Google Voice, A Church Planter’s Best Friend

Google Voice's main panel
Google Voice's main panel

I haven’t talked about this much yet, but Google has been creating a set of tools that can literally change the way churches do business.  Yes, yes, I know that they have a great search engine (and are upping the ante with a new search engine process called Caffeine), but the exciting stuff is all out of Google Labs, their experimental wing.

One really powerful tool for busy pastors (or anyone) who really want to stay connected is Google Reader.  This isn’t new.  It has been around for quite some time, but many people are still not aware of it.  Google Reader allows you to look at all the different blogs or websites that you regularly check (it isn’t that great for straight news sites) all from one page.  It presents the information sort of like how your email is.  If you set up the view right, you see all of the sites in a chronological list with an abstract in the next column.  One click allows you to read the article in full, and another throws it into the trashcan from your virtual desk.  A lot of people have asked me how I can possibly read so many blogs.  Reader is the answer, and I do it in 10% of the time because of it.

Thanks to Ed Dale, who taught me that one.  You revolutionized my life with that, and I can’t think of Twitter in anything but an Australian accent now, either.

But the most exciting thing for churches (and especially church plants)  is Google’s newest project, Google Voice.  First, let me paint a picture of what a typical church plant looks like:

Most church plants (newly started churches, under 2 years old) are led by one pastor and a team of lay leaders.  The pastor is usually bi-vocational at best, or even pastors without taking a salary at all.  Either way, almost all pastors of church plants have a full time job outside of the church.  Most of these churches have no paid staff outside of their solo pastor.

Because of this, any time someone calls the phone number of the church, it goes straight to voice mail.  The pastor is working way too long and too hard to worry about such trivial things as returning messages, especially when 8 out of 10 messages are some sort of church telemarketing…No, I don’t want to go to Bible Bash and Bake Sale 2009!  On the other hand, the 2 calls out of 10 might be someone looking to start attending the church.  They don’t get called back, and they never come.

Enter the game-changer, Google Voice.  I cannot think of any other digital tool that may be as helpful to a new church plant as this one.  When you start with Google Voice, the first thing you do is pick a phone number…a local phone number…a real phone number…like the kind with an area code and 7 other digits.   You can even search for available numbers that you like.  If you want your number to be (555) the-vine (555-843-8463) you can search for that.  Of course, it isn’t that easy to get what you want.  They have to buy a block of numbers like any other company, and someone might already have that number, so be patient.  It took me a couple hours to decide on mine.

After you pick your number, it is live and real.  Anyone can call it from that point on, and yes, it is free.  I am not going to go on and on about all of the myriad and incredible bells and whistles that this offers, other than to say that some of them are things that most people didn’t even know were technically possible.  But those aren’t within the scope of this post.  We are interested right now in how this changes the picture we have painted above.  So, let’s retell it after the point where the church has set up the Google Voice number as their main number.  In this illustration, their Google number has been associated in the Google control panel to the pastor’s cell phone, home phone, the pastors wife’s cell phone, and one of their main lay-leaders cell phones.  Let’s see what happens now, to a fictitious church plant:

Annie calls First Church to ask some questions about their church.  When she dials the number, it simultaneously rings Pastor Bill’s cell and home phones, his wife’s cell, and the cell of the lay leader.  Bill is busy, as is his wife, but the lay leader isn’t.  He looks at his caller ID, and sees that it is someone calling the Google number.  He answers and hears an announcement saying it is Annie.  He presses 1 to talk to Annie.
“First Church, this is Ed.  How may I help you today?
“Hi, I’m Annie, and…”

If no one had been available at all, Annie’s message would have been recorded, and put on the Google server so that any of the churches leaders could hear it from the online account, or accessed from a phone, the same way all voice mail is done.”  A transcribed text message would then be sent out by the system (I have this disabled on mine) to all of the cell phones with Annie’s message.  Whoever got to it first could return the call.

Ahh, the wonders of Google voice.  Try calling mine right now.

What Makes a Good Church Web Ministry (Part 4a)

I am sure that I will regret posting this.  I weighed the options in my mind: Don’t post-it doesn’t sound polished, there is no main point, I have no idea what I’m saying.  Do post-I won’t sleep if I don’t get this out.  I’m posting.

I just watched a video webinar from Drew Goodmanson and Cynthia Ware that was linked from Drew’s site.  It presents the data from a survey that they helped conduct.  I must say that it is making me re-examine some long held preconceptions of church social networking in my mind.  I am coming to realize that much of what I had thought two years ago is not working out socially the way I expected.  It is one of those slap-in-the-forhead moments.

I am still working out a lot of this.  Here are some things that I learned over the last 45 minutes:

The manin desires that the people in churches who were surveyed have for their church websites:

  1. Church events on an online calendar.  They want to be able to sign up for things online.
  2. Prayer requests online.  They want to be able to post prayer requests through the website.
  3. Serving connection.  People want to be able to find out how their gifts can fit into an area of service at the church.
  4. Home group connection.  People want to be able to connect to and interact with a home group.
  5. Church email/directory.  They want a way to be able to contact the church and church members using the website as a resource.
  6. Bible study connection.  They want to be able to study and connect with a Bible study online.

You know what was missing?  Social networking.  People did not feel that they needed a social network within their church.  Why would they?  Can we do Facebook better than Facebook?  If we could, should we?  Now that I think about it that way, I realize that even my answer is “no.”

Here is what they said they didn’t want:

  1. The ability to blog
  2. Classified ads
  3. A way to post their own photos
  4. A job posting board
  5. The ability to post things to a social media site

I do believe what they said regarding this day and age of new media is correct.  Building upon their base, I believe that Christians are going to have to use mostly existing social networking with excellence, and our success in Web Ministry will depend on our ability to do the following:

  1. Not add an additional network or online activity that church members don’t have time for.  I have been mulling this a lot lately.  It is becoming a full time job for people to keep up with all their networks.  In the very near future either one network is going to beat all of the others so badly that no others will exist, or social networking will completely disappear when everyone gets tired of it (not likely), or a solution will appear to completely integrate all major existing networks so that no one goes to facebook.com or any of the others anymore.  One blogpost will go out simultaneously on all, and these portals will cease to exist in the eyes of the average user.
  2. Make their Web Ministry a completely interactive place.  I can’t stress my belief in this point enough.  I am almost willing to say that an e-brochure style website is almost more of an embarrassment than a benefit.  I stop short though, because if a church doesn’t have their vital info linked online, they should think about shutting their doors.
  3. Provide instant gratification.  Things like podcasting and video have got to be available and accessible.
  4. Be decentralized.  Church Web content cannot be done in a top-down way.  Content has got to be available from more than one direction, if that makes sense.  I’m still working this one out.
  5. I really think that there needs to be an open-source nature to Web Ministry as well.  It needs to be collaborative, and allow some of the more tech-savvy people to do what they do best.

There will be more.  Like I said, I am still working this out.  This has been very stream-of-consciousness, I know, but now I am going to go to bed a little depressed.   I don’t like not having things worked out in my mind.

Internet Evangelism Day -April 26th

The other day I got a comment from Tony from InternetEvangelismDay.com. I usually am very skeptical about people who try to sneak link-spam into my blogs, and I tend to be pretty heavy handed with the comment approval. I checked out the site just for kicks-and-giggles, and was quite impressed with what I saw. Their site is a veritable menagerie of tools and helps for churches planning to use their Internet ministry effectively. At the core of their plan is to make April 26th a day dedicated to Internet evangelism worldwide. Continue Reading…

Internet Evangelism Day

The other day I got a comment from Tony from InternetEvangelismDay.com.  I usually am very skeptical about people who try to sneak link-spam into my blogs, and I tend to be pretty heavy handed with the comment approval.  I checked out the site just for kicks-and-giggles, and was quite impressed with what I saw.  Their site is a veritable menagerie of tools and helps for churches planning to use their Internet ministry effectively.  At the core of their plan is to make April 26th a day dedicated to Internet evangelism worldwide.  I am waiting to hear back from them about a few things, and am happy to use whatever platform I can to help them reach our mutual goals for ministry.  This really gets to the heart of my passion.

InternetEvangelismDay.com screenshot Behind all my theorizing and theologizing regarding the Church and communication is a core conviction that has been growing inside for several years.  Basically, I have grown tired of the Internet being the Devil’s playground.  Christians fear it.  UnChristians revel in it.  It is the Mos Eisley Cantina (for all the Geeks out there) of our little planet.

The Internet is both the biggest opportunity for evangelism in the history of the world, and the greatest tool the Church could ever hope for.  Yet we are letting it slip by deeper and deeper into darkness.

When Gutenberg invented the Printing Press, the Christian Bible was the first book ever printed, and almost immediately the Church showed that it intended to use this medium to the fullest.  Still to this day, the Bible remains the best selling printed book of all time, and other Christian books are common worldwide best sellers.  Yet, as the Internet spawned, the Church has been painfully slow and wary to use this medium much at all.

Do you doubt me?  Can you name one major Christian blog that cracks technorati’s top 50 regularly?  Give me one Christian site that is on everyone’s bookmark list.  We have GodTube, the poor Christian cousin of YouTube (I’m not really dissing them at all), and other Christian versions of popular culture online.  And yes, we use the Internet pretty well for Bible tools, and maybe some “Christian dating,” but not much else with excellence.

So my conviction and passion is to point the way for Christians to use this tool to spread the great news about what Jesus did for humanity through cyberspace, and to use the World Wide Web to teach people wanting to learn more about God wherever they are.  I have a passion for this, because I believe that God has a passion for it.  I believe that no x-rated site, or malicious virus can prevail against God and His people.  I believe in a revolution of love starting on your web page, and mine.

That is why I am behind what InternetEvangelismDay.com is doing.  Mark April 26th on your calendar, and start a viral movement to take the Internet for Christ.  –Ryan

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What Makes a Good Church Web Ministry (Part 3)

OK, here we go!  Let’s look at some examples of real live church websites that I have encountered recently.

As we get into this, let me give a brief explanation of how I am treating these.  Each of these are real websites that are live on the web as of this writing.  I have not manipulated these in any way, except that I have blurred anything that would immediately identify the churches or people involved.  Yes, you could probably figure out the churches if you try hard enough.  They are in public view anyway.  I am only concerned with being as fair as I can in critiquing them.  The second thing that I have done is to format the sites to best fit the image that I snapped of them.  I have also called both of these churches.  In one case (the good example) I ended up having a long and very fruitful conversation with the pastor.  In the case of the other, repeated calls have gone unanswered, and no one has ever answered their phone when I call.  I am curious as to the growth strategy for a church that never returns requests for communication, but that is another issue.  These same stipulations will generally hold true for any church site that I use from this point forward, unless I mention otherwise.

This is a less than effective site Example 2

In the first example, a hand drawn logo is at the top.  The frame is filled with blue, some links line the top under the header, and a few frames show a google map of the church’s location and welcome message.  When I visit the site, I immediately find out that they want to welcome me to their service, when it is, and how to get there.  The pages contain a few grammar errors, and there is a main link that says “under construction.”  On a brighter note, the calendar of events is up to date, although their “Vision Meeting” says something ambiguous about “blessed pot.”  Maybe they will have an influx of local community college students.  Another thing of note is that their google map on the home page is a screenshot, not an interactive google map.

Example 2 is a different story.  I am not holding this up as the paradigm for church websites, and I think that the design is quite old.  But immediately on accessing the site there is a wide range of stuff that grabs my attention.  There is a quick link to the sermon podcast that is up to date, there are some quick links for location and contacting in the upper right (you can’t see this well on the screenshot). and the phone number is there too.  The tabs are clean, and there is a slide show advertising a sermon series, picture galleries, and some shots of their location right at the top.  The events calendar is at the bottom of the homepage (not on this screenshot).  They did do one of my pet-peeves, though.  The senior pastor’s picture is right at the top, and there is a picture of the senior pastor and his wife less than an inch away near the welcome message.

This is one of those things that is just not well thought through, and a note to pastors:  OK, you are married.  Unless you are Rick Warren or Erwin McManus we don’t need to see lots of pictures of you and your family on the homepage.  People go to your site for a couple main reasons.  If they are thinking of attending your church, or if they are a current attender they might be looking for new information.  People are seldom looking to check out a church because you are the pastor.  They won’t know you until they come to your church usually.  One picture is fine if it looks professional.  A future entry will discuss building community through your site, and introducing your staff through the site.  This is not the way to do it.

Tied to that is the picture with “John and Jane Smith, Pastors” caption underneath.  If both spouses are equally in ministry together, they should have their own separate pictures.  People can figure out that they are married.  Another picture on the “Bios” area can have the two together with the family.  This is almost never the case, though.  In most cases the church just lists it that way because they think it is the new kitschy and inclusive thing to do.  That is not what is communicated to outsiders.  When the CEO of Apple puts his picture up with his wife and “Steve and Laureen Jobs, CEOs” underneath, then you can too.  Until then, it communicates unprofessionalism, and outsiders just think it looks weird.  We don’t need to copy the world, but we should try and keep from creating an out-of-touch subculture.

I know I ranted on this point, but it is a big issue.   -Ryan

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What Makes a Good Church Web Ministry (Part 2)

See part 1 here

Starting with the next post. I’ll start to get to where the proverbial rubber meets the road.  I am doing this quickly in this course of this blog because I believe that practicality is the name of the game.  We could discuss paradigms of effective communication in the Internet Age all day long and it won’t give any church an increased ability to do ministry online more effectively.  It might be best to look at some examples and then maybe pull back and see why what works.  I think that this might be more effective because of what I call the People/Code Dilemma.

codeThe People/Code Dilemma works like this:  The people who are usually great at developing websites are the people who like to look at code.  To them the WordPress tagline, “Code is Poetry,” rings true.  They like to look at numbers and formulas, and prefer things to be neat and logical.  These are not usually the people who are in church ministry.  Church ministry people are very often people people.  They realize that people are emotional and often illogical.  Looking at formulas is usually the last thing that these people want to do.  Sometimes, it is difficult for these people to communicate together in a way that makes an effective website.

To illustrate this further, I often work with a particular company that manages the CMS (Content Management System) for many of our company’s clients.  I am in a really unique relationship with them because I am a retail partner with them, and I am a user of their system through my own ministry.  Though I am definitely not a programmer/designer, I have realized as of late that my ministry uses their CMS at a level that is far above any of their other clients.  In fact, in a recent call one of their service guys told me that I know more about the CMS than any one person that they have.  This is not to say that I am brilliant.  It is just that each one of their programmers knows the code and functionality of one specific piece, but those people don’t know how to relate what they do to the whole of the system, or one particular customer’s need.

This means that in your average church, the people who have a vision to do ministry online don’t know anything about how to implement it.  The people who know how to implement the ideas often don’t have the people knowledge to connect the code to actual ministry application.

So what is the solution?  I would love to say “Do this and it will solve all your problems.”  I’d be lying.  There is no quick fix.  There are some general best practices that work well.  I’ll be listing and explaining them as they come along.  But, I will start out by saying this: Whatever you can do as a church to get your online ministry out of the hands of the techies in your church, and into the hands of the people of the church, the better.  No, you (pastor) are not going to be blogging weekly on your site and adding new picture galleries.  You may think you will, and you might for the first couple months, but then life is going to happen, and you’ll stop.

Like anything in ministry, whatever you can do to get the ministry of the church to be done by the people in the church and not just the paid staff,  will lead to success.  If you have hospitality food ministry, you need people in your church to take ownership of that  Otherwise, the pastors will get burned out, or other things won’t get done.  It is the same for the web.  Techies are nice and valuable people, but we do not need to burden them with things they can’t handle.

[A guy right behind me at the coffee shop just spilled coffee all over his laptop while I was writing this—but I think it is OK]

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Check out Part 3 of this series

10 Ways that Churches can Improve Communication

communicate It seems that the Information Age has been one of the most aptly named epochs in history.  The popular meme may be true, that the average American accesses more information every day than was accessed by our grandparents in their entire lifetimes.  But even if it isn’t, no one can deny that everywhere we turn some advertisement, announcement, print ad, or electronic message is vying for our attention.  The advent of the Internet has done nothing but make matters worse.  Now, instead of a couple dozen pieces of junk mail in my mailbox, I have an email box full of “cheap replica watches,” “free iPods” and unmentionable others.  Unfortunately, the church is doing a worse job at communicating that most of these spammers in my inbox.  Here are 10 ideas for your church to improve communication. Continue reading “10 Ways that Churches can Improve Communication”

What Makes a Good Church Web Ministry (Part 1)

It is time for a paradigm shift among most churches when it relates to the web.  This starts with the very nomenclature that is used to describe it.

Most churches “have a website.”  That is great!  Who doesn’t?  Most churches look at their “website” the way everyone did about 15-20 years ago, Web 1.0.  They have a site that includes some information about the church.  This is so that people who find the site will know what time the service is, how to get there, and maybe some info about how to dress and etc.  This paradigm looks at the site as a thing, sort of like a yellow-pages ad (really bad idea!) or a billboard on the freeway (in most cases an even worse idea).  It is a thing that displays information.

Might I suggest an idea that really came into my mind while preparing to speak about this very subject at a national conference last summer?  We need to stop thinking of church websites as a thing, and instead as a place.

As long as your church website is a billboard (or as we in the industry call it, an “ebrochure”) it will have no life, few visitors, and will be a waste of your resources.  Even with a free site donated by someone in the church, you get what you pay for.  I have talked to hundreds of pastors, and I have yet to hear one tell me that the free site donated to the church a year ago has been a great source of life and growth.

Instead, look at your website the same way that you do part of your building.  You church website is the sign out front, the foyer where people first make their impressions of who you are as a body, the Fellowship Hall where people gather, the sanctuary where people meet with God.  If you change your paradigm from thing to place, you have started in the right direction.

But that leaves one little detail unanswered.  You can’t really call it a website anymore.  A website is a thing.  To me “web ministry” better defines what churches end up with when they start thinking this way.  I will continue calling it that.  This blog is really meant for those who want a web ministry.  Folks who are looking for a website would do well to look up angelfire (do they still exist?).

Ryan

Check out Part 2

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