How your Church Website can Reach your Community with Service
Recently, I wrote a guest piece for the Theologia Ordinarius blog on a Theology of Church Web Design, which I hope you will consider reading if you haven’t already seen it. In my final point on that blog, I hinted at the possibility of churches using their websites to do more than simply provide basic information on their church to potential visitors and to act as a community-building resource for the congregation.
While it would be foolish for any church to neglect to potential impact of reaching out to others through its website, many churches are content to post logistical information on where and when to find a Sunday morning worship service and to tell visitors that they are “most welcome,” and conclude that they have done as much outreach as can be expected on the web. Realistically, your church website needs that information but the only visitors it will attract are those who are already Christian (note: this is a good thing, but not really outreach). This may not be the case in the Bible Belt where I understand (second-hand) that church-going is a cultural norm for many who have no faith, but it seems safe to say that most people who are not already Christians have no interest in visiting a church unless they are personally invited. This means that your website may be bringing in people who are new to your church, but not people who are new to the Church, those people who do not yet know Christ.
This does not mean that outreach to non-Christians online is impossible; it just requires some creativity. Despite the continuing prevalence of tracts and street-corner prophets, the most effective and faithful way to share the good news of Jesus Christ is to share it person-to-person, with Christians and the church community manifesting the love of God as the Holy Spirit works within them. While it is admittedly difficult for your church’s website to develop a person-to-person relationship with anyone, you can still use it to manifest God’s love for the people of your surrounding community by serving them.
There are undoubtedly endless ways that your church could serve the community through the web and I encourage you to ask your congregations to pray for the Spirit’s guidance and inspiration, but I would like to offer a few ideas to get the ball rolling, beginning by highlighting some of the needs that exist in most communities.
The Need for Hyper-Local News
In our day of globalized news coverage and the death of the small newspaper, it is increasingly difficult for people to find relevant news about their own community. When your neighbors tune in to the six o’clock news, they will primarily hear national reports with a smattering of the most sensational stories from their general metropolitan area. While local metropolitan newspapers are capable of better local coverage, they still often miss many stories and certainly are not capable of giving sustained focus to any town of less than 100,000 residents. Even in cities with excellent local journalism (e.g. New York City or Los Angeles) the newspaper is necessarily constrained to reporting on only the most apparently significant events, leaving the smaller communities (like the neighborhoods of TriBeCa and Queens in NYC, or individual cities like Inglewood or Azusa in LA) largely overlooked. Journalism alone cannot make a strong community, but it certainly is capable of strengthening communities.
Meeting the Need
Your church can easily develop a website with a social media presence that serves as a news hub for your community. While such a site will require an overseer to moderate and curate content, the vast majority of the content can easily be submitted by members of the content. The service your church provides in this context is that of serving as a reliable central location for all local news and events. By relying primarily upon reader-submitted content, your church not only has a much easier job but also begins to build a partnership with the people of your community who may begin to recognize their ability to help contribute in service to their neighbors.
A great example of this sort of hyper-local news is offered by Planet Princeton, a local resource for Princeton, NJ. While it is not in any way connected to a church, Planet Princeton serves as a useful model. Not only do they aggregate reader-contributed news and events, they have reliably relayed vital information on road closures, police advisories, and store closings in the recent October snowstorm and Hurricane Irene.
The Need for Easy Access to Community Resources
In the United States, poverty and need are rarely the result of too few resources existing in a community, but rather are rather the result poor resource allocation, ignorance concerning available services, and confusing systems for obtaining those services. For example, there are undoubtedly families in your community in need of an extra bed and other families with a spare box spring and mattress sitting in storage, but neither is aware of the other. In other cases, there are single mothers who qualify for welfare, food stamps, and discounts on heating fuel but who are either unaware of their eligibility or discouraged after trying to navigate the bureaucratic processes required to access these services. Likewise, there are unemployed residents who are in need of proper interview attire, resume-writing skills, and even a ride to their interview who are unaware of your church’s clothing distribution ministry, the public library’s resume workshop, and of the schedule of the local bus system.
Meeting the Need
Your church can empower and enable your neighbors to find and access resources in several ways. First, and most simply, you can provide a website with well-explained links and information on local resources. This might include links to the local unemployment office, city bus schedule, public library, and food pantries. On this level, your service would primarily be that of helping your neighbors to be aware of all the resources available them.
With a bit more effort, your church can provide not only links and information, but also guides to help your neighbors decide which available resources will be of the most use to them and tutorials to help them access those resources.
The Need for a Newcomer’s Guide to the Community
Whether we like it or not, we live in an increasingly mobile culture that almost ensures your community will constantly be acquiring residents who are new to the area, and those new residents will be weighed down with the stress of driving an unfamiliarly large U-Haul, finding a suitable home, settling into new jobs, meeting their new neighbors, and enrolling their children at new schools. Aside from those non-negotiable stresses, new residents face the strains of building new relationships; finding a grocery store, bank, coffee shop, mechanic, dry-cleaner, and restaurants; picking up local colloquialisms (i.e. the people of your town may have developed nicknames for local landmarks); learning the local laws and routines (e.g. noise curfew times and garbage pick-up days).
Meeting the Need
By this point, you will have guessed that your response to this need could be a website serving as a guide for newcomers. You can organize and neatly present the locations of post offices, city hall, grocery stores, mechanics, gas stations, parks, and much more. Your church might also provide a helpful guide to the nuances and idiosyncrasies of the community: the local jargon, laws, and ordinances that are difficult to pick up otherwise. Of course, you can also extend an invitation to newcomers to find community within your church.
Every one of these needs may not exist in your community, but without doubt at least one of them does. Your church can choose to meet one or all of them, alone or in partnership with other local churches. By simply serving your community in this way and honestly acknowledging on the site that it is supported by your church, you will be fulfilling Jesus’ commandment to love others while simultaneously helping the people of your community to recognize that your church is interested in loving them.
I’d love to hear what your churches are doing or hope to do along these lines. Please let me know about what you come up with below.