"Missional IT": A strategy for churches

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I did a report a while back for a major church about how they could be and should be using IT in their mission. Politics took over and they rejected the report, so I feel free to publish it here, anonymised and with some of the more specifics removed. I’m focussing on the bits I wrote about external communication rather than improving internal communication

Technology, computing and the Internet has gone from changing the way we work to changing the way we think.

The 21st century has not only seen Internet and computer use become yet more widespread, but has seen the development of the Internet as a social communication and organisation tool - blogging, Facebook, and Youtube are no longer the preserve of the technically inclined, but have become embraced by mainstream users. All this is a challenge to the church - how can we begin to use computers not just to support but also to advance our mission? Can our use of IT go from being organisational to becoming missional?

How are we using computers now?

The church’s main means of electronic communication is through its two web sites and its email list. The web sites provide access to commercial booking of church property, and news about church activities and events. The resources section provides access to the church’s teaching material.
The church produces a monthly email mailout, membership and signup for which is administered manually.

How should we be using computers in the future?

The major focus of any IT rethink must consider very carefully how the church uses computers to communicate its message with the outside world.

Whereas in the past, the Web presented information to those coming to look for it, nowadays both technological and missional thinking demands that we do not sit back and wait for people to come to us, but use technology to go into the highways and byways and find them.

In this new generation of “missional” technology use, our web site is only one part of our communication strategy. An important one, of course, but just a part.

Virtual Community is Authentic Community

Whereas we used to think of websites as forming their own communities, virtual communities such as Facebook and Myspace have evolved to the point of become peoples’ primary communities on the Web. Our focus should be not only to use these sites to cultivate our own web site’s audience and to ensure continued subscription and visitor loyalty, but also to acknowledge their own worth as community-building resources and to see them as tools to enable our church community to interact online.

This will happen organically, and in some areas is already happening - the tnternationals group uses Facebook for communication, scheduling of evenis and notification of events to its members. More cell groups should be encouraged to use these social networks to co-ordinate and communicate.

A well-run group on a social networking service can increase the opportunity for interaction between members and also between members and staff in a much more approachable and informal manner than scheduling one-to-one appointments. Sermons could be discussed, social activities quickly put together, reminders about events shared, all for free, and all with tools that most people are already using.

Transparency Is Accountability

Some may rankle at the idea of allowing unfettered discussion of church activity, but we are in a generation which mistrusts authority claims and places a high value on ‘freedom of information.’ While no substitute for peer-to-peer accountability structures, being honest and open with the world at large is not merely important for its own sake, but also helps us to ensure we have no hidden agendas.

The Christian message has always been communicated not only through carefully selected and polished words, but also through an open and public witness.

Instead, therefore, of giving in to concerns of “the wrong kind of information getting out”, we should be eagerly looking out for opportunities to live out Acts 20:18 in the information age.

Traditional blogging services, and emerging “micro-blogs” such as Twitter (http://www.twitter.com/), can provide a window into the thought-life and activity of the church - as important an advertising opportunity as installing physical windows into the church from the street! Imagine our worship leaders sharing their latest discoveries on worship; cell group co-ordinators talking about how cell groups have shaped their thinking about the church; the stuednt pastors interacting with some of the issues that our students face.

Staff should be encouraged to see blogging as a priority, a means of evangelism and contact with the congregation and the world at large. It may be helpful to see the church’s blogs as a kind of in-house magazine, with a member of staff tasked to act as editor to ensure that a regular publishing schedule is maintained, to commission articles and, if necessary, to ensure standards of communication and message.

Owning our web site

Currently the church web site is hosted through software designed by $foo_company. When the church wants to make changes to the functionality and design of the site, this requires complex, time-consuming and expensive interaction with $foo_company, and the end result is not always as desired. We need to regain ownership of our web site by using a content management system which gives us control over how items are published and displayed and allows us to customise the site as the content and functionality evolves.

Drupal is an Open Source content management system which is highly customizable and has a growing base of expertise in both the community and commercial sectors. Changing our site over to Drupal will remove the limits (and reduce the cost) of what we can do and how we choose to organise, design and publish our information.

As a concrete example of the improvement Drupal will provide, as we have mentioned, the dynamics of Web use are changing and these days, there is more emphasis on pushing information out to the reader, rather than waiting for them to return to the web site to find it. The most prevalent means for pushing information out is through Really Simple Syndication, a standard which enables sites to announce when they have new information for the reader. (See the BBC’s guide to RSS)

Drupal supports publishing a wide and highly customizable range of RSS feeds - we can let people know when the church announces new events, or has new editorial content, or has new sermon material from particular speakers or on particular passages.

Returning to the topic of events, iCalendar is another important standard for pushing event-related information to web users. Drupal can easily support publishing iCalendar feeds.

Syndication through iCalendar or RSS can also enable information from the church web site to be automatically used by other web sites. For instance, A Church Near You is a directory of Anglican churches and provides information on their activities. Using syndication standards, our church would be able to promote its activities on this and similar sites.

Video Publishing

Now that the church uses video for its notices, it seems timely to consider the use of online video publication. Experiments have already been started to broadcast services on the Internet and to publish the notices on Youtube. As well as providing useful support for those unable to make services or trying to find information later in the week, such video publication is an important step to ensuring that the church appears to be at the cutting edge of technology!

WiFi Access

In 2005, a church in Cardiff made the news by installing a wireless Internet access point and opening up the church during the day for passers-by to come in and use. This had the effect of making use of a beautiful public space and drawing in those who would not otherwise come to a church.

The church has the ability to create a “captive portal” Internet service to provide a means for passers-by to use the church without compromising the security of the internal network. Providing public wireless access costs us nothing and could make the church a warmer and more open place.
Perhaps, however, the facility should be turned off during sermons…

Why we’re doing this

Computers can be a helpful tool to aid our communication and our mission, and to help us become a church which reads and judges the times.

The recommendations in this report will place the church at the cutting edge of technology use amongst UK churches. But this not for its own sake - it will enable us to work more efficiently and communicate more together, and to reach out missionally in a new direction and take our message to where people are. Technology can not only help us to be a more efficient and effective church; it can also help us to be a more authentically missionary church, to use every available medium to share the Good News of God’s love.