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Building online communities for youth ministry

RedeemerCREW.comThe last two weeks of my life have been spent focusing on rebuilding my youth group’s website, like 10 hours a day! The old site was just a bunch of HTML content that was very difficult and time consuming to update. Well, my skills and understanding of Content Management Systems have improved dramatically since I first built it two years ago so, with the prodding of the youth group, I’ve totally rebuilt a new site that’s mostly interactive. Check it out here: www.redeemercrew.com

And then today I read Church Marketing Sucks’s blog recommending an audio presentation by Rick Klau, Vice President at Feedburner, a service I use here for my own blog. I intended to listen to the audio stream while working in my office at church, but quickly stopped what I was doing to take notes. Three typed pages later, I’m rethinking my idea of the online youth group community I’ve sought to build these past two weeks.

For anyone in ministry, I highly recommend taking the hour and fourteen minutes to listen to Rick’s presentation. Maybe not entirely surprising information, but definitely good insights. Here are some of my notes:

  • We need to find our community, learn to engage them and seek to communicate with them. Just being on the Internet doesn’t not mean we’re reaching our audience. We need to go to where they are. Just having a website doesn’t reach people. Our potential to reach an audience online is no different than that of any big company out there.
  • Give people a voice in our community. Give them a place to interact. This works perfectly in the context of the church. People will be more attracted to us as an organization.
  • A funny dance video online makes 30 million views in 4 months not from big marketing campaigns but from people telling friends and sharing it online.
  • For people under 20 years old, two-thirds of their communication is done through instant messaging. Publish your pastor’s IM screen name on your website.
  • MySpace is overtaking Google for the most traffic on the Internet. People spend more time interacting with friends on MySpace than they do looking for information.
  • One hundred million people watch YouTube every day. That’s more than how many people are watching TV.
  • Blogs are Google’s drug of choice. Blogs have fresh content and lots of links. Church websites don’t have content that other people will link to. If someone is traveling to our church, then the info might be helpful, but if we don’t create incoming links to our site and give reason for returning visits then our site will be buried in the Internet and unlikely to be found.
  • If all we did was post sermons on our site every week, it will increase value on the Internet because now it’s being updated. It tells Google that you have a site that’s more relevant to someone else. Blogs are the single best then you can do to make your site more relevant and more findable.
  • Sermons from church posted as podcasts allows others to hear the message when they have time to focus. In this sense, the church goes to the audience wherever they are instead of assuming they will always make it to church.
  • In April 2006 Feedburner managed more podcasts than there are radio stations in the world. Podcasts are not the same as radio stations, and that’s the point! Radio stations are limited to geographical locations and are very expensive. Podcasts go anywhere in the world for free. It’s powerful for our ability to find an audience that wants to hear our message.
  • Churches are putting their sermons videos online. It’s not hard. More should be doing this. Most of us already have the means to do it. A video camera, computer, Internet connection. Takes about 10-20 minutes to upload to YouTube [Google video doesn’t have the 10 minute length limitation] and you’re done.
  • Get your site started with the content you already have.
  • Discussion forums exist to closed communities that demand people come to your site to contribute content. Blogs encourage contributing from various places with less limitations.
  • That last point came from a question in the audience, but it’s the most valid to me. Should my youth group’s website and forum be a source that’s open to the Internet at large or should it be private to those in our group? Before hearing Rich’s presentation I probably would’ve sided with the later, but now I’m not so sure.

    What does a youth group website need in order to be an effective ministry tool? Obviously it’s more than just a way of communicating news and necessary information. How can it be used to build relationships, promote spiritual growth, and reach the unsaved community at large? And how can I give everyone a voice besides little forms for comments and a forum used by a minority of the youth group? Please, your ideas and input.


    Posted on August 25, 2006

    • Great notes. I'm gonna listen to that audio, too. The stuff you mention has a lot to do with a project I'm working on right now, too. Thanks for writing about it.

    • Congradulations on your wedding! My wife and I just celebrated one year… one incredibly eventful year… but it's so amazing! so, God's richest blessings on you and Dana as you begin this part of your lives together…

      I found your blog about 5 months ago, lost it, and found it again :) I actually was at YS Core with you in Dallas… actually, and evidentally a row in front of you – i made it on your video.

      Just wanted to say thanks for this particular post! I'm thinking of a major overhaul on our ministry's image – building an interactive website, etc. and i'm planning on listening to the audio you recommended… Have a great week… congrats again!

      EM

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    • I really like your youth group website. That's neat! I am seriously thinking about starting a youth group blog site in addition to the one we currently have. Especially after seeing how easy it would be.

      I would like to know more about how easy it is to upload audio and video files. Aggghhh, I'm so computer illiterate when it comes to this stuff.

    • Tim

      Jimmybob, depending on what you wanna do, <a href="http://www.youthprint.com” target=”_blank”>www.youthprint.com might be a good solution for ya.

      As for uploading media, YouTube and Google Video make it very simple for video. Just fill out the little form, browse to the video clip on your computer and click the Upload button. They take care of everything else from there and will even provide the code you need to embed the video clip into your own web pages.

      For hosting audio and media in general, you can check out OurMedia.org

      Of course, this is all assuming you'd rather have other services do this for you. You can do it yourself, but theres a little more of a learning curve with it.

      Lemme know if you have questions or wanna be pointed in the right direction with all this and I'll be glad to help!

    • Thanks so much. That helps me out tremendously. Man, I'm sure glad we found each other here in cyberspace!

    • Hello! I tried the Youth Print resource you recommended and I even filled out a ticket requesting information (like a phone number to call about the product, etc.). They sent me an email saying they closed the ticket, but I never heard from them again.

      Is Youth Print what you use for your youth website? Or did you build yours from scratch?

    • Tim

      Hmm… Dunno what’s up with Youth Print. I’ve never used ’em before, just heard about their resources.

      I use a content management system (CMS) called Subdreamer for my youth group’s website, so no, it’s not built entirely from scratch. A CMS allows you to login to an administrative area of a website and update its content and look by selecting options on forms and clicking “Submit,” choosing templates for layout, etc. the very same idea that Blogger works from. I’ve edited my youth group’s site a LOT from it’s original state, so a lot of the work there is my own, but I didn’t start it from scratch.

      There are lots of CMSs available out there, many of them for free. The best one I’ve used is Mambo (now transitioned to new management with the name Joomla!). It’s very flexible, easy to learn, and has an extended community for support. The reason I went with Subdreamer, a commercial product, for my youth group’s site is because we already had a forum discussion board that’s been going on for a long time and Subdreamer the only one that would integrate with the user system already in place from phpbb2. If I was starting a website from the beginning that didn’t already have user-generated content, then Joomla is a great free solution.

      Glad I can help, Jimmybob. Please lemme know if you need some direction and further understanding. I’m always glad to help a fellow youth worker be more effective in his calling. :)

    • You have already been more help than you know. God bless you for your kindness and servanthood!

      I am definitely gonna check out Joomla. This Sunday I am also starting a young adult ministry for ages 18-29. I would like to have a website that they could go to that has the ability for Message Boards/Posts, etc.

      Thanks again.

    • We are working on a free system that allows a youth group to communicate and interact in the ways you suggest.

      The site, presently in Beta, is http://www.youthroots.com

      As I said, it’s free – offers access to content, but at the group leader’s discretion, and is secure in ways other, similar sites are not.

      On the other hand – while all the technology is great, our biggest concern is addressing the issue of connecting youth to their faith. We are developing the system around the idea of a faith connection process – through with technology tools can be used to interact, involve and inspire users. In all ways, we want the system to be an outgrowth of active, “in person” involvement with the group – how to balance these things is still in question. In other words – we don’t want to encourage “worshiping and community building in isolation” but we do want kids to feel “connected to the faith community” whenever possible – including at home and online.
      I’d appreciate it if you took a look and any and all suggestions are welcome. Just send comments to: lara@youthroots.com

    • Thanks for the info here… I’m getting ready to take over our youth group website, which hasn’t had much attention lately.

      Last year I started a blog for the youth group and the response has been amazing! Posting games, surveys, and questions has been a great way for some of our students to express themselves. It’s been awesome for the quieter kids to have a voice without feeling intimidated, which we can then feed off when we see them in person.

      The only problem we have is that some of our students don’t have internet access at home or have dial-up, if you can believe that. Keeping the blog updated is good, but not for those who can’t get to it.

      I see this is about a year old… any updates??

    • Tim

      Hey Karen! I’m actually in the process of putting together a small business that will build interactive sites for youth groups similar to the one I built for my youth group: alexandriayouth.com I have a couple goals that will make these sites different from any other professional ministry-based web companies.

      1. Cheap.
      2. Drop-dead easy to maintain and update (like a blog interface)
      3. Enhances and builds relationships and communication within youth groups.
      4. Sites that look professional, attractive and appealing.

      Plus, since the sites are built and supported by actual youth pastors like myself, we know the actual tools that youth ministries need from their sites. So, if you stay tuned for little bit until the company is ready to launch, that might be exactly what you’re looking for. Again, check out my youth group’s site for an idea of what the sites will be like. (Karen, contact me directly if you’re interested in being our first client and I’ll give ya a big discount if you’re willing to offer feedback on the system we put in place.)

      As for students who don’t have Internet access, I do two things.

      1. Print out whatever news and info you add to the site and give it to them personally.
      2. I have a computer kiosk at church that’s restricted only to the youth group’s website so parents and students without internet access can still sign-up for events, view the calendar, look at pictures, etc.

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