• Make the most of your church's online sermons

    When my first church client set up sermon podcasts, we didn't know it, but we were among the first. Less than a month after launch, the church office got a call from National Public Radio. The reporter was doing a story on churches that had podcasts. He said that in his research at that time, he found two, and of them only my client returned his call.

    The minister was a little leery about it when we first posted the sermons on the web site. This was before podcasts of any kind were common. He wondered out loud who would ever be interested in listening to sermons on the web or on an iPod? He learned that many would, as he began to receive calls and emails from across the country, from people he'd never met, saying they appreciated a particular sermon.

    The sermons were on the web site mainly to eliminate the cost of putting the sermons on cassette tapes that the church provided mostly to home-bound members, but with podcasts, we started reaching a younger audience as well as those far away from the church building.

    If your church posts or podcasts sermons, I have two questions for you.

    What are you trying to accomplish and how does it fit into your overall goals?

    If you've read my past posts about church web sites and social media (see after the end of this article), you know I'm a strong advocate of a church having some sort of plan and to know how and where your digital efforts fit in to that plan.

    So, how DO your online/podcast sermons fit into your plans? Are you simply saving the money and manpower to burn them to CDs (for that matter, why were you burning them to CDs?)? Are they for your congregation's ill or elderly who can't get out of the house to come to church? Are they part of your plan to reach non-Christians? Or they there just because someone at your congregation thought it'd be a good idea?

    Who your online audience is should influence not only affect how you present sermons on your web site, but also how your pastor/minister/priest. delivers his or her sermons. (I'm going to use the more generic term "preacher" for this post, since we are talking about sermons.) Is your intent to reach non-Christians? Then your preacher should keep in mind that "insider" terminology and concepts should be explained for those who are probably not familiar with them.

    Preachers at churches which project sermon slides and multi-media need to remember, especially for audio podcasts, that your online audience can't see what's on the screen. So if your preachers play a video or refer to points on slides, they should use terms or descriptions that can help those who can't see them. When I am listening to a sermon podcast, I always appreciate it when the preacher says something like "for our internet congregation. we're looking at....". Another option is to upload PowerPoint presentations and upload or link to videos in the sermon post.

    Preachers still use physical illustrations... hand gestures, pointing to something, or using physical objects (for example, a towel for a foot-washing sermon). You'll make your sermons more podcast-friendly if you name what you have in your hand. This is valuable even if you post video of your sermons, if the visual aid is outside of the camera's view.

    A recommendation to benefit both your physical and i-audiences... when a preacher refers to a book or article in a sermon, include a link to it with your audio/video post.

    The comments field of the MP3 can serve to not only summarize or tease the topic, but to mention that there are links to videos or reference materials available with the sermon post on your church's web site. When you do this in your comments, it's not a bad idea to include a web link directly to the sermon page.

    What are you doing to maximize your sermons' reach?

    If you are using a sermon component, such as SermonSpeaker for web sites that use the Joomla platform (on which the following list is based), take advantage of as many features as you can, such as

    • The sermon description. If you are trying to reach non-members too, be sure to avoid the Christian buzzwords.
    • Include references to the scriptures used in the sermon.
    • As mentioned above, upload or link to mentioned materials.
    • Tag the sermon with relevant terms and phrases. This not only helps in web searches, but if you click on a tag, the result is a list of sermons that all use that tag.
    • Make sure the speaker's profile includes a picture, even if s/he is a visiting/guest speaker. Adding his/her brief biography is a bonus.
    • For the sermons series, have a summary and a relevant image. If your preacher associates an image with the series, use the same image!

    It also pays to make the audio/video file itself appealing. Have you ever had a song on your MP3 player that didn't have an "album cover" image, and only showed a gray general icon? Most sermons I see in iTunes look like that. It's easier than you think to add an "album art" image to your file, even if it's simply your church logo. Speaking of iTunes, it has the added option of assigning an image to the overall podcast. Take advantage of this option for the same reason.

    Don't forget that promotion is key. Ongoing promotion. Promote your sermon series on your home page (using the same image used in the sermons and on the series page of your web site). Promote each sermon after you've posted it. Promote a series when it begins and when it ends ("if you missed our series on X, it's not too late. Hear them all here" (link to series page)).

    The hardest part about implementing these features is to make doing them a habit. Do you have to do all of them to be successful? Clearly no, but imagine if a business tried to promote its products without photos, descriptions and details?

  • Your church website could be a digital Swiss army knife

    If your church web site contains only pages of text and pictures, that's a good. Assuming the information is current and relevant to your audience, of course. But why stop there? It can offer so much more, to members and potential visitors alike. Options vary depending on which platform your church web site uses.

    I am most familiar with a platform called Joomla. Joomla inherently offers several useful features right out of the box... For starters, it's free. Out of the box, it offers the ability to schedule web pages to be published (appear on the site) and be un-published at dates and times in the future, and the ability to create a "members only" area of your site.

    It also is designed so that third parties can easily add all sorts of optional specialized features, called "extensions". Many can greatly enhance the usefulness of your web site. Here's a brief discussion of just a few. I am not endorsing any of them; I only hope to spur your imagination to what your church web site could be.

    Put your sermon audio or video on line. Easily organize your sermons, speakers and series, with the ability to podcast built right in. There is a free extension that makes it simple to create robust speaker profiles and series descriptions, and link them to individual sermons. Each sermon can have a description, referenced Bible verses, and downloadable versions of handouts.

    Make it possible to downloadable files. Make forms, posters, budgets, brochures, reports and more available for download. One extension lets you categorize your documents, track how many times each has been downloaded, and offer links to individual documents or categories of documents on any web page.

    Offer online registration for events and classes. There are extensions that support custom online registration forms for youth rallies, seminars, fundraising dinners, Sunday school classes, and so on. Some can handle online payments for events that aren't free.

    Display pictures of events in an online gallery. Pictures draw your members to the site, and can serve potential visitors to show what your congregation is involved in.

    Let visitors see your social media posts in your web site. You're posting in Facebook and Twitter or one of the other social media platforms? Pull your posts right into your web site. Some Joomla extensions will show the feeds separately, and some let you combine them into a single feed.

    Add a password-protected area for members. Joomla comes with the ability to create a password-protected area for members. Any of the features I've mentioned above can be publicly-accessible or in this private area. Candidates for the private area could include budget or other financial reports, planning reports, member directories and detailed prayer lists.

    The first church web site that I applied these things to had a couple of results worth noting. First, this church was one of the very first to podcast its sermons. A couple of weeks after we launched this feature, the church office got a call from a National Public Radio reporter. This led to a story about that church's podcasting efforts on NPR's 'All Things Considered'.

    Second, this church was near Washington Dulles Airport in Northern Virginia. One day, the church office got a call from a man who was there for a layover during an international flight. He found the church's web site and contacted it because he wanted to be baptized by immersion. He came to the church building, was baptized, then returned to Dulles and continued his trip. Had it not been clear on the web site that this church did that, he likely would never have called.

    So make your church's web site a digital Swiss army knife and you never know what interesting story your church could tell.