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Online Ministries Community Blog

Apr 26

What Are Online Ministries: Classifications and Continuums

Posted by Bill Anderton

We tend to refer to most of the activities undertaken by churches as “ministries.” The term becomes a catchall term for many efforts that churches embark upon.

Even in the title of this community, I use the term “online ministry” but what does that actually mean?

In the broadest sense, any online effort by a church could be considered a “ministry” if we use the term liberally, perhaps even generously. However, here in this special-interest community, among the people dedicated to building and operating the Internet assets of the Church, we can justifiably be a little more precise in our definitions and meanings. We are the people who should understand and appreciate nuances; that online ministries aren’t just having one or not having one, black or white, but also appreciate the shades of gray among different classes of efforts.


At least among this readership, I feel precision in our definitions are needed because of two factors:

  • There are many options available to any church about how they use the online components of the Internet. There are lots of ways churches can use the Internet and many more will be coming in the future. Of all of the set of options, some require a deeper commitment to use effectively than others; some are easy, quick and free, while others take more time, effort and money.
  • There are a very broad range of churches in the world; some small, some large and all with their own unique resources and internal institutional cultures.

One size of online effort does not fit all and there is no archetypal standard-issue church. Just as all churches are unique, it stands to reason that any resulting Internet effort from each church is very likely equally unique and diverse.

Likewise, we need some granularity in our definitions of online ministries.

In today’s blog posting I want to talk about some granular definitions that I have used in this blog and throughout this special-interest community and will continue to use in the future.

Personally, I reserve the use of the term “online ministry” to apply only to those online efforts that actually engage in interactive ministry with people. Yes, this is a high bar. In my definition of online ministry, a six-page static website that is only an online brochure for the church does not qualify, within my narrower definition, as an online ministry. Neither does a church with only a Facebook page. To me, online ministries are the pinnacle of all online efforts for churches. The simple fact is that the websites and Internet presences of most churches don’t rise to this level.

My own bias suggests that more churches should endeavor to do full online ministries; I think it a worthy goal. However, I certainly acknowledge that whether or not to pursue an online ministry is a decision that each church must make based on their own discernment.

In my view, we need more granular definitions to reflect the different aspects of online ministries; definitions that accommodate smaller efforts as well as those that are larger efforts.

Part of the need for the definitions that I have in mind is based on my feeling that the use of online technologies is a journey; something where you start at a certain point, perhaps with only small efforts, and move on to more capable positions as your abilities grow over time.

I talk to a lot of churches who have six-page static brochure-type websites. I’ve never met one of these churches who didn’t want to do more! Most churches express dissatisfaction about the state of their online presences and wish for something better. All are held back from doing something better by what they perceive are their limitations.

I want to emphasize the word “perceive.” This is very important.

Henry Kissinger said, ““It is not a matter of what is true that counts, but a matter of what is perceived to be true.” There is reality and also perceived reality; perceived reality is what people act upon.

The perceived reality, from churches with small or very poor Internet presences, is that they can’t do any better within their given resources; they lack the money or the people to do anything better. Their perceived reality is understandable, given that these same churches simply don’t know how to use these technologies or how easy it can be. Their perception is driven by not knowing how to do anything else.

The reality is that all of these churches actually COULD do much better … with a little knowledge and just a little work. Even small churches with very limited resources could have effective online efforts.

Any church can! Yes, it does require learning a few new things. Fortunately, just having someone point out the rich information opportunities within all churches and showing newbies how to turn these things into online content can produce better websites for almost any church. And, yes, it requires a little bit of work to do it, but work that is well within the resources of almost any church.

My position is that even a small website can be a GOOD website and can even serve as the stepping stone to a GREAT website. Also, a good website, with just a little additional work could become a comprehensive Internet presence and then perhaps even grow into a true online ministry.

I truly believe that all small churches can have GREAT small online ministries and large churches can have GREAT large online ministries.

It is also a unique characteristic of the Internet that it is a great leveler of playing fields; small churches can have great large online ministries that favorably compare with those of large churches! If a small church feels called to conduct a large online ministry, even a very large online ministry, it can be done with fewer people than you think and on a much smaller budget than you think.

Just in this writing today, I hope you see my point that online efforts of churches can be arranged in a continuum of efforts with small simple efforts on one pole and large more-complex efforts on the other pole. I believe that the continuum serves not only as a way to classify efforts but it can also serve as a roadmap for the journey that churches could make in growing online ministries.

I believe that the continuum has three broad classifications:

  • Websites Only – These online efforts are those that consist of (a) only a website or (b) only a Facebook page. This classification is the largest of the bunch; the majority of churches fall into this class. Within this class there are a range of online efforts from the simple to the complex. On the small side of the class are those efforts consisting of small static websites, usually of only a few pages. Also in the small side of the class are an increasing number of small churches who can’t operate websites at all and, instead, have turned to setting up a Facebook page and use it like a website. One the other extreme of this class are larger websites consisting of many pages with more frequently updated content. However, this entire class is typically one-dimensional in as much as they only use the site itself without integrating other elements of the Internet.
  • Internet Presences – These online efforts are those that consist of using more than one Internet asset or application (usually many of them) and integrate them into synergistic systems. At the center of these systems are websites that serve as the central hub of each system but are, in turn, supported by online assets that enhance or broaden the reach of the overall presence. A simple example would be a presence that synergistically integrates the website with social media. The website serves as the primary central hub based on its strengths but social media is used, based on its strengths to broaden the reach of the friends and friends-of-friends of the people in social media. The social-media component of the presence serves its mission to its organic users but also drives increased traffic to the website for people wishing more information and/or interactions. More complex examples of integrated presences might include:
    • Common branding within the church domain name
    • Multiple facets within the website (multiple mini-sites and member and/or private sites)
    • Multiple forms of social media
    • Media syndication
    • E-mail
    • E-campaigns
    • Many other possible things

It is important to note that good Internet presences integrate and closely couple all facets of the presence into a functioning whole. Just having all of the individual elements does NOT make it a synergistic presence until all components begin working together.

  • Online Ministries - These online efforts are those that consist of Internet presences that are using their online assets to actually do interactive ministry with people. The foundation characteristics of this class are those sites that “listen” to people. These sites don’t use the online assets of their Internet presence to merely “talk at” people (broadcast) but, instead, “talk with” people (engage in dialogs). Please note that in this definition I’m not only talking about online ministries that replace physical church with virtual church. However, the virtual church would certainly fall into this class. More typically, many successful online ministries use online ministry to augment their physical church to serve their parishes, help gain new members from the parish and associate with people outside of their parishes who are willing to join into the missions and ministry of the sponsoring churches. Online ministries can perform a whole range of activities that find their analog in the physical church:
    • Providing sermons
    • Conducting interactive studies
    • Prayer groups
    • Care and support groups
    • Common communication
    • Events

By the way, the list of things that a church can do with an online ministry is not just limited to just these few things that I have used above as examples. The scope of things that can be done in online ministries is limited only by our imaginations.

Within each of these classifications of online efforts are infinite nuances; many different ways to work within each class with difference scopes and scales. Also, each class serves as the foundation for the next higher class and become a natural roadmap for churches building up and expanding their efforts.

Category: (04-13) April 2013   Tag:

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