1997 January 3
Gerry de Koning
From September 1995 to June 2000 I produced a Web site for Knox Presbyterian Church Toronto. I have seen much discussion of technical issues for webmasters, but very little about other issues relating to church websites: objectives, audience, linking to the rest of the church's life, accountability, and more. These issues should be discussed by as many church webmasters as possible.
To help ignite a discussion, and to share my experience with as many church webmasters as possible, in this note I share some thoughts about these issues. This note is a revision of an earlier version (November 1995).
To whom is your church Web page aimed? The following are some (only partially tested) answers to this question.
Who? Goal? ===================== =============================================== Members Programme information. Evangelism help. History. Internet Resource Links. Contact information. Spiritual resources (reading, Q&A, ...). Discussions. Christian Students What kind of church are we? How to find us? Materials to help defend the faith. Evangelism help. Programme information. Links to real people. Campus Christian events. Christian Visitors What kind of church are we? How to find us? Programme information. Aids to being more comfortable during their first visit. Non-christian students Evangelism. How to find us. Aids to being more comfortable during their first visit. Links to real people. Programme information. Neighbours Basic information to help them know us a bit. Evangelism. How to find us. Links to real people. History. Community links. Aids to being more comfortable during their first visit. Programme information. Ex-members (Originally left off my audience list, this group has appreciated our church website VERY much.) News. Events. Internet Resource Links. History. Evangelism help.
So far, I have produced the pages myself (with two pages maintained by someone else). As we move toward a team of people doing this, what should we look for in members of the team? What roles are there on this team? What kind of skills and inclinations should people have to fill each role?
Here are some ideas: a team builder/leader, a writer, a graphics artist/photographer, an HTML/computer specialist, a visionary, a wise person, an evangelist, proofreader, and so on.
Should we have a formal structure for getting information about various programmes and groups within the church? Should the church's full-time staff be directly involved in producing the website?
Our pages are always checked by reviewers before they are released to the public. What role should the pastoral staff have in reviewing the web pages? Should the same people review it every month?
The Knox page began as an EXPERIMENTAL and UNOFFICIAL website. Today the pages are an OFFICIAL organ of the church. We are moving towards having a few people, responsible to the local evangelism committee, take charge of the site.
One concern raised by the elders was that whatever is displayed publicly as official church material should be reviewed by several people before being published. No single individual should speak unchecked for the church. This essentially means that the web site is subject to the same rules as apply to the Sunday bulletin and the monthly magazine.
I fully support the idea of review. First, we catch more mistakes before publication. Second, we discuss any sensitive issues before decisions are made. Alone I might be reluctant to do something, just to be sure. Or I may not be sufficiently sensitive to some issue.
Specific policy issues which need to be addressed include which groups participate in the church web pages, which external groups are "advertised" in the pages, and how exceptions are decided. This should be similar to how decisions are made about which announcements go into the Sunday bulletin, which posters go onto the notice boards, and so on. We are still developing these policies, so there is no example to share yet.
That having been said, at the beginning of 1997 it still remains difficult to find people with appropriate wisdom, cyber-awareness, and time to make these reviews as effective as I would like.
I am reluctant to post any information which points to people at home. Thus, most requests for information should go through the church office, or someone's email address.
Furthermore, our church supports many missionaries around the world. Many are working in countries whose governments are or may become hostile to Christianity. We cannot jeopardize missionaries by identifying them on the world-wide, searchable Web. I've made exceptions in the case of those with an explicitly missionary presence on the Web, such as the staff of Campus Crusade who have web pages devoted to their work.
I am dead-set against publishing information such as "The single moms meet on Tuesday at Linda's home: 123 Anystreet, OurTown (111)222-333." The (Internet) world includes immature and hostile people who could prey on Linda and her children.
A "members-only" welcome page would be password-protected and could include more sensitive material than the public site: contact names and phone numbers, prayer requests, discussion of issues facing the church, and the like.
Most church web sites begin as novelties. Neither the congregation nor the community depend on the web site. How does this change over time? What is needed to have the web site make a significant contribution to the work and life of the congregation?
The web site will be useful to the congregation when it provides information which is more current than that available from other sources. This is very difficult to achieve. The Sunday bulletins come out weekly and members of each group usually know their plans before they are communicated to the church secretary or the webmaster.
The congregation might also find the web site useful for posting notices and engaging in discussions with each other. This would provide a new way of talking together which complements, rather than competes, with current practices.
Finally, it may be practical to publish material on the web which is not available to members today, such as committee minutes, board reports, or more extensive information about events sponsored by other organizations.
Of course, these opportunities remain fantasies unless there are cyber-aware members in the congregation. I estimate that about 20% of our congregation may have access to email. Fewer have web access, and very few spend more than a few hours a month online. This matches the cyber-demographics of the general population.
The first steps to making the web site a part of the life of the congregation may be:
Even with over a year of experience, I cannot say yet how our pages will be organized when things settle down. (Do they ever settle down on the Web?) However, this is how I envision it at the moment:
As the number of pages increases, helping the cyber-visitors find their way around the site becomes important. So I've tried to use a single, consistent "look and feel" for all the Knox web pages. I hope to add a "site map" and perhaps a search engine.
I will probably experiment with several "Welcome" pages for different audiences: one for the public, another (with more graphics) for University students and faculty, and a third for members-only. Will this serve a useful purpose? Will it be more work than it's worth? I don't know yet.
I organize each page into four areas:
What am I dissatisfied about?
Timing. The content of the pages needs to be matched to the time available to update them. I have seen church pages inviting people to a conference which happened six months earlier. I try to update the pages at the beginning of each month. However, much of the information about the month's events becomes available just when I need it or a bit later. As the site grows, the time required to keep the site current becomes more difficult to find. Beware! Get help as soon as possible. Don't commit to a schedule which requires more energy than is available.
Directories and Indices. When our pages first went public, I actively tried to get our URL into directories and search engines. The most important links (from what I can discover) pointing people to our pages are:
At first, when there were only a few hundred listings, my Internet Service Provider's list of users' websites provided many visitors; now that there are thousands of listings, we get fewer visitors from that source.
Links to other sites. I try to keep the links to other sites in our web pages to a minimum. First, there are much better directories and resource guides out there than I can ever maintain. Point to them, and don't compete. Second, every link needs to be checked monthly. Sites move, disappear, and mutate. How much effort are you willing to spend doing this?
Browsers. People are using many browsers to read Web pages, including lynx, a text-only browser. These browsers differ vastly in capabilities: some display "frames", some don't; some show tables, some don't; some show graphics, some don't; some use style sheets, some don't. Many of the features which would make the pages more attractive also excludes some people from the potential audience. Our church site aims at a wide audience and we don't really want to exclude anyone.
I prepare my pages using some features which may not work on all browsers (such as graphics and tables) and then test my web pages using 4 to 7 browsers on 6 different systems. The pages should look acceptable even on browsers which don't handle all the features I use. Today's HTML editors or web-page-generators produce sub-standard pages OR pages which won't be readable on some browsers. This is changing rapidly, but I still recommend involving someone who is prepared to become an HTML guru.
Graphics. I've made graphics a minor part of the Knox pages. This is for three reasons: (1) competence (I'm no artist), (2) speed of loading pages to read (reader convenience), and (3) cost (over a threshold [which we are not even close to!] my ISP bills for volume transferred to Web readers). However, I'd certainly like more graphics than we have today!
Content Rating. More and more browsers will be capable of blocking access to objectionable or unrated sites. Find out about PICS (Platform for Internet Content Selection) and the rating services. A rating may make your site "visible" to more potential visitors.
Internet Search Engines and Directories. Many Internet search engines (such as AltaVista) allow you to use META tags to include a description of your page and to specify keywords which will be used to help seekers find your pages. Consult bottom of the AltaVista Simple Help page for further details.
Monitoring usage. Here we find ourselves at the mercy of our Internet Service Provider (ISP). In my case, the information available is acceptable. I know, day by day, how many people have retrieved each page and the total bandwidth used (bytes transmitted). By doing my own logging for a sample of page-fetches, I have a good idea of which browsers are being used to access my pages. People who look at church pages don't appear to have exactly the same profile as those who look at picture sites or technical computer sites.
Statistics. In our case, the Welcome page gets an average of 8 hits a day. This number has dropped from 10 hits per day a year ago. Perhaps this is due to more churches having sites, or to a reduced level of publicity, or to content which changes infrequently.
After the Welcome page, the next most popular pages are Library, About Knox, and Special Events. Hits have come from as far away as Sweden, Israel, Australia, and Japan. Most hits come from Toronto (University of Toronto, Toronto Freenet, my ISP, and others). About 10 per cent of hits seem to come from non-graphical browsers. This is down from 30% a year ago.
Internet Service Provider. I recommend that churches use ISPs because: (1) Cost of the infrastructure. (2) Administration of the Web server, Internet links, and so on. (3) Church computers are not directly linked to the net, and thus immune from "hacker" attacks. [This will reassure members who have heard that hackers can get into your computers and blow up your buildings.]
Internet Domain Address. Most churches will find it sensible to use their ISP's domain address. But, if you have your own domain name, your URL will not change when you change service providers. Given the instability in the Internet Services industry, this may be a consideration if processing a Web change-of-address is likely to be painful. For our church I would choose <knox.toronto.on.ca> or <knox.toronto.presbycan.ca> rather than <knox.org> or <knox.net>. I certainly would hesitate to use <knox.anything.com> - the church is not a commercial site.
Account Name. Many church web-masters (like me) are using their personal accounts to create web presence for their church. However, if that person transfers responsibilities to someone else, how easy is it to move the church's electronic address? An account for the church, administered by the current project leader, makes it easy to give the church staff and Web-site committee access to the account. And the address would likely be quite stable for a long time.
Other church and parachurch pages (a few well done pages):
Lists of churches