How can I start an online church

CyberChurch? Church on the Internet

Strategies of Church Internet Work, in: CyberChurch? Church on the Internet, ed. v. Wolfgang Nethöfel and Matthias Schnell, Frankfurt am Main 1998, pp. 163-173.

Strategies of Church Internet Work

Christians in the English-speaking world have been actively involved in the Internet for a number of years. An estimated 16,000 new Christian information pages are now published there every day. The churches in Germany have now also discovered the Internet as a medium for themselves and since the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Bavaria went online in the late autumn of 1995, a whole range of new offers have been added: In addition to current information from the regional churches, academies, theological faculties, Works, clubs, associations, training centers and communities are also offered Christian content such as the daily motto, sermons, meditations, devotions, the Ten Commandments, the Lord's Prayer, the Creed and various editions of the Bible. Declarations, press releases, synodal reports, addresses and contact options for various church offices can be found as well as interactive offers on pastoral care, discussion forums, guest books and mailing lists. In the meantime, the Internet also reflects the colorful diversity of Christian initiatives and church engagements in German-speaking countries.

Church internet work deficits

However, these offers are often only looked after, maintained and maintained by committed church employees who also dedicate part of their free time to this commitment. Many creative ideas are implemented in concrete projects, highly motivated, church media experts strive for professional church websites, with a lot of courage and sympathy, pastors make themselves available to people on the Internet as conversation partners.

But this positive balance of the pioneering phase should not hide the fact that most Christian Internet offers are mostly limited to electronic editions of church print publications: self-presentations, press releases, news, magazine articles, event calendars, devotions and sermons. Texts that are produced anyway usually end up unchanged on the web servers of regional churches, parishes, factories and institutions. Sometimes you can be happy if at least the news under the heading "Current" is not completely out of date and you are not greeted with the Christmas page at Easter. Often too little thought is given to the design of an attractive offer: The Internet is not an accumulation of lead deserts, but rather interactive communication via the computer medium, which brings people together who would otherwise never have met.

Give up or carry on?

In the meantime word has got around in Christian circles that it is necessary to be present in this medium as well, but the maintenance of the data stocks usually has to be done by an office on the side. With two hours of work per week, an attractive offer cannot be staged on the Internet. Everyone who works with this medium knows that. For many institutions, their own presence only serves to cultivate their image and disseminate information. And because having a presence in the Internet medium is quite cheap from a technical point of view, it is all too easy to forget that the effort lies primarily in the conceptual development of interesting Internet offers. Hardly any personnel capacities are created for this. The experience of the past two years shows that the main problem with almost all church Internet offers is that the Internet presence is implemented in a first effort, but then no organizational structures are set up in order to keep the offer up to date. In which regional churches have coordination offices been set up that monitor organizational processes, provide up-to-date information and conceptually develop the Internet offerings?

Many Christians are simply happy when they have succeeded in accessing the Internet via computer, modem and telephone line and when they have brought their information to the World Wide Web. However, if the offers are to remain interesting for users, they must be constantly updated and expanded. Many do not have the time to do this. And so the people in the church who are committed to the Christian faith on the Internet are now faced with the alternative of either voluntarily investing 10 to 14 hours a day in ongoing projects or giving up because they do not receive any support and they urgently need it Employees cannot be hired due to the tight financial situation.

In the long term, there is a risk that the churches will miss out on the developments of the digital revolution and, under the economic pressure, forfeit their chances in church media engagement through wrong decisions. To prevent this from happening, perspectives for the future of church internet work are to be developed in the following. First the content-related targets, in a second step the necessary organizational framework conditions.

Communication and information

An important result of the experience with the Internet presence in the past two years is that the Internet is not so much used for information but to a much greater extent for communication. This is confirmed by both the social science studies on the behavior of Internet users and the reports from church communication initiatives, advice and pastoral care providers. The presence on the World Wide Web means that many people seek contact with the Church via forums or e-mail. If one regularly observes the religious forums at the online services T-Online, CompuServe and AOL, this impression is reinforced: The predominantly young "users" feel the need to exchange views on religious issues. It therefore seems necessary, above all, to expand the area of ​​communication in the church Internet offerings. Anyone who makes a communication offer on the Internet ("Write to us ...") must ensure that the incoming mails are answered. Anyone who offers discussion forums must ensure that competent interlocutors participate who are familiar with the customs of the network and can offer serious help. Particularly for spiritual questions, pastoral care and the supervision of discussion forums, the pastors need to be reinforced.

Pastoral care and advice

The experiences in the team of ecumenical Internet pastoral care make it clear that it makes no sense to conduct Internet pastoral care as an individual. A good team is indispensable for several reasons: Anyone who offers pastoral care on the Internet must ensure that the e-mails do not remain unread even when the pastor is sick or on vacation. Anyone who makes such an offer must ensure that the inquiries can be answered within a reasonable time (approx. 24 hours). If this cannot be guaranteed due to the personnel situation, you should refrain from offering advice on the Internet. A single person cannot be a specialist in all questions in life. In a team, on the other hand, you can pass on the inquiries and help each other in difficult cases. Because pastoral care is associated with emotional stress on the pastoral care worker in most cases, supervision should necessarily be taken into account in the conception. The same standards apply to internet pastoral care as to other pastoral care or counseling teams.

Since communication via computer and data network is a special form of communication that is still unfamiliar to many people, special training for pastors seems necessary. Internet pastoral care can only really help competently if the possibility of referring to local pastors and counseling centers is considered. That means: In cases where further advice, care or therapy appears necessary and contact via e-mail can no longer help, the pastoral care office must be able to provide local contact persons.

Unlike telephone counseling, which usually works locally, the Internet is a medium in which places and regions initially play a subordinate role. Anyone who provides advice on the Internet anywhere in the German-speaking region must expect to receive inquiries from all over the German-speaking region. Therefore, the requirements for internet pastoral care are higher than for other forms of pastoral care: Those who only work locally can quickly get an overview of possible offers of help. Anyone who works on the Internet should actually have a complete index or a database of all advice centers in the entire German-speaking area at hand in order to be able to provide competent help. Since it is not possible for a single pastoral care agency on the Internet to know all local offers in German-speaking countries, let alone be able to judge them according to quality or specific offers of help, networking the various pastoral care offers is a necessary step for all providers in order to be able to offer advice to those seeking advice Internet to be able to provide competent help.

A variant would be that the various pastoral care providers help each other and refer individual people to regional or local pastors if this should become necessary. The more difficult but also more promising variant would be to agree on a common Internet address and pastoral care concept in the German-speaking area (e.g. http://www.seelsorge.de/) and to set up a central office that sifts through all inquiries and sets them up forwards regionally and / or according to priority areas. The effort would certainly be high, but for the user this would have the advantage of being directed to competent pastors instead of ending up with a local pastor via many detours.

The prerequisite, however, is that the institution that provides pastoral care on the Internet must be clearly named and also verifiable. On the Internet, anyone can initially claim anything and pretend to be someone they are not. Sects z. B. could offer pastoral care under the cover address of a church community and then use the data for targeted membership recruitment or refer people to one of their institutions. Evidence and institutional protection of a pastoral care offer on the Internet is essential. It must be completely and unequivocally clear who is behind this offer.

The limits of Internet pastoral care are where people with serious mental disorders turn to them. These cannot be dealt with in a meaningful way using this reduced form of communication. Pastoral care via the Internet can only establish initial contact, be the address for people who need help but do not know where to turn. The internet must be used to find competent pastors, psychotherapists or counseling centers at the place of residence of the person concerned. Limits are also shown where quick and immediate help is required. Even if it should be possible to communicate in real time via a direct connection from computer to computer or even to hold a video conference, this medium is hardly suitable for providing effective help in emergency situations. Exceptions will confirm the rule here as well, but a conception of Internet pastoral care should be geared towards being able to provide quick help on site in such cases.

"Edutainment" and "Relitainment"

Communicating the Christian faith in global data networks cannot be limited to information, counseling, pastoral care, discussion groups, online magazines and personal conversations about faith. All of this is very important. But if the church's offers are to be perceived in the infinite universe of offers on the Internet, playful, multimedia, sensual applications of the Christian message are also required. More and more people are no longer interested in long texts and dry explanations. Pampered by television and video, pictures and sound, only information in the "three-minute format" is perceived. Everything that takes longer is zapped and clicked away.

Within the church information and communication offers (or at addresses specially provided for this purpose) there must therefore also be spaces for thought, play and experience that enable sensual experiences of the Christian message. Because with the increasing speed on the data lines, the Internet will increasingly become a "multi-medium". The concepts for the day on which the speeds to the end user are sufficient to be able to virtually walk through the altarpiece of the Herrenberg city church must already be developed. This is one of the reasons why the project mentioned in the introduction is exemplary.

Multimedia productions are expensive. But money is running out in the churches. In the future, high-quality multimedia projects will only be possible if several departments work together, if resources are bundled and the productions for as different platforms as possible, e.g. B. Internet and CD-ROM, can be developed. In addition, these productions must be commercially successful by bringing back the investments made. This requires church production companies that can handle such projects and that master professional marketing as well as original and new ways of marketing.

Homiletics and Journalism Preaching under the conditions of digital media - this is made clear by the contributions at the beginning of the first part of the book - needs new concepts. Many potential "hearers of the word" no longer sit under the pulpit during the Sunday morning service. Some people can only be reached through the media. A contemporary homiletics can therefore no longer only presuppose the situation of the listener under the pulpit, but must also include the preaching in the media in the considerations. So far, the focus has been on the preaching on radio and television. However, the concepts of broadcast worship services and devotions must also be reconsidered for the proclamation of the Christian faith in interactive media, because the possibility of active participation and participation in the program radically changes the form of the proclamation. Instead of the usual "one-way street communication" of radio and television, participation and dialogue are now required.

Proclamation on the Internet will therefore tend to have a dialogical, communicative and discursive structure. The online Bible study group of the Bavarian regional church is a good example of this. There a topic or a text on a question relating to the Christian faith is given. Short accompanying texts open up the topic to the participants. In the discussion, the topic is brought forward, questions are raised and answered by the moderator and other participants. In this way, a network of opinions, theses and thoughts is linked, in which the participants actively participate.

Announcement on the Internet does not happen simply by putting Sunday sermons and the devotions held in the nursing home on the web. That may be interesting for "church insiders" who are looking for new ideas for their work on the Internet. But nobody reads really long texts on the screen. The Internet needs a new format the length of a screen. Short, concise, pointed, easily comprehensible pieces of text that address the reader in and of themselves, but from which further perspectives are accessible via the link structure of the web, e.g. B. related biblical texts, exegetical background information, literary texts, photos of works of art on the subject, songs, video sequences, etc. In this way, a fabric of texts, images, sounds is created that offers the reader the opportunity to either briefly take note of something or go on a journey of discovery on a specific topic or biblical text.

The challenges for Protestant journalism lie in another area. Focus, Spiegel and Stern have not only made their articles available on the Internet for a long time. They offer the user added value and benefits on many topics. On the subject of travel or real estate, Focus-Online has z. B. travel databases and real estate databases, as well as information on the subject with hints and references to other interesting information on the Internet. This could be developed in a similar way for a church online magazine on the Internet. In cooperation with companies or other media, controversial topics could be taken up in society, advice and help with life could be offered and discussions initiated. The network activities with other media (radio, television, print) in particular prove to be extremely helpful in Internet projects, because each of these media reaches special target groups, has special advantages and a large reach can thus be achieved in the network.

Share funds and resources

It is obvious that the prospects for the further development of church Internet services proposed here cannot be mastered without additional funds and resources. ZDF, Spiegel and Focus now employ 30 and more people in their online editorial offices.In the Protestant Church, you can still count those who work full-time with the Internet on one hand. The programs and services that are possible via the Internet are becoming more and more numerous, complex, diverse and in the long run cannot be managed by individuals alone. If a few websites can still be created with little effort, databases, search engines and online shops require an investment in the six-figure range. With the increasing possibilities in the multimedia sector, these costs will continue to rise. Then a few websites are really not enough.

From a strategic point of view, therefore, the means and resources must either be concentrated or, overall, more jobs must be equipped with more employees. Since the second variant is unlikely to come into consideration due to the tight financial situation of many church institutions, the church institutions will have to share the resources. What is said in the EKD's overall journalistic concept with regard to the structures in the print sector also applies to the electronic media: "For journalistic and economic reasons, a grouping of the journalistic work would be in a limited number of high-performance press and media associations desirable. With larger units, existing journalistic resources could be used more effectively. " In the Internet, this applies above all to the hardware and software that are already available, specialists in HTML programming and graphic design: multiple use and concentration could avoid ineffective parallel structures and duplicate work.

The sometimes very good cooperation with the free churches and the Catholic partners should also be expanded. It is to be hoped that even closer strategic alliances can be formed there in the future. The cooperation on joint projects such as the Christian search engine "ChristWeb" and jump addresses such as "www.kirchen.de" certainly give hope. With regard to ecumenical cooperation in particular, however, the question arises again and again of how this can be institutionally safeguarded. One possibility would be to develop the ecumenical associations "Church Online" and "Pfarrer & PC" into such platforms or to integrate the "Working Group of Christian Churches" (ACK) more closely into Internet work. At the same time, efforts towards European networking must also remain in view, because networking of the churches is becoming urgent, especially with a view to a united Europe. The European Christian Internet Conference (ECIC) and the Leuenberg Church Fellowship are institutions that can contribute to greater cooperation between the churches in the media sector.

Intensification of press and public relations

Even if not all journalists have e-mail and internet access yet, information can be launched very well into the press via the internet. Online events such as the WebFish competition and the Olympic reports as well as church information letters such as the EKD newsletter increase the chances that other media will report on the churches' internet activities and thus make people aware of church content on the internet. After all, how should people who do not regularly attend church events or take note of church publications find out what the churches are doing on the Internet?

If the flow of information about projects, jobs and activities within the churches is still functioning quite well, the Internet activities of the Protestant churches are not sufficiently noticed by the general public. A greater broad impact of church internet programs could be achieved through cooperation with secular partners with whom one collaborates on concrete actions, for example with other media or the industry, who then advertise the church offers again. This results in synergy effects that are beneficial to both partners.

Overall, however, after two years one will have to say that after an initial interest in the subject of "Church and Internet", media interest has waned. Every institution and every association is now on the Internet. Therefore, the mere presence is no longer worth news. Only when there are interesting things to report will the press take notice. This is precisely why the conceptual further development of the content is so important for the church offers. If you don't constantly come up with something new, you will get lost somewhere in the mass of millions of websites.

Education and training for church workers

The new communication options could also be used more intensively within the church if appropriate training opportunities were available. It doesn't help to equip offices and offices with computers and ISDN if no one is able to operate the technology. In the church too, awareness must be raised that the use of computers and telecommunications will become a cultural technique of the 21st century. The technophobia that is socially acceptable and often exhibited in church circles has an extremely counterproductive effect. The leading church authorities must draw attention to the fact that the computer is not just a toy for a few enthusiasts, but a meanwhile regular tool that makes work more efficient and therefore cheaper.

In view of the constantly increasing postage fees, it is worth thinking about using e-mail, electronic mail, as a fast, convenient and cheap means of transporting information. Since more and more people get e-mail addresses and regularly check them in their electronic mailboxes, it is already worthwhile to set up e-mail distribution lists. In the foreseeable future, several parallel distributors will be necessary to deliver the information to the addressees. But especially in the case of large distribution lists, the savings in sending via e-mail in comparison to conventional means are quickly noticeable. This type of communication is also ideal for closed distribution groups that all have their own e-mail address. However, this assumes that not only all employees have the technology, but are also trained accordingly.

Intranet structures for the churches

The experiences in the Hanover regional church with the networking sound very promising - also for other regional churches. But the structures are seldom as developed as in the Hanover regional church. Decentralized decision-making and organizational structures make it difficult for some regional churches to set up a uniform technical infrastructure from which everyone could benefit: Broadcasts can be stored on the intranet servers or sent by e-mail at a price that is far below what is currently being spent. The administration of the parishes and other church institutions could also be carried out much more effectively and cost-effectively.