Ross W. Graham
When did you last look up the phone number of a plumber in the phone book? When did you last check the hours of operation of a restaurant in the Yellow Pages? If you are like most people these days, you used one of the many search engines on the Internet to find such information.
The Internetwe can't live with it; we can't live without it. But with over 50 percent of the world's population now under the age of thirty, there is a clear shift to the use of electronic means of obtaining and communicating information. As the "Millennial" generation, which reached maturity after the turn of the twenty-first century, begins to assert its influence in society, we have to keep pace with how these folks find information in order to minister effectively as Christ's church.
Let's be clear. We are not talking about altering the timeless message of the gospel. Preaching continues to be the means that God has ordained to save a people for himself. We're simply asking how we Orthodox Presbyterians can most effectively let people in today's world know where they can hear the straight teaching of God's word proclaimed. The answer is that every OP congregation needs to have a clear and welcoming presence on the Internet.
How did Paul learn that the God-fearers in Philippi gathered for prayer by the river on the Sabbath day? Acts 16:13 indicates that Paul and Silas were new to the city, but they used the means at their disposal to find the likeliest location where the gospel would get a hearing. And acting on the information they gained, they were able to lead Lydia and her household to Christ and begin the ministry of the church in Philippi. Similarly, we must use the best means available today to reach people.
It is increasingly the case that interested visitors will get to know your church's website long before they visit your congregation. They will learn your times of service. They will closely examine your beliefs and values. And they will study the pictures you post to discover what kind of people you are and how they might fit in. They will find directions to your meeting location through your website rather than calling to ask. And they will show up on time, dressed appropriately (because of the pictures you posted) and knowing who you are.
A quick review of the directory of churches on OPC.OPG, our denomination's official website, indicates that more than 85 percent of OP congregations already have some kind of Internet presence. But deacon Doug Vos of Oakland Hills Community Church in Farmington Hills, Michigan, says that not all websites are alike. "Just as you make sure your church lawn is mowed before Sunday services, you should also make sure that the information on your website is fresh and regularly updated." Doug is a website designer who has designed and maintained some of the largest and most successful corporate websites. But several years ago he put that world behind him and started Five More Talents, a website design company whose purpose is to help churches and other religious organizations communicate more effectively with a world that has become accustomed to Internet technology.
The congregation of Harvest OPC in Grand Rapids, Michigan, has a robust website. But Harvest pastor Dale Van Dyke says, "It's hard to keep our site updated with fresh and current information. Even though we have many technologically capable people in our congregation, everyone is so busy, and refreshing the site regularly with current dates, bulletins, newsletters, and pictures doesn't happen regularly." Fresh information is important for websites because those who rely on the Internet for their information expect it to be current and doubt its integrity if it appears to be old or out of date. Invitations on your website to last month's church picnic or last year's vacation Bible school make website visitors think your church might not still be around or doesn't really want them to know what is going on.
Garst Mill OPC in Roanoke, Virginia, and Immanuel OPC in Medford, New Jersey, both recently designed new websites to more effectively reach out to their communities using the help of Five More Talents.
Garst Mill pastor Tim McClymonds reports that he and his elders took eight or nine months to go through the website design process for their semirural community. The website designers provided lots of patient help and ideas for his older, established congregation. "They seemed really interested in helping small churches develop good websites." The cost of their website design was about $1,000, and maintaining the site costs about $35 a month.
Immanuel pastor David Harr reports that he and a group from his tech-savvy suburban congregation enlisted the help of Five More Talents to redesign and improve the outreach of their website at a cost of about $1,500. The process took about two busy months, during which many in the congregation were enlisted to take pictures, write articles, and evaluate designs. And because they wanted the site to be updated weekly with the postings of bulletins, sermons, announcements, and pictures, their costs for maintaining the site are about $130 a month. "We found that even though we had many in the congregation who were capable of maintaining our website, they just didn't have the time. It has worked much better to pay for these services, and Five More Talents does a great job for us," Harr said.
The Immanuel congregation has also made other uses of their website for both outreach and communication. "This past summer we advertised our weeklong vacation Bible camp with banners and fliers throughout the community and announced that sign-up would be on our website. We found that people from the community felt very comfortable checking us out on the Internet and signing up their children on our website. While most of the families in the congregation didn't bother to register their children (because they were already involved), new families from the community used our website and every child who was registered actually came!" Additionally, the church has a Facebook page linked to their website, through which "friends" learn of announcements and share prayer requests. "If I learn that someone's child is sick, or that someone had a rough week at work, it helps me to pray and to greet them more knowledgeably when I see them or call on them," Harr said.
Pastor Rich MacLaren of First Presbyterian Church in Perkasie, Pennsylvania, has taken Internet communication to the next level, attracting one thousand views a day of their church's worship and sermon videos through the use of YouTube. Pastor Bill Welzien of Keys Presbyterian Church in Key West, Florida, uses YouTube to enable visitors to the Keys-Christians.org website to view his street preaching presentations of the gospel. And Andrew Moody, a web consultant for the Committee on Christian Education, is actually using a Facebook page and a website to gather core group families to establish a new church in the northwestern part of Houston, Texas.
In today's world, a website is a powerful tool of communication for a local congregation. Investing the time and finances to develop and maintain a good website is a means of outreach and a bridge to evangelism. It tells people who you are and what you are about. It invites them winsomely to visit and directs them to where you meet. And it even prepares them for the kind of teaching they will receive when they come.
When new churches are planted in the OPC these days, one of the first things we urge them to do is to develop a good website. If funds are tight (and they usually are), we advise them to give website development a higher priority than phone book ads or other print advertising, and to budget and pay what it costs to maintain and improve their website.
Every Orthodox Presbyterian church has a duty to let people know where they can find the food of God's truth. And in today's world, people turn first to the Internet to conveniently and anonymously find the information they need. If we give it to them effectively, we allow the Holy Spirit to use that information to work his perfect will in their lives.
The author is the general secretary of the Committee on Home Missions and Church Extension. New Horizons, October 2010.