Jason Caston makes an interesting choice in the layout of The iChurch Method: How to Advance Your Ministry Online. In several other book reviews, I’ve commented that it’s unclear who the intended audience is. Some books on church websites seem to target people with few technical skills, offering ideas for what to put on a church website, but remaining vague on how to actually accomplish what’s described. Other books get bogged down in the details of how to accomplish something that they end up making the topic sound too intimidating for someone inexperienced in web development, yet the explanation is a waste of space for anyone with a modicum of web design experience.
Caston avoids these pitfalls by confronting them head-on and splitting each chapter of his book into two sections. One section is targeted towards what he calls the “decision maker” – the leader or pastor leading the overall ministry – someone who is interested in the big picture of what will make an effective church website. The second part of each chapter then is “Let’s Talk Tech” – a section with code samples and more detailed explanations of how to implement a website feature.
For instance, in the first chapter on the church website itself, the first section offers an overview of the website the author is most familiar with, www.thepottershouse.org, the website of nationally-known preacher Bishop T.D. Jakes. Caston lays out some goals and objectives for an effective church website, then he goes through and analyzes the Potter’s House website to see how it fits his criteria. Of course, it turns out to be the perfect church website, at least in terms of hitting all the checkboxes that he just offered as standards. While there is real value here if you’re looking for website ideas, I found this section a little too boastful feeling for my taste. Maybe I’m just suspicious of successful major televangelists and their websites. Anyway, I suppose it’s fair to look at that site since the author is involved in developing and maintaining it.
After the first section on strategy, the second section moves into “tech talk” – going through a webpage and giving code samples to show how it works. Oddly, Caston doesn’t really make an effort to explain the code samples he’s giving. I suspect most of the people who would bother to read the code samples he gives can understand what’s going on, so an explanation isn’t really needed, but if you’re not going to explain the code sample, why bother to print it? If you ignore the code samples, the explanations he gives of the website elements are pretty good. As a programmer myself, I particularly appreciate that he points readers to tools like jQuery, not to tools like Flash.
Next, Caston goes on a 14 page diversion on how to install WordPress through www.GoDaddy.com. The explanation is alright, and he liberally (and helpfully) uses screenshots, but the information is outdated by now. If you’re interested in creating a church website with WordPress (and if you’re not, you should be!), check out more recent ebook.
The second section in the book is on multimedia. Similar in layout to the first chapter on the overall church website, this chapter discusses ways to use things like video streaming, PDF documents, and images. Frustratingly to me, Caston briefly discusses how to find stock images for your church website. Please, please, please, don’t use stock photos on your church website! Be authentic. I’m planning a post later on the use of stock images on church websites, but basically, it’s falsely portraying your congregation. [Edit: Here’s the post] Don’t do it.
Also in this chapter, Caston spends 38 pages (including screenshots) on how to set up accounts on Scribd, YouTube, Podbean, Vimeo, and Ustream. Perhaps that’s useful to you. I’d never heard of Podbean before, but at least for most of them, I don’t think it’s particularly hard to set up an account on these sites.
The third chapter is on eCommerce for churches. I have mixed feelings about this section. I don’t think that most churches need to be selling products on their websites or setting up their own online stores. I think there are better uses of time, money, and resources for ministry. Many people in the world are rightfully leery of churches that seem to exist to sell an earthly product for profit. However, I can see why churches may benefit from the ability to collect online donations, and figuring out how to do this can be challenging, so the 9 pages spent on setting up a PayPal account for a church website are helpful.
Chapter four is about social media. I don’t really take issue with anything Caston says here, but there are entire books written on this topic reviewed elsewhere on this site. I don’t think there is much of anything groundbreaking here. I’m also not convinced of the need for screenshots and pages on how to set up a Twitter or Facebook account. Summary: if your church isn’t doing anything with social media, you should seriously consider starting to do so. I don’t really think this book will help you much with it, though.
The last chapter in the book is on mobile, which Caston calls “the future of technology and ministry.” I think he’s right. If you haven’t tried looking at your church website from a mobile browser (ideally on several different screen sizes and operating systems), you need to. I’m not convinced that your church needs a mobile store, and I’m not sold on the power of QR codes (if you’ve never heard of them, that’s part of why I don’t think they’re that useful), or location check-in apps. If your church is huge, perhaps you could have some use for a dedicated mobile app. Of course, if your church is large enough to benefit from its own app, you probably know everything in this book anyway.
The tech section in this chapter covers the WPTouch WordPress plugin, iWebKit (which I actually rather like), and mobile browser detection. Nothing earth-shattering here, but good ideas if you’re looking for how to make your church website mobile friendly.
Overall, The iChurch Method is fairly middle of the road for a church website book, in my mind. I like the author’s approach to splitting the strategy for the church website from the implementation details, although I’m not sure the way he explains implementation details is very helpful. I think that $25 for a new copy of this print-on-demand book is too much (especially since it has typos!), but it might be worth a few bucks for a used copy. (Want to buy mine?) The page count is inflated by the number of screenshots for simple tasks like setting up an account on different websites. If you’re really interested in the Bishop T.D. Jake’s website, read this book. Otherwise, I think you can safely pass.