Today, if we have a question about anything, where do we look up information? If we want hours of operation, products offered, staff bios? If we want to know what movie is playing, what time a concert starts, what classes are offered at a college where do we do to find out? Obviously, we go to the website. It's the same whether we are looking up information about what computer to buy or what church to attend.
We judge the organization, its people, and its products based on the website. If the website gives us winter hours and it is spring; if the sale has been over for weeks or if the hours of operation are incorrect, we aren't likely to visit the business or have confidence in it. If the business is a franchise and the website is an obvious template, with little local personalization, we won't think much about the technical skills (equated with competence overall) of the staff. Again, we judge a church the same way.
Unfortunately many church websites don't meet the minimal standards.
Though lost customers may be bad for a business, the consequences for a church are much more serious. Following is an example of what can happen and then some suggestions for change.
True story here
A couple hadn't been able to attend church for some time after moving to a new community because the wife was ill. Her health improved somewhat and they were excited about attending church the following Sunday. It wasn't easy for her to get up early, take the needed medications, and prepare for church, but they loved going to church and after checking out many churches in the area found one on the web they wanted to visit. The website told them the details, time it started, directions, and they assumed, all they needed to know.
As they walked through the doors they were met by a woman who said, "do you know what is going on today?'
"No," they replied.
"We are not having church today, we are doing a community service day. You can stay and work or go somewhere else."
When the couple asked why this was not on the website—the woman replied, "It probably should have been. I'll pass that on."
It was not a pleasant encounter and the couple left.
What if. . .
The couple who related the story to me, consulted the web again, and went to another church later that morning. They were upset at that church and may or may not visit again, but they are believers in Jesus and will eventually find a church home.
However, what if the visitors had been a couple in emotional crises? What if they were not believers in Jesus and had finally worked up the courage to visit a church only to be told that it was a day for the insiders to do a project and that they were not included? What if it was the last time a person who had been hurt by church leaders in the past decided to try one more time to attend before giving up on church completely?
Of course we can't know the situation of every person who comes through our doors and of course there are always people who won't read notices no matter where we post them, but there are things we can do to prevent potential spiritual disasters and that in addition are simply good business sense and good manners.
A primary recommendation
Keep your website CURRENT! Not only on your home page should you have any changes that differ from your normal schedule, but also on the pages that list ongoing events. For example if your service is cancelled for a work day, on the home page, if you have rotating headers, one should say "WORKDAY this SUNDAY—no regularly scheduled services.
A similar message should be on ALL listings of your service times throughout the website. This is because you never know where people will drop into a website based on the results of a search engine. If you've done these things and a visitor still shows up – honestly apologize and ask them how you could have communicated more effectively.
A foundational to-do—learn how to create a living website
Your website is not only a static brochure, but should be a living, ever-changing communication vehicle with your community. Having said that, there is also place on your website for static information that rarely changes—staff bios, overall vision and mission of the church, etc. Information like this is essential and having it in a consistent location is one of the primary benefits of a website as opposed to the ever-flowing river of social media.
Social media is at best an interactive communication tool useful most often with people who are already interested in or involved in your church—but it is a lousy tool to find out about the background of the staff, the beliefs of the church, or for an overview of the children's ministry. A website is the perfect tool for this factual information, but even though this information stays relatively the same, it must also be updated immediately when things change.
To make your website living, you must have a website that the church office staff knows how to modify. Before the objections start, there is absolutely NO EXCUSE for members of the church office staff to not know how to modify your website. Churches have had access to the Internet for over 20 years and most churches have had websites in some form for over 10 years. But for some reason, many church communicators, including pastors and church office staff think they can't create a website, modify an article, or create a blog and that simply is not true.
Get a grip people—if you want to communicate to your world today, you must to learn the language of the digital world. It isn't that hard, it is exciting, and can be tremendous fun. You've learned how to drive a car, use a computer, and any number of additional skills for your work and life. You can learn this.
More will be coming on this site about websites and how to create them, but in advance of that, there is an abundance of instructional videos, books, websites, and tutorials on how to create websites and blogs with WordPress— the free and easiest way to do it.
Finally, all the above isn't simply a push for church staffs to update their websites, so visitors aren't turned away; it's about doing all we can to help people find Jesus. Throughout history missionaries have learned new languages, given up family, safety, and comfort to share the gospel. Our challenge is to become fluent cyber communicators, let's not be found wanting in this.