Christmas Letter 2013

Ahahaha–can you BELIEVE that?!! If you’re on the Home page here, look at the post just below/before this one…. one. year. ago. EXACTLY!!

So if you want to see my Christmas decorations, learn about bitcoins, see our new truck, etc., AND you have 2 ten-minute slots available, here’s the link:

Christmas Letter 2013

This takes you to my Christmas Letter channel on Youtube, and you can scroll down to find the videos.

So sit back with your cup of tea, and take a break!

 

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Christmas Letter 2012

OH my–a bit loooong I’m afraid! We had to upload it in two parts… but that way you can take a break in between! :S

Christmas Letter 2012

You’ll see how Dustie didn’t appreciate my “great idea”…

(To see past Christmas Letters, click on CHRISTMAS LETTERS at the top here.)

 

Posted in Christmas Letters | Leave a comment

Building Modern Church Websites, Part 5: Thinking About Themes

Now that the basic settings for your website have been configured, it’s time to think about the look and feel of the website.

Before You Start

Before even starting to think about how the site should look, it’s a good idea to decide on the basic features of the website. Do you want to have a slideshow on the front page? Are you going to run poles? How many pages are you expecting to have? A basic idea about questions like this will help you decide on exactly what kind of website theme you want. Until you have at least a general idea of what needs to appear on the front page, you can’t decide on how it should look.

Choosing a Theme

In WordPress, a Theme is the part of the software that controls the look of the website WordPress creates. Themes can change everything from the fonts and colours, to the number of columns, to the images and icons. Picking a good looking theme goes a long way towards both making your website look good, and preventing it from looking like every other WordPress site on the planet.

At the time of writing, there are over 1500 themes available, directly from the WordPress theme directory. Those are just themes that people have made available for free download from WordPress. It doesn’t even scratch the surface of what is available on other, specialty sites. There are even sites that specialize in making themes for Churches! At first glance, all of this choice might seem like a blessing. The problem is: how do you choose?

Questions to Consider

  • How many columns does the theme offer? You want to make sure that you have enough space for all of the things you need to display on the front page, and yet ensure that the page won’t be busy and overcrowded.
  • What is the colour scheme? Does it match your church logos, and other banners that you may want to display? Does it look good on older computer screens? Will it make life difficult for those members of your church who are colour blind?
  • What browsers does the theme support? Not all themes will work in all the different web browsers on the market. Some only work in Firefox and Safari, but not Internet Explorer. Some work in only recent browsers, that older computers can’t run. You may find it surprising how many of the people who want to use your church website are running 14 year old computers, and can’t run the latest web browsers.
  • What fonts does the theme use? Are they easy to read? Is the text large enough for older readers, or those with low vision?
  • How will the theme look on small screens? What about mobile phones?
  • Is the layout easy to understand? Confusing visitors is the best way to make sure they will never come back.
  • Does the theme follow any web standards? A theme that follows standards is likely to work in more browsers, be ranked better in search engines, and work better for those who are blind, or have physical disabilities.

Making A Choice

No matter how hard and long you look, no theme will get a perfect score on every question. Unless you know enough HTML, CSS, JavaScript, and PHP to design your own theme, you’ll have to settle with some imperfections, and work around them as best you can.

Using what you know about the members of your church, try and rank the above questions in order from most to least important. If your church is full of early adopters, you probably don’t care if the theme won’t work on old software. On the other hand, mobile support might be absolutely vital. But if your church is mostly composed of non-technical people, they might only have 10 year old computers, and no mobile phones at all.

Once you’ve got the questions ranked, go through the themes available from WordPress, and try and find one that has all of the features most important to you. Then, think about how you can work around any flaws in the theme. Can your logos and banners be redone to fit the theme? Can you offer training to your members on a layout that they may at first find confusing? Can you settle for fewer columns than you initially thought?

Once you’ve decided

Once you’ve made your choice, getting the theme on your website is easy. From the dashboard, click Appearance. Then click Install Themes, and search for the theme you decided on. Once you’ve found and installed your theme, it will show up in the list of installed themes. In order to apply it to your website, you can click Activate next to your new theme.

You can switch website themes at any time, without losing any of your work, just by installing another theme and activating it. If you have several themes that you think might work for you, it’s a good idea to install all of them, and try them out, to see how they’ll look in practice.

The theme I eventually decided on for Good Shepherd was RedLine 2.0.0. However, this theme does not work well on older browsers, and some extra work needs to be done to get it working on mobile phones. Just because it was right for my church doesn’t mean it’s right for yours.

Next Time

Next time, it will be time to look at the theme settings, and layout of your default widgets. Unfortunately, the last two weeks have featured a constant stream of…interesting…server and software problems on my end, that prevented WordPress from even publishing site updates for a while. I have some of them under control, and remain baffled by others. The next update will happen next week, or when I get everything running smoothly.

Posted in Sam's Stuff | Tagged | 5 Comments

Ports, DNS, Oh My!

This is an answer to a question I wrote for someone trying to get their web server configured. While this isn’t the next part in the Building Modern Church Websites series, it goes into a bit more detail on DNS, and might be useful to those trying to set up a web server for the first time:

I’ll start with the easy question, about ports and port forwarding. You know, I am assuming, that your computer has USB plugs, printer plugs, etc on it, right? You’ve probably also heard them called USB ports, com ports, printer ports, etc. A port is really just another term for a plug.

But what does this have to do with the internet? Well, every time someone wants a web page from your server, they need to connect to it somehow. So, every computer has 65535 internet ports. These are like virtual plugs that various programs connect to, over the internet. A web server, for example, expects your web browser to connect to it using port number 80. Before that can happen, of course, your router and any firewalls in front of your web server need to be configured to allow connections to the web server using port 80. If you’re using a web host like Linode, all of this should have been done for you already, and you don’t need to worry about it. Linode knows you’re running a server, so they allow computers to connect to any of the ports of your Linode. If you chose a Linux distribution like CentOS, or installed a Firewall, though, you will need to configure this somehow. But Linode with Ubuntu should be all ready to go. If you’re having problems connecting to your server, I don’t think port forwarding is the issue.

Note: the above is a simple summery of ports, that doesn’t get into TCPIP and UDP, the workings of packets, NAT, or how a firewall does what it does. If you actually do find yourself needing to configure a firewall, it would be helpful if you gave more details about how your network is configured, and what firewall you’re using, so we can give you more detailed information and instructions.

Now, DNS! This is a complicated topic, and books almost the length of the Bible have been written about it. But to simplify: DNS is a system for storing information about domain names. Each domain name can have many, many different DNS records associated with it, and each record stores a different bit of information about the domain. For example, MX Records store the address of the server that any email delivered to the domain should be sent to. So, if you send an Email to john@example.com, your computer checks DNS for the MX record for example.com, and connects to the server specified in that record to deliver the Email.

Now, when you type example.com into your web browser, it also uses DNS. But instead of asking for an MX record, it asks for an A-record. It expects the A-record to tell it the IP address it should connect to for example.com. So, to make your server accessible by your domain name, instead of just by IP, you need to set the A-record for your domain name to the IP address of your server. Depending on where you purchased your domain, and how you have it configured, the instructions for how to do this can be quite different.

Posted in Sam's Stuff | Tagged | Leave a comment

Building Modern Church Websites, Part 4: Starting with Settings

At this point, you should have your WordPress installed and running on your working web server. The next step is to log in, go to site administration, and then settings. Before starting to seriously begin building a website under wordpress, it’s good to take a few minutes to think about all of the options on each built in settings screen.

General Settings

  • Site Title: This will show up at the top of every page on your website. It should be set to something that includes the full name of your church, and perhaps the city your church is in, in order to help you get found by search engines like Google.
  • Tagline: This should be a short slogan or descriptive phrase about your website. It is used by search engines, and will show up in different places, depending on what theme you are using
  • WordPress Address and Site address: the defaults WordPress has chosen should be fine. Only change these if you are having problems.
  • E-mail Address: it is important that this email address is correct and working. Important notices about comments, account sign ups, and updates will be sent here.
  • Membership: This can be safely left set as anyone can register. This way, as more people want to help out, they can create website accounts themselves. You will still need to approve them before they can modify the website.
  • New User Default Role: This should be left as subscriber, for now. Changing this can give people who have newly created website accounts the ability to do more things without requiring your approval.
  • Timezone: Make sure both that the timezone is set to the timezone of your church in WordPress, and that the time wordPress shows is correct. If it is not, posts will seem to have been written on incorrect times and dates. If WordPress is showing an incorrect time, it means either that your timezone is set incorrectly, or that the time on your server is set wrong.
  • Date Format: In order to make sure your site is indexed correctly on some search engines, it is important to use full month names in your WordPress dates.
  • Time Format: This should be set to the time format that people in your church normally use.
  • Week starts On: This should be left set to Sunday.

Writing Settings

Most of the settings on this page are fine. Make sure you have checked the box for WordPress should correct invalidly nested XHTML automatically, as this can help you avoid errors that could disable your website entirely. If you use a tool like MacJournal or Windows Live Writer, make sure to check both of the boxes under Remote Publishing. I do not recommend using the post by E-mail feature, as E-mailed posts are not always formatted correctly. Also, if a spammer gets hold of the post by E-mail address for your website, they could make a huge mess extremely quickly.

Reading Settings

For now, most of these are okay. Once we have created some pages for our website, we’ll go back and change “Front Page Displays” to our welcome page, instead of just showing recent posts. Also, in order for our website e-mails to work correctly, make sure the full text option is selected for each article in a feed.

Discussion Settings

It’s important to think carefully about these settings. You want to allow enough discussion to make your website an open and friendly place, but you also want to avoid spam and abuse. I recommend checking the box for Comment Author Must Fill Out Name and e-mail, as well as checking _Commenter must have a previously approved comment_ under before comment appears. I also recommend holding a comment in the moderation queue if it has 1 or more links. Church websites need to be more careful than most about what we link to. If you do select Show Avatars, make sure the maximum rating is set to G. You may want to set the default avatar to one of the generated options, in order to make comments from different individuals more visually distinctive.

Media Settings

Unless you are having problems uploading or posting media like pictures or audio, none of these should need to be changed.

Privacy Settings

Make sure that Allow Search Engines to Index this Site is checked. If it isn’t, your church website won’t do you much good as a promotional tool!

Permalink Settings

In order to make WordPress create friendly, and easier to remember URLs for your posts, pages, tags, and categories, the option day and name should be checked on this page. Everything else can be left as default.

Next Week

Now that the website is running, and basic configuration has been done, next week it will be time to decide the overall look of the website!

Posted in Sam's Stuff | Tagged | Leave a comment

Building Modern Church Websites, Part 3: First Steps

And Asa begat Josaphat; and Josaphat begat Joram; and Joram begat Ozias;

Matthew 1:8 (KJV)

And the author was unable to think of a Bible verse related to this post. Suggestions welcome!

A Note On Domains

If your website does not already have its own domain (for example gscc.ca or example.com), it should. When picking a domain, the most important things to think about are:

  • Length: it should be short enough that it can fit on business cards, flyers, and other church literature, and is easy for visitors to type in.
  • Easy to pronounce: it should be easy to pronounce, so that when you announce it on Sunday morning, everyone will be able to visit it later. For example, words like “you” and “eye” should be avoided, as when you say them out loud, it is difficult to tell if you mean the word “you” or the letter “u”. Also, EDVBGPTZ.com is probably a bad domain; just try spelling it over the phone!
  • Meaningful: this one should be self explanatory.
  • Memorable: If people are going to visit your website, and tell their friends, the address needs to be one they can remember.

If you don’t have a domain yet, my personal favourite place to buy them is Easy DNS. They make the process as easy as they can, and have lots of guides helping you get everything set up. If you decide to go with DreamHost as your web host, you will get a free domain when you sign up with them. This makes everything super easy, as the domain will already be configured to work with DreamHost.

If you already have a domain, or aren’t using DreamHost, you will need to configure the domain you own to point at your web host. Depending on your web host, and where you purchased your domain, this process differs wildly. If you are hosting on Linode, this guide might be slightly helpful.

Installing WordPress

Are you still with us? It’s finally time to get WordPress installed and running! If you’re not, don’t worry. Domains are hard, especially if this is your first time working with them. If you’re having trouble, feel free to post in the comments, and someone may be able to help you.

If you decided to host with DreamHost, you’ve got the easiest job. WordPress is available as a one click install, from your DreamHost panel. That means you just fill out some information, and DreamHost does all the work! The only thing to be careful about is to make sure to select the advanced install. If you don’t, you won’t be able to customize WordPress, in order to add sermons, mobile support, change the appearance, etc. You should have WordPress up and running on your website within about an hour!

If you’re on Linode, the installation you will end up with will be much more powerful than if you were on DreamHost. However, you have a lot more work to get started. First, follow the instructions in the Getting Started guide. Make sure to use Ubuntu 11.10 as your distribution, as it is the most supported. Once that’s done, follow this guide to configure your Linode server to host websites. You need to complete the entire guide, as Mysql and PHP are both required by WordPress. Lastly, follow this guide on installing WordPress. However, DO NOT install WordPress Supercache. Some of the customizations we will be making to WordPress are not compatible with WordPress Supercache, and if you install it now, you will have problems later. If this is your first time ever configuring a server, you should probably expect all of this to take you at least 2 days. However, you’ll learn many useful skills along the way! If you have difficulties, the Linode Community can probably help. As well, this website is currently hosted at Linode, so if you post in the comments, chances are good that I might have some advice.

If you’re hosting your church website somewhere else, I’m afraid you’re largely on your own. The makers of WordPress have some generic instructions that you may find helpful. However, these instructions assume that you’re server is already configured to host websites. If you’re somewhere like VPS Ville, this is not the case. You’ll need to get the Apache, Mysql, and PHP software working first. If you’re not sure how to start doing this, you should probably ask for help. Please feel free to get in touch with me directly, and I’ll try and offer some more detailed direction based on your particular situation.

Questions To Ask Yourself

  1. Does your church website have a domain address?
  2. Is the domain memorable, easy to pronounce, meaningful, and a reasonable length?
  3. Is the domain pointing at your web host?
  4. Have you managed to get WordPress installed and running at your website?
  5. What on earth does EDVBGPTZ stand for, anyway? (Hint: This is a joke. Do not actually ask yourself this.)

Next Week

Next week, we’ll configure the built-in options of WordPress.

Posted in Sam's Stuff | Tagged | Leave a comment

Building Modern Church Websites, Part 2: Firm Foundations

He is like a man building a house, who dug and went deep, and laid a foundation on the rock. When a flood arose, the stream broke against that house, and could not shake it, because it was founded on the rock.

Luke 6:48 (World English Bible)

Just like our church buildings, our church websites need to be built on a firm foundation, if they are going to succeed.

In the early years of the Internet, websites were built by one person, using software like Dreamweaver or Microsoft Frontpage. They would use their computer to create each page by hand, then upload the completed page to the server. This might still be how your church website is done. Today, however, technology has moved on, and this is no longer the best solution.

Content Management Systems

A content management system is a type of software that can be run on a web server, that can allow anyone with a username and password to make changes to the website, directly from a web browser. This has many major advantages. First off, creating a new page on the website, or updating an existing one, does not require any more than an hour or two of special training. If you can surf the internet, you’re already three quarters of the way there. Secondly, several people can each be given usernames and passwords, and all allowed to update pages on the site. This reduces the work for everyone, and helps make sure that your church website stays dynamic and up to date.

Content management systems can also perform many other functions for you, like accepting comments from visitors, emailing site subscribers when the site is updated, tracking your website popularity, and much, much more. The two leading systems on the market currently are Drupal and WordPress.

Why WordPress?

Drupal is a wonderful, flexible system, that I am deeply fond of. However, Drupal is also difficult and expensive to configure, harder to run, and more painful to upgrade. It is for these reasons that, for most church systems, I recommend WordPress. While WordPress was originally intended as a blogging system, it can be easily extended to do everything most churches will need, through the use of plugins. The Good Shepherd website is run on an extended WordPress system, and thus far, I have been able to quickly create every requested feature, from sermon uploading to Blackberry support. In my opinion, WordPress best meets all of the requirements for a church website that were listed last week.

Hosting

If you already have a church website of some kind, you probably already have hosting. However, the server your website is on currently may or may not be able to run WordPress. You will need, at least, support for PHP and a MySQL database. PHP is the programming language that WordPress is written in, and MySQL is the database system that WordPress will use to store most of your website’s information.

Even if you already have hosting, before redoing a website, it’s always good to stop and think about your hosting needs. How much are you paying? Have prices come down since your website was set up? How much disc space and monthly bandwidth do you get? If you’re going to start putting up recorded sermons, and have not done so before, you probably don’t have enough disc space or bandwidth. You will need at least 10 gigs of each, to start. As your website grows, this number will, of course, increase.

Dreamhost

If you find yourself in the market for a web host, Dreamhost is the cheapest and easiest. They give you more disc space and bandwidth than you will ever need, and even have an option to install WordPress for your website in one click. If cheap and easy is what you need, they can’t be beat.

Unfortunately, this also comes with some down sides. If your website becomes extremely high traffic, you may notice that it begins to load slowly, or begins getting errors during busy times. As well, Dreamhost has occasional down times, when your website may be entirely unavailable. The last disadvantage is that dreamhost makes it more difficult to install custom software, or change the advanced configuration of your server.

But for the $8 a month that Dreamhost charges, most churches can work around the above disadvantages.

Linode

If your website outgrows Dreamhost, or you are a large church to start with, another option is Linode. They are much more stable, and make it possible to change advanced server configuration, and install custom software at need. On the flip side, they are slightly more difficult to set up, though they provide clear instructions at every step. Depending on the disc space and bandwidth your website needs, Linode can run you anywhere from $30 a month into the hundreds of dollars a month.

VPS Ville

If you are a Canadian church, VPS Ville is similar in pricing and functionality to Linode, but they offer servers in Canada. This can mean that pages will load faster for the majority of your visitors. It also means you can buy Canadian.

Conclusion

Dreamhost is a perfectly acceptable host for most churches, and everything discussed in this article series will run perfectly fine on Dreamhost servers. If you are on another host, like Linode, I will highlight when better or easier options may be available to you, as an aside.

If you are paying more than about $30 a month in hosting bills for your church website, it is probably a really good idea to stop and ask yourself why. While there may be a perfectly good reason, the fact that you signed up at that price in 1996 probably isn’t one. Shop around, compare prices, and make sure you’re really getting the deal that is best for you.

Questions To Ask Yourself

  1. Does our church have web hosting?
  2. Does our web host support PHP and MySQL?
  3. Do we have enough bandwidth and disc space?
  4. Are we paying a reasonable price?

Next Week

Next week: setting up your domain, and installing WordPress!

Posted in Sam's Stuff | Tagged | Leave a comment

Building Modern Church Websites, Part 1: Introduction

After these things I looked, and behold, a great multitude, which no man could number, out of every nation and of all tribes, peoples, and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, dressed in white robes, with palm branches in their hands.

Revelation 7:9 (World English Bible)

Why Have A Church Website

The internet is changing the world. Facebook, Twitter, and other social networks are connecting people closer together than ever. Skype, Email, and cell phones are changing the way people communicate with one another. People are spending more time than ever online, either in the office during the day, or downloading music from iTunes at home after work.

If a church is going to be relevant today, it needs to be online, too. The church shouldn’t just be somewhere people go on Sunday morning; it should be part of their every day lives. It should be on the social networks they use, and in their email inboxes. They should be able to share it with their friends, and interact with it during their lunch breaks.

It isn’t just young people online, either. Many grandparents are using social networks to keep up with their grandchildren. Almost everyone checks email every day, if only for work. Those who cannot get out because of sickness are using the internet to interact with the wider world. The church has a place in the online lives of all of these people.

Why This Series

While rebuilding the Good Shepherd Community Church website, I noticed a lack of specific, chronological guidance and advice on the subject of how to build a modern church website. I found lots of good tips and advice from church webmasters, but nothing that really got into the details of what and why.

There are many good books on web design, but none of them seem to deal with the unique needs of churches:

  • Finances: many churches don’t have thousands of dollars to spend on servers, web design, etc. Many don’t even have tens of dollars.
  • Ease of use: it’s hard enough to run a modern church; if the website is going to be adopted and kept up to date, it needs to be super easy, even for people who don’t generally use the internet.
  • Accessibility: the church includes everyone. A church website needs to work for those who are hard of hearing or low vision. It needs to work on Windows, Mac, and Linux. Dial up or broadband. Cell phones and computers.
  • Theology: a church website can’t be hosted on some free web hosting site that puts ads for gambling and adult movies across the top of every page.
  • Openness: a church website needs not only to serve the church community, it also needs to be open and attractive to seekers.

So, every Sunday on this blog, I will be posting a detailed article covering one particular topic related to building a modern church website. I will use the Good Shepherd website as an example, explaining what I did, why I chose to do it that way, and spending a little time on how I did it.

If you’d like to modernize your church website but don’t know where to start, hopefully these posts will help you. If you’ve been tasked with being the webmaster for your church, I hope my thoughts will be of some use in your journey.

Questions To Ask Yourself Before You Start

  1. What is the congregation of my church doing on the internet today?
  2. How can the church interact with them on the websites they are already using?
  3. Does the church website have the support of church staff and elders? If not, what needs to happen before it does?
  4. Are there people in the congregation I can turn to for help, so I don’t have to do it all myself?

Next Week

Next Sunday: foundations! Why use WordPress? What about web hosting? How much should web hosting cost? Is our current web host good enough?

 

Posted in Sam's Stuff | Tagged | 1 Comment

Christmas Letter 2011, directed by Dustie

Christmas is a perfect time to sit down and watch ye olde “home movies”… When do you ever do it otherwise? Huh? Never! So grab a quarter-hour, sit back and watch it!

Christmas Letter 2011

To view previous letters, click on CHRISTMAS LETTERS, at the top.

Posted in Christmas Letters | Leave a comment

Christmas Letter 1996

 

Posted in Christmas Letters | Leave a comment