A Philosophy of Church Websites

by May 30, 2013ChurchLife, Tech5 comments

Paris in the Rain

I posted this on my web design site some time ago, but I thought I’d share it with my blog readers.

I started doing graphic design because I wanted Christian ministry materials to match the quality of their message. That was in a day when few churches had websites. Now, most do. But my burden hasn’t changed. Your website is your image to every potential visitor and community member who stumbles onto it. Have you ever thought through what this means for your church’s website?

I have.

Let me give you a run down of my church website philosophy (for small- to medium-size churches).

First a little foundation-building: your church website is primarily for potential visitors; only a few pages are for your members. Unless a member of the church staff is a) techie, b) younger than 40, and c) highly motivated, your church website content (aside from sermons) will not get updated regularly. So don’t plan a website that requires frequent updating.

If your site is primarily for visitors and won’t get updated regularly, that means you will need to focus on putting up content that will a) last a long time without seeming dated and b) give a full and accurate picture of your church.

So what do potential visitors want to know? Here are, I think,  the top seven questions visitors bring to your site:

1. What do the people at this church dress like?

Communicate this with pictures, A lengthy description of dress standards sounds authoritarian; a picture is worth a thousand rule books. Visitors want to make certain that they will not feel out of place. Don’t say, “Wear whatever you want, just come!” if everybody in the congregation is wearing business casual.

2. Who is the pastor and what’s his background?

Make sure you have a “leadership” page—not a “pastor” page. And don’t put the pastor’s picture on the home page (unless he just happens to be in one of the “featured slider” images). A church website must walk the fine line between giving sufficient info (it seems like you’re hiding something if you give no info at all) and quasi-cultishly putting the pastor on a pedestal.

3. Do they have child care?

This needs to be clearly stated on your site. Dedicate a page to it. Pictures also help here. Happy children cared for by kempt looking women (not men) should do the trick.

4. What are the church’s service times?

This should be easy to find either directly on the main page or in the main menu. If you keep a calendar, only do so after vowing to keep it perfectly updated. I once arrived at a church while on vacation only to find that I had dragged my toddlers out the door early for no reason; they had canceled the Sunday School their website said they would have. We spent an enjoyable hour in the church nursery with some church members who also didn’t get the memo, but we would have preferred to attend Sunday School!

5. What is the church’s location?

Google Maps allows you to embed a nice big map. This is just me, but written driving directions generally shout “We refuse to enter the Internet era!” An odd thing to say on a website…

6. What does the preacher sound like?

There are plenty of great web services out there which can “syndicate” your church’s messages. I like SermonAudio.com. A very techie person in your church may find a cheaper way to go (a combination of the Sermon Browser plugin and Amazon Web Services, for example), but being part of the SermonAudio.com community has some nice benefits.

7. What are their theological proclivities?

You should have a doctrinal statement, though it shouldn’t be a featured item. You should also have a “resources” page. Like it or not, potential visitors with a strong Christian background will skip over your doctrinal statement and go find out what books you’re recommending. As one commenter on my blog said once, “A doctrinal statement may explain what a congregation is supposed to believe, but a list of recommended books often reveals what they’re excited to believe.”

8. Does their culture fit mine?

This is a nebulous one. Dress will probably be the major feature, so there’s overlap with number 1. But there’s more. I have probed literally thousands of church websites from all over the theological spectrum. The down-home rural, King James Only churches tend to have a particular design style. So do the mainline Protestant churches. Without anyone telling them to, they express their cultural values through their design.

I have no way of knowing if the websites I see accurately reflect the churches they are advertising. But I will ask this: if you paid careful attention to making your church building look beautiful, and you as a church work hard to keep the grounds attractive and inviting, why does your website look like it was designed in 1996 by one of those “well-meaning” persons? There is a huge generational divide over website quality. Older pastors simply and understandably don’t get it. They don’t realize how much young people implicitly trust the Internet to tell them the truth. So trust me. Pour significant resources into your website. Commit to update it every three years. A tired and ugly website says something about your church’s culture that you probably don’t want to communicate to people my age.

Your Own Members

Your own church members will use your site mainly for sermon recordings or quick information grabs—doctrinal statement, church contact info. A calendar and an online membership directory are great to have, but it takes that techie, motivated staff member to keep them up.

Photo albums are a little easier nowadays, because people are accustomed to Facebook: I recommend having a church Facebook page and automatically featuring Facebook photo albums on a picture page on your site.

My Recommendation

For most small- to medium-size churches, you want WordPress. It’s free*, it’s stable, and it’s extremely easy to use. If you have a techie person in your church, he or she can find free plugins to do anything you will need your site to do—password-protected pages, blog content, anything. This site is a WordPress site.

One other huge advantage of WordPress is that you can easily change the entire site’s design—its colors, menus, and layout—without having to adjust the content. This makes it perfect for churches. In three years, your site will begin to look dated no matter how well it was done. With WordPress (and a little help from a designer like me) you can change over to a new design for minimal cost.

A blog reader once commented, “My wife and I owned and operated a small business for 8 years, and I have reason to believe that our website was responsible for around 80% of our new customers.” What’s true for businesses is, I think, true for churches.

Action Steps

I suggest two action steps:

*The software “bones” are free; the flesh on the bones (the look of the site) costs money, but is worth every penny.

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  1. Duncan Johnson

    I’ve seen this type of information on lots of church websites. Everyone with a cool church website does it, so I guess that’s what should be done.

    But… I can’t help but wondering, are these kinds of design decisions based on actual website traffic analytics, or just a bandwagon, let’s not reinvent the wheel kind of thinking?

    Do visitors really think that hard about visiting a church? Including the unsaved ones? What pages and website elements actually get clicks that lead into the site rather than away to other things? What design elements actually have eyeballs placed on them?

    I’m mostly asking just to initiate conversation. I don’t know the answers, and if this post is based on analytics I’d love to see some of that. I also maintain a church website (www.meadowlandsbaptist.ca) that includes a lot of things that I think are useless bandwagon copying (i.e., an image carousel on the home page), but I haven’t yet developed adequate evidence to support demands that these things be changed 🙂

    I’d be interested in others’ perspectives on this… and I don’t mean to imply that having Mark work on your website would be a bad idea. I’ve seen some great work that he’s done, and like it.

  2. Mark L. Ward, Jr.

    An excellent point, Duncan. I have to admit that analytics are not driving my comments, just experience. I’ve never heard even the very expensive church web design companies talking about analytics for church sites.

    And I think the bandwagon is just fine in this case—a featured slider, for example, is a trend that marks you out as a church that is trying to be reasonably with-it. And I don’t care what gets clicks as much as I care what, as a human being who knows church culture, various elements mean whether they drive traffic and get clicks or not. For example, a church website that doesn’t reveal the identity of the pastor communicates something about that pastor and about themselves. And I don’t think it’s a positive thing like humility. I think it’s mainly ineptitude.

  3. Don Johnson

    We haven’t changed our site for some years, use a WordPress set up and get free help from Duncan when I can coerce him. I, too, would be interested in analysis of actual web-traffic to church sites. That would be interesting to be sure.

    We have found that many of our visitors have checked us out extensively before-hand, especially our sermons page.

    We host our own sermons, using Sermon Browser, a WordPress plugin. I think this is probably the most important part of our site, partly because it is dynamic and ever changing. We also have a few pages where I have published articles on our view of music and other key cultural distinctives. It is not that this is the be all and end all of what we are about, but our experience over the years has been that those who visit from other churches often like the Bible preaching (that they testify they don’t get elsewhere) but sometimes they are overwhelmed by our insistence on conservative music. So my idea is, get that info out there ahead of time so folks have some opportunity to know what you are about before they walk in the door.

    Your article prompted me to do a quick review of our site… uh, oh, some updating needed. Found one 404 error, it’s been there for about a year and a half. Man…

    Last, just wondering about your recommendation of Sermon Audio. Beyond plug and play, I’m wondering what other benefits you might see? I have shied away from it due to the cost and some non-technical reasons.

    Don Johnson
    Jer 33.3

    • Mark L Ward Jr

      I really like Sermon Browser, and I agree that it may be better for many users than SermonAudio, largely because of cost. I added that into the post. Thanks for the reminder.

      I do think SermonAudio is probably the easiest solution for most pastors. And the look is okay, though their overall design needs to be overhauled; it has looked so similar for so long.

  4. Kevan

    I study the analytics for our church’s website obsessively and they confirm the intuitive judgments expressed in this article.