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- Websites that workIssues for site planning, usability and promotion
- Problems in evangelismThings that stop us being effective
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Your First Two Questions
Starting the website planning process
A guide to evaluating your potential web audience, by an experienced web-evangelist and communicator, who administers several outreach sites. This is an essential first step, before you do anything else!
People sometimes ask me, “I’m a novice. How do I start to design a website for
our church or Internet ministry.” I think most are expecting a crash course in HTML or
web-page design. And those can be important considerations. But the most important are nothing
to do with technology. I tell people, “The first thing to do is answer two questions:
- Who’s your target audience?
- And what’s your purpose?
When you answer those questions, you will discover that questions of site design and navigation, even content begin to answer themselves. But if you do not answer those questions, then no matter how stunning your graphics, how perfect your code, or how compelling your design, you will not minister effectively.
Before starting any sort of web ministry, it is also vital to first understand the nature of the Web as a medium. If you perceive it as a one-way, ‘print on a screen’ means of communication, you are missing the heart of what the Internet really is – two-way, relationship-building, interactive, conversational. We need a complete jump of mindset from methods of print or broadcast communication, if we are to communicate effectively online.
Who’s your target audience?When I ask would-be webmasters that question, I often get an answer like, “Well, I guess I’m trying to reach everyone. I don’t want to exclude anyone. The Gospel is for everyone, right?” OK, the Gospel is for everyone, but even Paul adapted his presentation of it to different populations. He did it one way to the Greeks, another way to the Romans, and yet another way to the Hebrews. It is essential to understand your audience.
The duty of a writer is to think of the reader first, last and always. The same is true of the website designer. You must have a clear idea of whom you are attempting to reach in order to be effective. A website of interest to teenagers will not interest adults. Women and men respond to different approaches and topic areas. Individuals of different occupations, educational backgrounds, ethnic and cultural heritages need to be approached differently.
How?So the question is: how do you go about doing this? The first step is to imagine a typical visitor to your website. This does two things. First, it makes the concept of audience analysis more concrete if you think about it in terms of a single person. Secondly, it reminds you that no matter how many visitors come to your site, they all come one at a time. All communication in the end is one-on-one.
- Demographics. Consider the basic defining characteristics of the individual.
Some basic considerations include: age, gender, ethnicity, cultural background, language usage,
educational background, occupation, political affiliations, religious background, and special
interests like hobbies.
- Psychographics. Originally coined by marketing experts during the 1970s and 80s, this
refers to the setting in which the person receives the message. For instance, what time of day
are they accessing the website? Are they surfing from home? At work? At school? Do they use a
public computer or a private one? Do they have time to read something long or are they in a hurry?
- Spirituality. Is this person likely to be a Christian or a non-Christian? If a
Christian, do they belong to a certain denomination? Is this person likely a member of your
church? What are their likely positions on significant doctrinal issues? If the person is a
non-Christian, are they someone interested in Christianity, but are not sure of the validity
of the Bible? Are they ‘spiritual’ in the sense of New Age spirituality? Are they
antagonistic to Christianity? Are they sympathetic to Christian teachings, but have they been
disaffected by the church? Are they atheists, agnostics, deists, wiccans, cultists, Hindus,
Buddhists, Muslims, etc?
- Life Challenges. What problems does this typical visitor face in a day? Do they
have hassles on the job, family problems, financial difficulties, medical problems, emotional
issues or spiritual problems? What are the big questions they are asking right now? For what
problems are they seeking solutions? Can your ministry help answer those questions?
- Motivations. What motivates this person to do things? Money? Family? Fear? Hope? Love? Piety? Rebellion? Loneliness? Depression? Joy? Sadness? Are they driven most by what they are running toward or what they are running from? Who or what influences them to take action?
What’s Your Purpose?Once you have a clear idea of your visitor, answering the next question becomes easier: Why does this website exist? What are you giving to this typical visitor when they arrive? Christian websites seem to encompass three general purposes: In-reach, Outreach and Advertising. Now, one website might touch on more than one of these, but each section of that site probably should be devoted to one or the other, and usually the site taken as a whole falls into one of these general categories. Let's look at each of these purposes.
In-reachA website or page may have as it main purpose to serve the needs of the members of the church or Christian organization. One of the strengths of the Internet is its ability to build community connections. When the last prayer is said on Sunday morning, church members go their way and may not see each other again until the next service time. It’s not that we don’t care about each other. We just find ourselves scattered all over town and don’t have the opportunity for fellowship. Regional, national and international Christian organizations find this situation magnified many times.
The Internet’s ability to provide cost-effective communication 24 hours a day provides people with ways to stay in touch throughout the week and across the miles. A church website can update members about upcoming events, profile church members, stream the Sunday sermon for shut-ins and post pictures from the Christmas party or church picnic. Web forums and email discussion lists can help church members stay in touch with each other and strengthen those relationships formed at church. Within national and international organizations, members can form relationships which would have been impossible before the advent of the Internet.
This mix of ability to build relationships and to share information quickly and economically is creating outstanding opportunities for churches and Christian organization to build 24/7 spiritual communities.
OutreachMany of us in internet ministry find that our vision extends beyond the local church to our cities, regions, countries or the entire world. My own church website welcomes visitors from over 70 countries a year! Even a small church can have a missions outreach in cyberspace. Internet ministries engage in three basic types of outreach: Equipping, Evangelizing and Encouraging:
- Equipping. As a teacher, I find the power of the Internet to educate remarkable.
At my college, I teach classes online with surprising results. In ministry, we are able to
provide Bible studies, ministry helps, self-improvement and Christian living instruction.
From daily devotions to seminary level Bible education, the Internet provides opportunities
to ‘equip the saints’.
- Evangelizing. I sometimes wonder what Jesus’ disciples thought when he told
them to “Go into all the World”. It must have seemed an impossible task at the time.
Yet, the Internet takes many of us around the world every day. As an American, I have
acquaintances in Canada, Mexico, Australia, Norway, the U.K., and South Africa. Ministries on
the Web can reach countries closed to missionaries.
Websites can be developed specifically to reach the lost. Some target those people who are specifically seeking to learn more about Christ. Others help Christians build relationships with non-believers. Still others target non-Christians at the point of their life situations or special interests and introduce them to spiritual matters subtly. Wherever a person might be in their journey toward (or away from) a relationship with Christ, Internet evangelists are creating ministries to reach them.
- Encouraging. One element in emotional and spiritual healing is a sense of commonality.
When faced with problems, we often feel as though we are all alone with the problem. Through
the interactive capabilities of the Internet we can form relationships between people facing
similar life challenges and fulfill the Biblical injunction to “bear one another’s
burdens and so fulfill the law of Christ”.
Encouraging websites can also serve an evangelistic purpose. Relationships formed while helping someone deal with a life issue can lead to a sharing of how Christ helps us face those challenges. Online support can begin with helping people heal emotionally and end with helping them heal spiritually as well.
- Advertising. Finally, a website may serve the purpose to advertise a local church, a
national or regional organization of major event. As part of the total media mix, a website is a
low-cost way to provide a significant amount of information about your organization. It is not
a replacement for other forms of advertising, but it can be a good supplement to the traditions
print and broadcast advertising.
Before you think about design or graphics, HTML code or search engine submissions, you must answer these two questions. Without having a clear vision of your audience and your purpose, your Internet ministry, regardless of its technical perfection, will fail to see the results you desire.
The worksheet below may help you answer the two key questions.
PrayerPrayer and a vision from the Lord are essential. Pray before, and during, your planning process. Read Doug Reese’s story of starting an evangelistic site. Also the Internet is a dangerous place, and you may be under spiritual attack in many ways. Build a group of prayer partners. This is one of several topics covered by John Edmiston in his audio 60-minute seminar given at the Internet Ministry Conference, about starting a web ministry:
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More on planning
- Many websites fail in the area of usability. Learn how to create websites that communicate clearly.
- Writing for the Web is not the same as writing for print or sermons. [More...]
- It is essential to understand the nature of the Web, if we are to use it to communicate effectively. [More...]
- Developing a Ministry Plan from Cybermissions explains the spiritual steps likely to be involved in the development of an online ministry.
- There are many online resources to help you think through the strategy and planning for a website. See the free PDF ebook Best Practices for Developing a Web Site from Internet.com. If you are a team planning a detailed website, this sequential task-chart may help.
- The Yale Style Guide gives advice on planning a site.
- How will the site will be promoted? Look at many resources such as our promotion page and How To Create A Useful, Popular Website. It is important to consider promotion at the planning stage, rather than as an add-on at the end of the process.
- Learn more about church site planning and starting a blog.
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