We all know the story of the three little pigs. Each one built a house: one of straw, one of sticks and one of bricks. One technology met the test while the other failed because the pigs did not want to put the time and effort it. Two piggies were bacon (depending on which story you read) while one was kept safe.
Believe it or not, this story holds some truth for churches too. We need to build our digital homes so when people try to find out what we are about, we are prepared to receive them. We have a chance to make an impression, and it is up to us on whether it is a good one or not.
Generally speaking, there are three major technology components to launching a website: a domain, a design technology and hosting. Any option presented below can work well for your church, if you are willing to put the time and thought into it. You do not need to spend a lot of money to have a great site, but you have to be committed to it.
Here is a quick overview to get started…
Step #1 – Pick a memorable address so people can find you…registering a domain name.
Every church and house needs an address. It is what we use to find a place. We can plug it into our GPS or we can use the knowledge we have and viola, we can get from point A to point B.
The same is true for your website. It is called a domain name. A domain name is the URL (Universal Reference Locator) that the Internet uses to find specific web pages on the Internet. Keep it short, memorable and easy to spell. Try your church name (ex. www.elberonumc.org) or an abbreviation (www.rumc.org). Use the “*.org” domain if at all possible since it is generally used for organizations and non-profits.
Some popular domain registration companies include: Go Daddy, Dotster, Network Solutions or Register. Also make sure to Google for coupon codes as that can save you some money when you register your site (like “godaddy domain coupon codes” or “godaddy domain promo codes”)
Step #2 – Framing the house…choosing a website design technology to power your site.
Like the three little pigs, we all have options to build our website. One may not be better than another one. It is more a matter of how much work and effort you put into your site that will determine how effective it can be.
The Straw Option: Static Web Sites. A straw house can be thrown up very quickly and provide basic shelter. With some additional work, mud and skill, it can provide a solid home for generations. With some engineering work, someone designed a here is a straw house that can withstand hurricane fore winds. While they can be put up in a hurry, they are more difficult to change over the long term. That is why people just put up new houses versus renovate them
Static web pages are created using HTML and Cascading Style Sheets (CSS) or can be as advanced as using flash (two different programming languages). The site designs and page structure are usually “hard-coded” into the design and generally difficult to change once they are set up.
Basic HTML coding provides a very basic way to get your site up and running. There are some simple tools that could get you started right way, including tools like Microsoft Expression Web (formerly Front Page) or Adobe Dreamweaver.
Flash programming can allow for some pretty great looking sites but they cannot be indexed by Google. You will need a program like Creative Suite 5 from Abode to create it and it is not a trivial matter. Many times, a local design firm will recommend Flash to a church since it is very visual and relatively easy for them to design. On the other hand, the content is difficult to change on your own (driving up long term cost.)
The Sticks Option: Hosted Templates. Stick are a low cost materials found many places in the world. Some industrious “piggies” have built a number of “prefab” house options for you. Many of the starter stick homes are free and ready to move in. If you want to upgrade, these same “piggies” will help you upgrade your house with its own address and street number, decorating or other options.
Over the past two years, there have been a large number of “hosted template” website vendors. Some are church focused (like E-zekiel or Clover) while other are more general (like Tumblr, Posterous or WordPress.com.) Both can provide content templates and hosting all in one package and make it easy to get a website up and running quickly. They come with many tools and widgets that you can use to bring your content to life.
Church template websites can help your church get up and running quickly. They offer many of the widgets a church will need and will often have examples you can copy from to help you get started. On the other hand, these sites are often more expensive than general ones and less advanced in overall capabilities.
Many of the general tools are blogging tools which can be used for general websites. You can create pages, add widgets and modify them to meet your needs. Search for different templates, apply them and then write pages to match your website content. There will be some limitations, but it is a quick way to get a nicely designed website up and running with little technical skills and money. Since they are broadly used, they are updated often, so watch for news on new capabilities.
The Bricks Option: Full Content Management Systems (CMS). Brick houses may be harder to build, but they stand the test of time and can be renovated as needed. There are many architecture floor plans and blue prints you can use, so you can buy a design and then build it. You need to buy the land, finance the house, design it, build it and decorate it. While you can build a house from scratch, the process feels more like the BLU Homes approach where the design is modular, built in a factory, delivered and installed on site and looks great.
Content managed sites use a Content Management System that allows site administrators and content editors to edit the web site through a web browser. They may also have advanced tools to help engage your target audience. No additional software is needed to maintain the site. Three popular Content Management Systems are Drupal, Joomla, and WordPress.org. You will need to provide for hosting of the site (which is explained below) and many of the CMS providers recommend specific hosting providers.
Each of these CMS options have a large number of themes you can use as a head start and then additional widgets you can install to create a very capable and unique website.
Step #3 – Paying the Rent…Hosting Your Website.
Web hosting is provided by companies to provide space on a server they own or lease and provide Internet connectivity for an organization’s website. Your hosting options will depend on your design and CMS choices, as well as what additional multi-media you would like to have stored on the site. Take a look at what hosting options are promoted by the different CMS providers can help direct your choices.
Bringing it all together…Producing a Full Website.
I use WordPress.org CMS (using the Delicious WordPress Theme from Woothemes) and Bluehost for the flock:ology website. I have not even scratched the surface on the capabilities of the site, yet it looks like a professional and well maintained site. I have used Google Sites and Typepad in previous incarnations of the site, but I would recommend WordPress as the best option for most churches.
As an additional resource, United Methodist Communications (UMCOM) provides an overview of the different options that you can use based on your communication needs, technological expertise and budget. Take a look and let me know what you think.
Here is the bottom-line. You can market your church on-line and off, but most people will do some research to see if they want to show up on a Sunday AM. It is scary to show up to a church to the first time. Think about it…you will Google a person you are ready to go on a first date with, so why would you not do it to a church.
While getting up a website is not the easiest thing to do in the world, it has gotten much better over the past two years. The real question is: Will you take the time to build an on-line home for your church?