Churches in the digital age
Church websites and promoting your church on the web
The foundation for taking your church forward in the digital age is to have an engaging church website, not just an online brochure. It needs information that will attract people who don’t currently attend church and should be written in an easy-to-read way, avoiding jargon.
Your church home page needs to engage your existing congregation and be a focal point where they can find out everything that is going on. Once you have established the basis of a good church website, you can then extend that involvement into areas such as Facebook and Twitter, which can widen the dialogue with the local community.
Church social media presence
While the principle of having your own church website has become well established, with the majority of churches now having an online presence, there may still be a degree of scepticism regarding church social media use in some congregations.
It has to be said that some of the negative aspects of social media are the ones that tend to hit the headlines: inappropriate stories that will haunt the subject for the rest of their lives or Twitter comments that show an otherwise respected personality in a poor light. But let’s not forget that headlines don’t always reflect real life.
In reality, there are many members of the Church who have grasped the important part social media can play in ministry and are making extensive and positive use of it. As one commentator says: “The Church has always used the culture around it to share its message.” And there is no getting away from it: Facebook, Twitter et al are most definitely part of today’s culture.
Growing church social media usage
According to the Office of National Statistics’ latest figures (Q3, 2011), 82.9% of all adults in the UK have used the internet, and that includes nearly 80% of those aged between 55 and 64 so we are not looking at the exclusive realm of the young. We have the third highest usage of Facebook in the world – nearly 30 million – and more than half of UK pensioners have used it. A third of the adult population claims to use Twitter regularly.
If there is one thing that social media is about, it’s sharing – and what is the ministry about if not sharing good news? It offers the opportunity to present informed spiritual commentary on key issues of the day, to inspire through sharing and to extend resources.
One report in an online conversation explains that one church uses many different ways of informing the congregation of events, but for one particular service, it only uses social media – and this is the best attended event, bringing in people from a wider geographical area.
Another social media user, Caroline H, says: “I am a vicar in a large rural parish and have been using Facebook as a way of staying in touch with (usually younger) people in the parish. I chat about life and faith with many people who don’t come to church, and Facebook has become for us the main medium for organising baptisms and for wedding enquiries.”
Creating a community for your church on the web
Churches with an online community – through their own Church website or through use of social media - have another opportunity for mission. It doesn’t replace church attendance, but supplements it. It enables ministers to reach out, more frequently than time allows for face-to-face contact, to those who are physically unable to participate in church services.
In a busy world, a presence for your church on the web enables those whose commitments simply prevent them from being in church as often as they would like to maintain their involvement. Statistics again: 45% of users access the internet via a mobile phone and 38% of users access it via a portable device away from the home or workplace (Office for National Statistics).
The key point to remember about social media is that it is interactive, conversational and open ended. It takes place in a public space and anything you say is permanently available and open to being re-published elsewhere. Used wisely, it offers a medium for healthy and active engagement and constructive debate – which is something in which the Church can and should be involved.
Church website resources
There is a wealth of resources – online of course – offering free advice and guidance about all aspects of church website design and the use of social media.
The Church of England offers training courses in the web and new media at www.churchcommstraining.org while the Church in Wales has produced comprehensive guidelines on applying and understanding social media and offers a free parish website scheme, read more at www.churchinwales.org.uk/resources
The Scottish Episcopal Church is about to provide a free church website template for use by congregations. This will be available via the Scottish Episcopal Church website at www.scotland.anglican.org
For award-winning examples of how to use websites and social media, you can visit the Christian New Media Awards website at www.christiannewmedia.com where you can see how other churches and groups are using social media, blogs and websites to great effect.