Anyone who has been involved in a successful church or ministry can understand the realities of a vision rich environment. “Vision Rich” is the term I am using to describe an environment when one of many people feel they have been given direction or insight by God to do great things. Vision rich environments are typically very fast paced and often entail taking on substantial risk in very short time frames.
The purpose of this White Paper is to discuss how to strategize for long term results in a vision rich environment. The scriptures tell us to “Consider the cost before we build the tower” and with this in mind we will build a strong foundation for planning how to succeed when following vision. This paper will specifically focus on implementations that have technological implementations but may also be applicable to areas such as counseling and engineering efforts.
As a veteran technologist, I have had the privilege to be exposed to many fascinating technologies. Over the course of the past ten years, we have witnessed one of the most amazing communication tools to be entrusted to a generation since the printing press. The Internet or World Wide Web is a vast network of interconnected computer’s and communications technologies. God has chosen this point in time to entrust such a powerful communication tool to our generation. With this comes an enormous responsibility to be good steward’s with this technology. The commercial world has certainly found many ways to embrace the Internet, building upon various business models to provide products and services through this almost instantaneous data stream. As Christians though, we must look at the web from a different perspective, web pages and email are great, but we should never build our ministry efforts solely upon the business models that corporations are using simply because they work. God’s plans move outside this realm all together, and his direction and inspiration to leverage such a powerful tool may appear to not always be conventional. This is exactly where we need to be.
Along come the visionaries, many with an entourage of followers ready to do anything that is asked of them. God gives vision to people today, I firmly believe this, but I also recognize an unfortunate trend in lack of perseverance when embracing technology as a ministry tool. Ministries are typically very dependent upon a large volunteer labor base. With this in mind, they can easily be persuaded to build a technology solution not upon best practices or even the leading of the Lord, but upon the talents of whoever has even the basic ability to build what they are dreaming about. As much as the intent was sincere, this has resulted in investing a substantial amount of time in proprietary and obscure solutions that tend to have very short time life cycles or that are awkward and cumbersome to use from the end users perspective. Prayer, analysis and consideration should always be put into practice before the first lines of code are written. Before you begin to build, consider issues such as licensing and support as well as architectural maturity and extensibility of the tools that will be used. “Considering the cost” before you begin to build! With the reality of little to no budgets available, some decisions can be fairly easy to make such as building upon high licensing cost products that will force the ministry to face moral decisions such as using multiple versions without paying for them or worst yet, building upon software that has not been purchased. Fortunately, God has also allowed this to be a time when entire technology models are based upon giving away some of the best Internet technologies at not cost. This technology model is best know as “Open Source” and often accompanies the GPL (General Public License) licensing model. This licensing model is based upon the concept that the software is freely downloadable, distributable and modifiable. The main source of revenue for participants of these products tends to be built upon providing support at a nominal cost. A very fair option when you consider that support is not required and many of these technologies such as Linux, MySQL, PHP, JSP and Apache are well documented.
Still, we are faced with another common dilemma, when the vision has been laid out, it may be likely that volunteer(s) will be waiting in the wings to build the technology solution, be it a webpage or application with little thought to long term sustainability. Unfortunately, this is the fate of many ministry websites that fill servers around the world; consideration had never put in place for how these sites would be maintained with fresh and relevant content. There is a myth amongst many web technologist, “If I will build it, they will come”. Nothing could be farther from the truth when it comes to the web. Internet sites and application like most everything else require time to mature and come into their own. On the average, it takes a web site twelve to eighteen months to gain notable maturity. These numbers can be skewed and misleading in the early days of a website release. Family members and word of mouth will bring a bubble of activity to a site typically once it’s first launched. This “Honeymoon” period usually only last a few short months and the content begins to become stale as less and less people keep coming back and no strategy is put into place to add new content. It’s important to not consider this period anything other than the “Honeymoon”, the long term work is still to be done.
Once a website in completed, an ongoing effort must be put into place to measure how people are using the site. Assuming the site was built with the target audience in mind, you should be able to identify if the target user is viewing the content you placed on the site. Incorporating a strong measurability model into your site and architecture design is very important. Most ministry sites and surprisingly many commercial sites never take this important aspect in mind and therefore have no effective way to measure site success. Hit counters should not be considered an effective way to measure success of a web site. Metrics (measurements) such as mean path, search terms, and length of visit all contribute to a better understanding of how the site is being used and how effective the taxonomy (navigation strategy) is working. Once these metrics are analyzed, new content can be written to act as a “Net” to gather more and more target traffic to the content and materials you want the end user to see.
So, what happens after 3-6 months and the “Honeymoon” period is over and site statistics begin to drop, this phase is what should be planned for from the very beginning. It’s critical to the success of a web site that someone or better yet, a team feel called to keep the vision alive. I’m afraid without this planning, the initial effort is likely to die an early death and should be delayed until dedicated person(s) are identified who can direct the site development and plan for it’s long term sustainability.
This list will help you keep in mind many critical points to consider before moving forward with your technology effort.
- 1) Understand and write the vision down clearly as to what is being directed to be done.
- 2) Pray through the vision to clearly understand who the target audience isand don’t stray from that target audience. Remember, this effort it to meet a specific purpose so fulfill that to the fullest.
- 3) Pray through what the end user is to take away from your technology solution. Without a take away, the solution will seem vague and missing continuity.
- 4) Consider the target audience level of expertise at understanding what you’re trying to communicate. Avoid jargon that is organizational specific, use common terms as much as possible.
- 5) Pray in the technical, planning and sustainability team. They will need to have a good understanding of the vision, which should be written down. Don’t move to far until you have a good core of people.
- 6) Do your homework and plan on understanding as much as you can about your target audience. Keep the focus on meeting their needs not your own. God has entrusted you with a vision to meet the needs of other so don’t cut corners or compromise.
- 7) Know your competition and how they are targeting your audience. Remember, “Wise men win souls”.
- 8) Write smart content. Most websites never mature because they lack in the very content they were created to deliver. Be committed to writing new and interesting content targeted toward your audience.
- 9) Invest for the long haul. Successful web sites are successful not because you threw money at expensive ad campaigns but because you have invested the time to do it right and were patient enough to stick it out. Almost any website can do well from a search perspective if the content is relevant to the target audience.
- 10) Avoid bells and whistles when not necessary to get your core message across. There is a big temptation to implement a lot of flash and bang into a site because it is thought that this will draw the users in. In reality, technologies such as Macromedia Flash can seriously impact the success of your site. While this is a very dynamic and interesting tool, it should never be used for site landing pages unless conventional navigation is also provided allowing successful spidering of web site content. Flash in particular should be used sparingly, keep in mind that the site is for your target audience and not fun and games in your development efforts.
- 11) Content should always outweigh design. Practically, good site design will have a good balance of interesting content while still looking presentable. In reality, your target user is looking for some type of information not so much to be dazzled by your graphic design skills. Good graphical design is important but should never force you to sacrifice textual content.
- 12) Taxonomy is the art of getting the user to the content they are looking for with the least amount of effort. As a rule of thumb, a user should be able to get to the majority of the content within three clicks. Implementing a variety of taxonomy strategies may be useful especially if you can include robust search functionality
Our hope is that this White Paper has given you some insight into creating a successful and sustainable project and that your efforts will produce an abundance of spiritual fruit.
Further information about this ministry can be found at…
Greg Paskal – firstname.lastname@example.org
Mark Bentsen – email@example.com
This White Paper has been presented as a ministry of MissionWares in an effort to equip and encourage Christian ministries to their fullest potential
In His Service,
Greg Paskal & Mark Bentsen