no longer a static medium with limited or one-way communication. Fully utilized, static church websites, with little or no reach, can be transformed into community-building, self-propagating, communication powerhouses with enormous reach. Is this important to your ministry? No. It's not important; it's critical. Let me explain.
A church, by its very definition, is a community of like-minded individuals who share and collaborate on a common belief and mission. More importantly, in Christian churches, the spreading of this message is accomplished by members of that community sharing their beliefs with others. By utilizing the communication vehicles currently associated with the term Web 2.0, you effectively replicate your physical church and mission on the web. Unlike your local congregation, however, the web-enabled version has instant global reach.
Here's an example: as a pastor you give your sermon to your congregation on Sunday morning. The reach of this sermon is limited to the people present, and anyone with whom they may verbally share that message. What if that same sermon could be available globally, appearing automatically in subscribers podcasting software halfway around the world, within hours of the original? What if these same subscribers were to share that sermon with friends, the original propagating from MP3 player to MP3 player, around the world? Suddenly, your non-congregational reach is exponential. Not only is this scenario possible, it is readily available. Believe it or not, podcasting refers to only one vehicle of what currently constitutes Web 2.0. There are many other such vehicles, each with its own ability to reach separate web populations.
Given the Great Commission all Christian churches are tasked with, utilizing these tools is critical, as any means of exponentially increasing your listener base should be. To follow is a short list of features which should be utilized in your current church website design, or used as a checklist for commercially available systems.
Audio Library: Sermons are the most tangible commodity of a church, and subsequently, should get primary attention. An audio library, distinctly separate from the previously mentioned podcasting stream, allows you to make all recorded features, from sermons to music to instruction, available for online listening and download-capable for later use. This feature should be extremely easy to navigate for your users so that they can quickly locate specific recordings.
Video Streaming: While still bandwidth intensive, video, like audio, can be a very effective medium for spreading the gospel. Where possible, audio should be used unless there are significant visual reasons to do so otherwise. Visual presentations and performances are better candidates for this than the typical Sunday sermon.
Podcasting Feeds: A podcast feed is an audio subscription initiated by users who click on your feed link. If you have ever subscribed to a favorite television series with a Tivo, then you're already familiar with how a podcast works in conjunction with podcast software, such as Apple iTunes. By clicking on your podcast link, users are subscribed, via their podcast software, and subsequent sermons will download automatically for them, becoming instantly available for use on their MP3 players. This is a separate feature from your Audio Library, as podcasts should be regularly scheduled recordings, as a rule of thumb. You may have a great variety of recorded material available, but you may not want every recording linked as part of a regular podcast feed. Make sure any system that you are considering makes this distinction.
Blogging: Blogging is the perfect online mechanism for your pastoral staff to reflect and provide guidance between Sundays. Pastoral staff blogs can help bring repeat visitors to your site and provide a platform for personal insight, that goes beyond the confines and structure of Sunday's sermon. Entire search engines exist for blogs and, because of this, ministries have an enormous opportunity to reach entirely new readers. The most effective blogging will involve having your own blog server versus a freebie account in a shared environment.
Newsletter Management: Electronic newsletters simply cannot be ignored for effective ministry due to their viral nature. A commonly used marketing term, viral marketing refers to the act of one person sending or forwarding information, they found helpful, to others who they know might benefit from it. In other words, an effective newsletter not only finds its way to the subscribers, but they typically forward meaningful newsletters to others. Many factors influence the effectiveness of this method including subscriber management, the quality of the content, and the focus on gaining new subscribers.
Forums: Adequately moderated, church website forums can provide the perfect means for developing a community around your online ministry. Topics can be discussed or debated, church classes can have their own forums for collaborating on teachings, and questions about the faith can be answered. While there are some obvious requirements for moderation, a good system will allow several layers of control that provide a balance of administrative control and management ease specific to your needs and abilities.
Image Galleries: Image galleries provide far more than the obvious display of happy times within your congregation. A well-made gallery will allow optional user interaction, such as rating and voting, in addition to commentary. Most importantly, make certain your system has the ability to send pictures as e-cards. As previously mentioned, this feature is viral in nature, allowing users to send selected images as postcards with greetings to friends, again, greatly extending your online reach.
Events Calendar: No church website design would be complete without a full-featured, fully searchable events calendar. Events can be the lifeblood of a church, and getting the message out, about those events, is mission-critical.
User Polls: While sometimes overused in secular websites, user polls on a church website can be extremely effective for several reasons. Religion and politics have long been the start of many a debate and. as a result, most people are very willing to give their opinions on either topic. By providing effective, anonymous polls, you not only encourage user interaction, but you can gain a better understanding of the mindset of your site visitors. Many times, this can provide great material for sermons!
Email to friend: This little feature should appear on every page of significant content throughout your church website. Its function is to provide a means for site visitors to email a specific page they think might be of interest to their friends. This feature, while seemingly small, is also viral in nature (one person receives it and sends to another) and can have a significant impact in your ministry s reach.
Search-Engine Optimization: Whether you are attempting your church website design by hand, or are using a commercial system, make absolutely certain that you don't overlook good search-engine optimization practice. Without going into a long description of the function of each, make sure that any system you use automates accurate meta tag creation, has a reciprocal link-management system and, if your site is dynamic (database- driven). that URLs are rewritten as search-engine friendly. Overlooking these items will result in decreased search-engine positioning, so pay close attention to these. As your site grows, the more important the automation or near-automation of these functions become.
Multi-Lingual Page Translation: While there is no true 100%-accurate page-translation service available, there are some that do an outstanding job. Make sure that all your content pages have some form of multi-lingual translation capabilities. The more languages you can translate into, the more lives you are likely to impact on a global scale.
RSS Feeds: RSS feeds provide a similar subscription method as podcast feeds do, but they are focused on textual content versus audio. These feeds can be established throughout your site and alert subscribers to changes in content, without them having to browse your site. Areas of your site that do not frequently change (like your statement of faith) are not good candidates for an RSS feed, while constantly updated content areas are. Forums, for example, are great places to deploy an RSS feed, as replies and responses to ongoing threads update frequently.