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Churches eye Web sites for cost-effective outreach

As the reach of technology expands, more churches are going online with many of their Web sites particularly professionally done and comprehensive. For example, one church Web site in Mississippi contains links to Sunday sermons back to 2002.

Why are churches increasingly going online? What do they hope to accomplish?

Web sites are a form of outreach to both members and non-members. And an informal survey of churches that have Web sites in Mississippi shows that while professional Web developers are usually hired to launch the site, the tasks of keeping it updated often falls to church leaders.

In touch with inquirers

Father Paul Yerger with the Holy Resurrection Orthodox Church in Clinton (http://www.holyres.net/) said the Orthodox Church is little known in the South.

“Our Web site is by far the cheapest and among the most effective ways to make ourselves known,” Yerger said. “Many religious ‘seekers’ seem to find our site, and I give the address to all inquirers. They can read all about us on the site, see pictures, and follow links to other information about Orthodox Christianity. I am working on putting some audio files on the Web so they can hear our beautiful choir.”

Web sites may be one of the most cost-effective outreach methods available for churches. Yerger said the church used to pay $80 a month for a one-inch listing in a Jackson newspaper and almost never had a visitor who said he saw it.

“We pay $20 a month to the Web site host, have a great deal of material on the site, and many people mention reading it or finding us through it,” Yerger said.

Keeping in touch

While its Web site is primarily oriented to non-members who are seeking to learn about Orthodoxy, it is also popular with members to keep up with the church schedule. The most popular portions of the Web site are weekly announcements and a schedule of services. Pictures and articles get the most hits.

In his “other life,” Yerger is a computer analyst. The Web site was set up by volunteers, and Yerger takes care of updating it.

Holy Resurrection Orthodox Church is one of the state’s newer churches, having been established in 1977. Another church with a major Web presence in Mississippi is the Episcopal Church of the Resurrection in Starkville, an historic church that started in 1888.

Rev. Bill Livingston, rector of the Episcopal Church of the Resurrection (http://resurrectionchurch.com/), said churches use Web sites for multiple reasons: It is a marketing device to attract new members. It is a good communication tool with its members. And some churches develop Web sites because everyone else is doing it, although he says this isn’t the best motivation and can result in poor Web sites.

Its Web site is designed to attract new members, and provide information to present members.

“We have tried to develop our Web site with both goals clearly in mind,” Livingston said. “Portions of it serve both purposes, and portions are primarily for communication with our members. All of it is assessed as it will be perceived by someone who may be seeking a church.

“For our members, we have links about things that are happening in the parish. We include our parish newsletter and a calendar of events. We include reports and photographs of recent events to keep folks involved and to encourage their future participation. For newer members, it is a way of learning more about the staff and our programs. We are beginning to offer opportunities for members to respond to requests for information or to surveys via our Web site for those who prefer this method than a traditional paper method.”

Primarily they see the Web site as another way to transform the lives of their members. Livingston uses the concept of “stewardship” as an example.

“Our teaching about stewardship is that it is about our relationship with God and giving out of thanksgiving to God for the blessings we have received,” Livingston said. “We present this message to our members in sermons, in Christian education, in small group conversations, in our newsletter and on our Web site.”

For members who prefer this form of communication, the Web site has been helpful. But Livingston said most members do not rely on the Web site as their primary source of information.
For someone looking for a church, the Web site is designed to provide information about the church and is presented in a way to be attractive to them.

“Again, some of it has dual purposes,” Livingston said. “For instance, folks often like to know the theological culture of a church or the preaching style of the priest/minister before attending. Having past sermons on the Web site offers this. Members sometimes review a sermon for a Sunday they missed. Some members request a copy of a particular sermon for their reflection or to pass on to someone else. This gives them easy access.”

Potential new members can complete a request for information form online. This is most common among university students, which is significant since the church is a community parish offering a campus ministry to students at Mississippi State University (MSU).

Livingston said a church member, Rick Noffsinger, who is quite gifted in Web site design and maintenance, designed and maintains the Web site.

“He and I communicate as to the mission of the Web site and what we want to make available for our members or to promote the church,” Livingston said. “Sometimes I or other staff or church members prepare the text or submit the photographs. Sometimes Rick does so. However, Rick assumes the responsibility for all postings, links and for updating the Web site as needed. Having someone who is skilled in Web design and maintenance is essential. They also have to have the commitment to keep it updated and interesting. Rick fits all these criteria.”

Noffsinger keeps up with the most popular features on the Web site. In the past month, the Web site received the following number of hits: 922, home page; 113, newsletters; 101, contact information; 94, previous sermons; 92, previous events (photos mostly); and 87, Canterbury Fellowship (MSU).

Online visitors from around world

The Beth Israel Congregation in Jackson is online at http://www.ms001.urj.net. The Beth Israel Congregation in Jackson uses its Web site, to keep congregants informed about events. Also, Jews from other areas who are considering moving to Mississippi can reference the Web page to find out about Jewish life in Mississippi.

Father Michael Snyder of St. Charles Borromeo Catholic Church in Picayune, said their Web site, http://www.scborromeo.org/, not only serves members of their parish, but people from around the country who are looking for information on the church’s teaching.

“We receive many comments each month on how helpful the Web site is to people,” Synder said.

As is common with any kind of Web site, it is critical to be updated frequently to be most effective. And if volunteers or church employees who aren’t trained Web technicians are responsible for updating the Web page, it needs to be very user friendly.

One large church in South Mississippi with a major Web presence asked to not be identified in this article because of difficulties they were having with their server. The church is currently using an out-of-state Web server company but plans to end that contract and go with a local provider.

“The problem is it is not user friendly,” a church representative said. “It is too complicated to make corrections. It doesn’t upload a lot of programs. We mainly use it for our prayer ministry. That is about the only thing that has been beneficial to us. We can get out news to everyone who is registered as a congregation person.

“It is not very friendly, and there are too many steps to take when people register online to get to a certain item. People don’t like that. They like one button. We just feel there is an easier way to go, so that’s what we are in the process of doing. It is just too difficult to make changes and edit, and a lot of the stuff wouldn’t upload. There were problems. We were promised a whole lot more than we were given.”

The representative said that the Web site is used most for sending out messages for prayer requests and bulletins for meetings. But that could just as easily be done with an e-mail list.

Contact MBJ contributing writer Becky Gillette at bgillette@bellsouth.net.

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