To make wise choices about Internet use, first an organization must fully understand itself. What are your organization's primary functions? How are they carried out? A ministry's functions are the activities it pursues to achieve its purpose. A ministry's forms are the ways these functions are achieved. Functions should change little if at all over time; forms change as culture and technologies change. For example, one ministry function may be to enable business leaders' spiritual growth. In years past, this may have taken the form of a daily devotional book mailed out annually. Now it can be provided as a daily e-mail or blog entry to those who prefer it. The function does not change, but the form does.
A new, Internet-based form could be the replacement of a current form (such as offering daily e-mail devotionals instead of a printed book), or the new form could complement the current form (offering your subscribers a choice between the printed book and the e-mail). It's also possible that the Internet does not provide a good form for one of your ministry's goals. Not all Internet-based forms replace or complement your functions well.
This last point warrants further discussion. Often an organization will think it's required to put a particular part of its ministry online. For example, a church may feel that it must podcast the pastor's sermons, or a ministry leader may feel required to blog. Just because others are doing it does not make it right for your organization. When deciding which Internet-based forms are right for a particular function, ask the following questions:
• Am I aware of all the possible forms this function could take? Many times we are biased toward using a particular form because someone thinks it is cool or we have seen other ministries doing it. It's important to review many options and make an informed choice. This usually requires access to someone who is aware of the different forms available, whether a staff member, a consultant, or even a volunteer. Carefully compare Internet technologies before making a decision.
• Does it enhance or improve the function? This is the main consideration when thinking about going online with part of your ministry. Will moving this function of your ministry to a particular Internet form allow you to more successfully accomplish the function?
• Can my ministry manage it properly? You can make all the right choices for moving a function online and still fail to implement it because you did not involve the right people. Or you could involve all the right people but fail because you did not create adequate management processes.
• What does it say about my ministry? In 1964, when Marshall McLuhan coined the famous phrase "the medium is the message,"the Internet did not exist. Yet his philosophy can apply to what we do online, and it is simply this: Using the Internet as a medium—through a website, Facebook page, Twitter account, or blog—is just as important as the content placed there.
Spend Time Planning
I found that ministries with success online were attentive to planning. Simply going on gut feeling was not an option; instead, they were willing to spend time and resources before one byte of information went online. This planning consisted of three primary components:
• The development of a mission statement for Internet use. Your organization has a reason to exist. Your Internet presence should as well. A mission statement supporting what you are doing online will provide clarity and support to those working on it. This mission statement cannot be a restatement of your organization's mission statement. It should address how your ministry will specifically use the Internet to accomplish its overall mission.
• The creation of a target user profile. Not only must you have a mission for your Internet use, you must also know who you are trying to reach. Different target audiences will respond differently to you using the Internet.
• The willingness to do research. You need to understand your options and which options will be best for reaching your intended users. Do not assume you understand what will work best—get hard evidence first.
The last thing I found that these organizations had in common was their ability to think long-term. Their ministry's online component was not something they built once and left alone. The days of the website as a digital brochure are long gone: constant attention must be paid to changes in tech-nologies and culture. Thinking long-term includes taking the following steps:
Setting measurable goals and determining how you will measure them. In order to improve, you must be able to monitor your progress. Building quantifiable, measurable goals will provide a way to do this.
Forming a "Web directions"team or committee. This team should meet regularly to monitor the progress of the project and should have the power to take action if changes are needed. This team will review how well the Internet part of the ministry is meeting the goals of the project. This team's decisions should be driven by the ministry's Internet mission statement.