Friday, July 30, 2010

ChMS Wish List - Are we meeting it?

Several years ago Tony Dye posted a blog musing about the lack of Innovative Church IT, and then developed a wish list for a ChMS. His comments were helpful in our search for a new database, and I wanted to step back and see how Arena today meets, or does not meet, the ChMS wish list Tony created. Note: Tony uses the term "CMS" which was more common in 2005, but was changed to avoid confusion with content management systems and contact management systems. Also, I use the term database interchangeably with ChMS.

(1) Trusted - The general principle here is that people must trust the data and count on the ChMS being the best source of current information. I give Arena a 5 out of 5 here. Our people use it and trust it, and it is always available (virtually no downtime).

(2) Consistently Used - If a ChMS is not used, then it is worthless. Our old database was used infrequently by a few staff members. Arena is used everyday by almost all of our staff members. Again, a 5 out of 5.

(3) Easy - A datatbase should be easy to use. Tony broke this down into five sub-points:

1 - No training required
2 - Simple things are simple
3 - Discoverable
4 - Work flow oriented
5 - Easy to do the right thing

I'll let you read Tony's post to get detailed breakdown of what each of these mean, but I think Arena nails all of them except possibly workflow oriented.

(4) Consistent - Does the product work consistently, in other words do menus work as you'd expect, is the user interface consistent, does the product feel like one well designed whole. This one is not where it needs to be with Arena. There are lots of inconsistencies throughout the interface, terminology and so forth. The product out of the box has three windows apps (check-in, contributions and bulk mailing) rather than being entirely web based (to be fair, so do their competition, but that doesn't make it right). I'd give Arena about a 2 out of 5 on this one. Lots of room for improvement.

(5) Available & Reliable - A database should run with near 100% uptime, be available on many platforms, and be available to more than just staff. Arena hits the mark here in spades. The server is rock solid and being browser based Arena is always available and ready to go for our people when they are at their desk. But beyond that, the iPhone client (the official one isn't so hot, but the HDC one rocks), the mobile site (works on iphones, blackberrys, and even android if you are desperate), and even from an asterisk phone if you set it up right. There are ways for volunteers and small group leaders to get access to what they need and to assist the staff as well. I believe Arena nails all of Tony's points here, 5 out of 5.

(6) Comprehensive - As with easy, Tony has several areas he identified here:

1 - Contact Management
2 - Engagement Factor
3 - For the members, too
4 - Easy to get data in, easy to get it back out

as well as two open ended questions:

5 - Financials as well as people and groups?
6 - What about all the add ons?

I'm going to take these one by one, because they are all pretty important.

Contact management - Arena is an ok cms, one that could be better. We haven't had time to do the Asterisk integration to provide click to dial on our phones, but once we do I think people will be more apt to enter notes and such in Arena when they talk to people. We can't do the incoming call record linking because our PRI doesn't properly provide us with callerID (go figure, something is borked at Verizon and we are tired of arguing with them). I would give Arena about a C- on this at this point. The basics are there, but it could be a lot better.

Engagement factor - The tools are there to track this really well (if you have no idea what this means, click on the link to Tony's post), but we aren't using them all yet. This is pretty key, and I believe Arena does this pretty well, although it could be better. I give Arena a 4 out of 5, and our implementation of it about a 2 out of 5 at this point. Definitely need to improve here.

For the members, too - Arena has made strides here, but still needs to come a long way to have compelling members functionality. I'd say a 2 out of 5 again. The basics are there, but they feel a little half hearted and unfinished. Online giving works pretty well, but they could do a lot more here.

Easy to get data in, easy to get it back out - Arena is SQL, and you can build monster complex queries if you want. The lists functionality is pretty good for getting dynamic data, and the fact that you can hand tweak the sql on them before execution is awesome when what you want is just a touch beyond what it can deliver. I give Arena a 4 out of 5 after the latest updates, but they need a really easy sql generating query builder before they can get a 5 out of 5. Also, Arena gives you quick and easy ways to export almost everything to word and excel, which is cool.

Financials as well as people & groups? - I have blogged about this before. I do not believe that financials (not contributions, but actual financial management) should be part of a ChMS, but rather a separate product. I'm glad Tony phrased this as a question.

What about all the add-ons? - Registrations and event management are built-in to Arena as is work flow to a limited extent (some of the community churches have made great strides here and built really awesome stuff). Arena can take payments as part of event management and registration, so I think that tag's Tony's "Web Store" base as well, although it is not setup out of the box to handle things like selling t-shirts or books or other such stuff. The only item on Tony's list that is not included is facility management, which shouldn't be included anyway...

(7) Extensible - Arena has a web services API that can be used to access arena data, as well as taking advantage of other API's for complementary data. For example, the Planning Center integration is almost done, and another church is working with ShadeTree to be integrated with Arena. These are just two examples (integration with facility management has been underway as well), but I think Arena does extensibility pretty well. That said, it's not perfect. Nobody has figured out how to properly integrate facebook into a ChMS yet, and the API has a lot of holes, but I think there is a good start. I like the fact that Arena is open and willing to work with people to connect rather than trying to stay a walled off little world. Arena is probably a 3 out of 5 right now, and it's getting better.

(8) Robust & Scalable - I have been very impressed with Arena in this area. In the research for my post entitled "What do the big guys use?" I found that three of the top ten largest churches in the country were using Arena (tied with FellowshipOne). Our own experience (weekend attendance is around 4500 adults) has been that Arena is very robust and stable at our size. In talking with the guys at Willow Creek and Southeast Christian, it seems like it is a solid product at their size as well. I think this is a 4 out of 5. It could be better, but it's pretty good as is.

(9) Secure and Integrated - Arena does a good job here. Database activity is logged, and history provides a convenient way to see who did what. Security is setup through templated security roles, and the default is no access. Arena can utilize active directory authentication if you have that setup and running. Other than the password complexity requirement (which we set, not Arena, so we are good) it almost feels as if Arena was designed while reading Tony's post on this topic... I really like the way Arena also allows notes to be set with private security, meaning they can't be read by anyone else at all (including the administrator). This allows pastors to place counseling notes and such and know they are secure. The security templates make ease of use for end users setting security on notes simple as well. Definitely a 5 out of 5.

In 2005 Tony lamented that there wasn't a product on the market that addressed these needs, and this was his wishlist. Five years later, I think it's pretty clear that Arena fits the bill pretty well and this no longer needs to be a wishlist. I can't help but think that Tony had some influence here.


Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Deep Church

I've been trying to catch up on my reading (and my reviews) and recently finished Deep Church by Jim Belcher.

In reading this book, I think it's important to understand a bit about who Jim Belcher is. Jim is a graduate of Fuller and Georgetown, and someone who included postmodernism in his doctoral thesis. This is key to me, as I believe Belcher has credibility in this area. A lot of people are critical of the emerging church without ever really understanding it in the first place. Since there is no denomination to look at, no central body to appeal to, critics tend to find pastors who write things they don't like and assume everyone else thinks the same way. Belcher does not do this, and I appreciate his approach. At the same time, Belcher respects the "old ways" as it were, as he planted his church as a member of PCA, the Presbyterian Church in America. This combination of old and new is definitely what has brought Deep Church a lot of positive attention.

The book starts strong, as Belcher does a good job of explaining the nuances of the emerging church (if you don't like that term, say missional church, re-envisioned church, or whatever other term you prefer...) and its complaints with the traditional church. He then talks about the need for unity, which I wholeheartedly agree with. It is important that we discuss and learn from one another, not stand back and lob barbs over the wall at people who love God and are seeking the scriptures and trying to find what they believe to be the right approach to ministry (whether that be traditional, emerging, or whatever).

Belcher then delves into the enlightenment vs. postmodernism debate that rages in the church, and does an excellent job of explaining how different understandings of what postmodernism is create conflict within the church.

It is in the chapter entitled Deep Evangelism that my enthusiasm for this book began to wane. Up to this point (nearly 100 pages in) I found this book very helpful and informative. But this chapter began a pattern of emerging says x, traditional responds y, and we are z, the right way. Maybe I'm a bit overly sensitive to this, but it started a little bit in this chapter and became a constant drumbeat for the rest of the book.

I have no issue with Belcher being proud of his church. He should be! If he doesn't think they are doing it right, he has no business being the leader! The problem is that when you are trying to lay out contrasts, you tend to gravitate towards extremes. For example, in this chapter he implies that emerging churches focus only on being in community and never on a moment of decision for the gospel. While this may be true of some, I don't think it accurately reflects the predominant approach of leading churches.

It gets a lot worse in chapter six, when Belcher begins to quote Brian McLaren as the beliefs of the emerging church, and then contrasts this with the traditional church response to Brian. Suddenly we have moved from a valuable discussion of the differences between the emerging churches and traditional churches, and have instead picked an easy target and then shown how we don't think the same way.

Maybe the reason I have such a problem with it is that I don't think the book fairly compares the two sides once we reach these chapters. It's almost more of a couple of easy arguments thrown up, and then Belcher's church setup as a model that looks very different from those rather two dimensional targets. Maybe I'm a little harsh, but I was quite disappointed by this book.

The odd thing is that, for the most part, I think Belcher DOES have it right. I am a fan of the ideas he sets out and agree with him on the need for balance in church ministry.

I think I can best explain my feelings about this book by briefly talking about another book. I am a fan of science fiction, and one of my favorite books is Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said by Philip K. Dick. This book is approximately 185 pages long in the copy I have. The first 175 pages are among the most brilliant works of science fiction ever written. The last 10 could have been done by a reasonably literate fourth grader. Why the contrast? I imagine PKD's publisher on the phone screaming at him "I don't care what you write, just finish the book and have it on my desk by tomorrow or you don't get paid!" and so a very disconcerting and boring ending was slapped on what should have been a landmark in science fiction, ruining the final product.

In many ways, Deep Church feels a bit like Flow My Tears. The first hundred pages or so are well researched and well thought out and very balanced, and then Belcher simply needed to finish his book. The second half of the book deals more in extremes, with Redeemer Presbyterian Church standing seemingly alone in the middle. That's really a shame, because I think Belcher laid a terrific foundation, and I really wish the second half of the book had been up to the same standard.

Is Deep Church worth reading? At the end of the day, I think it is. Despite my complaints, the book is worth it for the first hundred pages alone, and the second half is still valuable to read to challenge your thinking on what a church should look like by reading about the example of how Redeemer is doing ministry.


Friday, July 23, 2010


A while back Mark with BigBadCollab gave us a demo of ShadeTree. ShadeTree is a platform being developed that seeks to integrate church members into church life through social networking, spiritual formation, etc.

In some ways ShadeTree could lead to a full blown ChMS at some point, but right now it's really meant to augment what you currently have in place. I was privileged to look "behind the scenes" a bit with a beta church, to see how they are working on using ShadeTree.

Of most interest to us was the Spiritual Formation elements of ShadeTree, and how we can utilize it to help our people easily identify what their next steps are. These steps might be books, sermons, conferences, serving, attending events or whatever else the church establishes. The important thing is the front end survey that helps identify where each individual is, and what resources would be the most beneficial next steps for that individual.

ShadeTree is designed to be fully "skinnable" so that it fits within your website and design philosophies and looks like your church, rather than a generic look. I'm really excited about the platform as a way to give our people access to a path of spiritual formation. This is an area where HDC currently doesn't do a great job, and I really think ShadeTree can help us. The biggest issue will be figuring out Arena integration with the data, but the beautiful thing is that the church working on this with BigBadCollab is an Arena church, so I know they share that desire.

ShadeTree also does social networking. This is where I get less excited. I do believe that the church needs to be involved in social networking, but I don't agree with Mark that the church should be the place where it happens. To me, our people are already on Facebook, we should work to have a great facebook presence and to see how we can best integrate our members church and unchurched lives, allowing their relational networks to see their commitment to Christ. IMHO, if we create our own playground, we lose important opportunities to model our lives to those of our friends who do not know God.

It seems like there are a lot of products that try to integrate the church and social networking, but most of them seem to want to create an isolated sandbox away from "the world" and that isn't an viewpoint I share. That doesn't mean that I'm right though, only time will tell. Perhaps there is a sweet spot of integration between the two that I haven't seen yet.

Technologically ShadeTree is based on the LAMP stack, Linux Apach MySQL PhP, which I absolutely love. The cool thing about this is that all of those products are opensource, and ShadeTree is being developed as an opensource solution. This means that, once available, your church can download and test and even deploy ShadeTree for free. Awesome. If you need help, pay BigBadCollab and they will help you get it all running.

Good guys making good products to further God's kingdom at the lowest possible cost for the churches involved. Awesome stuff all the way around. If I've piqued your interest, click the ShadeTree link at the top and signup for more info when ShadeTree is released.


Thursday, July 22, 2010

Deliberate Simplicity

I am way behind on book reviews, so it's time to get caught up. The first book I read recently is Deliberate Simplicity. This book is written by Dave Browning, who is a friend of our senior pastor's.

We read this book as a staff, and I expected a lot from it. Perhaps my expectations are part of why i was disappointed (a theme you will find repeats itself in this round of reviews). The book begins by demonstrating the power of simplicity. In-n-Out vs. McDonalds, Costco vs. Wal-Mart, Trader Joe's vs. The Mega-Supermarket idea etc. In-n-Out, Costco and Trader Joe's all use simplicity to their advantage, offering fewer, higher quality items to great profit and business success. The question Dave then poses is "Have we made church too complex?"

On the whole, this concept appeals to me. Our culture has given up speciality and expertise (when was the last time you went to a butcher shop? never been?) for convenience and price. Perhaps the church has gotten too caught up in trying to be the hub of your social life and needs instead to focus on teaching the gospel. In essence, Deliberate Simplicity is about what a church should not do, and that's a concept I am totally behind. "Deliberate Simplicity advocates restricting the activities of the church instead of expanding them. It calls for less programming instead of more...working smarter instead of harder." and later "It calls us to move the fulcrum so the same (or less) energy is leveraged for greater results. Minimality is how less turns out to be more."

At the same time, I'm not sure I agree with Dave's take on scripture. He makes some pretty inflammatory statements, like "While all scripture is God-breathed and profitable, it is not equally profitable." I know what Dave is getting at, but I think you have to be very careful with approaches like this, as it can often lead to de-emphasizing important but unpopular scripture and allowing your views to shape your theology rather than vice-versa. That said, every church is guilty of this to some degree. When was the last time your church taught out of Obadiah or 3 John?

While this book starts strong, it seems to devolve a bit as we dig through the chapters. It begins to take a pattern of "Most churches do it this way, and this is bad! We do it THIS way, and that is good!" Dave also emphasizes outreach as the primary focus and purpose of the church, but the book tends to minimize the importance of discipleship and spiritual formation of the believer as well. Unfortunately, churches all too often are unbalanced and are all about evangelism or all about growing the believer. I believe the church is called to both, and should be both a group that is outwardly focused while working to continually focus the hearts and mind of its members on God.

In the chapter entitled Multility Dave argues for decentralized leadership in the church, in which the individual congregations are more or less autonomous. While I like what he has to say, I couldn't help but cross out the word "Multility" in my mind and write "Denomination" across the top. What Dave describes and advocates is, essentially, a baptist denominational structure. It's funny how the same ideas come around again with different names attached to them. As I reflect on the history of denominations, I see a lot of the same motives and reasons for creating denominations that are now being used to create multi-site churches and "networks" which are somehow different than denominations in a way nobody can really articulate beyond the name...

Overall I liked the general idea behind this book (less is more) but found it a bit of a tiring read. There was too much "this is how we do it and why it's better" for me. To be fair, you could say this book provides practical real world examples rather than theory and that would be accurate. It didn't hit a homerun with me, but it does provide food for thought.


Sunday, July 11, 2010

A New Record

Approximately 12,000 people attending HDC regularly.

Approximately 7,000 programs stating the time and date of the business meeting distributed over two weekends.

Approximately 5,000 adults in worship each weekend.

Approximately 2,000 voting members.

Exactly 0 non-board members or staff (or their immediate families) in attendance at our semi-annual business meeting.