28 May 2011

Church websites

I had started to write a post about the web pages of churches in the Toronto archdiocese and beyond, but it rapidly became unnecessarily negative.  Rather than dwelling on the bad, I'll sum up: many, if not most, of the churches have no web site at all.  Many of those who do have static web sites; their web page is little more than an electronic version of the sign in front of the church, giving the name of the priest, with Mass and confession times.

It was frustrating for me, back when I was writing my little history, to try and do research on some of the churches and find nothing, or to go to some of the websites, looking for some pictures of the church for an article I was writing, only to find the website had no pictures of the beautiful church, but plenty of the church basement.  This post was originally going to be called: Why Do Catholic Church Websites Suck?

I went so far to composing a list of the sites to hold up as examples, prepared a few comments filled with my incisive wit, and then I decided to listen to my better angels.  I would hate to be a tired, overworked priest, up to his eyeballs in running a church and all the accompanying headaches that come from being a shepherd to souls and working for their sometimes unwilling salvation, and read some yahoo on the Internet whining that my website isn't up to snuff.  So I won't write that post, exactly.  I will, instead, make some observations; then, talk about what I, personally, like to see in websites; then, talk about a few websites, and discuss what I like, and what I believe could be better.  I hope I don't cause any headaches out there, but if I do, at least it will be a more charitable headache.

Part of the problem is that we are, still, in the midst of a revolution.  Where it is going, no one can say for certain.  I imagine years from now someone looking back will point out one or two prophets of the new technologies, and say they knew all along where the revolution would take us., but that can only be spotted in retrospect. Right now, there are a lot of people saying a lot of things, most of which are bunk. The full capacities of this new technology are unknown.

To put that in perspective, that is the way it has always been with the new technologies.  At first, they cause no revolution at all.  Take the printing press, for instance.  While Gutenberg's little invention may have caused the biggest revolution in human history, being a revolution not only in itself but causing or at least enabling other revolutions- the protestant revolution, the scientific and technological revolution (and thus the industrial revolution and, ultimately, this revolution)as well as the French and American revolutions and so on- at first it changed nothing.  Gutenberg simply invented a more efficient way to print books and signs and handbills.  The first book he printed- the bible- was the same book monks in the scriptorums copied endlessly.    The presence of the printing press was not felt for years to come.  Gutenberg himself went bankrupt.

It was only in time, as books became more and more common, as they became cheaper and more available to everybody, that the revolution took hold.  Most people in the Middle Ages couldn't read, but it didn't matter, because there was little for them to read.  Now, there was.  This was the true Gutenberg Revolution: not a revolution in quality, but in quantity.

Or take the revolution caused by cars.  At first, the car was a horseless carriage, and that is how it was treated.  The first car owners fitted the car into their life in the place of the horse and carriage, and thus the car, at first, changed little in the patterns of life.  It was only later, as cars became more common or people became more familiar with cars and their capabilities, that people realized the car was more than a carriage without a horse, and it began to change the way people lived.

It is the same with the Internet. At first, we used it to do the same things we always did, only a little differently, a little more conveniently.  The phrase "the information superhighway" shows this early tendency: the Internet was thought of as a kind of super library, a place to find information easily and quickly.  It is that, but it is also much, much more.  Even so, as was the case with the car, for those of us who were not born to the Internet, it is our instinct to use the Internet like we use other technologies.  In the case at hand, we treat the Internet and the church websites like a church sign. or an electronic bulletin.   But doing that is like hiring Pavarotti to clear his throat.

I myself do not know much about the Internet and its capacities.  I, and many of my generation of Internet users, are like immigrants to a foreign land: forever outsiders, speaking some of the language, but never catching on to the nuance and flavour of the foreign tongue.  But, now, right now, there are kids in university, who have never known a world without the Internet.  They are its natural born citizens, its true natives, its language their mother tongue. They are the ones who will understand its true capacities, even as they expand those capacities into areas we never dreamed.

We could ask. and some have, how far into these new technologies should we go?  how can we use the new social networking capabilities? Should, for example, priests twitter?  Some already do.  Perhaps more should, though what form it will take I don't know.  Perhaps the congregation could get tweets saying something like "im in confessional.  where r u?"  Perhaps the new technology can once again bring the churches back into the lives of the faithful in a real, daily presence.  Or it can distract them from the Church like they have never been distracted before.

So I believe church websites are of great importance to the future of the Church, and there is a need for churches to get online and make their presence known to both parishioners and future parishioners.  They can be a door into the church for the wired in, a door into the church, and also into The Church.

So much for observations.  On a smaller scale, what do I like to see in a website?

I like multimedia, for starters.  It shouldn't be just words or pictures, but words and pictures.  For words, being a fan of history, I like to read a history of the parish.  I also like to see day to day communications.

I also like to see pictures, both of the past and of the present, of the building and of the congregation.  There are quite a few beautiful churches in Toronto, why not show them off in their web sites?  Even some of the less than beautiful churches will often have lovely stained glass, or statuary.  One church I used to belong to years ago, a neither beautiful nor ugly church, did a calender featuring photos of the stained glass windows.  Their website could easily have the same photos, and yet it doesn't.

I also like to hear music.  Many church websites boast of having an excellent choir, but give no samples of their choir's music.  That is unfortunate. 

I also like links.  Lots of links.  Lots of good, solid, Catholic links.  As I said, a church website is a door.  it should be a door into as wide a world as possible.

Lastly, the website should be alive.  It should not be static and fixed.  It can be used as a tremendous resource for getting information out to the congregation, such as, say, the new translation.

If anyone has any more ideas or preferences as to what they would like to see on websites, say so in the com box.

Now, to look at some web sites both within and without the archdiocese.  Since I am fond of photographs of beautiful churches, I'll start with one of the most beautiful in the country, La Basilique de Notre Dame de Montreal.  When it comes to photos of the church, this one is replete.  The church is stunning, and the website showcases it.

That's what's good about the website.  What is not good is what is missing: Catholicism.  There is very little in the way of links to the Church, or any indication of a parish life,  From this website, the church is a museum and a tourist attraction.

A similar, but better website comes from a church that is, in some ways, a twin to Notre Dame of Montreal: Notre Dame of Ottawa.  This one has pages of tours, on line tours and photographs of the church, but it also has links to the diocese and the sacraments, 

Better still is a website from another basilica in the Ottawa Diocese: St Patrick's.  This website is excellent in almost every degree.  It has pictures of their beautiful church, but also of the parish life of the church, which was absent from the first two. It's pages are also excellent in orthodox Catholicism.  Their confession guide is very good.  I would give them bonus points for their music resources page (accessible from the choir page) which has, among other things, lists of suitable hymns for weddings.  Even better, the samples of the songs seem to be from the church choir itself.  This is an excellent website, but with one caveat: this website, like the first two, is by and large a static website.  There is no ongoing outreach, no message coming out from the site.

An example of a church website that is not static, and which has messages coming out from the site, is the website of St.Mary's Norwalk.  Using the simple addition of a page entitled "From the Pastor" the website is a tool for education and evangelization.  The priest uses the page to communicate with his flock, to comment on recent parish events, or to explain the season, or the Mass, or the latest edict of the Church.  It is a very simple addition, and yet it makes a great difference.

These websites all have somethings I like to see, and some I don't.  I meant to hold them up as how to do at least somethings very well indeed, although no one site does everything perfectly, rather than slam some sites which are, to put it mildly, not very good.  So, what can be done to make bad sites better? Or, for churches with no website to start one?

I'm not sure.  Many of the priests I know are getting on in years, and do not understand or appreciate the nature of the net.   Many of them are overworked and don't have time, and do not know how. They would need the help of experts, but experts are expensive, and may not be interested in the Church, or may be antithetical to the Church.  But, if the parish has youth, then it has experts on the net.  Perhaps an Internet club, dedicated to running a website, may be a project some of the youth may be interested in getting involved in. It may be worth a shot.

At any rate, these are some of my thoughts on the Internet and church websites.  I have written about my preferences for websites.  If any reader who made it this far has other preferences, or better ideas, or other examples of good website, feel free to comment and link in the combox

No comments: