Blogging: Web Publishing on the Cheap

What’s one thing many youth ministers and presidential candidates have in common with stay-at-home moms? They blog. Some blog about their cats while others offer essays on the relationship between dispensational eschatology and the Gross Domestic Product. Some even go as far as to render their entire church website using off-the-shelf weblogging software.

Whatever their passion, an increasing number of individuals from all walks of life are claiming their stake of the Internet homestead in the form of a weblog. So much so that this past March the popular blog-tracking service Technorati announced it had grown from 1.2 to 2.0 million registered blogs in just five months; that’s roughly one new blog every 11 seconds.

So phenomenal is the growth of blogs that a survey conducted by Perseus Development Corporation last October estimated the total number of blogs at 4.2 million; an astounding metric only offset by the fact that 66% of the blogs surveyed had not been updated for least two months.

Free Samples

One of the primary factors contributing to the rapid expansion, and abandonment, of weblogs is that they do not require a heavy investment in technology or training to establish and operate. In fact all you really need to test the waters is a browser, an email address and some sort of connection to the Internet.

Take for example Justin Baeder, an emerging church planter who originally established RadicalCongruency.com using Microsoft FrontPage to keep ministry supporters updated as to his team’s progress. Within a short time he and his team members soon found it difficult to update their website in the field so they switched to the free, “banner-ad enhanced” version of Blogger.

The diary-like nature of this hosted web service worked out so well that Justin soon upgraded to Blogger Pro, which not only removed the annoying banner-ads, but also gave them features such as the ability to create posts via email.

As the ministry team’s blogging expertise and bandwidth grew, they found themselves needing to move away from a hosted weblogging system to a full-blown weblog software application they could install and customize on their own web server. In the case of Justin’s team, they finally settled on WordPress after experimenting with Drupal.

It’s Cheap …

As demonstrated by RadicalCongruency.com’s eventual move to WordPress, another key factor contributing to the popularity of blogging is availability of a several inexpensive and/or free blogging software solutions that are specifically designed to solve one of the peskiest problems facing any website: keeping it updated and organized without breaking it.

A good example of this is Reverend Kevin Pierpont. For the longest time, this Baptist preacher ran his own personal weblog using the free, non-commercial version of MovableType. When he moved to a new congregation last year, he simply took his technical know-how and established a weblog-driven church website for Higgins Lake Baptist Church.

Citing a recent change in MovableType’s licensing and a need to change web hosts, Kevin is currently working on transitioning to another free blogging application known as TextPattern.

… and Easy

It isn’t just the availability of low or no cost solutions that is making blogging a popular mechanism for web site publishing. One huge factor in the growing success of blogging is the relative ease of use.

This is because the process driving the design of most weblogging applications is relatively simple. That is, once you input your text via an online form (or email), you need only sit back and let the blogging software:

  • stores the text chronologically in a database;
  • publish the text using a pre-defined format (template) of your choice;
  • automatically insert the new entry into searchable archives and syndication files;
  • depending on which system you’re using, make email notifications.

In other words, if your church secretary can order a book from Amazon.com, then it is likely she can be trained to publish the pastor’s weekly message armed with little more than Microsoft Internet Explorer – and a healthy avoidance for any button that reads “Delete Post.”

Poor Man’s Content ‘Manglement’

Like many forms of Internet communications, blogging affords your ministry the ability to broadcast your message to a much larger audience with greater immediacy. For example, many churches have already reduced their expenses by delivering newsletters and pastoral messages by means of listservs, majordomos and other email list mechanisms.

While these mechanisms save paper and postage (and with apologies to Romans 10:14-15) how are people going to get email if they don’t know the listserv exists, and how are they going to know the listserv exists if you don’t advertise it somewhere, and how are you going to simultaneously advertise and register members of your extended electronic congregation if they can’t read all of the compelling content you created over the past six years, and how are you going to publish, organize, publish and make searchable four years of your compelling content without some form of content management? Questions which explain why blogs are becoming an increasingly popular answer for pastors, youth ministers and missionaries looking to chronicle their good works. Case in point, the Lakeshore Community Church of Rochester, NY.

Like Pastor Pierpont, Lakeshore communications director Scott Houchin was using MovableType to blog about his daughter. In the meantime, Lakeshore Community Church had switched from NetObjects Fusion to MacroMedia’s Dreamweaver to render their static church website.

Encumbered by a variety of site maintenance issues, like not breaking the menu system when a page is added, Scott opted parlay his blogging know-how to publish and distribute Lakeshore’s newsletter. Noting the ease in which entries could be made from any authorized user at any location, Lakeshore Community Church recently replaced their Dreamweaver-based website with a highly customized implementation of MovableType.

While most missionaries and youth ministers I visit employ only slightly modified versions of the default templates that come with their particular blogging system, success stories such as Lakeshore Community and Higgins Lake are possible because blogging systems store their information in some form of a database, and because they publish data through some form of a boilerplate – or ‘template system’ to be more concise.

It is also the database-driven nature of the weblog that makes it relatively easy for the Webmaster in my first two examples to move from one blogging system to another; not to mention radically simplifying backups and restorations.

Multiple Ministry Microsites

Another feature that often attracts churches, schools and other charities to blogging is the ability to support multiple users over multiple weblogs.

One effective way to make this work is to create target subdomains for each of the multiple blogs – or what are commonly called ‘microsites’ – then assign a willing and helpful helpful layperson to maintain the content of each. Here is an example of how this may play out:

  • carybaptist.org – the main website for your church
  • youth.carybaptist.org – the youth ministry
  • sermons.carybaptist.org – a sermons archive
  • music.carybaptist.org – the music and praise portion

Another idea is to use the multi-blog feature of your blogging tool to create special one-time-only sites, such as when your church is offering disaster relief for a particular hurricane and/or an emphasis on a media event such as Mel Gibson’s Passion of the Christ.RedlandBaptistChurch.org comes to mind, perhaps because it is also the website for my home church.

Using a single weblog application on a single Linux-based web server, I have created numerous microsites, each specific to a particular ministry or a one-time Evangelistic outreach. They are:

  • The main Redland Baptist website
  • Redland Youth Ministries
  • Redland’s Music Ministry
  • Sermons – Six years of compelling content
  • Christmas/Advent devotional
  • The Passion of the Christ – an Easter Evangelistic Outreach

As an example of how this works, back in March, Redland ran an Easter evangelistic outreach based upon the large public response to Mel Gibon’s ‘The Passion of the Christ.’ From the seclusion of my basement I took one of the ‘stock templates’ that came with our particular blogging system, modified it to taste and produced passion.redlandbaptistchurch.org. I then created an account for a layperson that in turn used her browser to post daily devotionals from the comfort of her living room without having to worry about HTML, FTP and a host of other technical details.

I also saved our lovely layperson the convenience of having to hyperlink Scripture references to an online Bible by writing a plug-in. Many weblog systems give programmers the ability to extend the default capability by offering a programmer’s interface into the blogging application. My Scripturizer plugin for MoveableType and WordPress is one such example.
Caveats

Now that I’ve made blogging sound better than sliced-bread, let me warn you – just as the mere purchase of a hammer does not fix your roofing problem, neither does establishing a blog solve your ministry’s web publishing issues.

To be successful with blogging, you need to start out small, with baby steps. Here are some places you may want to look at before you leap:

Once you’re up to speed on all the hip-cool lingo associated with the ‘blogosphere’ you may want to dabble a bit yourself. Below are two links to help you decide which blogging solution may best suit your needs:

Warning, the above articles will display a variety of features likely to make you drool. Please resist the temptation to run into a steering committee meeting, waving this article and demanding they replace your entire church website with a blogging application.

For example, if your church is moving towards a layperson-driven model that requires an extensive Intranet that includes both membership and content management, then you’re more likely to want to use a non-blogging solution such as Church Community Builder.

With this warning in mind, I STRONGLY urge you make sure a blog is the right tool for the job. Your hammer isn’t going to do you much good for a job requiring … oh let’s say a chainsaw.

Resources

That said here in alphabetical order, are some blogging systems you want to experiment with. The first list includes some popular hosted blogging services while the second list enumerates just some blogging applications that you run on your own server.:

Hosted Blogging Services:

Blogging Software Applications … in alphanumeric order:

Of course, your mileage may vary. You may not find bogging suits your needs — a how-to-figure-it-out topic I’ll cover in greater detail in a couple of weeks. That said, if you’re still confused, have a preference or just wanna say hi, leave me a comment here and I’ll do my best to answer your questions, or at least point you in the right direction if I can’t.

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The above, by me, article appeared in print in July/August 2004 edition of Christian Computng Magazine.