0 comments | Posted: 13 November 05 in Interviews, by Yannick Lyn Fatt
I recently interviewed Andy Knight who is a freelance web designer and the Electronic Communications Manager at Lifetime Guarantee Ministries, a website I visit often. Andy also shares a passion for helping churches and ministries use the web to better communicate the timeless message of God’s grace.
It is always inspiring to me to meet and speak with other Christian web designers. Tell me a little bit about how you got started in this profession.
Thanks, Yannick. I wonder if the fact that it’s inspiring to see Christians using the creativity that Father hardwired into us might be an indictment against us, the Church.
For many decades, the Church has discounted the creativity, imagery, and style of our message, the Gospel, and focused just on the substance of the message. Don’t get me wrong; I too believe that substance is the most critical component of our message. It’s bad news if you don’t get that right.
However, style is important. The way we communicate can either make our message more compelling, or it can make our message come across quite unremarkable, when nothing can be further from the truth. The Gospel in of itself is extremely compelling. It really is a life-and-death message. But the problem is, we’re all suffering from information overload, as attention spans are getting shorter and shorter.
I take my two-year-old to the Fort Worth Zoo a lot, and I see some pretty funky looking creatures that God designed. I mean, why did He feel the need to create a white tiger and an orange tiger? Because He’s creative. When you look at His creation, you can’t deny that God is extremely creative, but so are we.
We are created in His image, and we are creative too. God gave us our creativity and our desire to experience beauty. He is beautiful, and ultimately the desire to see, hear, or touch something beautiful is a desire to see, touch, and hear our Creator.
Forgive me for getting wound up. I’ll get back to your question about how I got started as a web designer. My undergraduate was in theology, which is not your typical launching pad for a career in web design. After I graduated and married an incredible girl, we moved 600 miles from Alabama to Fort Worth, TX, so I could attend seminary. My future ministry direction was a bit vague (and still is, by the way). God seemed to only give us a little direction at the time. I thought maybe I’d become a pastor or a youth minister.
We arrived in Fort Worth in July of 2000. A week later I answered a job board post for a “technology specialist” for a company called Lifetime Guarantee. I didn’t realize it was a ministry organization. It sounded like an insurance company to me. It was a part time job where I worked with a couple of other IT guys who were patient enough to hold my hand through the basics of HTML, PHP, and Photoshop. I loved it. Yes they taught me, but mostly they taught me how to teach myself. I tried to read everything I could get my hands on, including lots of Webmonkey tutorials. That’s the year I became a geek.
Well, we are certainly happy that you are a member of the “geek squad” for God. At your job, you are in charge of all things high-tech. That seems like a lot of work, tell me a little bit about how you do it.
Sure. The title “manager” is a little bit of a misnomer. I don’t have anyone working under me, so I don’t manage anybody. We only have three full time staff members, and six part timers. I simply manage all the aspect of our electronic communication, which about 90% of our ministry.
I oversee the web presence of Lifetime.org. Since we’re a teaching ministry, the web is an excellent way to publish our content. It’s our best employee. It does a lot of our work for us. There are some aspects of our site that we outsource to a PHP/MySQL programmer, but most of it is done in-house.
I also manage the outsourcing of our networking, hardware, and help desk needs. When I first came on staff we did this ourselves, but we wised up. We now hire a company to take care of all that for us. It frees us up to do what we do best.
Another interesting assignment is moderating a weekly e-newsletter called “eGrace.” This has been a lot of fun. It consists of an introduction that I always write, an article that I occasionally write, and an action step that we want the reader to take.
When necessary, I do graphic design for print as well. Sometimes it’s a book cover, other times it’s a cover for an audio album we’re converting over from cassette to CD. Sometimes it’s a direct mail marketing piece. Our primary monthly mailing that we send to our donors is also outsourced to a printing company. I designed the template, and they just plug in the new copy each month.
I also replace light bulbs in the office. They’re electronic too aren’t they?
Replacing light bulbs seems to be a tough task, but a man’s gotta do what a man’s gotta do right? In 2005, LGM went through a redesign and used web standards. What sort of challenges did you face while doing the redesign?
I learned web design using tables for layout, so jumping into all the browser quirks was a bit daunting, but I had already gotten my feet wet with my own site as well as some other client sites. Table layouts still felt more comfortable and predictable to me, but I was convinced of the benefits of table-less layouts, so I plowed forward despite my discomfort. The most challenging part was fixing all non-standard code coming from a database of over 500 articles and devotionals. I’m still not sure I’ve fixed them all, but it was a pain. I think I was totally zombied out that entire week from the sheer monotony of it all.
One challenge of the redesign that didn’t fall into the realm of web standards was our need to create an administrative interface. With this critical component in place, other people besides me could add, edit, and delete articles, devotionals, testimonies, news stories, etc. as well as keep up with people who’ve become Believers through our site.
Another problem was our need to build a template system that worked with clean, friendly, inviting URLs that are easy to type and remember, instead of long URLs that have a lot of question marks and ampersands. Instead of having a URL like…
We can now have one that looks like…
It’s much easier to read and remember.
Here’s an overview of the technical details of how we achieved this: Basically what we did was create the template file “get.php”, save it without a file extension, and tell the .htaccess file to read this file as a php file even though it has no extension. In the shorter URL, “equipped” and “devo” are variables that we access by the php function explode() and the PHP server variable PATH_INFO. “Equipped” refers to what section or area of the site you’re in. “Devo” refers to the actual page content that needs to be inserted.
Did you have to explain the benefits of web standards to those in charge of the ministry to get their approval, or did you just do it?
I just did it. While working on it, I would tell them about how the site would be easier to maintain, more accessible to those with disabilities, and viewable on all kinds of handheld computers and web-enabled cell phones. I told them about how our content could be syndicated through RSS. I think I also sat down at our president’s computer and showed him CSS Zen Garden. He said something like, “Great! We’re proud of you. Keep up the good work.” It was very easy.
Yes very easy indeed. On your personal website you have a pretty extensive site-planning document for persons interested in hiring you. Would you recommend other designers do the same? How much would you say this has helped you and your clients?
I think it’s helped. At the least it lets them know that building a web site is not just my job. The client needs to be highly involved in the planning and details because they know their business or ministry much better than I do. They’re going to have a lot of work to do as well. I’ve found that most of the ministries I’ve worked with are shocked about how long it takes to write the content for their site, so in the document, it tells them, “Whatever time you think it will take to write the content, double it.” I have to give credit where credit is due though: The site-planning document on my site was borrowed from Happy Cog.
There are many churches and ministries using the web as we speak, but there are also many that have yet to make the leap to the online world. Since you work for a ministry that has an online presence, what would you say are the benefits of a having a website?
Boy, where do I start?
Because of our website…
- Our ministry has a worldwide reach. Lifetime Guarantee has been around for almost 30 years and on the web for about 8 years, but we’ve probably connected with more people in the last year, than we did in the first 20 years. People find us through all kinds of places.
- We are perceived to have a higher degree of credibility, legitimacy, and professionalism than we would if we did not have an online presence. In fact many are surprised when they discover how small our staff is.
- We are able to be a part of people’s lives on a daily basis. Far and away, the most visited page on our site is our daily devotional. It seems fresh even though we only have about 200 devotionals that we cycle over and over again.
Could you name some possible drawbacks of not using web standards, or not utilizing content management to keep content current and fresh?
Some organizations have sites that look pretty but are stagnant. There’s no life in the site because it’s rarely ever updated. People will stop coming to your website, and you’ll miss a great opportunity. If you go too long without something fresh on the site, they’ll assume your organization is stagnant too. People don’t give themselves (or their financial resources) to causes that seem stagnant.
Another thing to avoid is using language that sounds too stiff and business like. If it bores you when you write it, imagine what it will do to others who read it. Use a good dose of humor and let your personality come through.
In your LGM profile you make mention of building relationships being the primary motivation for web usage. Can you speak a little more on that and give an example of such relationship building?
I try not to think of the people who come to our site as users, hits, or page views. I try to communicate personally to people as much as I can. That’s how I met you isn’t it? I did a Google search to see who was linking to our site. I figured these are the people who really like us. Your site, God’s Porch, came up in the listings, so I posted a friendly comment on your blog thanking you for linking to us. Now we’re friends. We have a personal connection even though I’ve never seen a picture of you or heard your voice, although I would enjoy hearing your Jamaican accent.
Yes I agree relationship building is good and I have been trying to do that on my site as well. As for the Jamaican accent, maybe one day you will, though you’d probably hear it more from other Jamaicans. Would you mind sharing your testimony, and how you came to faith in Christ?
My parents believed in having their family in church as often as possible. Our church was only a couple blocks away from our house, and many Sundays we walked to church. Even at an early age, I frequently asked questions about God. I was a pretty good kid. Every Wednesday night, I went to church. I liked going because we got to run wild in the gym before the lesson time. My dad was also one of the counselors of the group. One particular Wednesday night at the age of 10, we were having revival meetings in “big church” so we went to hear the preacher instead of playing in the gym. I do not remember the preacher’s name, what he looked like, the exact date, or the content of his message, but I guess I knew that I needed what he was talking about.
It’s been nearly 20 years since then. The Christian life has really been an incredible journey. It’s not always been easy. I have had times in the valley and times on the mountain. Through all this though, God is teaching me to depend on him. One of my spiritual mentors, Bill Gillham, likes to say, “The Christian life is not hard to live. It’s impossible to live.” God never wanted me to live it in my own strength and self-effort. Too often we approach salvation by grace alone then approach the rest of our Christian life by self-determination alone. I’m learning more and more the Christ is in me wants to live the Christian life through me. The Apostle Paul said, “It is not I who live but Christ who lives in me.” That’s been a major lesson in my life.
Is there anything else you’d like to add before we close?
Yeah, if you keep a pair of boots by the back door, always check them before you slide your feet into them. You never know when there could be a bat (the winged mammal kind) hiding out there. And “yes,” I am speaking from personal experience.
Thank you for the interview Andy. May God Bless you, your family, and your ministry endeavors.
Thanks Yannick, it’s really been a pleasure.
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