01 - Why ExpressionEngine for a Church Site?

Before getting into the “rubber hits the road” details of implementing a church site on ExpressionEngine, I thought it might make sense to talk about the “business case” for using EE for this purpose and how it stacks up against a Dreamweaver/FrontPage approach, an open source CMS approach, and an Application Service Provider approach.

 

If nothing else, building a website is certainly a project that offers choices.  Vast numbers of choices.  Do you rent (use an Application Service Provider) or buy (create a custom site)?  What should the architecture be?  What color scheme should it use?  Where should you host the site?  Who should maintain it?  Add a hundred more questions to that list and you could still just be getting started on a design or redesign project.

I really don’t envy people new to the web development world - the sheer number of choices in getting a site published must be overwhelming.

Churches typically have their own circumstances that make the web design and development process even more confounding:

  • Ownership/final responsibility for the site is often unclear.
  • Content ownership is often split across multiple departments and people.
  • Content owners are often volunteers.
  • Technical staff responsible for designing/implementing the site are also often volunteers.
  • Those volunteers often don’t have office space at the church, or access to the church network.
  • Those volunteers often have a high burn-out rate, which means a constant stream of turnover.
  • Churches often have a hard time funding development for a professional website.
  • The traditional power/authority model of church leadership runs at odds to the level playing field of the Internet.
  • Churches usually have more content types to publish than the typical small business (events, podcasts, etc).

And there are more, of course - but you get the idea. 

However - I think the combination of ExpressionEngine along with either a custom-designed site or commercial template is a great solution for many churches, solving a number of those issues as much as they can from a technical perspective.

So - let’s pit EE against some other options for a church site and see how it stacks up.

First - a disclaimer:  I work on a part time basis for EllisLab, the company that publishes ExpressionEngine.  The views below, however, are the reason I took the job, and not vice/versa and if the job ended today I’d stand behind these views and continue to use EE in my work.

OK..on with it then…

ExpressionEngine vs. Dreamweaver/Contribute or FrontPage
This argument really doesn’t come up much anymore, but then again I just ran across some of these types of sites yesterday while looking for an evening Easter service to attend.

At a high level - the Dreamweaver/Frontpage site is “static”—you create web pages and save them to the web server much as you would a Word document.  The Contribute client for Dreamweaver then allows you to establish editable regions on those pages, and assign people to be able to change them - after installing the Contribute client on their computer.

This is still a workable way of doing a website, and can—with the right design and guidance - produce a usable site. However, it’s just not the most ideal way anymore.  ExpressionEngine along with other Content Management Systems (CMS) pull pages together in what’s called a “dynamic” way.  The content of the page is stored in a database, and the CMS stores a template.  When a page is requested the web server mashes the two together and spits out a web page.

The benefits are legion, here are some of the big ‘uns:

  • The CMS is installed once on the web server - which means you don’t have to install software each time a new volunteer takes over your children’s ministry.
  • The CMS allows the site to be updated from any device with an internet connection and web browser - including your youth pastor’s iPhone from the mission trip in Romania.
  • The CMS allows content to be entered once and used in many places on the site - enter the data for a marriage retreat once and it shows on the home page and on the Adults page .
  • The CMS allows more dynamic features on the site - pastor weblogs, visitor comments, photo galleries for your pig roast or Easter Pageant, etc.
  • The CMS keeps content separate from the code/graphics that handle the design aspect of your site - making it much harder for your “less than technical” staff to “break” the site while editing content.

ExpressionEngine vs. Open Source Software
So—you’ve looked around at different CMS’s and have found that there are also some open source versions, which are free to download and use.  Hey - churches are often on tight budgets so why not go this route?

Now - realize that in the tech world the debate over commercial vs. open source is often similar to a religious debate.  Some people like the fact that open source software is community developed, with no corporation profiting, while others are more comfortable with commercial software with paid tech support.

I fall firmly in the second camp.  As a business owner who develops websites for churches and other companies, I’m just more comfortable putting clients on a ExpressionEngine site, knowing that if there are issues I can get technical support for them.  And that ultimately there are people who’s livelihood depends on this software working as it should.

This can be especially important for churches in light of how often volunteers turn over.  When your open-source loving web guy decides he needs to spend more time with his new baby or moves on to a new church, how easy is your site going to be to transition to a new person?  Having paid tech support for that next person coming on might help save your church from the “new techie volunteer means a whole new site” problem I see so often.

Next?  Security.  ExpressionEngine just flat-out has a better track record than the open source alternatives when it comes to keeping your site secure. In its four-year history, EE has only had two updates to fix a security-related issue (just make sure to choose a good webhost as placing EE in a non-secure environment can still lead to your site getting hacked.  Basic moral - don’t choose the cheapest host).

ExpressionEngine vs. an ASP
In the church website world, there are a number of Application Service Providers (ASP) who specialize in church websites.  Go ahead - just run a Google search on “church website” and explore the results, especially the sponsored links.

Some of these providers are actually a pretty good deal—and if you are completely new to building websites or this is a site for completely new church, spend some serious time looking at them.

However - know that from a technical/implementation/coding perspective some of those options have, in the past, been pretty bad.  Articles like this one on Sonspring.com took them to task for spitting out poor code.  That was a couple of years ago, though, and I know that some of them have improved their offerings from a code-quality and usability/accessibility perspective.

Also keep an eye on the pricing schemes.  While $50/month might sound good to get started, two years down the road you’ll have $1200 invested - and that’s assuming you didn’t also pay a one-time setup fee.

Depending on how the ASP prices themselves, ExpressionEngine may or may not be a clear winner from a pricing perspective. While the EE non-profit license is currently $100 and design templates can be found for under that, most of the time/cost in getting an EE site live is the EE implementation, and depending on how complex your site requirements are the ASP approach might be a cheaper way to go.

Or - buy EE, a design template, and follow along with this series…;)

Where EE can be preferable to the ASP model is in terms of design - not locking you into a pre-built set of template libraries to choose from. 

Functionality-wise it’s probably about a wash - the ASPs tend to have developed many features specific to churches that EE won’t have by default (like tracking registrants for an event, for an example).

However if you need something not offered by the ASP it might be more difficult to get from the ASP than on an EE-based site.  EE is by nature a very flexible/extensible web publishing platform, and there is also an active community of 3rd party designers and developers both familiar with EE and publishing add-ons to extend its out of the box functionality.

Another thing to explore with the ASP is what happens to your content if you decide to move away from them - say they worked fine for when your church was new, but after two years you need a more complex/custom site.  Can you get your data from them in some fashion that you’ll be able to import into a new system?

Wrap-up
OK - this article on the EE for a church website is by no means exhaustive.  EE certainly isn’t the perfect solution for every church site.  But - it’s a pretty killer solution on a number of levels.

A church site built on ExpressionEngine solution:

  • Allows unlimited number of people to maintain the content.
  • Can be configured to have content changes approved by a content manager.
  • Has no “Seat-based” or “user-based” licensing to keep track of.
  • Includes paid tech support for your current web developer, and the next one.
  • Has lots of features to help create a dynamic, easily-updateable site.
  • Doesn’t get in the way of a designer wanting to create a unique custom design for your church.
  • Doesn’t get in the way of a coder wanting to code a standards-based site for your church.
  • Can be configured to deliver all the content types a church needs to deliver - pastor blogs, sermon podcasts, event calendars, photo galleries, etc.
  • Can be hosted with a large variety of web-hosts, so you aren’t locked into the pricing whims of an ASP.
  • Can be moved from one host to another in a straight-forward manner.
  • Is paid for once developed.  The only required recurring costs are your monthly hosting.

Not a bad list - and if it speaks to you and your church website, stay tuned.  I have a bit of back-end prep work to get done yet but in the next installment I’ll lay out some design requirements, talk about the “custom design vs. template” argument, and I’ll choose a template for the project.

 

 

 

 

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Previous Comments

Picture of tzTrainEE

by tzTrainEE

Date: Tuesday, March 25th, 2008
Comment: #1

Hi Mike,
Hey as long as you are pointing out business reasons for going with EE, I’ve been sharing Kurt’s blog post on Total Cost of Ownership, it’s a great formula for weighing the options.
http://expressionengine.com/blog/entry/total_cost_of_ownership/
The economical choices for going with EE make plenty of sense, as well as the ease of use and development.
I can’t wait until Kurt follows up on his TOC post, to help with making the case for EE especially in-house where it sometimes comes down to technology choices.

Picture of tzTrainEE

by tzTrainEE

Date: Tuesday, March 25th, 2008
Comment: #2

Oops I meant TCO (total cost of ownership, not Table of Contents), that’s a kind of confuseable dyslexia. I saw that one coming when he wrote the post with that acronym, lol. Another good acronym is FOSS (free and open source), and like you say free isn’t always better.
Custom design vs templates may strike a nerve with some designers on board here. :)
A template gets things rolling fast though.

Picture of cmalani

by cmalani

Date: Wednesday, May 14th, 2008
Comment: #3

Hey Mike-

You mentioned: “... features ...  that EE won

Mike Boyink

by Mike Boyink (Author)

Date: Wednesday, May 14th, 2008
Comment: #4

Chuck -

You can certainly use the EE contact form or Solspaces’ FreeForm module to let users RSVP for events by sending an email to someone.

What you can’t do - out of the box - is have EE track open seats remaining and have that number be posted on the site dynamically.

Picture of cmalani

by cmalani

Date: Thursday, May 15th, 2008
Comment: #5

Mike-

Thanks for the comment. What I’m looking for is really something more at the member tracking level as opposed to seats available.

For example, I have a list of registered members, and an event weblog with multiple entries. For each event, when a user is signed in, they can see the event details and also select an RSVP action from a dropdown (similar to Outlook: Accept/Tentative/Decline). This would go into a member_events database which could then be reported against from an admin perspective: “members at event X” and also “member’s quantity of events attended in X time window”.

I understand thats a custom implementation of members and events - so i suppose my real question is if there is a 3rd party events management plug-in that offers RSVP?

I’ll do some searching too in case I can turn something up.

Thanks for the quick response,
Chuck

Mike Boyink

by Mike Boyink (Author)

Date: Thursday, May 15th, 2008
Comment: #6

Hey Chuck -

There’s no custom 3rd party add on for that that I know of.

aMemberPro does integrate with EE but I don’t know if it has that functionality either.

Mike Boyink

by Mike Boyink (Author)

Date: Monday, June 2nd, 2008
Comment: #7

Thanks Ryan - I think your time spent learning EE is well-spent.  As a basis for client work EE is an excellent choice - I attribute most of my success as a business to using it for client work.

Picture of Sean

by Sean

Date: Tuesday, June 24th, 2008
Comment: #8

Mike,
I’ve had this series and your original series saved in my bloglines account for ages. Now that I have time I’m going through them to help improve my workflow and knowledge of EE.

The pastor at my Church wants a redesign of his site, but he isn’t exactly sold on EE, but now I can point him to this post.

Thanks for the great work.

Mike Boyink

by Mike Boyink (Author)

Date: Tuesday, June 24th, 2008
Comment: #9

Hey Sean - good to see you here.  Funny, I was just linking to this post from a thread over at Godbit.com.  I’d recommend taking a gander at the content on Godbit, and persuing the forums.  It’s a good resource for Christian techhies.

Picture of Gaurav

by Gaurav

Date: Sunday, December 14th, 2008
Comment: #10

I am moving on to this Church website tutorial after the Small Business Website.

But can I upload it to the same webhost where I have the old tutorial website? Or do I need an entirely new server and install EE all over again? In case I can install it on the same server, is there any documentation for it. If not, is there anyway I can uninstall my previous installation?

Mike Boyink

by Mike Boyink (Author)

Date: Sunday, December 14th, 2008
Comment: #11

A few options:
- You could run both the small business site and church site from the same EE install.  However you’d need to use all different template group names as there is some overlap (such as “site” being the default template group name).

- You could purchase and install the Multi Site Manager for EE.  I use that here on Train-ee, with the church and small business sites running out of the same EE install as the main Train-ee site.  I have no tutorials currently for the MSM install and setup though, so you’d be on your own with EE tech support for that.

- You could go through your copy of EE and delete all weblogs/template groups/templates from the small business series before starting the church series.  Or if you want to keep some of that code just rename all the template groups appropriately.

I’d probably do the latter - I found it handy when first starting out to have templates that I new worked that I could go back and look at/copy etc.  I still do when it saves time.

Picture of Gaurav

by Gaurav

Date: Sunday, December 14th, 2008
Comment: #12

Thanks for al your quick responses. I really appreciate them. You are a boon to all people like me who are new to EE.

Picture of Chad

by Chad

Date: Wednesday, July 28th, 2010
Comment: #13

While you did need to simplify the complex issue of commercial vs open source, your simplification of the benefit that people like about open source is not very good. With out going into a religious type rant, I will simply say most who do take open source “religiously” do so because they favor the freedom of not being under a restrictive license. It has little to do with finding pleasure in a company not profiting. Especially since many, many corporations and individuals do profit (and I mean they make money) from open source software.

At any rate, I am here because I am planning on using EE for our church website. I looks to be good software and right for our application.

Picture of BytesLand

by BytesLand

Date: Thursday, March 24th, 2011
Comment: #14

I still have doubts whether ExpressionEngine will do ok for a large site with a large number of visitors? Perhaps, some additional optimization techniques should be applied in this case?

Picture of Boyink

by Boyink

Date: Thursday, March 24th, 2011
Comment: #15

Hi - that’s a good question for the pre-sales forum on ExpressionEngine.com.  Better if you have hard numbers as “large” can mean different things to different people.  Also a large part of scaling to meet traffic is the server environment.

Picture of John Tisdale

by John Tisdale

Date: Thursday, March 24th, 2011
Comment: #16

Mike,

Thanks a bunch for sharing your insights into EE and alternatives for building church sites. I’m fairly new to EE and from what I’m seeing it has tons of potential for church and ministry sites. I’m considering switching some of my key sites over to it. Your tutorials have been most helpful.

Books could be, and should be, written on the topic of building church/ministry sites as it is so extensive. I’ve been developing software for ministries for 30 years and focused on building web technologies for the past 17. My background is a bit more extensive than just working with church sites but I thought I’d share a couple of insights.

I’ve written several generations of my own database-driven content management systems (especially in the 90’s when there weren’t many alternatives), I’ve built ASP platforms for churches such as The Christian Internet Initiative (now defunct) and Christianity.com. I’ve built numerous ministry and church sites on open source solutions like DotNetNuke. I’ve consulted for many of the largest ministries helping them implement enterprise web initiatives on such platforms as Vignette, Kintera, Convio, Endis, etc. (sometimes to the tune of 7-8 figures).

I’d have to say that there is no right or wrong answer for anyone. You have to get answers to a great many questions before you can even steer someone in a certain direction. If a church can afford it, most will benefit from a consultant who asks the right questions and then uses the best-fit toolset to create their site. Having an experienced person build out their site, train their staff, handle functional change requests and stay on top of build changes, security and server maintenance, is invaluable. Yet, few churches make such wise investments.

I suspect the biggest factors in choosing the right technologies is usually (1) the learning curve (intuitiveness) involved, (2) the ability to create custom fields to match the unique content needs of churches and (3) the speed/ease of entering new content.

My experience using open source technologies like DotNetNuke hasn’t been a positive one (and I invested 8 years learning and developing on this particular platform). The hidden costs are not easily visible and measurable on the front-end but end up costing far too much by the time the site enters the maintenance cycle. ASP solutions can be a good one, but it all depends on matching the right one to a given church’s needs (if there is in fact a good match). Most ASP solutions tend to lean towards either being easy-to-use but too confining or very flexible with a lengthy learning curve. If a church can’t commit the long-term resources to learning and maintaining a flexible solution, it’s best to err on the side of simplicity and just live with the constraints.

All things being equal, a solution like EE can be a good fit in many situations. Although not entirely open, EE is much more extensible than many closed proprietary solutions. EE is a well-architected CMS and I can’t say that about many of them – open source, commercial or otherwise.

A custom built site on a flexible platform like EE can take a church a long way in the right direction. It all comes down to the person doing the work and their ability to ask the right questions and anticipate and mitigate common issues. Sounds like you are steering people in the right direction Mike. Thanks a bunch and keep up the good work.

I might add that the area in which most church sites are lacking is designing an effective engagement strategy (understanding the various audiences’s needs and addressing them in a focused manner). It’s possible to have all the right widgets in place with a gorgeous site template and yet entirely miss the opportunity to engage people in their point of need.

With each passing year, I spend more of my time focused on defining the target audience and segmenting them into personas, creating user scenarios, architecting the user engagement experience, creating simple yet flexible taxonomies, profiling personalities, considering psychographics so that you are addressing the needs of fast and slow decision makers as well as those who engage content on a logical or emotional basis.

The ushers greeting people who walk through the church doors on Sunday morning don’t treat everyone the same way – i.e. an unknown face gets special attention, introduction and directions. A church’s website should be equally considerate of the unique needs each visitor brings. Since the Web is an interactive platform, it’s possible to create the same kind of personalization online as the church offers those entering through its physical doors.

With large ministry sites, it’s nice to have the luxury to architect the engagement experience at this level. Although most church budgets don’t afford this much effort, it doesn’t take that much time to define whose coming to your site, step into their shoes and make sure you are addressing their needs in an effective and considerate manner. This usually involves extended conversations with the church leadership about their strategic vision and helping translate them into the opportunities afforded by social technologies.

In this way, building an effective church website has less to do with cogs and widgets and more about serving the needs of people in a deliberate strategy. An experienced person can do more with poor technologies than someone with the best technologies money can buy but who lacks understanding at how to apply them to solve real ministry opportunities. Well, just something to think about.

Richest blessings,
John

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