Brian and Dan have a unique niche here in the world of church websites. I’m not aware of anyone else focusing on sites specifically for youth groups, but in a world where youth have ubiquitous internet access and default to looking online for information, they might be on to something. They were gracious enough to both respond to my questions, so their responses are both included. Enjoy the interview!
We’ll start with a little about the two of you. What are your backgrounds, both in the church and professionally?
Brian: I grew up in the church and my church’s youth ministry had a huge impact on my faith in junior high and high school. After high school, I studied geology, but after working at a summer camp, I felt called into youth ministry. So after college, I went to seminary. I never finished seminary (a long story), but ended up working at a Christian recovery home for adolescents, then a youth ministry para-church organization, and finally as a youth pastor. All in all, I was in youth ministry for 12 years. As a youth pastor, I was always the tech-guy for our medium sized church staff… and I’ve always had an interest in computers, web, code, etc. So… when I resigned my position about 2 1/2 years ago, I started developing with WordPress.
Dan: When you’re a youth growing up in West Michigan, there’s a high chance that you grew up going to church, and I was no exception. My parents always encouraged me to be involved with the things going on at the church, and I didn’t really fight back. Brian was the Senior High youth pastor at the church, and I was the stereotypical ultra enthusiastic guitar playing, ultra competitive youth group junkie. After high school I stayed involved with the youth group on a volunteer basis, and later took a paid position as a ministry intern. After college, I went through a pretty intense period of soul searching that allowed me to realize that I was going to be owning my own businesses someday. However I had no practical skills to make any of that happen, so I learned web design as a way to at least be able to present my ideas to the world before building a team. However, through a progression of events, web design and development turned into the business!
What’s the story behind ymLaunch?
Brian: Sometime in the first year after I transitioned out of youth ministry, a friend of mine was telling me about a hosted website solution that he was part of that utilized WordPress multisite and focused on sites for a specific niche group. As he talked about it, I realized that with my experience over the past 12 years, I could build a WordPress multisite specifically for youth ministries! I knew that there were hosted solutions out there for churches, but as far as I knew no one was doing it for youth ministry. Even though a website for a church and a website for a youth ministry share a lot of similar features, I felt that a good youth ministry website could be simpler, more streamlined, and eventually have some specific features just for youth ministries. I talked about it with Dan, and recruited a few friends still doing youth ministry to beta-test it for us. And we built it. Oh.. and we are still building it and making it better!
My first thought when I encountered ymLaunch was concern that it separated the youth ministry from the larger church. However, considering the condition of many church web sites, maybe that’s a good thing! Can you speak a bit to why a youth ministry would want or need its own website separate from its parent church?
Brian: I think in an ideal world, where the church has a great website that is flexible and able to be used by the youth ministry for blogging, events, downloads, and pictures; then a youth ministry doesn’t need its own website. It still might be advantageous in some ways to have its own, but it certainly isn’t a necessity. The problem, however, is that many church websites are terrible… and even the ones that are good, many of them only give the youth ministry a page or two.
That being said, I think there are two main reason for a youth ministry to have its own site:
A central location for information. Whether it’s forms, quick updates on the next event, the yearly calendar, a cancellation, or information on the ministry’s weekly programs… a good youth ministry website CAN be the only place you really need to put all of this stuff! I remember trying to juggle snail mail, the church newsletter, the youth ministry board, and email…. all to basically say the same thing. However, if a ministry has its own site and it’s up to date, you can use those other tools to send people to the web site for info… and then you only need to update ONE thing! I think in the end, it can actually save time.
To promote the youth ministry. I think a good youth ministry website can actually help integrate the youth ministry within the larger church, by telling the stories of what’s going on in youth ministry. Often, only a few parents and volunteers know about all the great things happening in youth ministry. Sometimes, you get a chance to tell about it on Sunday, but there are so many great stories happening all the time… why not share those for the larger body to read and be excited about. This is something I did poorly as a youth pastor, and if I were starting at a new church today, I would do it differently. I would recruit people from the church to hang out at a specific youth ministry event and write a short blog post about it. I would have students write blog posts, and I would write them too. A youth ministry specific website can be a fantastic way to promote the ministry (but in a good way, not the cheesy car salesman kind of way)!
I think those are some great points. I love the idea of recruiting someone to write blog posts about events! So, for a youth ministry that does see a need for a dedicated website, what’s the advantage of going through ymLaunch as opposed to just using a free WordPress theme? What makes ymLaunch unique?
Dan: Youth ministries can certainly benefit from using a free WordPress theme, however they would be missing some of the features that we’ve built into ymLaunch. We are taking the WordPress experience and building upon it by adding some of the industries’ best plugins for image galleries, sliders and events calendars.
Brian: Ultimately, any youth pastor or church can build their own WordPress site, and do it well. However, it takes time and research, and a good bit of trial and error. The service we are offering, essentially, is to make it as easy as possible for youth pastors. They don’t have to hassle with hosting, installing WordPress, keeping things updated, figuring out what plugins to use and how to make things look nice. We take care of all that so youth pastors can focus on content and getting back to spending time with students.
Dan: Also, If a ministry is doing this by themselves, they would be buying a domain, and working with a shared hosting plan. We take care of all of this by purchasing the domain for them and hosting the ymLaunch websites on a WordPress optimized VPS (Virtual Private Server). We’ve compared ymLaunch to sites we have on shared hosting, and the site responds about 10x faster than the shared hosting sites, and has had 100% uptime. — Meaning that every time someone is accessing the youth ministry websites, the site is ready for them!
Sounds like some helpful features. How do you see a ymLaunch site relating to social media sites? Why would a youth ministry want a website versus an active presence on social media?
Dan: The way youth ministers stay in touch with their students has certainly changed quite a bit since I was in high school — and with Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Vine, Snapchat and Tumblr, there are more places that youth ministries can use to reach their students. However, this variety provides opportunities as well as challenges. Facebook for the last few years has a been a great place to communicate with students, but there are fewer students on Facebook than last year. Facebook has also begun to heavily filter the newsfeeds, so you can’t be sure that your posts are seen by all of your students. This can work against you if Facebook is your main communication tool.
On a different note- what if you have a student who isn’t on Facebook, but is heavily involved on Twitter? How do you connect with them, and how do you make sure that they receive the same quality communication that your Facebook students are getting?
We think the best solution is to have one location that all of your students can go to receive the information that they need regarding your ministry. We also have a publishing system setup with a popular WordPress plugin that allows any new content you post to ymLaunch to ping Facebook, Twitter, and a few other social networks of your latest posts.
Brian: Also, if a youth pastor engages with their students on Facebook, twitter, instagram, etc., I would say to keep doing so! In those cases, you need to go where students are, and as Dan pointed out, that landscape is always changing. But while that changes from year to year, the place you keep your calendar, information, and promotional material can stay the same!
Finally, what do you see as some of the biggest challenges churches and youth ministers are facing online?
Dan: We outlined one of the problems in the previous question— how do you properly reach your students when your students are scattered among different networks? It’s a pretty tough challenge, but one we think is at least partially solved with a great website for your ministry!
Social media allows you to post messages for your students and parents, but chances are you also have a chance to see their posts, and the things that they are eating for breakfast, and their opinions on politics. This is a double edged sword, as you may have an opportunity to see where a student is struggling, and find a way to help them out, but you may also have students posting inappropriate or compromising material. How do you go about addressing students’ online behavior? It’s certainly a challenge!
The internet can be pretty noisy, and it can be hard to feel like you’re making a difference with your followers, but sometimes the importance of a great web presence or social media presence is most felt by onlookers — the visitors or people who are thinking about attending your church.
I heard a quote the other day that holds very true here: “You are a direct reflection of the content you publish.” I think that certainly applies to churches and youth ministries on the web.
Thanks for reading this interview! If you’re interested in getting a website for your churches youth ministry, check out www.ymlaunch.org and follow them on Twitter at @ymlaunch. If you enjoyed this interview, check out my interview with Steven Gliebe of ChurchThemes.com here.