Tips on how to garden your website, Huron Church News April 2017

Throughout this series, I’ve written in detail about how your website is often the first and sometimes the only impression a church gets to make.

But websites are like gardens, they must be regularly tended and updated or else they get overgrown and unappealing. So it’s important to take stock every now and then.

Here are a quick five things you can do to ‘audit’ your website to keep it fresh and well weeded.

Keep the pages well structured. Common elements such as headers, footers, sidebars and menu items should be consistent on every page. Your home page can be an exception to this rule, but a visitor must be able to find their way around.

Keep the text short and well structured. I try to remove 50% of the words from my first draft. Readers disengage if they have to read too much to find your point or have to wade through too much jargon. Your website is your first point of contact with those un-churched. Words like Eucharist, Compline and BCP and BAS have deep meaning to those inside the church, but to many, it is confusing jargon.

People tend to scan when they read online. Break up your text into short sentences and paragraphs. Make liberal use of bullet points and headers and include an image every 250 words to keep people engaged and illustrate your point.

The menu should be short and concise. If you need more than 7 items, consider sub-menus so visitors can quickly find what they are looking for.

Have a clear and distinct call-to-action that drives visitors to fulfil the goal of your site. If you don’t know the goal of your website, now is a good time to think about it. For a church community, you likely want to increase attendance at your weekly services, solicit donations for your ministry, recruit volunteers, or collect contact information for potential members. Once you have identified your goal, your website needs to make it simple and easy for visitors to do it. A large “register for our newsletter” button or “newcomer information” page may suit your needs. Just make sure to keep it clear and concise.

Make your website accessible. You want your website to reach as many people as possible, so make sure it can be read with different devices and browsers. There is now more mobile traffic than desktop traffic so your website should be mobile-friendly at the very least. Ideally, you should also consider users using accessibility software such as screen readers for those who are colour blind.

These simple five tips can be used when designing your new website or auditing your existing site. If you discover your site needs a little work, don’t worry; even the healthiest garden is never maintenance-free. But by knowing what needs to be done and keeping on top of your content, layout, and goals, your site will help your community fulfil the Great Commission and make that first point of contact memorable, in a good way.

Email – central to your parish’s communications strategy, Huron Church News March 2017

Email is King. All hail the king!

I know that sounds flippant, but in P2P communication no platform has yet managed to supplant email. As popular as Facebook and Twitter have become, the largest P2P communication channel remains email.

In 2015, 205 billion emails, on average, were sent each day. Meanwhile, only 23 billion text messages are sent each day, 500 million Tweets and 55 million status updates are created on Facebook. The numbers are staggering, I know. Yet, the volume of emails dwarfs all others players in the field.

The power of email cannot be understated. While some people may resist signing up to Facebook or Twitter, or undertake a Lenten fast from social media, the one channel that even the latest adopters usually have is email. This means email is central to any parish’s communication strategy.

My current favourite application to help with email and parish ministry is MailChimp. The Forever Free plan at Mailchimp allows for up to 2000 subscribers and 12,000 emails to be sent each month free of charge. The multiple list feature allows for different communications to reach different audiences. Customizable templates can be updated with a parish logo, pictures and text, or, with a little HTML knowledge, you can create your own.

Regular communications like announcements and newsletters can be created easily and unexpected messages such as obituaries and emergency announcements can be quickly shared with the entire community or just a small group. MailChimp can also be integrated with tools such as Facebook, WordPress, Raiser’s Edge and more.

This free platform allows churches to use email to build community and fellowship and keep in touch with those that may otherwise only connect a few times a year. By having the entire parish list only a click away, communities are able to come together in times of crisis and share the Good News of God’s Spirit working in the world.

You can read more about how MailChimp can help manage your church communications by reading their guide for nonprofits here: https://mailchimp.com/resources/guides/mailchimp-for-nonprofits.

Too many friends? Know your limit! Huron Church News February 2017

Recently, I saw a news post on my Facebook feed and I realized I couldn’t remember who the ‘friend’ who posted it was. Obviously, not one of my closest friendships. With upwards of 1100 friends on Facebook I find it difficult to maintain all these relationships and keep straight who is who.

This got me thinking about the 150 rule, or Dunbar’s number.

Dunbar’s number is the suggested limit to the number of people with whom it is possible to maintain stable social relationships. Within a group that does not exceed this number, you know who each person is and how each person relates to all others within the group. Robert Dunbar, the British anthropologist, first proposed this number in the 1990s.

The 150 rule wasn’t exactly new though. Hutterites, a Christian farming sect related to Mennonites, create new daughter colonies when the original colony surpasses 150 people. The communal lifestyle of the Hutterites becomes endangered as the size of the group grows. Relationships drift and a sense of accountability to the collective is lost. A colony, at its absolute maximum, may have up to 250 people. Once that upward threshold is reached, 10 to 20 families leave the colony to plant a new community, leaving 150 people in the original colony. Hutterites have been engaging in this practice since 16th century.

The same principle is also true for our worshipping communities. Once membership reaches 150, social connections begin to break down and familiarity is lost. There is a certain magic about small churches. They have that family feel of knowing everyone and belonging which comes from not exceeding Dunbar’s number.

Social media lowers the bar for ‘maintaining’ relationships which allows us expand our network well past Dunbar’s number. This is both good and bad. Social media allows us to reconnect with people we have lost contact with, and maintain connections that might otherwise drift or dissolve. However, as the Hutterites have known for centuries, it can be extremely difficult to keep so many relationships in order, no matter the medium. While it is nice to reconnect with that high school friend initially, it may become more draining than it is worth.

Recently, I found Facebook becoming too much. Overwhelmed with messages from people that I was having difficulty placing, I decided that something had to be done. I found myself going through my friends list and realized I didn’t know who many of my ‘friends’ were. I could easily have gone on the great Facebook cull of 2017 and un-friended 500 people. Yet I had made these connections because I had, at some point, thought they would be worthwhile so I was hesitant to throw it all away.

Facebook allows you to ‘tune’ your feed so you can see only what you want. You can unfollow someone while remaining friends, or make sure close connections are surfaced at the top of your feed. This feature has allowed me to de-clutter my Facebook, while maintaining all the loose connections I want. My news feed now only contains those relationships I want to strengthen, and allows the others to become acquaintances: people to which I am available, but not overwhelmed by. And while I am nowhere close to Dunbar’s number, the noise has diminished and my news feed is much more manageable.

As we come closer to Lent, maybe it is the time to de-clutter your Facebook as well. Instead of a social media hiatus for 40 days, those 40 days can be spent de-cluttering. Prioritize those relationships that are important. As much as we all want to be liked, nobody can be friends with everyone, or, as it turns out, more than about 150 people.

Don’t push content upon your followers but interact with them, Huron Church News January 2017

The road to Emmaus is one of the best biblical accounts of how social media works.

I find it striking that in this 2000-year-old account of a resurrection appearance of Jesus Christ we have the very fundamentals of social media. But then again should I be surprised? The Gospel is, after all, always astonishing.

In this passage, Jesus appears to the disciples, although they do not yet know who he is. He walks with them along the long and dusty road. He comes into relationship with them. Jesus dialogues with them and lets them open up to him about themselves and what has just transpired in Jerusalem. Jesus does not force the conversation or push “content” upon them. Instead he builds a relationship.

After a time, once a relationship has been established, Jesus continues to dialogue with them, but he also begins to offer His own content. He opens their minds to scriptures. This is tricky of course, because this is the moment when we would want to push more content on people, but Jesus demonstrates that the time is not yet right. Instead, He focuses on building the relationship, understanding a subject (namely the scriptures), and walking with his disciples.

On the road to Emmaus, Jesus demonstrates something fundamentally important about relationship building that we lose at times in social media. We push content on the web: posts, blogs, sermons, images, tweets, etc. We push content in the hopes of gaining new followers and new “likes”. We purchase ads to further our reach and further the reach of our communities. But by doing so we can forget what Jesus talked about so long ago, and that is to come into relationship with people.

Pushing content seems natural to us. Having something new on our Facebook pages and websites seems critically important in a world increasingly based on consumption. Yet, I think that on that long and dusty road, Jesus demonstrates that instead of consuming, we ought to be coming into relationship with one another.

So while content is important, so also is it important to stop, engage and interact with those that like, comment, or share our posts. Take time in your day to read what others share on their social networks and work on building relationships. Enter into dialogue, discuss, and get to know one another.

In today’s media savvy world, it is critical to not only use social media tools, but to use them effectively. Social media is just that: social. Effective use requires two-way dialogue and engagement. And remember we count success not in number of likes, dollars on the plate or even growth. Success is best measured in spreading of the Gospel message and coming into real relationship with those we encounter.

Encouraging Tech Ed while protecting and guiding our kids, Huron Church News December 2016

Youth spend much of their time online and with their eyes firmly affixed to a screen and with the growing importance of tech in education, social circles and professional demands, it’s unlikely that will change anytime soon. When was the last time your teenager actually used a phone to call someone?

Knowing these realities, how can we encourage the positive aspects of the digital world while still protecting and guiding our kids? Especially as the family computer in the living room disappears and is replaced by private devices that can be difficult to monitor or control?

It is important to note that the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA) in the United States prohibits sites from collecting information from or making available information about users under the age of 13. Since many of the most popular social networks are based in the U.S., these sites cannot legally allow those under 13 to open accounts. Either you or your child would have to lie, and I wouldn’t recommend that approach. (Ex 20:16)

Some sites, such as YouTube and Whatsapp have older age requirements to create an account (18 and 16 years old respectively) and some are more proactive about enforcing the restrictions than others. In many cases, it is very easy for a child to lie about their age. Aside from legal restrictions, many sites have mature content and the age restrictions should be considered when deciding if having an account on a given service is appropriate.

Beyond basic age restrictions, here are a few strategies to help you and your kids navigate the digital world safely and confidently.

  • Before signing up for any site, both parents and kids should understand how the platform works, how data is stored and shared, what privacy settings are available, and what kind of communication is possible.

  • Establish usage guidelines. Be clear about what kind of use is acceptable – including the kind of communication, communication partners, what kind of personal information can be shared, and the frequency or time of day that access is permitted.

  • Be aware of who your kids are communicating with and what kind of content they are viewing.

  • Trust but verify. Many parents require knowing account passwords or to be given access when requested as a condition for use of certain applications or sites. This requires a lot of two-way trust but it can be a good way to keep your kids accountable and ensure that you can check on them if you absolutely need to.


  • The digital world offers amazing opportunity to connect with friends, learn and share ideas and share our lives with others. As we read in Proverbs (20:6), “Start children off on the way they should go, even when they are old they will not turn from it.” A secure safe foundation for our kids will help develop technical skills and the confidence to navigate the digital world.

    Sharing photos, tagging and privacy issues, Huron Church News November 2016

    I am often asked why Facebook sometimes displays questionable ads because a friend of yours “liked” it. Except you know your friend has never played online poker, ordered foreign pharmaceuticals, or taken out a payday loan. Why would Facebook assume your friend, and you by extension, is interested in these things? Simple: “Like Farming.”

    Like farmers create Facebook pages and create content dedicated to collecting as many “likes” or “shares” as possible. A simple “brain teaser” that only “geniuses” can solve, a nostalgic image of the past, or fake contests that you have to like to enter are common fodder for link farmers. And since Facebook’s algorithms place a high value on popularity, highly liked and shared pages have a much higher chance of appearing in your feed and being seen by your friends and family.

    Once the farm has grown a high popularity rating, the farmer either removes the page’s original content and replaces it with something more nefarious (usually malware or scam advertising) or they outright sell the highly liked page to a third party.

    Now instead of liking a page for “your chance to win $5000 from Bill Gates,” you are now a fan of online gambling, for example.

    Many like-farmers rely on appeals to emotion: anytime you’re urged to “like” or “share” a post that pulls at your heartstrings there’s likely a like-farmer behind it. “This poor little girl with cancer lost her hair to chemotherapy — ‘like’ this post to let her know she’s still beautiful!” “This new government policy is outrageous — ‘like’ this post if you’re outraged, too!”

    If you are unsure whether a page or post is legitimate there are a few places to go to verify the pages information before hitting the like button. Snopes.com is a website dedicated to dispelling rumours and lies that spread online faster than the common cold. Another good site is facecrooks.com which keeps you up-to-date on Facebook scams and provides information about how to protect your privacy.

    While Jesus said in the Gospel of Luke, ‘No one who puts a hand to the plough and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.’ On Facebook, it is a good practice to periodically look back and weed through your past “likes.” You might be surprised to notice you really don’t like some of those things at all.

     

     

     

    The insidious threats of “like farming”, Huron Church News October 2016

    The smell of lavender evokes powerful feelings for me. Simply passing a fragrant candle is enough to spark memories and bring a smile to my face on my worst days. That sweet smell can cast away any shadow. You see, lavender is the scent of the baby shampoo we use for my daughter, Hannah.

    Our senses can be a powerful means of evoking an emotional response. And this forms the backbone of creating a consistent brand. Create a smell, sound or sight that links to an experience and it becomes possible to evoke that memory again and again. Get that smell, sound or sight out in the world and it can bring people to your door.

    This association is part of the core philosophy of branding, the process involved in creating a unique name and image for a product in the consumer’s’ mind. The same techniques apply to the church and how we present ourselves to the world. Creating that association is key. And part of any branding exercise is, of course, having a distinguished and recognizable logo.

    Logos tell stories and can create powerful associations for people. In the blink of an eye the Golden Arches or the Nike swoosh are both recognizable and they evoke emotions, memories, and opinions. Just seeing the logo on a billboard can subtly influence your next shoe or dinner decision.

    stam_logoFor congregations, branding can be used to create a recognizable presence in your community. At my previous parish of St. Andrew Memorial, we chose a bold and modern St. Andrew’s cross to communicate that the community was rooted in tradition but has modern relevance.

    Once we had our logo, it was critical to put it everywhere. The goal was to make it instantly recognizable to our neighbours and anyone that came in contact with the community. From bulletins to vestry reports, from Web and social media platforms to outdoor signage, the logo permeated all of the parish’s communications.

    Any communication, signage, sponsorships or outreach that bore our logo contributed to the emotions or memories evoked by it later on. Seeing the logo sparked a memory about something the church had done – i.e. “oh yah, you are the church with the garden” – or of an experience with it.

    Seeing a logo everywhere can lose its appeal to the everyday parishioner or priest, but remember: the logo is not for you, it is about you. It tells your story and helps seekers associate the logo with the essence that is your church. In the end a logo is a symbol meant to convey the enormity of all you wish to communicate about who you are as a community. It speaks of your worship, your outreach and how you interact with the world around you.

    Each individual church ought to have its own individual logo. This creates an emotional association with parishioners, neighbours and those that are served. And we are wise to remember that such a simple image can have a profound effect and stir powerful emotions that will help to fulfill the Great Commission.

    Frequency of posting: how to create a consistent presence, Huron Church News September 2016

    Your church’s digital communication is like connecting with a friend. If you call infrequently, you tend to drift apart. If you speak too often, you might feel like the friendship requires too much of your attention. You may consider changing your phone number or letting the call go to voice mail.

    The same tension can be found online. While you want to stay in contact with friends and share events from your church and life, you also don’t want to spam your Facebook feed with too much too often.

    Consistency is key. Your church’s communication plan should consider the frequency in addition to the tone of your communications. Consider when content will be posted, and how often (daily, weekly or a few times a week), and what sort of content will be shared. Just as infrequent posting says something about your community so does posting too often.

    This can be a challenging task. Luckily, there are tools to help you schedule your social media posts so you can plan ahead instead of constantly considering when and what to post.

    The first tool at our disposal is the native built-in scheduler on Facebook. This simple tool lets you load a series of posts ahead of time – say before a vacation or the busy Christmas season. This tool can be found in the drop-down menu next to the publish button on your page. Instead of publishing the post, simply schedule it.

    Hootesuite.com has been my go-to for scheduling and managing social media accounts for years. I use the free version, which allows me to manage multiple social media platforms at once including Twitter and Facebook and schedule posts across multiple streams. The free version allows you to manage three different accounts through one convenient dashboard.

    Another solution that has recently appeared on my radar is Buffer.com. The free version of Buffer is wonderful for scheduling posts but the dashboard only manages a single Facebook account. Despite this limitation, Buffer is a great solution for a church as it can schedule posts for your Facebook page, Twitter and Instagram accounts. If you happen to manage multiple Facebook pages, Twitter or Instagram accounts, you will need to upgrade to a paid version.

    By scheduling posts in advance, you only need an hour or two a month to create consistency and an active social media presence. Much of the work of sharing content and promoting events can be scheduled in advance, freeing you from being tethered to your phone or computer daily. Think of it like mailing a letter, once you have placed it in the mailbox, you can walk away knowing it will be delivered, freeing you to focus on other areas of ministry while keeping your social media accounts consistently active.

    A Picture is Worth a Thousand Shares, Huron Church News May 2016

    Parish life can be hectic. There are many events to attend: garage sales, bible studies special worship services, and dinners to name but a few. Each of these events is a chance to tell the story of your parish community and to celebrate the good work that is being done in the name of Jesus Christ.

    These are the very real personal stories of communities in action that will attract newcomers and strengthen existing relationship between parishioners. These are the stories of faith, the minutia of day to day parish life. And these are the stories that can have the biggest impact on your outward communication strategies.

    It is necessary then that these stories are captured to share and celebrate. To do this, a person in the community should be tasked with documenting each event. This seems obvious but is far too often overlooked. People will often take personal photos but these usually end up being communicated by that individual rather than as part of the broader communication strategy of the parish and shared on the parish’ social media channels.

    Assigning this task needs to be considered when planning any event so the opportunity is not missed. Not only is the event captured for posterity, but the recordings and photos can be used to communicate the vitality and essence of your community on your social media and web channels.

    In this way, visitors to your social media platforms will see the active and vibrant community that exists. Rather than a post from several months ago and pictures from a couple of years ago, they will be able to see recent engaging activities that communicate the life of the community.

    We have much to share in the life of the church. Even after these events have passed and are over, their effect can live on. The images, pictures and stories can inspire new generations to come to church. They can tell the story of your community. And most importantly, they can tell the story of Jesus Christ.

    So be ready at your next event, dinner or special worship service. Task an individual with snapping a few pictures and share those pictures on your parish’s social media channels. Celebrate your events and celebrate your community. And in doing so you will help make Christ known to the broader world.

    Use your website to call your visitors to action, Huron Church News February 2016

    “Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you” — Matthew 28:19-20

    Matthew gives us a call to action and we measure our success by the number of disciples brought to our Lord.

    By applying the same principles to our online communications, we can ensure we effectively achieve our Lord’s call to action.

    Having a website for your church has become as much of a requirement as having a listing in the phone book. They’re essential for people to find you.

    But once they do find your website, what action do you want them to take?

    Do you want them to look at your Sunday service times? Sign up for your newsletter? Volunteer for a ministry?

    What you want your visitors to do can help you get the results you want from your web presence. Having a well-defined call to action on your website means you can direct your users toward your desired action and measure how well you achieve your goal.

    Driving people to your action is best achieved by a simple, clear call on your site.

    A distinct button that says, “click here to register” or “visit us” is a good example of a call to action. When a user clicks on the link, you know that your website has achieved its goal.

    Measuring the success of your call to action is easy with Google Analytics. By adding a tracking code, you can track how many visitors came to your site, and most importantly, how many of those did what you wanted them to do.

    You can track visits to a given page, clicks of a button or downloads of a file, or you can define your own custom events to track.

    By identifying clear and measurable goals for your website, you can design your site and content around driving traffic through your calls to action.

    Once your goals are clearly defined, measuring success is just a matter of setting up analytics and tweaking your site until it is performing the way you want it to.