Heal Your Church WebSite


Teaching, rebuking, correcting & training in righteous web design.

Backend Issues

Since May, you’ve heard me rant and rave about the end-user this, and compelling content that. I’ve given you several dozen examples of how to manage things from a code-monkey’s perspective.

That said, one aspect I’ve offered scant detail to is the human factors in maintaining a church web site. An issue I was reminded of by the dozens of emails and the triplet of comments generated by Monday’s mention of a content mangement system and church secretaries. Sentiments that I think are best summed up in the following email:

Hello, Dean,

I read your post today about Content Management Systems being used for the church, and I just couldn’t help myself. I had to share all these ideas I’ve been having for the last couple of years. You seem to understand both the technical and practical side of church web sites, so I would love to hear your thoughts…

I am the “lead webservant” for our church, West Park Baptist Church in Knoxville, TN. We started over a year ago doing a redesign of our entire site, www.west-park.org (we still haven’t launched the redesign, so if you go visit, you’ll find plenty of things that need to be healed!). Being a programmer by trade, I had high hopes of finding a content management system that we could use to build our site.

After a lot of looking at the Open Source solutions, we ended up going with (gasp) FrontPage. I know, it’s about as far from Open Source as you can get. And I know, it isn’t really a content management system in the sense that it separates data from display–because it doesn’t. It doesn’t even use real templates. With the exception of the header, footer, and left nav of our web site, HTML is duplicated all over the place.

As a programmer, all those technical insufficiencies just bug me. But it ended up being the best solution for now, because:

  1. Usability / User Interface
    FrontPage’s user interface is pretty intuitive for anyone who knows Word. Our staff does not spend most of their time working with software, but when they do use computers, it’s almost always to use Word. We figured that in the end, our staff could actually maintain a web site done in FrontPage, with a small learning curve.

     
  2. 2. Delegation of responsibilities
    In our church of 1500, it is not feasible for our 4-person team to keep the entire web site up to date. Our end goal is to have each ministry and small group keep their own portion of the web site up-to-date. With FrontPage, we can delegate the management of those sections to the respective people. I know this can be done with many of the content management systems out there, but at this point we fall back on #1. The more people we have managing portions of the site, the easier our software needs to be. So, FrontPage won again.

     
  3. 3. Advanced features of FrontPage Server Extensions (FPSE)
    With FrontPage server extensions, everyday users can create web forms that collect data from the user and send it via email to a specified email address. No HTML required…just point, click, and it’s done. FPSE also allow them to do server side includes, syndicate news from MSNBC, and create search forms for their sections of the web site, all from a WYSIWYG interface that they’re familiar with. And because FPSE runs on Apache on Linux, we can find affordable hosting, too.

     

Even with all this, the fact of the matter is that there is no existing system that does what we want. For example, our church has 30 or more small groups. On the web site, we would like to supply these small groups with online calendars, forums, mailing lists, online studies, that they can maintain themselves. But to do that effectively, we need to tie in to our church management system, Automated Church System (ACS). Otherwise, we end up having to put information into at least two systems independently, and you know how quickly that gets hairy. So, we tried to integrate the web site with ACS. The problem is that it’s proprietary, and we can only export comma-delimited text files, and that gets awfully limited when you’re talking about integrating an interactive web site with it.

As a Christian programmer, I am really longing to see an Open Source answer to this question. Sadly, I think the only way to really get what we need is to build it ourselves. In my opinion, we need to meld the church management system with a web content management system. This approach could open several doors of opportunity:

When a new member joins, entering them into the church management system should automatically create an account for them on the web site. Using that account, they could access online member directories, forums, online giving statements, etc.
When the person joins a small group, the small group leader could login to the web site and assign that person to the small group’s web calendar, forums, etc; and that assignment should filter back to the church management system.
Better yet, when a person wants to sign up for a small group, they should be able to go to our web site, log in, and go to the class they want to sign up for and click “Sign Me Up.” That should trigger the church management system to enroll that person in that small group, and should automatically sign them up for their small group’s forums and mailing lists, etc.

The problem is that I have a vision of what I would like to see, but no time to accomplish it. Do you think there are enough of us Christian programmers out there with enough time on our hands to build a system like this? Do you think there’s a market for this kind of integrated system? Do you think we could make it Open Source? I like the ideals behind Open Source, but I still wrestle somewhat with the economics. Besides that, I’ve never actually been involved in an open source project and would have no idea how to lead one.

Just a whole bunch of ideas and questions that I’d like to hear your take on.

Thanks for taking your time to read this tome. And thanks for your web site. It’s been an enjoyable, informative read ever since I started reading it!

Your Brother In Christ,

Doug Walker

I think this is a GREAT set of topics for discussion. I want to hear from you. Comments?

10 Comments

  1. I would love to be part of a project that attempted to answer these needs.

  2. hmmm, I think it’s a brilliant idea, and an area where the church could push forward in terms of technology and actually be in the lead rather than trailing behind.
    I feel I ought to think of some negative thing to say about it, but I can’t… hmm I’ll try to get back to you on that

  3. Wow…. We’re at the beginning of developing a whole new website for our church and at this red-hot moment, CMS is the big stumper. I’ve only been looking around on the web for a few days to learn more about building my own and came upon this site, then this entry….must be a *God thing* :o )

    You really hit on exactly what we’re thinking here and brought up the whole integration with the church’s management system, which I hadn’t even thought about. I’m thinking that maybe I can build something that might be useful for others in our shoes. I must admit I have only a vague idea of how to do this, but maybe I have an advantage that way….?

    Anyway, I would love to be included in any discussions or updates about a project like this! And I’d be willing to share any great insights that I stumble across myself!

    finish well!

    Sherill Maddox

  4. Ditto to everything other have said! Has there been any progress on this front? Our church is gearing up for a major overhaul of our site, and I wanted to build an ASP-based portal system that incorporates content management. I’ve thought about integration with church management as well. (Right now the system we use is one I personally despise, but we’ve been told it’s the best one out there.) I’d be very interested in any development on this idea.

  5. I’m faced with the same issues. In the course of developing a web site to promote missionaries ServeSaints
    . I’ve found many of the indigenous missions agencies and churchs could use a good open source solution. I’m currently working on a Missions Portal for Millions for Christ Missions in Nigeria. I am using ASP.Net/VB.Net/SQL Server and basing the code on changes to the IBuySpy portal. The goal is a simple (and I emphasize simple) but targeted CMS system where all the changes are made online. I hope to make this a “mostly” open source solution when finished. “Mostly” because there will be no fee required, but some committment to support missions work through ServeSaints. If anyone else is interested in helping out or exploring the opportunity to get involved, let me know.

    Greg

  6. Take a look at this site. I think will address most of your needs.

    http://WWW.TeamMinistry.net

  7. I am building a youth ministry website, well actually still just researching. My church is also implementing ACS, but I am not involved in that directly. So all of this stuff is very interesting. My church has over 2000 people, but at current our presence on the web is pathetic.

    But we DO stream Sunday services live on the internet, and this access helps a large number of missionaries (whether abroad or home based). I am not too happy with the implementation, but I do not have direct control of that.

  8. I’m thinking about using the new ExpressionEngine (www.pmachine.com) for a church site (www.xcthesavior.org). It seems to bring together a lot of great features I’ve been looking so hard to find in an open source cms. It costs a little bit of money, but it’s nice to have professional developers with some self-interest working to create a good quality and consistent product.

    Fr. John

  9. Interesting discussion. Another link for you to try is http://www.churchinsight.com

    These guys are based in the UK, but have developed a church web site / church management system that brings together the good bits of both, and it’s offered as a hosted service (ASP model).

    Not open-source I’m afraid, but you have to trade that off against the benefits of not needing tech skills yourself.

  10. I found a similar discussion of an opensource project starting over at geeks4christ.

    To my knowledge there is only one open-source project attempting this
    http://sourceforge.net/projects/phpchurch/
    It seems to be a solo affair and he could probably use some help.

    I’ve thought about doing this myself and then offering it hosted for those churches that don’t want to/don’t know how to set it up for themselves.

    But, I think the reality is there are already numerouse solutions for those willing to pay a little bit every month. So for me its been the economic barrier – I’ve continued focusing on consulting to pay the bills and haven’t found enough free time to put together a solid solution.