Half Flashed – Brookwood Baptist Church, Birmingham, AL 35223

A philosopher asks: “If your homepage’s embedded Flash animation failed to load, would anyone notice?

My thought is: “Probably not since since the webmaster didn’t include alternative content for Flash-impaired browsers – like those used by search engines.

Below is a screen snippet from the home page of the Brookwood Baptist Church, Birmingham, AL 35223. You’ll note four numbers in red, those are mine. They enumerate items I’d try to heal if only given 30 minutes, a text editor and a compass:

frontpage snippet of brookwood baptist church birmingham alabama

  1. No alternative content for Flash-impaired browsers and search engines.
  2. As acronyms go ‘BBC‘ is a well known trademark for purveyors of PBS-like content. I think ‘Info Links’ or ‘Information Links’ might do just as well.
  3. Flash layer hides drop-down menu on my Firefox/Mozilla browser.
  4. Church-speak mission statement instead of compelling content (e.g. titles of recent sermons, upcoming events, etc…)

One other item that needs addressing on this site, the title bar. Sure “Welcome to the blah-blah-blah web site” is friendly – but since search engines index your church’s web site on the title, and since most individuals search for churches by denomination, location and with the advent of Google maps, zip code – Brookwood Baptist might be better off using the title of this article … minus the phrase “Half Flashed – “.

Because the content on this particular website is organized better than many and because – and because there is alot of it – I think getting these five issues squared away would be enough to significantly increase this site’s user accessibility and search-engine visibility.

What about you, what five things would you heal in a hurry? Leave a comment – in love.

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What is RSS?

The United Church is the largest Protestant denomination in Canada offering not only a rich history, but one of the easiest to understand answers to the question: “What is RSS?

I gotta tell ya folks, there are nominal denominational websites and then there are definitive denominational websites. United-Church.ca falls into the latter category. Accessible, informative, internationalized, usable, easy-to-navigate. Good stuff, and worth exploring in greater details (hint, hint).

But for today, let’s just look at their not-so-geek description of RSS … and how they are consumed:

RSS (Really Simple Syndication) is a format for delivering summaries of frequently updated website material such as news releases and other announcements, forthcoming events and programs, etc.

Many news and advocacy sites syndicate their content as RSS feeds in a data format known as XML that a RSS reader (also known as “news aggregator”) interprets and displays.

An aggregator is a software program similar to a web browser that lets you read the headlines from many sites at one time. You simply plug in the web address (URL) of the RSS file you want, such as one of the United Church of Canada feeds …

For many of you into blogging the above definition is nothing new, but for those of you whose church website development comes along more traditional lines, what this all means more and more individuals are not visiting your website to see what is new, but are instead using aggregators to inform them when a site is updated and with what. If it helps, you can think of RSS aggregators in the same way described by Jonathan Dube of Poynter Online: “Your own personal Web butler.”

If you’re still not convinced that your church website needs to syndicate then my suggestion is that you take advantage of any one of a number of client-based aggregators such as FeedDeamon and NewsGator, or equally useful web-based aggregators such as BlogLines.

What you’ll see is that without actually visiting the site, you can keep track of literally hundreds of sites simultaneously. Hopefully once you see how this can and is changing the face of how we track online information, want to do is figure out how to syndicate your pastor’s sermons, the weekly newsletter and/or your events calendar.

When that happens, hopefully by then I’ll have an article on how to do this. In the meantime, if you’ve got some ideas or questions along these lines, leave a not in love. And please, no wise-cracks about me acknowledging the fact that there are Canadian Christians – with good websites even!

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Lenexa Baptist Church, Lenexa KS – Seekers need not apply

One of the few fond memories I have from my near 10 year stint in New York City was attending a church whom at the time boasted a brochure that pictured the intersection 40th street and 9th (Ave) and was captioned “Prostitutes down the street, homeless on our doorstep, what a great place for a church.”

In other words, despite the “sinners need not apply” perception portended by the apostates and atheists over at the fictional Landover Baptist website, the little church behind the NY Port Authority was getting it done. Just as I’m sure the good and loving folks at Lenexa Baptist Church are feeding the hungry and ministering the bereft and leading the lost to Christ in the city of Lenexa KS – provided these needy people not seek help via Google using the keyword phrase ‘baptist church lenexa ks.’

Flashforward2005

C|Net writer Paul Festa begs the question “What if you built a Web site in Flash and no one could find it?” I believe offerings such the Lenexa Baptist Church (LBC) web site answer that question with the following modified/cropped screen-shot (which pops open a larger, unmodified/uncropped shot of the same):

click here to see lenexa noflash page

Simply put, Lenexa Baptist is NOT offering ‘a suitable flash alternative,’ in effect shunning users who don’t have the latest and greatest Flash plug-in, or have turned it off to avoid the noise of embedded banner ads. An issue discussed ‘ad nauseum’ a few weeks back I asserted that McLean Bible Church might do better to evangelize on behalf of the Master instead of Macromedia.

The problem from a technical perspective is since the LBC website employs Flash-based navigation for their header and top-menu bar, search engines (and the textually inclined) are compelled to read through everything else first to get to the text links along the bottom – provided the search engine and the Flash-impaired are built patient enough to sift through that much content .

Oh, did you notice the header/banner on the non-Flash page is rendered in – yup, you guessed it, Flash!

Text Sells

One other big problem with Lenexa’s search-ability – and one of my biggest beefs with many church websites – they use graphics to represent critical text, which in this case represents critical title and navigational clues for both users and search engines. A picture being worth 100 words, here is a visual representation of what a text-based browser and/or search engine might see:

Screen shot of what Lenexa looks like to imageless readers such as search engines

Instead here is what a search engine migh see via the Delorie Search Engine Simulator – whoops looks like they’re blocking that one for some reason – instead let’s try using the spider simulator from Search Engine World. Notice that neither ‘Kansas’ nor ‘KS’ come into the picture? Nor does Kansas City, the major metropolis of which Lenexa is a suburb.

Five Minute Healing

As church web site design goes this one is laid out nice enough and while not a big fan of bold earth tones the Lenexa website makes it work. Not my choice of colors, but they work. Content is compelling enough, though as everyone knows I want to see sermons and Bible Studies online from everyone.

My personal preferences aside, has everything it takes if they’d just fix two simple search-engine hostile implementations:

  • lose the flash navigation
  • stop representing text using graphics

Yes, there are a couple of other minor issues here and there, such as image optimization on the staff page, alt and title arguments for image and hyperlinks – but these aren’t what I’d call ‘do-or-die‘ type issues. That said, if you have other suggestions, leave a note – in love.

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Ideas on Web-based Facilities and Online Maintenance Management Solutions for Churches

There is nothing wrong with a church renting out its unused facilities to glean additional income. It is in fact good stewardship. The problem is that with the growing complexity of facility maintenance and planning – so are the tasks of managing such facilities. After returning from a conference on the topic, I’m wondering if there are any open source solutions for churches out there – especially any that would involve the use of a home-brewed super computer?

“The rumors of my death have been greatly exaggerated.” – Mark Twain

I need to apologize for my lack of bloggage, I know how disturbing long stretches of silence can be for HYCW cult members. For those whose panic has them entertaining the thought of donning black Nike’s and issue the "format c:\" directive – rest assured I’m back with the living having spent this past week at SchoolDude University enjoying valuable professional development and training in utilizing their school maintenance software (a.k.a. school cmms), their preventative maintenance management system, their web help desk software, an online utility management and reporting tool that has some interesting integration possibilities, and of great interest to YOU (at least in how it potentially relates to church websites) their facility scheduling software.

I mention their facilities scheduling software mostly because I would like to see something like this for specifically geared at churches, preferably in the open source arena.

Why? Glad you asked.

Its not that I find unintersting ‘wireless internet maintenance managment systems‘ and ‘web-native budget and capital planning‘ – rather I’m a person who strongly believes that good evangelists are good tent-makers. Meaning while I have no problem with the collection plate being passed my way, I do think that many churches miss the boat on additional revenue by not renting out their unused space to civic organizations such as the Boy Scouts and so on.

Those that do, may not be getting the equitable end of the stick either by not understanding their operating costs and/or by irritating invoicing snafus – or worse by losing profitable rental agreements by angering renters not having the right services (e.g. custodians and such) in place before, during and after an event occurs.

Of course in a perfect World, what I’d really like to see is my ‘Beowulf or Mosix – solving the parking lot problem through simulation‘ proposal implemented to include facilities scheduling – with an invoicing and billing component so volunteer and low-paid church secretaries aren’t overwhelmed by the tasks of becoming facilities maintenance and scheduling managers – especially when they need to post the facility calendar to the Internet and/or the church Intranet.

If you know of such a product that exists as open-source, leave a comment and a thought. I’d like to hear it – I’m sure others would as well.

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One in Three Adults Is Unchurched Means 1 in 3 Adults Don’t Church Speak

The Barna Group Reports that “Despite widespread efforts to increase church attendance across the nation, the annual survey of church attendance conducted by The Barna Group shows that one-third of all adults (34%) remain “‘unchurched.’” They go on to say “That proportion has changed little during the past five years. However, because of the nation�s population continuing growth, the number of unchurched adults continues to grow by nearly a million people annually.” (Hat tip to Mundy’s Musings on Christianity.)

Mega Church Muddle

Rowland Croucher, the Director of John Mark Ministries writes:

“But why are evangelical or conservative or charismatic/Pentecostal churches – particularly ‘megachurches’ – holding their own or growing? Simple: musical chairs – ‘church hopping growth’. One survey in the U.S.: ‘more than 80%’ is transfer growth; another in Canada: only 5.5% of church attenders come from an unchurched background.”

While the emphasis on ‘unchurched background’ is mine, the point is clear – the 21st century Church is failing to fulfill the Great Commission, and part of the blame has to do with the Body’s emphasis of style over substance, both from the pulpit and via the HTTP protocol.

Got Milk?

“About this we have much to say, and it is hard to explain, since you have become dull of hearing. For though by this time you ought to be teachers, you need someone to teach you again the basic principles of the oracles of God. You need milk, not solid food, for everyone who lives on milk is unskilled in the word of righteousness, since he is a child. But solid food is for the mature, for those who have their powers of discernment trained by constant practice to distinguish good from evil.” – Hebrews 5:11-14

The warning of the above passage is a warning to the modern day church, mega or otherwise. Consider this snippet from the aforementioned Barna study:

“The belief profile of unchurched Americans veers from mirroring the beliefs of most Americans to differing substantially. The unchurched are similar regarding their contention that Satan is a symbol of evil but not a living entity (67% believe this); that if people are good enough they can earn their way into Heaven (61%); and that Jesus committed sins during His time on earth (51%).”

Then combine that with a past study by the Pew Internet & American Life Project which finds:

“Nearly two-thirds of online Americans use the Internet for faith-related reasons The 64% of Internet users who perform spiritual and religious activities online represent nearly 82 million Americans … The survey provides clear evidence that the majority of the online faithful are there for personal spiritual reasons, including seeking outside their own traditions, but they are also deeply grounded in those traditions …”

In Other Words …

Putting this all together, it is my assertion that the Body has stopped growing because the Church has forgotten a simple tenet of good web design – that is Content is King – both online and in the pews.

Style over Substance

“The internet is a place where absolutely nothing happens. You need to take advantage of that.” – Strong Bad, Email #51.

Just as some argue that part of the problem with getting unbelievers in the door has to do with “Church Growth Movement‘s” wrongly focused on counting heads – I think a large part of the problem with church websites is that they incorrectly focus on either ‘looking good‘ or hit counts.

Not convinced? Let’s go back and take a look at JesusIsLord.com. For all the ‘love notes’ I received over my original review of this site, it still remains as an uninvested talent in the form of a domain name that might as well be hidden in a tin-can on the ground because it remains focused on leading people to Christ – leaving them to their own devices once they’ve prayed the prayer. There is nothing here that answers the tough questions, just a few hyperlinks that ‘hand-off’ a would-be disciple in the fashion of Jack Chick.

Here’s another example from our archives, Montrose Baptist Church Rockville Maryland – who has overcome their ‘under construction‘ issues only to push a home page “Jesus Junked” with fluttering flag animations and a mission statement that might as well be Greek to someone who’s unchurched. Instead, what this particular church needs to do is offer some solid expository to the exploding South American/Hispanic community moving in about their premises. I’m sure that community has specific spirital needs – why not address them with some onlin sermons and or Bible studies?

One other sampling from the great cloud of witlessness that is the church online – the recent spait of angry emails incoming from fans of the ‘McClean’ Bible Church, McLean VA. Among the most irate of emails is the continuing theme that “God doesn’t care if you use Flash ineffectively, so long as you use it sincerely …” To those folks, I suggest they go back and read both the recent Barna report and Pew study.

What This Means for Your Church Website?

Folks, I’ve been commanded by God to chant this mantra until the cows come home (or until I run out of metaphors, whichever comes first). The purpose of your church website design isn’t to look cool, isn’t to get listed as ‘the best church web site’ or the ‘coolest church website’ as indicated by the number of Google queries to this site using those key words:

Selected 2004 Stats
search key phrase Count
cool church websites 181
cool church website 31
cool church 27
cool church web sites 25
coolest website ever 16
coolest church websites 11
cool church sites 8
coolest church website 6
the cool church 16
Selected 2004 Stats
search key phrase Count
good church websites 45
good church website 19
good church web sites 13
good church web design 6
good church web site 5
best church websites 35
great church websites 26
best church web sites 25
awesome church websites 21

Rather, the purpose of your church web page design is to convey the Christ that is in your congregation to the World by addressing their needs AND by discipling them with the solid food of the Gospel.

If you do both these things then I can guarantee that you will not have to spend $5k on a Search Engine Optimization (SEO) expert, nor will you have to worry about justifying your church’s online marketing expenditures.

I personally think know from measurable successful personal application of SEO-related study, this is done by getting enough compelling content in the form of upcoming events, ministry explanations and sermons to get them in the door – while others argue in favor of a more ‘Virtual Church.’ Like all good debates, the answer is probably somewhere in between.

In short, if you write it they will come … so get busy!

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