Venturing onto the Highway
Linda Porter Foh
"Then the master said to the servant, 'Go out into the highways and hedges, and compel them to come in, that my house may be filled'" (Luke 14:23 NKJV).
By now, most New Horizons readers have heard of the Information Superhighway, or Internet. The July 1997 issue of New Horizons featured several articles on computers in the church, including some discussion of the Internet. G. I. Williamson likened the impact of the Internet to that of the printing press:
Try to imagine the Reformation without the printing press! It made it possible for bold men of God to spread the truth rapidly to the multitudes. It is my conviction that we are entering an age of information transfer that dwarfs the one that helped to spur on the Reformation. We who still hold to the Reformation gospel must make every effort to make maximum use of computers today.
Books will never become obsolete, but it is astonishing how much information is "out there" on the Internet. As with books, of course, some of the "information" is very good and some is really rotten. Satan is excessively well represented. Nonetheless, the Internet provides remarkable possibilities to spread the gospel and publicize our congregations.
Have you visited www.opc.org, the OPC's ever-expanding Web site? In addition to information about our church, the texts of our doctrinal standards, articles from New Horizons and Ordained Servant, General Assembly reports, and much more, there is an updated directory of all OP congregations, listing their meeting location and service times, an e-mail address, a phone number, and, increasingly, a Web site.
Already over sixty OP churches maintain their own Web sites, and more are appearing monthly. Most are linked to the www.opc.org on-line directory. These congregations vary widely in age and size. I polled their pastors and Webmasters to discover what they've learned about advertising on the Internet. Here are some of their comments.
Each OP Web site is a variation on the same theme: who we are, what we believe, where and when we meet, how to contact us, and an invitation to worship. These essentials can fill one page, and many churches stop there. Others fill numerous pages with history (denominational and congregational), doctrinal standards and distinctives, photos, maps, a schedule of meetings, an order of worship with weekly updates, a greeting from the pastor with his biography and testimony, sermon transcripts, articles, links to other Reformed sites, favorite recipes from church suppers, and more.
Everything should be organized so a visitor can find information easily. "Make your site simple to usedon't use too many menu layers. Let those who want to browse your site get into most things from your front page." "State the obvious because it may not be obvious to them. A simple explanation with hypertext links to fuller details works better than one long statement they will probably not scroll through."
Who determines content? Most sites require session approval, with input from interested members. Many churches include the printed materials they already give to visitors, such as What Is the OPC?, What Is the Reformed Faith? and the Confession of Faith. Christ OPC in Salt Lake City, Utah, includes helpful material on witnessing to Mormons.
Be discerning with content. The OPC Web site lists only pastors' phone numbers and e-mail addresses in its on-line directory, and doesn't include details of OP foreign missionaries' activitiesfor their protection. "Be careful how you respond to e-mail requests from those who do not identify and qualify themselves as worthy of response. Not everyone has a right to know how many members, singles, or children you have."
"Be careful not to incite or provoke. Yes, we're pro-life and we don't ordain women, but that isn't necessarily something to say to people who may be electronically looking for someone to beat on." Before including denominational or missions news on your Web page, it's wise to check with "headquarters" (firstname.lastname@example.org, email@example.com, or firstname.lastname@example.org).
Who handles the technical stuff? Quite often the pastor: directions in one hand, typing with the other. This should encourage other pastors who have no computer "geeks" in their congregation. It is relatively easy to construct a simple Web site.
Other Webmasters have more technical ability and some contribute their time and know-how enthusiastically. "I have found much joy and satisfaction in using talents that the Lord has given me in his service. It is better to be in the service of God for one day than a thousand days in service for yourself or anyone else."
Internet advertising can be amazingly economical, and the range of options and prices can fit a site into many budgets. "It's cheap: free, in fact, considering that I was paying for the space on the Web server anyway. You can include far more information than in a newspaper or phone book ad." Many churches piggyback their site on the pastor's or Webmaster's Internet e-mail account. Some local Internet providers give free space to nonprofit organizations. Other congregations buy their own domain for a higher annual fee. For example, daytonopc.org is shared by Redeemer OPC and Covenant OPC in Dayton, Ohio.
The OPC Web site now allows congregations to establish Web sites under its domain name, i.e., www.opc.org/local/church name. Several design, size, and pricing options are available that can enable more congregations to venture onto the Internet. Contact Jonathan Barlow (email@example.com), the OPC's Web consultant, for details.
Should your congregation cancel its print advertising in favor of a Web site? That probably isn't wise, since they reach different audiences, and most local inquirers will look for you first in phone books and newspapers. But including your Web address in print ads will provide additional information for those who can get access to it.
Do Web sites produce fruit? Yes! Several OP churches have welcomed visitors and received new members who found them on the Internet.
But there are other kinds of fruit. People all over the world can visit a Web site: some surf randomly; others are referred by friends, ads, or links. In God's design, one plants, another waters, and still another brings in the harvest.
Mutual edification and encouragement also bear fruit for the church, and Web sites do that well. A Web surfer can visit a quarter of our congregations so far, learning lots about them and reading all sorts of edifying material.
As with any visit to a sister church, sign its guest book! Often there's an on-line version; otherwise, drop an e-mail to the Webmaster or pastor. Encouraging words, and even lovingly pointed-out typographical errors, are always welcome between brethren.
More and more churches are using this remarkable technology for the Lord's service. May he bless our witness on the Information Superhighway and glorify his name through it.
Mrs. Foh is a member of Pocono OPC in Stroudsburg (Tannersville), Pennsylvania. Reprinted from New Horizons, October 1999.