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Friday, January 20, 2006

More On Church Websites: Dos and Don'ts

Web We've discussed the importance of your church's website here on numerous occasions.  BetaChurch.org has posted some great rules... think about these as you evaluate your church's website and e-ministry.  They write: 

Eighteen months ago I knew virtually nothing about websites, web design or anything else. To me, terms like HTML, CSS, RSS, and the like were all worse than “Greek to me”—at least I sensed some purpose to knowing Greek as a pastor. Techno-jargon seemed far less important.

But after a year of working through website stuff for the church, here is what I’ve learned:

1. The web is probably the first place people look for a church – before the yellow pages, newspaper, or anything else.

In today’s world, where "google" is a verb, the internet is often the first and last place people look for things that they used to go to the yellow pages for. In other words, if you don’t have a web-presence (and one that can be found with a simple Google search) you are virtually invisible and people will simply go to the churches that do have a web-presence.

2. Prospective visitors have already formed an idea about your church based on your website—good or bad.

I can’t tell you how often I hear form people that they searched through our website, listened to online messages, read about our vision – all before they every visit. This means that people are coming to our Sunday service as visitors, but already with a string sense about our church. It used to be said that your first impression begins in the parking lot. Today, that impression begins in cyberspace.

3. A website communicates your "true values" to people.

A website tells a ton about your church. In fact, "true values" are revealed on your site. I say "true values" (as opposed to "core values") because “true values” are ones that are there whether we want them to be or not; "core values" are often created by committees and may or may not bear on reality. For example, we made a decision with our website to make a blog pretty central. We also decided to allow many people to post on it and to not "censor" (within reason) bad theology or opinions that I (the lead pastor) might not like. Why? Because one of our values is the open exchange of ideas in an intellectually honest environment.

I have had visitors comment on this value upon their first visit to the church, based entirely on seeing the website.

On the other hand, some churches communicate a "controlling slickness" on their sites or a "we don’t care about our image" value... or potentially a thousand other messages. The key is to know that you are communicating a lot about your church on your site. Give some thought and intentionality.

4. A website is key to effective communication.

Combined with a weekly email newsletter (we use Constant Contact – www.constantcontact.com ), which I highly recommend) our website is the primary communication tool in our church. We have the benefit of a very wired audience being in a college town, but I think this applies to just about everyone these days. One of the great parts about using a website for communicating is that it is available to communicate 24-7. People’s schedules are so crazy these days. Having timely and accessible information available all the time is a great communication tool.

Lack of communication can also be a major problem and point of tension in churches today. I know because in the previous three churches I have worked at, this was a major issue. The website pretty much has made it a non-issue at my current church because we can put up all the info we want and people can access what they are interested in. So we post announcements, book reviews, strategic plan updates, board minutes, pastor reports, blogs, foundational documents, and a ton of other stuff—all accessible to anyone who wants the information. We also have a password protected section where we post financial reports for members, etc. Again, most people don’t access the information – but they could, and that is the point!

5. A good website is a "vision caster".

Similar to the point above, I use our site all the time to talk about and reinforce vision. I blog about vision, post prayer requests related to our vision, post stories and videos that celebrate our vision, and have even done "vision moment" podcasts. You really can’t cast vision too much, but there is a limited amount of time on Sundays. The web is a great tool for vision casting.

6. A bad website is worse than no website.

Not much that needs to be said about this… it is a simple, hard and cold fact. Because a website communicates a ton about your church beyond the words, a bad website is sending all the wrong messages.

7. Do not follow the path of least resistance...you will regret it.

I almost made this mistake. I knew we needed a website so I thought something was better than nothing. And in today’s world you can get a website up and running pretty quickly and pretty cheaply using services like Register.com or using a volunteer with frontpage.

If a website is all the things we have been talking about, than take the time to strategically think through what you are trying to accomplish. After a couple of months of using an in-house site (that our people liked) we realized that we needed to take a more serious look at our website and that we needed professional help.

When I started talking with designers, I thought that they would simply design what I wanted. But each time they started with more fundamental questions: Why do you need a website? What are you hoping to achieve with it? Is a website the best way to accomplish that goal?

These were key questions for us as we tried to figure out exactly what we were doing and why. While process took longer and cost more than I wanted, it was well worth it.

So… take your time. Wait until you can set aside adequate funding in your budget. And do it right.

*Note: though I advocate waiting, I also think that you can probably find the money in your budget already. It used to be that every church felt like they needed a yellow pages ad in order to at least have a presence. I would argue the web has replaced the yellow pages. For the money that most churches—including small ones—spend on a yellow pages ad, you can probably get a good site going.

8. People are craving content not eye-candy.

I know not everyone will agree with this, but increasingly in a post-modern world I think people are craving real content over eye-candy. People are no longer impressed by flash and other high-tech deals on websites (in fact, if you are like me, you find them annoying).

I think the whole design game is about functionality and accessibility. Put your time and energy into that. Nothing wrong with dressing up good content, but make sure that your site is content-driven.

Marketing people like to say that "you’re not selling the steak, your selling the sizzle." Now that might work once, but unless you have a great steak, the sizzle won’t matter much. Many people today are "sizzled out" and pretty skeptical of sizzle... a great steak is more remarkable and memorable than the sizzle.

9. People don’t need "online brochures".

This gets back to the content issue. Too many churches (and businesses, for that matter) see their website as simply a static, slick, "online brochure".

Please don’t.

A website can be so much more than this.

For example, I really see our website as a "window" into our church community that people can look through. We try and avoid advertising and tightly word-crafted messages. We have intentionally kept it organic and real. We want people to get a real sense for what and who we are by peaking in. That is what we "built" – a window that hopefully leads to a door. Not a brochure.

10. Keep your site dynamic and current.

A stale, outdated site will make your church look stale and outdated. I guess the choice is yours, but I don’t think that is what you are trying to communicate. Keep it fresh and keep it changing.

What do you think?

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January 20, 2006 in Technology in the Church | Permalink

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Good Job Ben! Ben's article Ten Things To Know About Your Website was reprinted on Monday Morning Insight. Nice work. Check out the site. Lots of great content.... [Read More]

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Comments

No. 10 is SO important. And SO hard to do.

Posted by: Peter Hamm | Jan 20, 2006 8:17:58 AM

I couldn't agree more - but then I'm bias, I do web desgin and development for a living (sort of like all of you pastors saying 'you should come to my church'...).

The article speaks volumes of truth, when I was looking for a church recently, I went to the web looking for websites. Churches not willing to put relevant, good information we're considered. The good news is, those who put doctrinal statements made it easier on who to call and who I shouldn't call.

I've done my church's site (www.ffc.org) however, the home page is loaded full of images that aren't compressed right, so it is heavy (although I think it looks good!) and we have TONS of information and get TONS of visitors.

[blatant plug]I do hire out[/plug]

Posted by: Paul Davis | Jan 20, 2006 8:34:48 AM

I hate reading articles like this - only because I agree with it so much, but am struggling to keep our website relevant.

I think I do an okay job, and have gone through it recently to tweak some things in line with a recent article here.

I try to update it frequently, but it doesn't get done as much as I would like. Unfortunately, I'm the only one willing to do it now, and we really don't have the money to hire someone. We don't do yellow page adds, and I'm bi-vocational.

However, I have had people visit the site and say they like it, and at least one person has visited because they saw the site.

Thank you, Lord, for over-riding my limitations!

Brian

Posted by: Brian La Croix | Jan 20, 2006 10:37:21 AM

Ok, more commentary, I'm looking for a church home - after reading a lot on this blog, I've realized, I'm merely continuing to assist an abusive pastor who might have a poor self image. So where did I go first - the web.

Things I found:

1. Absent mission statements.
2. Broken images and links.
3. No directions to the church.
4. Nothing about the music style.
5. out of date content.
6. slow loading pages or huge pages with tons of graphics.
7. Scrolling and/or blinking stuff.
8. Color schemes that even the 1970's would hate.
9. Overall poor site design (not visual, but layout, hard to find things)
10. Useless sites (no relevant information)

Websites aren't that hard and in the area I'm in (a metro with, I think, 2.2 million people in the entire area), plenty of money or people exist to either pay for the site or volunteer for the site (and in most modest congregations, someone should have some basic skills).

#6 is true, I saw three churches that I won't even contact because of their website - they could be fine churches, but their website is just so poor, I can't imagine them having a good organized church. If they had nothing and I wasn't able to find anything else and was forced to find my yellow pages, they would - at least - have a chance of a phone call.

The only churches that don't really need a website are churches where the local population has little or no connection to the web or desire to be on the web (for instance, in the poorer areas where no free access exists or around a largely older population like a retirement area) and areas where it is very rural - not that they couldn't get visitors and do something functional or useful, it is just that everyone knows everyone and there isn't a whole lot of consumers for the site.

Everything else listed above isn't that difficult if the senior pastor/leader gets behind the internet as a viable mission field and potential avenue to receive new converts, new families or families looking for a new church home. As I mention to businesses that inquire about websites, it has to become an integral part of the church, part of all of the processes and part of all aspects of each ministry. If your church is doing *anything*, then #10 is easy, just post it online - even if it is just the outline from pastor's last sermon updated every week, it still shows the church is alive and that the pastor speaks on something every week. Utilized properly, a website can connect people who wouldn't otherwise be able to feel a part of the church, email service can reach members who wouldn't answer the phone, inexpensively reach a lot of people for upcoming events and has the ability to reduce duplication expenses drasticaly (attaching, for instance, the yearly budget in PDF form to the email instead of spending cash to print it out).

Business understands the importance of websites (find a successful business doing anything on the web with a crappy website - as in broken links, outdated style, templated look, etc) and I'll find tons more with it all together. Hollywood gets websites, they know how to communicate to their target audience via the web, political movements (usually democrats) grasp this as well. Well, we've seen the impact of a hollywood style movie (or a few) can do to get the name of Jesus on the public and cable channels - once Passion of the Christ came out, I'd never heard so many pastors on TV mentioning Jesus Christ and talking about salvation, it was amazing. Well, we've also seen the same in TV land (albeit, abused to some extent by some high profile people). We see radio used professionally as well.

The internet will continue to play a large part in the future of churches, while it won't make or break any church - only God raises us up and brings us down. Certainly, the assistance a website brings and the culture that comes with adopting the website from the top down will be a welcoming sign to the people who will be the future of the church. Osteen's site is real pretty, even he gets it.

Posted by: Paul Davis | Jan 23, 2006 4:26:35 PM

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