DISCLAIMERS: 1)There are better technical people out there concerning the web. 2) Do as I suggest, not as I do. I’m trying to keep up myself, and our college website reflects almost nothing of what I talk about. That’s how fast things change. 3) There are a lot of college ministries out there, and there are a lot of online tools to use, but it doesn’t seem like many are thinking through how to best utilize the new media and Web 2.0 (and yikes, Web 3.0) in their groups. 4) Knowing that things change overnight in technology, I hope to somehow impart to you some of the things I have been learning and wrestling with in these areas. You don’t need to be an expert in this area, just know enough to think critically about the issue. 5) If you have feedback, suggestions, criticisms, please comment. This is by no means all encompassing.

Starting Out

There are a lot of good books out there on the new media, web 2.0, building web platforms, etc., but no book has challenged my thinking, and convinced me to turn in certain directions as did the “manifesto” Getting Real by the guys at 37 Signals, when it comes to the issues of simplicity, flexibility, cost and speed. I consider it a must read in this area.

Getting Real is about skipping all the stuff that represents real (charts, graphs, boxes, arrows, schematics, wireframes, etc.) and actually building the real thing.

Getting real is less. Less mass, less software, less features, less paperwork, less of everything that’s not essential (and most of what you think is essential actually isn’t).

Getting Real is staying small and being agile.

Getting Real starts with the interface, the real screens that people are going to use. It begins with what the customer actually experiences and builds backwards from there. This lets you get the interface right before you get the software wrong.

Getting Real is about iterations and lowering the cost of change. Getting Real is all about launching, tweaking, and constantly improving which makes it a perfect approach for web-based software.

Getting Real delivers just what customers need and eliminates anything they don’t.

When a college ministry decides to have an online presence there are a few things to keep in mind. Some of these things are:

  • student participation
  • the fast changing culture of college/university life
  • finicky tastes/styles
  • revolving body of students and leaders
  • budget
  • access/control
  • etc. (these are just a few)

So because of these issues and many others, ministries need to keep in mind several things before they decide to develop and build a website, or some other form of online presence. They need to be asking the question of whether or not the investment in the product (i.e. time, finances, people power, etc.) is worth the end product? Primarily because the end product of what students want will often change very quickly, and most likely from year to year. What’s necessary, practical and cool to students in the Fall, may be out of date by Spring.

Suppose one of you wants to build a tower. Will he not first sit down and estimate the cost to see if he has enough money to complete it? (Luke 14:28)

Now that verse wasn’t written about online media, but I think there are some important principles to take away, mainly:

  1. What do you want to build?
  2. Have you sat down to think about what it will cost? (time, money, resources, etc.)
  3. Why are you building it?
  4. With what you have, can you effectively accomplish what you are wanting to set out to do?

Key Ingredients

Simplicity: What you set out to design should be simple. We live in a culture that says more is better, and so you find products with tons of bells and whistles that not only will no one ever use, but they don’t even know how to use it. Students don’t need an owners manual to access your online ministry and use it effectively. Keep things simple. Think of the i-Pod/i-Tunes, Facebook, Tivo, etc. Because of their simplicity they have won over the market in many ways. The best web sites are simple. When you go to that page you know how and where to navigate. Simplicity can be from an aesthetic design viewpoint, to keeping things simple with less tools, buttons, forms, coding, etc. One of my favorite church websites is Mars Hill in Michigan. Simple, clean, easy to navigate.

Flexibility: Your website or online tool must be flexible. I cannot stress this enough. You need to build something that has a strong ability to adapt and be flexible to changing trends in technology. What is cool with a website one year, can be totally out of date the next. Or, why spend tons of money on a site, that once it loses its effectiveness and everyone moves over to social networking, it no longer has the ability to adapt and meet the needs of those in the community. For example, our college ministry spent a lot of money on some websites early on in my time here, and I created things on the site that I though students would love. But when students migrated to MySpace and Facebook, our website wasn’t flexible and adaptable enough to meet the demanding needs of the group. We didn’t even have the capability to integrate these new tools on our site because we weren’t thinking ahead. Also, when it comes to this issue, are you building a site or presence that allows others to use it effectively? Does your coding or template allow you to change the data, or does it require bringing in a designer everytime you want to tweak it….slowing everything down, limiting the access to most of the group, and driving up costs.

Cost: The best thing about the new media and web 2.0 is that you can find hundreds of online tools and platforms with little to no cost. So should you spend $3,000 on a website, when you can get the same functionality or better with an online free platform? A question then arises about good stewardship. I’m a big fan of good design and coding, so I think they are worth paying for to a degree. But at the end of the day a ministry needs to ask themselves questions regarding what they need, and is it wise to spend money on it. In my 7 years at Bel Air I have seen the evolution of cost. We started off paying a top of the line designer for a website that was out of date about a year later. We then moved to a free template and I paid a student to code it. We now find ourselves operating almost exclusively on Facebook. I’m not against paying for good tools and design….but there are alternatives. I paid for someone to code and design my blog, but I have the freedom to change it.

Speed: How fast can you change things on your site? Do you have to call up the programmer, or do you have immediate access? Can a student put in an announcement whenever they want, or do things have to go through you? When tasks are funneled through 1-2 people, speed is slowed, and information and participation among students drops off. Have you designed a site, where if you wanted to make some major overhauls, you can do that very quickly? Or are you tied to high costs, bulky tools, etc. I know that the needs of my college group this year will probably be different next year, so I need to have the speed to adapt to that.

There is a lot I can talk on, but I just want to begin there. Over the next few weeks I will post on the following:

Formulating an Online Strategy for College Ministry

  • Part 1–Simplicity, Flexibility, Cost and Speed.
  • Part 2–The Purpose of Your Website
  • Part 3–Using Facebook Effectively
  • Part 4–How Twitter Can Catalyze Your Ministry
  • Part 5–Using Social Network Platforms as Your Central Hub
  • Part 6–Flickr, YouTube and Other Forms of Sharing and Streaming
  • Part 7–Ministry Collaboration Using Wikis
  • Part 8–Opening Up Your Ministry’s API