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Beyond the Church Website

Beyond the Church Website

Beyond the Church Website

Some call it Church 2.0. Some loathe the term. It doesn’t really matter what you call it, though. What matters is how you use current technology, specifically social networking and other web-based applications, and how you use the Internet as an interactive worship tool and to prepare a basis for whatever’s next.

Don’t underestimate or ignore the impact, either. Churches are finding applications like Facebook, Twitter, Roov, Ning, Shapevine and 360 Hubs’ church- or ministry-specific applications to be great tools in building worship communities, sharing thoughts and best practices and nurturing in-real-life (IRL) relationships and connections.

“There’s no map for what’s happening right now,” says Cathy Hutchison, director of connection at Addison, Texas-based Acoustic Dimensions. “The potential for change is exponential. The biggest deal for the church is not what application is best, but just us being able to move to a culture that can embrace change.”

Effective use of such tools can play an enormous role in starting a new church, too. In Atlanta, The Courageous Church emerged from connections Pastor Shaun King established over Facebook and Twitter and King’s blog, www.shauninthecity.com.

King was on the staff of an Atlanta church before his family left in March 2008 to plant the seeds for The Courageous Church (courageous.tv). Advisors suggested Courageous use direct mass mailings to get the word out, but the nascent church’s budget didn’t support the mailings’ cost. Team Courageous may not have had a lot of money, but it did have thousands of connections online—connections that took years to build.

To build momentum before the church officially launched in January, Courageous developed an outreach program revolving around the Facebook, Twitter and blog connections. The result: more than 500 people from 22 states and four countries raised approximately $25,000 for school uniforms and Christmas gifts for children at Atlanta’s Frank Stanton Elementary School. The effort caught the attention of approximately 100 bloggers, as well as Forbes and Atlanta print and broadcast media. The outreach also helped add about 100 members to the launch team, King says. The Courageous Church officially opened January 11 with 700 souls attending the first service.

“We came out of nowhere, and built our brand and our momentum online,” King says. “From that outreach momentum, our team grew to two or three times the initial size. It created a lot of excitement about the initiative, but it also created a level of credibility for the church we were trying to start.”

So What is All This Stuff?
Any time you label an aspect of technology, you instantly date it, but Web 2.0, essentially, is the shift from passive participation—you accepting/consuming content with no interaction—to active participation. So, too, Church 2.0, for lack of a better phrase, harnesses the interactive aspects of the Internet to build relationships and further discipleship. The beautiful thing is, you don’t have to be in the same church or even the same town. Still, you have to use the technology to ultimately make that face-to-face, IRL connection.

“You have to create a connection point on a local level,” says Anthony Coppedge, a Bedford, Texas-based church-technology evangelist at Anthony Coppedge Consulting and author of Why Your Church Must Twitter. “The big-C church is about people coming to a relationship with the Lord. It’s all about relationships.”

So, must your church twitter? Only if people buy in and will actually use it.

Twitter is a social-network and microblogging service that allows users to send and receive short updates—basically what’s going on right now. Updates (tweets) are sent to others who’ve signed on to “follow” you and can be sent to a mobile device, e-mail or through Twitter’s website.

“The ultimate goal of Twitter is to create a real handshake,” Coppedge says. It can be used as a megaphone to send out messages and disseminate information across the church; it can enable multiple one-to-one conversations; and it can help pastors strengthen personal connections with a congregation. Most pastors can’t talk to everyone every week, but Twitter creates the opportunity to at least communicate with other tweeters.

It also allows pastors and congregants to interact with their peers across the country, or world, and create a marketplace of ideas that spans geographic boundaries, says Tony Ferraro, president of Riverside, Calif.-based 360Hubs. Again, the idea is to start a conversation that leads to face-to-face interaction.

Finally, Twitter serves as a powerful prayer tool. You are able to post prayer requests and pray for others, creating a never-ending prayer chain, whether interactive with those in your Twitter community or by searching the service for “prayer” or “pray for.”

“Twitter improved my prayer life exponentially,” says Michael Trent, founder of Third Places Consulting in Birmingham, Ala. “I’ve prayed for so many people who’ve expressed a need. Twitter just helps people feel like they’re a part of what’s going on.”

A Deeper Connection
The behemoths of social networking, MySpace and Facebook, provide entry points and numerous opportunities for churches’ online strategies. Like Courageous Church in Atlanta, Central Christian Church in Las Vegas used Facebook as the starting point to launch its online campus (centralonlinecampus.com) and drew 1,000 people from seven countries to its first online service. Facebook is an effective and cheap way to build sites and communities for various ministries, too, but maintaining and, to a degree, policing the sites has to be a team effort. The potential for objectionable advertisements also exists with Facebook, but can be mitigated with ad blocking software and good old fashioned diligence.

With tools like Roov.com and Ning.com, you can drill down and create your own social networking applications, whether it’s for a church; ministries such as youth, singles or Bible study groups; or missions. Roov grew out of Dallas-based Gateway Church and links to individual Facebook pages to create local communities of people interested in faith and what they can do to improve their secular communities. Ning is an online platform where most anyone can create a social networking site.

“I’m excited about this, because I’m watching people get online to get offline, to find each other and participate in each other’s lives,” Trent says.

Churches and denominations are also using applications from companies like 360Hubs and ThePort Networks to build online campuses and social networking applications. 360Hubs built Central Christian Church’s online campus, among others across the United States, and ThePort recently rolled out the United Church of Christ’s social networking applications. Similarly, LifeChurch.tv is an online and IRL trailblazer, with its weekly broadcasts to campuses across the U.S. and experimental efforts—like creating a free, downloadable Bible (m.youversion.com) for handheld devices that’s available in several languages, versions and dialects.

This type of online campus and its social networking applications offer a turn-key solution that also provides a level of protection. People can’t interact within the community unless they’re members of the community. It’s also easier to keep members’ information up to date in a church database since members can use the church’s online campus and social network to maintain that info. Blogs from pastors, staff and lay ministers can serve as an excellent communications device, sharing inspiration and meditation or spreading the word when a family’s in crisis and needs help from its church family. Along similar lines, Twitter can serve as a communications center for arranging meals, tasks and prayer for families and individuals.

Ultimately, though, the technology is a tool. It’s not the start of the show. And, to be effective, it has to be used consistently and diligently with an eye on the true goals.

“It all depends on how you strategize it,” Ferraro says. “It’s not about the method. It has everything to do with the intention and how you’re using the tool.”

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