We see examples of this in the New Testament, and Paul’s Letter to the Philippians, is an example. Paul had visited there on his second missionary journey and had seen the first church in Europe established. However, after his departure it was by no means the end of his dealings with that church.
‘I thank my God upon every remembrance of you, always in every prayer of mine for you all making request with joy’, Phil. 1. 2-3. Paul makes it very clear that his thoughts and prayers are filled with the believers at Philippi. The same should be said of any work that we are involved in, not just that of a website. Paul is taking personal ownership of the work and ensuring that he follows it up and sends help where he can. The same should be said of us when we involve ourselves in any work. A deep personal desire, with the investment of time and effort, generates a connection that pushes us on to see that work succeed, more than any passing acquaintance with the task will ever do.
In order to keep people coming back to your site, a constant stream of fresh, new content is crucial. You may have the best-looking site in the world, but without anything new on it your users will soon dry up. We have talked in previous articles about the different types of content that can be put up. However, it’s important to remember that what will work for one site, may not work for another; understanding your audience is key to your success.
In order to achieve that and see your site succeed, you have to analyse it. There are a great many tools that are free to add on to your site that will enhance your understanding of what is going on and help you to improve it.
Google Analytics is a package provided by Google that logs a wide range of information about the people who visit your site and generates rich statistical information. All it takes is the inclusion of a small piece of code on each of your pages and you’re up and running. These analytics, for example, can tell you how many people are visiting your site, what they are looking at, what country they are looking at it from, and even how long they spent on the site. By studying these statistics you can get an understanding of what does and doesn’t work on your site.
As you start to gain an understanding of your audience, don’t be afraid to be very critical of your work. Inevitably, there will be some material that just doesn’t seem to engage people. If that is the case, either stop producing that kind of material, or simply try to come at it from a different angle. This does not mean watering down the message but challenging yourself critically to target your material at those you are trying to reach. Equally, there will be some content that will succeed, in which case use that as an indication of where your time is better spent. It must be recognized that writing for the web is a skillset all of its own and vastly different from that held by many. In much the same way as studying scripture helps us to understand God, time spent studying your material and a healthy dose of trial and error will see your content grow, and your ability as well.
To this point your site has been mostly ‘unidirectional’. In other words, you put up the content and the users read it. However, as your site becomes established, and you start to gain a steady stream of people coming back to the site, you may wish to try and engage with your users in some form. This course of action requires careful consideration, as it can either make or break not only your website, but also your impact in the community in which you are placed. There are a variety of different methods that you can use to engage with people, each with its own positives or negatives.
The first is a simple ‘contact us’ section on your site that will allow users to contact you. This can be your address with the expectation that they will come to you should they need to. Unfortunately, our expectation that people will seek us out is somewhat unfounded and, as society goes deeper into the information revolution, our availability for a couple of hours on a Sunday no longer meets the needs of those around us. Most commonly, this page will include some kind of form that allows a user to fill it out and email you directly. Direct email offers a bridge between you and the community and means they can contact you at any time of the day or night, and you have the ability to respond in your own time.
Many will use a similar kind of functionality to offer to send a Bible to anyone who wishes it. This is a great way to get God’s word out into the community and gain contacts, with the incentive of a ‘free gift’. However, I would sound a note of caution. Decide, prior to making this available, what the ‘terms and conditions’ are for a free Bible. Do you want to offer it to those in your local community? Are you happy to send to anyone in the country? How many will you send at any one time? Whilst our desire should always be to see the distribution of God’s word to the homes of everyone, we have to take into consideration the resources we have and the limitations they put on such a service.
Facebook is one of the latest services that can help you to engage with your audience. One man recently said he found it impossible to contact his daughter by email. When questioned as to why this was, she simply replied that she never checks her email. However, as he switched to using Facebook, he could now expect an almost instantaneous reply from her. As of 2011, Facebook was used by a startling 1 in 13 people in the world. 48% of 18-34 year olds check Facebook when they wake up in the morning, with 28% doing it before they even get out of their bed. The most startling fact of all is that 57% of people talk to others more online than they do in real life.
Engagement with Facebook is easy. Simply set up a page on Facebook dedicated to your assembly, and then start putting content up. It could be upcoming events, latest news, some verses of scripture, or whatever you feel is appropriate. It’s not only you that can put up content on this page, people who ‘Like’ your page can comment on whatever you put up. At best, this serves as a fantastic way to get quick feedback on a variety of issues. However, as always, we need to sound a note of caution. Make sure you keep an eye on your Facebook page and monitor what people are uploading. Hopefully, you will get people who are always complimentary and agree with your point of view, but you can get people who don’t and can publish content that is not fit for public consumption. Whilst this is unfortunate, it can also be an area of unexpected opportunity. The natural reaction is to simply take the content down, and, in some cases, this is the only course of action worth taking. However, sometimes it can allow you to engage with people in order to put forward your case and explain from scripture why you believe what you have stated. A greater impact may be made by publicly debating a point rather than simply deleting all content that does not fit. What it shows to users is that you are open, and willing to engage with them and speak openly about your faith. Shutting down all opposing views can often have the effect of driving your users away, instead of bringing them in. Just be careful that it doesn’t spiral out of control. If it does, you may have to politely inform the user that you feel that the conversation is not in the general public’s interest, and offer to allow them to message you directly if they wish to continue it.
As we draw these articles to a close I hope that you have been encouraged to create a site, or simply progress with a site that you already have ‘up and running’. Whilst it can be daunting, if we are to see the gospel flourish in the future, the web is going to have to become a medium in which we operate. With over one billion web-enabled phones activated last year alone, those in the community around us will increasingly look for 24/7 engagement with us using a variety of different methods. We should not be afraid of this, nor shy away from it. By embracing these developments we can ensure that the future of the web can be influenced and exploited by God’s people, and not dominated by those who seek to destroy Christian witness and values.