At iMinistries, we've worked with churches of all types, denominations, and sizes, and we take pride that our system works well for everyone. Over the years, we’ve acquired expertise along the way as to what makes for a healthy online presence. But we want to be able to walk side-by-side with every denomination by giving valuable input and advice to help create a great website.
Recently, missional churches (or missional communities) have been a hot topic in the Christian world. There is no doubt that their teachings and ethos could benefit any church, no matter the denomination. After talking with a few missional churches, we found the need to be better educated on this topic. We didn’t know what advice to give and don’t have experience to work from.
So, an idea was hatched to interview pastors, authors, students, educators, and anyone we could find who has something to say about missional communities and how that community should represent itself online.
(Please look at this as a resource and a tool to help improve your website. Not as a statement of what iMinistries believes or thinks a church should be.)
Our first interview: JR Rozko
JR has made a name for himself as a leader in the missional movement. Along with some time spent as a pastor, he is currently conducting doctoral research as a part of a cohort focused on Anabaptist Perspectives in Missional Ecclesiology through Fuller Theological Seminary’s D.Miss. program. He also serves as Director of Operations & Advancement for the Missio Alliance, an initiative that aims to provide a place for theological dialogue, training, and the creation of resources to help pastors and other Christian leaders navigate present and future missional challenges. JR is part of the missional community Life on the Vine.
iMin: What are some of the unique features of "missional churches" and how does this translate into the development and presentation of a website?
JR: To my mind, what makes a church "missional" is three-fold.
- First, and of primary importance, understanding God as, himself, a missionary. That is, that far from being a static being to relate to, God is a "fount of sending love."
- This theological vision holds implications for a second mark of missional churches, a missionary understanding of the gospel. In other words, the Good News, for missional churches, isn't so much about facts to be believed, but about faithful participation in God's mission in the world.
- These two characteristics result in a third unique characteristic of missional churches, an intense focus on equipping congregations for mission—discipleship in the truest sense of the word.
In light of this, websites have value, but probably won't be a major locus of financial resources for missional churches. Development and presentation of missional church websites is often simple and minimalistic. The point isn't to present a compelling or overwhelming presence, but a clear and concise one.
iMin: We agree with your assessment that there shouldn’t be an “overwhelming presence, but a clear and concise one.” This is excellent advice for all churches. Too often, church websites overwhelm the site visitor with unnecessary and too much content.
iMin: What is the basic purpose of a "missional church" having a website? Why even have one?
JR: First, inasmuch as missional churches assume a context in which people have no immediate resonance with Christianity or the Church, they place little stock in vying for the attention of people because of compelling advertising and programs. Their "evangelism strategy" is a community of disciples on mission together, not marketing or advertising, however creative. Thus, their websites exist to provide a point of reference, but not necessarily as a point of attraction. Second, missional churches seek to develop websites that will be helpful to their congregations or the sake of connecting and resources.
iMin: You mention the site being helpful to the congregation and providing resources. What about the visitor who isn’t yet a part of the community? What sort of focus should the website take for communicating with those individuals? We study a lot of statistics and see that with most websites, 50% of the visitors are unique and 50% are returning. The assumption can be made that many of the unique visitors are individuals who are considering attending your church or being a part of the community.
JR: For those who are “just checking the church out,” I think websites need to give a clear picture of what the Church is all about, but I mean this more in terms of how the community functions together than just their doctrinal statement or something of that sort. Those things are scrutinized by Christian “church-shoppers,” but unintelligible to those who lack a history or vocabulary for that sort of thing. It’s this second category of people that missional churches are mainly interested in.
iMin: Are there some characteristics of mainstream church websites that you think work against a missional ethos?
JR: Yes. Many mainstream churches continue to suppose that they inhabit a context in which Church involvement is a given or at least an important cultural good. In light of this, their websites take shape around a vision of being the "best in the business." They therefore come across as little more than vendors of religious goods and services as opposed to communities of missionary disciples.
In addition, mainstream church websites often give much more space and attention to who the paid professionals are than the community itself. Again, this betrays a lingering allegiance to ways of operating that assume working in a Christian (as opposed to missionary) context.
iMin: Many of the churches who use our system might take some offense to the statement that they are “vendors of religious goods and services.” Can you clarify what sort of content you see that depicts this?
JR: In league with Jesus on this issue of who we (as the Church) orient ourselves toward and how we steward our resources. I’m OK with offending some people here or at least provoking a discussion. The issue isn’t content, the issue is mission. [Web]sites that posture themselves as being the best church around are targeting Christians plain and simple.
“Going to church” is a concept that makes complete sense to those with Christian sentiments and no sense to those who don’t. Missional church websites may want to peak the curiosity of those who are not Christians with the use of content and media, but their driving assumption is that this is mainly a cross-cultural affair necessitating relational translation.
To draw a fine point on what I am saying here, missional churches simply put little to no stock in the “marketing power” of websites for the purposes of reaching those who are far from Christ.
iMin: As a resource to participants in a missional community, what should the website provide?
JR: In this case, the things that are most important are:
Opportunities for people to connect and collaborate
Access to a calendar of events
In-house resources that can contribute to spiritual growth and opportunities for ministry and mission.
iMin: With the exception of #2, these resources seem to be more focused on individuals who are already “believers.” This seems like a very internalized approach to an idea that is, at its core, very external in nature. Do you have any comments on that?
JR: Along with what I said above, while missional churches will want their website to provide some helpful information to those who may visit (who don’t have a Christian background), they acknowledge that advertising their programs and content just won’t mean that much. In fact, it may be more intimidating than anything else.
Thus, I’d suggest that the usefulness of websites for missional churches is mainly an internal affair. To circle back around, missional churches are far more concerned about making relational connections with those who are far from Christ than they are with attracting those who get the Church/Christian thing. In other words, missional churches aren’t interested in outsourcing making connections with non-believers to a website.
iMin: What are your thoughts on "missional churches" using social media/networking?
JR: Social media and networking provide excellent opportunities for missional churches to enhance their life together. They can augment existing relationships and provide on ramps to new ones. The trick is not believing that these avenues of connection can ever replace the embodied, face-to-face connection that marks truly missional communities.
iMin: Most will agree that social media should never replace face-to-face connections. This is the first time you mention something as an on ramp to new relationships. This relates to the previous question: Isn’t it possible for a website to be an on ramp to a new relationship?
JR: Of course, but here’s the deal ... in a consumer-driven culture such as ours, as soon as you introduce a way for something to get done that seems to alleviate someone of their responsibility for that thing, you can bank on it happening.
The quickest way to undercut the spiritual life and growth of a community is to provide ways for them to avoid taking ownership and responsibility of key practices. Case in point, it’s not that Christians can’t study the Bible on their own, but few take up that responsibility because we have provided so many ways to have this provided for us. In many cases, the best way to form people for mission is to make sure that they have no recourse to rely on external means to accomplish it. This is what makes it so tricky.
As a quick example (easy one for a new dad!), if I want my daughter to learn to walk, I have to stop carrying her everywhere. This doesn’t mean I never carry her again, but it does mean that I take this option away until it takes on a new sort of significance ... until it truly becomes a supplement to what is normal and natural as opposed to a replacement for it.
iMin: In general, do you see an online presence enhancing the community or detracting from it?
JR: If done well, it can enhance the life and formation of community. The trick is not creating or allowing the opportunity for an online presence to take the place of the sort of connection and work that can only happen in the flesh. Reconciliation is a life-on-life issue that can't be experienced in its truest or fullest sense in a merely electronic forum.
iMin: We can say with confidence that every church that partners with iMinistries uses its website to build a bridge that connects the individual with the church. In what ways have you seen churches replace a real “in the flesh” connection?
JR: An extreme example are some attempts to create completely online/virtual congregations. A less extreme, but still problematic, example would be those churches who, instead of really giving themselves to the identification, equipping, and mobilization of leaders, put more stock in video venues, hologram imaging, and online/virtual resources that introduce a technological space would be better filled by a human presence.
iMin: What story should a healthy online presence tell?
JR: It should tell the story, good and bad, of a people on mission together. The presence and work that they have in a given community is of primary importance.
iMin: Can you give some examples or stories of people on mission together? It can be general examples.
JR: Many missional communities will incorporate a blog into their website where congregation members have the opportunity to share stories of God at work in their common and personal lives. Many of these same churches will offer a brief overview of their own history—how they came to be, what kinds of challenges and opportunities they have faced, and what sort of common mission they are seeking to journey into together.