By Eddie Pipkin

August 18, 2017

A fancy web page is only as useful as its functionality.  This is not news to you. It’s certainly not news to the billionaire geeks who founded revolutionary platforms like Netflix, but even for them it is possible to forget this simple truth.  You may have seen news about a startup from Netflix co-founder and former Redbox head honcho Mitch Lowe, called MoviePass.  It’s a subscription service that allows members to pay a single monthly fee to attend as many movie screenings as they want per month, and it just slashed that monthly subscription fee to $9.95, an amazing bargain for movie lovers.  Not surprisingly, their web site was flooded.  But here’s the thing: Many potential customers balked at joining because there was no easy way to check and see if the MoviePass worked at their neighborhood theater.  The company states prominently that the service works in 91% of all movie theaters, but people were not willing to sign up without a simple and straightforward way to see if they were one of the one-in-10 localities that are out of luck.

It is an era in which people – particularly young people – are increasingly accustomed to navigating the world through their smartphones.  A recent article from Bloomberg notes how mobile online ordering has utterly transformed the pizza delivery business.  And even for companies that have successfully figured out the new technology, there are still stumbles.  Domino’s Pizza lost millions of dollars in France because their app can’t handle all those apostrophe-laden accented French words.

Likewise, many church congregations and ministries are turning off potential participants because of clunky, out-of-date, and unusable web sites and social media interfaces.  Here are some issues I have personally observed in interacting with local congregations in the past few weeks:

  • Out-of-date info and event listings displayed prominently on the church home page.
  • No easily navigable calendar of upcoming events showing dates, times, and brief summaries of the listed activities and opportunities.
  • Web sites that are not mobile friendly.
  • Online payment sites that are confusing, unnecessarily complicated, and hard to use.
  • Social media interfaces that are boring and woefully out of date.

Communication platforms don’t, themselves, visit the sick, feed the hungry, counsel youth, or lead the congregation in worship, but they are a vital tool for enabling the successful pursuit of all those ministry goals, and increasingly, as much one of the essentials of how we interact and get things done as our physical facilities are.  Think of them as communication and connectivity platforms.  Think of them as mission critical as the musical instruments in worship, the equipment and supplies in the office, and the bus that transports the youth group.  Thriving ministries give these platforms careful forethought, not just afterthought.  Imagine if the church air conditioning functioned as ineffectively as many of our communication platforms – there would be an immediate clamor for change.

I write a lot about the possibilities of using new media platforms for communicating stories and vision, and this is another key that thriving ministries have unlocked.  But before that step – and as a basic building block for any ministry – we have to get the functional fundamentals right, or people will lose patience and move on to other options.

Consider those earlier observations:

  • Ministry web sites should be up-to-date. At a bare minimum, the information on web sites and social media platforms should be current and correct.  When it is not, the perception of your ministry is that it is out of touch, fossilized, and unorganized.  Most visitors to a web site or social media site are looking for just this kind of practical information.  It is the gateway to all the other exciting things you want to communicate, and if you train people to assume your sites are not useful, they will stop visiting, period.
  • You should have an easily navigable event listing on your site. See observations from the previous bullet point.  This should be someone’s job.  It is important.  If you train people that they can easily reference event information on their smartphones, they will do it on a regular basis, and that will be the jumping off point for all the inspirational videos, informative blogs, and ministry participation updates that you want to share.  There are many easy-to-use free applications to facilitate this task.
  • Make your web site mobile-friendly. Last year, for the first time, smartphone access to the web surpassed computer access.  More than 80% of internet users have smartphones, and Google reports that more than 60% of those users say they are unlikely to return to a site that they find frustrating to use.  That is a reality.  However, it is increasingly easy to optimize websites and email distribution to make them mobile-friendly.  It is well worth the investment to keep people from immediately bailing out of our communications due to frustration.
  • Online payment options should be as easy and intuitive as possible. I am not going to advocate for any particular payment solution here, but there are many, many proven options, and whichever one fits your needs, the goal should be to give people fast and painless opportunities to give (as well as to pay for activities, etc.).
  • Social media content should be constant and interesting. Never in the history of ministry has it been easier to keep people connected and engaged through creative images, story sharing, and interactive opportunities.  Every ministry leader should be trained and empowered to participate in social media, and all ministries should include dedicated people who are thoughtful about their approach to these opportunities.

In all these cases, as stated earlier, forethought versus afterthought pays off.  It is a way to leverage the hard work we are already doing by giving people easier, more familiar ways to participate with that good work.  By clinging to old models and old work habits, we accelerate the prophesied decline of the church.  On the other hand, by embracing new means of engagement, we breathe new life into our ancient call to change the world through the work of the Spirit.  (Here’s where I quote Mark 2:22.  Jesus did not have a smartphone, but Jesus certainly was blessed with smarts!)

What have your experiences (successes and frustrations) been in terms of developing useful websites and social media interfaces for your ministry?  Share your own stories and tips for fellow ministry leaders.  And for more ideas about how to break out some new wineskins, check out the resources at the EMC3 coaching website.