Southern Baptist offers poor churches free websites; RNS does compelling story

One thing I’ve noticed about churches is how awful their online presence is. Having an effective website isn’t optional these days. Yet, I’ve been amazed at the sheer sloppiness of most churches’ online offerings. And then they wonder why no one attends their services.

I always thought a model website should have a “coming attractions” kind of ad for the upcoming sermon. Churches have been asking visitors to accept on faith that the sermon will apply to them that week, only to find out that the sermon’s about marriage, but the visitor is single. Or the sermon deal with God and the workplace while the visitor homeschools her kids.

So I was glad to see Religion News Service’s piece on a Connecticut firm that’s offering to build free web sites for churches, especially those too poor or technology-phobic to get their own.

(RNS) Members of Trueworship Tabernacle used to walk their Corpus Christi, Texas, neighborhood, passing out fliers about upcoming events.
But in March, the small, multicultural church got a new website.
Six months later, its online postings helped boost attendance at its “Youth Car Wash and Enchilada Sale” as well as its “Hallelujah Night” on Halloween.
In February, TicketNetwork executive Don Vaccaro started Grace Church Websites to meet a need he discovered while talking to his friend, the Rev. Boise Kimber of New Haven, Conn.
More than 670 participating churches and nonprofits, many of them predominantly black or Hispanic, have new sites. They include African Methodist Episcopal, Church of the Nazarene, United Methodist and nondenominational congregations as well as chapters of the Rev. Al Sharpton’s National Action Network.

Operating a website is a bit daunting when you haven’t done it.

First you have to think up a domain name and buy rights to it. Then you have to pay someone to host the site. Not everyone knows about places like Bluehost or GoDaddy that do a lot of that for you. And even if you know where to plant your site, someone has to put together all the content. I mean things like staff bios, church office hours, service times, emergency contacts, information on the other activities that may take place in that church building, and so on.

That doesn’t count more advanced stuff such as posting updates, getting videos on the site and building a database for members to log onto. Churches that have online giving through their sites get a $114 per capita increase in giving per person than do churches with no such opportunity.

I’m surprised someone had not thought of this idea before. But of course it gets expensive, as the article points out.

Vaccaro, a Southern Baptist, said more than 10,000 unique visitors a day connect with the sites overall, and he estimates that it cost his company about half a million dollars to create the system and provide hosting and routine maintenance. He has committed to host the websites for at least five years. 

I wish the article had asked Vaccaro where he’s getting the funding to basically give away so much in the way of services. Also, I would have liked more backstory on why and what made Vaccaro decide to jump into doing this. Was it out of a desire to help poorer, less tech-friendly churches or something else?

Looking up Vaccaro's name online, I found he'd been arrested four years before after an incident at a nightclub where he was drunk and was accused of making racial slurs toward a bouncer there. This was not mentioned in the article. Did that incident have any bearing on his decision to do free websites for mostly black and Hispanic congregations? 

His website also describes him as a financial conservative and a social liberal, which sounds like an unusual combo for a Southern Baptist living in Connecticut, or anywhere else, for that matter. The website has plenty of family photos and descriptions of his various pursuits but nothing about his faith. It would have helped to have probed that silence.

One interesting footnote was a quote by researcher Scott Thuma who said that many churches that do have websites aren’t leveraging them well. As a scanner of many church sites, I’d agree with that. Worse still are churches whose idea of a homepage is a Facebook page. It’s better than nothing, but not by much.

What RNS did with this story is focus on a someone who’s meeting a need that’s both obvious but rarely reported on. The vast majority of churches are notoriously low-budget affairs and even if there is some tech knowledge there, it’s often in the form of a parishioner who volunteers to keep up the site. Often that’s pretty haphazard.

So at least Vaccaro’s company is doing the upkeep itself with the idea that eventually churches will learn to do it themselves. Or perhaps, at the end of five years, he’ll offer them a low-cost maintenance plan if they stay with him. So in the long term, he may make a profit out of something he began by offering it for nothing. Not a bad business strategy, really. 

Smaller and poorer churches rarely get decent coverage. There are stories at these places and all it takes is a determined reporter with contacts and the will to find them. 

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