I had an email conversation with a member of our church over an article talking about church websites. The article prompted me to question whether we had ever thought about the purpose of our website and whether it matched what the article was saying.
One purpose that the article seemed to suggest was that it might be an evangelistic tool in itself. I don’t think that’s particularly realistic, having seen the types of conversations that happen ‘evangelistic’ websites. The kind of apologetic arguments deployed seem to be exercises in having better arguments than the New Atheists, with neither side coming out of it as a ‘winner’. As my Mum would say, ‘there’s more heat than light’ produced. If you’re thinking about the website of a local church (as opposed to a national or international church like the Church of England or the Baptist Union), you’re unlikely to be able to generate an active forum of discussion anyway, and I think that there are places for that kind of discussion already out there on the internet. If you’re called to that kind of evangelism or apologetics, join and support somewhere that is already doing it.
More realistically, the internet makes it possible for a small church (the article mentions Luss Parish Church) to serve the global church, for example with sermons and study notes that can be downloaded and used in other congregations, small groups or in personal study. This is realistic, though a ministry of the scale of Luss takes time and a real calling to develop. Almost any church with just a small amount of training and equipment can record sermons of a quality suitable for uploading online (as we do at Canley), and I’m of the opinion that sharing resources like bible study notes is always a good thing. The bigger challenge is getting people to find what is being offered. With the millions of congregations worldwide, how will yours stand out? Being regularly updated with quality content helps, but getting links will make the biggest impact. Links (as any really helpful SEO consultant can explain) should come from someone who likes what you’ve shared so much they want other people to see it. The first step on this is having a site that people in your church want to share!
But probably the main purpose of a church website is as a ministry for the local church and community. Unless you have a very specific calling to do something else, I think that this should be your primary focus. This purpose splits into two parts – church members and interested non-members who live locally. They will be looking for different things on the site, the challenge is to meet both sets of needs. Church members will want to check the times and locations of activities and listen to sermons or download study notes that they have missed for one reason or another. Making it easy to find these things in the fewest number of clicks is important, and making it easy to share good content with ‘social buttons’ will help them to pass it on.
The majority of local non-church members who come to your website will have had contact with either your human presence or your physical presence. The human presence is the people that make up your church – a conversation with a neighbour, a visitor to a school assembly, contact at a special event. There’s less pressure looking on a website to find out about what the church is like and the times of activities than asking someone who will then have expectations of attendance. The physical presence is the building and notice boards that for some churches are so important. People know the building, the steeple, the road and perhaps they wonder what’s happening, what the church is like. A smaller number will only find your site through your virtual presence - links and search engine placings. This could be because they have moved to the area and are searching for a church, or looking for an Alpha course, but rarely will it be an accidental stumble.
Non-members will be looking to get a flavour of what the church is like, so a few links to content might interest them, but they will want more emotional connection, too. This will be generated partly by design and by photos and video on the site. Good quality design takes either a bit of time or some money – though not necessarily a lot. If you use a CMS or blog software (I use WordPress for example), get a good theme and customise it carefully, or pay someone to. There are people who specialise in church websites and charge reasonable fees, so look one of them out. If a picture is worth a thousand words, imagine what a short video might be worth! Every single one of your photos need to be good quality, even more so for videos. Amateurish quality will say something about the church, especially to media savvy younger adults. Connection will also be developed by the way information about (for example) leadership and beliefs are presented. Things like statements of faith and lists of leaders in the church are things you rarely look at, so interested people won’t necessarily know what it is they are looking for, though it will often be something that is similar to their current church. An effective information page will generate or demonstrate empathy, welcome and include visitors.
Non-members will be comparing your site with others, looking for information about activities, times and perhaps thinking about making contact online. Making all these things available easily is important – perhaps having a ‘new to the church’ page with images, video, written introduction and links to these things would be helpful.
Thinking this through has made me think about changing and updating the church site I manage, I hope it will help others too. I’d love to hear your comments, too. What do you think the purposes of your church website are? What really good church websites do you know of? What do they do particularly well? I haven’t touched on Social Media like Facebook and Twitter in this post, either – what do they add to the online presence of a church?