A UMNS Feature
NASHVILLE, Tenn.--United Methodist Communications has a "digital solution" to help every congregation in the denomination fulfill its mission of making disciples.
On July 18, the communications agency launched Digital Solutions, a network of tools and services to assist local churches of all sizes, annual conferences and other ministries to communicate efficiently and effectively.
Digital Solutions is United Methodist Communications' expanded technological offerings to help digitally connect the entire denomination and to provide affordable ways for churches to use the Internet to enhance their ministries. It includes an upgraded UMC.org, the official denominational site, with new content and features to enable churches to minister in a digital way.
"It's clear that the future of ministry in the church is going to be, in part, through providing digital information to people," said the Rev. Larry Hollon, UMCom's chief executive. "It is really a personal experience. It is a relationship through technology to the church and to its history and even to other people."
The new array of products and services represents a major new initiative, one that effectively positions TechShop, UMCom's computer hardware and software provider, as the most comprehensive digital services provider for United Methodist churches in the United States, he said.
"The Digital Solutions effort is a step toward the fulfillment of the mandate given to UMCom by the General Conference several years ago to wire the church," Hollon said.
"The opportunity for us to be connected as a church and to extend the community of faith has never been as great as it is today," he added. "It is a joy for United Methodist Communications to be in a position to assist local churches to develop Web sites, purchase new equipment and underwrite ministry in new ways."
Through is Central Conference Communications initiative, UMCom is also helping conferences outside the United States enhance their ability to communicate in culturally and technologically appropriate ways
The new packages provided by the communications agency include movie, music and book reviews, United Methodist News Service syndication, Web-building tools, church management tools and online training resources.
New products give local churches the ability to develop worship materials, prepare presentations, create newsletters and e-mail messages, locate church organizations and simplify the completion of forms and reports as well as track congregational life.
Digital technology is "a gift from God," Hollon said, noting that three out of five Internet users go to the World Wide Web to learn more about their faith. Statistics from the Pew Internet and American Life Project report that 64 percent of the 128 million Internet users in the United States go online for religious and spiritual matters.
"The Web is a virtual community where we should be sharing God's love," he said.
The agency provides a variety of affordable computer hardware and software to United Methodist organizations through TechShop. Through partnerships with the world's leading technology companies, the agency sells to churches, at deep discount, high quality laptop and desktop computers preloaded with all the software needed to set up an office. The ministry has saved congregations nearly $20 million in the past five years.
TechShop, in conjunction with a number of United Methodist agencies, also offers a wide range of Web site content for churches. Users can regularly update content from sources such as The Upper Room, United Methodist News Service and the recently updated UMC.org.
The "refreshed" UMC.org increases functionality and is more user-friendly. It is the first step in a total redesign scheduled for early 2006.
The update responds to the need for quick links and better search capability, according to Hollon. The reformatted site features a flash or story rotator, which can display five different stories, and drop down menus from the navigation bar at the top of the site.
Hollon said he hopes the new site will be easier for Web users to access.
"I'm hoping that it will mean a great deal of change in that the search function will be more extensive than it is now," he explained. "We would like to move to a global search option that would allow people to go to Google and say, 'I want to find this about the United Methodist Church' and they would be able to do that. And that would direct them to our Web site, as well as the Web sites of other boards and agencies."
One new product, the Small Church Computer Program, provides small-membership churches with a computer and all of the software needed to perform administrative tasks or publish newsletters.
Another computer software package included in Digital Solutions helps churches manage their ministries. The Ministry Management Tools features a small group management system, an events management module, a business directory, membership tracking and statistical tracking.
"Our digital solutions ministry includes much more than equipment," Hollon said. "Its purpose is extending the ministry of the local church."
The agency offers both online and face-to-face workshop training in Web ministry. More than 2,000 church leaders have been trained in the use of digital technology
UMCom describes itself as a leader in offering Internet based solutions to local churches. The Ezekiel Website building program allows anyone with basic computer skills to develop and maintain a church Website. Available to United Methodist organizations, Ezekiel simplifies Web site development and guides Web site builders through common chores, without requiring them to know computer language.
Six thousand churches are already using Ezekiel to manage their web ministries, according to Hollon. "It is an inexpensive, easy-to-use Web solution for local churches of all sizes and budgets."
The technological revolution has created new opportunities for churches, including using church steeples as sources of income. Cellular telephone companies are seeking place for their antennas and have found steeples to be great locations.
A partnership between SteepleCom, a company that matches churches and telecommunications companies, and UMCom offers churches the opportunity to lease steeple space for wireless antennas to relay cell phone calls. Information from the denomination's Find-A-Church database, administered by UMCom, is used to determine geographical coordinates that SteepleCom shares with Verizon, Cingular, Sprint, T-Mobile and other companies as possible antenna sites.