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How your Church Website can Reach your Community with Service

October 31, 2011 in Christianity, Church, Evangelism, Leaky Jar, Sharing, Tech

Recently, I wrote a guest piece for the Theologia Ordinarius blog on a Theology of Church Web Design, which I hope you will consider reading if you haven’t already seen it. In my final point on that blog, I hinted at the possibility of churches using their websites to do more than simply provide basic information on their church to potential visitors and to act as a community-building resource for the congregation.

While it would be foolish for any church to neglect to potential impact of reaching out to others through its website, many churches are content to post logistical information on where and when to find a Sunday morning worship service and to tell visitors that they are “most welcome,” and conclude that they have done as much outreach as can be expected on the web. Realistically, your church website needs that information but the only visitors it will attract are those who are already Christian (note: this is a good thing, but not really outreach). This may not be the case in the Bible Belt where I understand (second-hand) that church-going is a cultural norm for many who have no faith, but it seems safe to say that most people who are not already Christians have no interest in visiting a church unless they are personally invited. This means that your website may be bringing in people who are new to your church, but not people who are new to the Church, those people who do not yet know Christ.

This does not mean that outreach to non-Christians online is impossible; it just requires some creativity. Despite the continuing prevalence of tracts and street-corner prophets, the most effective and faithful way to share the good news of Jesus Christ is to share it person-to-person, with Christians and the church community manifesting the love of God as the Holy Spirit works within them. While it is admittedly difficult for your church’s website to develop a person-to-person relationship with anyone, you can still use it to manifest God’s love for the people of your surrounding community by serving them.

There are undoubtedly endless ways that your church could serve the community through the web and I encourage you to ask your congregations to pray for the Spirit’s guidance and inspiration, but I would like to offer a few ideas to get the ball rolling, beginning by highlighting some of the needs that exist in most communities.

The Need for Hyper-Local News

In our day of globalized news coverage and the death of the small newspaper, it is increasingly difficult for people to find relevant news about their own community. When your neighbors tune in to the six o’clock news, they will primarily hear national reports with a smattering of the most sensational stories from their general metropolitan area. While local metropolitan newspapers are capable of better local coverage, they still often miss many stories and certainly are not capable of giving sustained focus to any town of less than 100,000 residents. Even in cities with excellent local journalism (e.g. New York City or Los Angeles) the newspaper is necessarily constrained to reporting on only the most apparently significant events, leaving the smaller communities (like the neighborhoods of TriBeCa and Queens in NYC, or individual cities like Inglewood or Azusa in LA) largely overlooked. Journalism alone cannot make a strong community, but it certainly is capable of strengthening communities.

Meeting the Need

Your church can easily develop a website with a social media presence that serves as a news hub for your community. While such a site will require an overseer to moderate and curate content, the vast majority of the content can easily be submitted by members of the content. The service your church provides in this context is that of serving as a reliable central location for all local news and events. By relying primarily upon reader-submitted content, your church not only has a much easier job but also begins to build a partnership with the people of your community who may begin to recognize their ability to help contribute in service to their neighbors.

A great example of this sort of hyper-local news is offered by Planet Princeton, a local resource for Princeton, NJ. While it is not in any way connected to a church, Planet Princeton serves as a useful model. Not only do they aggregate reader-contributed news and events, they have reliably relayed vital information on road closures, police advisories, and store closings in the recent October snowstorm and Hurricane Irene.

The Need for Easy Access to Community Resources

In the United States, poverty and need are rarely the result of too few resources existing in a community, but rather are rather the result poor resource allocation, ignorance concerning available services, and confusing systems for obtaining those services. For example, there are undoubtedly families in your community in need of an extra bed and other families with a spare box spring and mattress sitting in storage, but neither is aware of the other. In other cases, there are single mothers who qualify for welfare, food stamps, and discounts on heating fuel but who are either unaware of their eligibility or discouraged after trying to navigate the bureaucratic processes required to access these services. Likewise, there are unemployed residents who are in need of proper interview attire, resume-writing skills, and even a ride to their interview who are unaware of your church’s clothing distribution ministry, the public library’s resume workshop, and of the schedule of the local bus system.

Meeting the Need

Your church can empower and enable your neighbors to find and access resources in several ways. First, and most simply, you can provide a website with well-explained links and information on local resources. This might include links to the local unemployment office, city bus schedule, public library, and food pantries. On this level, your service would primarily be that of helping your neighbors to be aware of all the resources available them.

With a bit more effort, your church can provide not only links and information, but also guides to help your neighbors decide which available resources will be of the most use to them and tutorials to help them access those resources.

It is also possible to help connect people with needs to people with resources by providing a community sharing site, such as can be developed with resources like Kassi, Unstash, and NeighborGoods.

The Need for a Newcomer’s Guide to the Community

Whether we like it or not, we live in an increasingly mobile culture that almost ensures your community will constantly be acquiring residents who are new to the area, and those new residents will be weighed down with the stress of driving an unfamiliarly large U-Haul, finding a suitable home, settling into new jobs, meeting their new neighbors, and enrolling their children at new schools. Aside from those non-negotiable stresses, new residents face the strains of building new relationships; finding a grocery store, bank, coffee shop, mechanic, dry-cleaner, and restaurants; picking up local colloquialisms (i.e. the people of your town may have developed nicknames for local landmarks); learning the local laws and routines (e.g. noise curfew times and garbage pick-up days).

Meeting the Need

By this point, you will have guessed that your response to this need could be a website serving as a guide for newcomers. You can organize and neatly present the locations of post offices, city hall, grocery stores, mechanics, gas stations, parks, and much more. Your church might also provide a helpful guide to the nuances and idiosyncrasies of the community: the local jargon, laws, and ordinances that are difficult to pick up otherwise. Of course, you can also extend an invitation to newcomers to find community within your church.

Final Thoughts

Every one of these needs may not exist in your community, but without doubt at least one of them does. Your church can choose to meet one or all of them, alone or in partnership with other local churches. By simply serving your community in this way and honestly acknowledging on the site that it is supported by your church, you will be fulfilling Jesus’ commandment to love others while simultaneously helping the people of your community to recognize that your church is interested in loving them.

I’d love to hear what your churches are doing or hope to do along these lines. Please let me know about what you come up with below.

Are church plants actually factions? A response to Jamal Jivanjee’s article

October 22, 2011 in Christian Unity, Christianity, Church, Church Planting, Leaky Jar

Editor’s Note: This post has had one line edited as it presented a critique of one of Jivanjee’s arguments in the language of an attack on his character. The author is sorry to have been irresponsible with his words and for any harm caused to a brother in Christ.

This post is written in response to Jamal Jivanjee’s article, “Faction-planting or church-planting?” per his request.

In his article, Jivanjee makes several commendable points:

  • The first, and most obvious, of these is that there exists in some American churches a sort of factionalism that fails to recognize the extent of Christian brotherhood and sisterhood across denominational lines or even across the street. Where such prideful division exists, it is certainly sinful and an impediment to the Gospel.
  • The second point to note is that churches can easily become personality cults in which the congregation’s life comes to center on the charismatic leader. This can easily lead to straying from the authority of Scripture and foster a division between the “ministers” and the “members” that denies the priesthood of all believers.
  • Third, there is a helpful emphasis on the concept of a “city church.” While I am not sure that I agree with Jivanjee’s exact understanding of the city church, I certainly share his enthusiasm for a certain type of unity and Christian love exhibited in the city church.

Going from Anecdotes to Universal Indictments

While I appreciate the above points, I find Jivanjee’s stance to be both overly cynical and simplistic with regard to actual church congregations in the United States apart from the abstract concept of American Churches. Read the rest of this entry →

Using Google Doc Forms to Make Church Life Easier

September 14, 2011 in Administration, Church, Leaky Jar, Tech, Tutorial

As you may have begun to learn in my previous post on Keeping a Church Prayer List, I am a firm believer that the tools developed by Google can be a great benefit to churches, particularly in the unglamorous but vitally important arena of church administration. One particularly useful Google tool is the Google Doc Spreadsheet, which is useful primarily because its spreadsheets:

  1. Work like Microsoft Excel
  2. Are free
  3. Are accessible from any computer connected to the internet
  4. Easily shared and developed with collaboration

While each of those features are helpful on their own, Google has recently added a whole new layer of function to spreadsheets with the advent of Forms. It is now possible, with any Google Spreadsheet, to easily create a form that imports responses into your spreadsheet. This can save you and the members of your congregation a great deal of time in administration.

For the sake of this tutorial, we will develop a spreadsheet and form for Vacation Bible School (VBS) registration, but simply by altering the details of your spreadsheet you could just as easily use this for potluck dinners, Sunday School volunteers, van drivers, a prayer list, or anything else that you might need.

Tutorial: Building a Form for your Spreadsheet (Using VBS Registration as an Example)

  1. Log- in to http://docs.google.com (if you do not have a Google account yet, you will need to sign up for one, but it is free and deserves to replace whatever e-mail client you are currently using)
  2. On the left-hand side of the page click Create New -> Spreadsheet
  3. At the top of the new spreadsheet, click the title, Unsaved Spreadsheet and then rename the file. In this example, we will name it VBS Registration 2011
  4. We will now begin to fill in the title for the different columns by typing in the following at the Spreadsheet adresses:
  5. Child Last Name at 1A
  6. Child First Name at 1B
  7. Child’s Age at 1C
  8. Parent’s Last Name at 1D
  9. Parent’s First Name at 1E
  10. Phone Number at 1F
  11. E-Mail Address at 1G
  12. Allergies at 1H
  13. Emergency Contact Info at 1I
  14. Now to do a little formatting…
  15. Click the 1 to the left of the first row, this should highlight the entire first row
  16. Change the Text Background Color to something other than white so that it will stand out (Text Background Color is found at the button that looks like a T in a box)
  17. Right-click the empty square just above the number 1 and to the left of the letter A
  18. Choose Sort, then check Data Has Header Row, then press the Sort button
  19. Now select the View menu from the top of the page, then click Freeze Rows -> Freeze 1 Row (doing this means that no matter how far down you scroll on the spreadsheet, you will always see the column titles at the top)
  20. Ok, you are ready to make your form…
  21. Select Tools at the top, then Form -> Create a Form
  22. A new page will open showing your form and allowing you to edit it
  23. Hover your mouse over any of the form fields and you will see a little button with a picture of a pencil appear, click that Pencil to edit that form field
  24. On each form field you can choose whether or not to make that field required (a good idea for emergency contact info, not necessary for E-mail address), provide a help text to explain what you are asking (regarding emergency info, for instance, the help text might prompt parents by suggesting, “Names and Phone Numbers of Emergency Contacts if the Parent Cannot be reached”), and even change the type of question it is (e.g. “Text” is appropriate for the last name, “Paragraph Text” is appropriate for emergency info, “Multiple Choice” is great if people should only select one option, and “Checkboxes” are great when you need them to be able to select multiple options).
  25. Once you are done formatting your form, you should save it if it doesn’t already say Saved at the top
  26. Now you just need to share your form with the people who will be signing up. You have the option of sending the form inside an e-mail using the E-Mail This Form Button, embedding it in your pre-existing website by copying the code from the Embed button and pasting it in your site, or by sending the form as a stand-alone web page by returning to your Spreadsheet, selecting Form at the top, then Go to Live Form and then sending the address to others
  27. When people fill out the form, their responses will automatically be entered in your spreadsheet for you to see simply by signing back into http://docs.google.com
  28. Finally, if you have multiple people who need access to the spreadsheet to see the responses, you can share it by clicking the Share button above the spreadsheet and entering the e-mail addresses of those who should have access (please keep in mind that many spreadsheets, such as those used for VBS registration should always be kept on the Private setting as you do not anyone but trusted church members having access to children’s information)

If you would like to save yourself a little time making a VBS form, please feel free to use the template I have developed as an example.

All questions, comments, and suggestions are welcome below.

http://docs.google.com

The Airbnb Scandal, Human Nature, and the Need for Church Sharing

August 4, 2011 in Church, Leaky Jar, Sharing

The much-discussed Airbnb scandal has so far generated a little light and much heat. Some commentators are treating this news as a death-blow to the newly-blossoming world of online sharing. Online sharing services are responding quickly by putting into place new protective measures and communicating openly about risks with their customer base. Those within the sharing community are worried about the setbacks this event will cause (as if it wasn’t already difficult enough to convince people that borrowing and sharing can be better than owning and guarding). Most interestingly, though, many within the sharing community appear to be surprised by this event, and many of the sharing services (particularly Airbnb) seem caught off guard that such a problem and abuse of trust could have occurred.

I say that this element of surprise is interesting, because it comes as no surprise to me (or, likely, any other devoted reader of St. Augustine or St. Paul) and it seems to give us a glimpse into the worldview of many sharing enthusiasts. That is, there seems to be an underlying belief that humans are ultimately good beings, who commit evil acts primarily because of circumstances, ignorance, and inequality. As a Christian, I must recognize the influence of those three elements as components of the negative term “the world” in Scripture (as a side note, the Bible tends to have two primary ways of using the term “world”: the first is a positive term and speaks of the world as all of God’s creation; the second is negative and generally refers to broken, sinful, twisted, corrupted, idolatrous, and oppressive systems generated by the sinful cooperation of human beings). At the same time, it is a distinctly Christian teaching that humans, who were originally created very good and in the image of God, have been innately sinful and wicked since the time of the first sin in the Garden. With such an understanding of human nature, any plan to develop a sharing service or community assumes from the beginning that it will need to put in place safeguards to help deter people from harming one another and to protect potential victims. Rather than simply seeking to build trust among their members as many have, sharing communities and services need to simultaneously give people reasons to be trustworthy.

While the (mostly secular) sharing services and sharing community take up the discussion of safeguards and risk mitigation, I believe that the example of the Airbnb fiasco also sounds a clarion call of the need for churches to implement sharing programs and develop sharing communities within their congregations. The average Christian church is particularly well-suited for developing the practice of sharing goods among its members for four key reasons:

  1. Sharing property is in the Church’s DNA, all the way back to the Book of Acts, and materialism has always been seen as an idolatrous system by the Church.
  2. Most churches (excepting the largest) are communities of people who know one another, who have social ties to one another.
  3. Most churches have a built-in structure as disciplined communities who recognize the rule of God as King in their lives and who accept loving discipline from their fellow church members and church leadership.
  4. Christians have the Holy Spirit living within them, Who enables them to actually live as a true community in which all of life can be shared.

In upcoming posts, I will share some ideas and reflections from my experience with my own church as we try to develop a system of sharing within our congregational community, but for now your questions, comments, arguments, suggestions, and criticisms are welcomed below.

See Also: Airbnb Places Wake Up Call to Sharing Entrepreneurs

Keeping a Church Prayer List

July 27, 2011 in Administration, Church, Leaky Jar, Tech, Tutorial

Although many of us rebel against the notion of keeping an organized list of something as personal, spiritual, and intimate as prayer needs, faithful congregational ministry often requires administrative effort to bring cosmos out of the chaos. In an effort to help churches begin keeping an organized prayer list (or to move to a new format if their old version isn’t quite doing it), I am sharing the following tutorial for using Google Docs (a totally free resource that allows you to give access to documents to only the people who should have it) to create such a  list.


Creating Your Google Docs Spreadsheet Prayer List:

1. You will need a Gmail account. If you do not have one, you will be glad that you need one for this, as Gmail will blow away whatever e-mail service you are currently using. If you need an account (they are free), sign up for one at Gmail.com

2. Use the Prayer List Template. If that link does not work, search for “Prayer List Template” here.

3. Be sure to Save the spreadsheet to your account.

4. Start filling in information as you get it. Please note, on the bottom of the spreadsheet you will find the tabs for all the sheets in this template, where you can also record information about prayers for Evangelism, Records of Deaths, and Answered Prayers.

Where to find the tabs

5. Once you have entered your data, you will probably find it useful to sort it. Although you can easily sort it by any of the columns, I recommend sorting by Date. To do this:

  • Select the empty square to the left of A and above 1.

The empty square next to A and 1

  • Click Data and select Sort Range
  • Select Data has header row checkbox (this tells it that you have titles in Row 1 that you don’t want sorted)
  • In the Sort By drop-down menu, select Date Requested (note: your Date Requested data should be imported consistently in the m/d/yr format)
  • If you want it to sort by more conditions, click +Add another sort option and select the item you would like to sort by secondarily
  • Click the Sort button
  • Unfortunately, you will need to do this individually for each of the tabs in the template, and you will will need to use this sorting command every time you want to sort your list, as Google Docs does not make it easy to autosort. On the bright side, if you sort by date descending as suggested, you can simply add new requests at the bottom of your list as they are made and they will already be in chronological order.

6. Assuming that you would like this prayer list to be available to multiple church members, staff members, elders, prayer team members, etc., you will want to use the sharing function.

  • Click File then Share
  • Enter the e-mail addresses of whomever you would like to have access to the file (note: You will want to remember that there will be personal information in the list that probably should not be made available to the whole world or even the whole congregation, so it is best to grant permissions sparingly. You can always use this database to provide the information for a public prayer list that doesn’t go into all the details)
  • You can grant these people permission either to simply see the document or to edit it.
  • Click Close when you are done

7. Just like that, you are on your way to having an organized, shared database of prayer needs and answers to prayer.

If you have any questions or suggestions, please comment below.

Technology and Administration in the Church

July 27, 2011 in Administration, Church, Leaky Jar, Tech

After a prolonged hiatus, I am hoping to return to a more regular schedule of blogging. Although I will continue to post theological musings and the like, I also hope to be of some help to churches in offering advice and suggestions regarding the use of technology in service to the church. Although some of the flashiest uses of technology in the church have to do with web design and social media use for outreach and community-building (and I hope to write on these topics), church administration also deserves to be spotlighted.

Since the earliest days of the Church, certain Spiritual gifts have been glorified and desired above others. It is easy to see why apostleship, prophecy, tongues, preaching, teaching, and healing would catch people’s attention, but it is a mark of worldliness to glorify these gifts above others, because all gifts have been given not for the benefit of individual Christians but for the upbuilding of Christ’s Church. One often overlooked Spiritual gift is that of administration, which may seem mundane, but actually serves as the trellis on which the vine of the church may grow and prosper (this image is borrowed from the excellent book, The Trellis and the Vine). If we are tempted to label different gifts as different parts of the Body of Christ, the case could be made that administration would be the skeleton. Because faithful and wise administration allows all the gifts in a church to prosper, many of my posts will focus on ways that technology can help congregations in the ministry of administrating.

I hope that this will serve Christ’s Church well in its many local manifestations, and I welcome your comments, questions, and suggestions below.