Much emphasis on websites today is on how they look and while important, looks are not the most important feature of your church website.
It's like when we meet a person who is physically attractive and are drawn to him or her. After a few interactions, we may find the person as attractive on the inside as they are on the outside and the relationship grows. However if we find that underneath that beautiful exterior is an empty mind or heart, we won't continue the relationship.
Following are 5 characteristics to keep your church website from being a just a pretty face and being a resource that can grow your churches relationships with members and seekers. . . .
It really doesn't matter if people think your website looks great or not. What matters is what content is in it. There has been a big shift in the design of church websites in the design of church websites over the past few years and unfortunately many churches concentrate so hard on keeping up on design trends, they lose sight of the reality of the unspoken expectations people have of your website. People don't come to your website to keep up with design trends, they come to your website to find out content about your church and the Christian faith.
If you haven't been involved in a website redesign, please don't worry about it if your website format hasn't been changed from the day it was created, don't make redesign your priority until you have a solid foundation of content.
The content that makes an effective church website should be driven by the overall vision and goal to fully fulfill the Great Commission, that is to help people come to know Jesus as Savior and to grow become Christ-like disciples. To do that you need to go beyond the basic brochure details needed on every church website such as:
Location and contact information—If you don't already have it on there, the footer of your website is a great place to include address, email and phone number.
Staff and who does what and how to reach them—the important issue here is that if you include email, or social media accounts for staff, be sure they actively answer their emails or take part in the social media. Please do not include email or social media links for staff who don't engage in them. It is a huge disappointment if you post contact information and people don't answer inquires.
These and other expected other basics such as what newcomers can expect; sermons in audio and video, current bulletins and newsletters, denominational information, etc., are very important, but to fully fulfill the Great Commission with your website—go beyond each of these expected areas and be sure each area of your website has the two following website characteristics: Comprehensive and Connected.
This goes beyond labels that a website template or list has and actually giving people concrete information in them.
To illustrate the importance of this characteristic, how often have you seen a website with sections or labels, such as: Children's, Adult Ministry, etc., but when you clicked on the label to find out more they have nothing but a statement that says something like, "We believe in Biblical education for all ages and our church provides it through classes on Sunday morning and during the week.” Or it had the current lesson, but only the topic and nothing more. Or worse yet is the label "under construction." It is better to leave a label off than to not have a comprehensive explanation about what is really going on in that ministry area.
Some ideas to make your site more comprehensive:
- Show pictures of people and activities with captions that explain what is going on;
- Have staff members share about themselves and why they do what they do;
- Tell about how staff and lay leaders came to know Jesus, how they were called to ministry, or became involved in the church;
- Profile members of the congregation who lead ministries and have them tell their story and show what they do by pictures of them teaching kids or on a work project;
- Give up-to-date details about what is taught and why those topics were selected.
Also be comprehensive about what you believe. A Statement of Faith is expected, but very few church websites actually tell people why they believe what they believe or even explain the terms in it. This is such a missed opportunity because comprehensive explanations can be a wonderful way to engage people about the Christian faith. To do that, expand the parts of your Statement of Faith with links to blogs or discussions by staff or teachers about them the topics (e.g. why we believe the Bible is the word of God, not just stating that we do), and invitations to interact with people who may have questions and who visit the website.
In the past the church has done outreach in many ways—missionaries braved jungles, oceans, and death; churches sent out mass mailings and volunteers went door-to-door sharing the gospel. Today people search for answers to life, death, and spiritual issues on the internet and if your church has content that gives answers and people who will answer questions and interact with seekers via email and social media, your website can be one of your most effective outreach tools.
Also, be comprehensive about explaining the most important thing about your church, what it means to be a Christian and how to become one (quick—check yours out and see if you have this on your site). If you don't clearly share how to become a Christian, or how to explore what it means to be a Christian, or what ways your church welcomes seekers—talk with the staff about what to put on the site explanations and invitations in ways that fits your church tradition and the ministries it offers to guide people towards a relationship with Jesus. Most importantly, again, be sure you have links to people who will respond if someone has questions or makes a decision.
Though we have one purpose in all our communications—to fully fulfill the Great Commission by helping people come to know Jesus as Savior and grow to spiritual maturity in Him—we have many channels through which we communicate this message and you need to have connections on your website to all of them to appeal to the various audiences your church reaches.
Connected means that website updates and key content are linked to social media sites. But even more important than this is that when you mention something on a social media site that it links back to more information on the website.
It is extremely frustrating to be on the receiving end of social media that advertises and announces "Come to this or that special event!" "Mark this date on your calendar!" "Don't miss out!" but when you go to the website of the church, there is nothing about the event and no place to easily find the details of cost, location, childcare, schedule, and the other critical details necessary to actually connect people with the ministry. This is where a website can answer questions, make the connections and give people the details they need to be part of what you mention on the website.
Consistency means having the same information in the same place and accessible in the same way. Websites are no different from paper-based communications in this way—readers dislike format changes done merely because the person creating the communication got bored laying things out the same old way.
Members come to websites to carry out a task: to find out what time their kids need to be at a meeting; to see what the upcoming sermon topics are; to find out how much the retreat or camp will cost. Seekers and visitors come to find out who you are, what you believe, and if they will be welcomed. Nobody comes to a site looking examples of great design and clever ways of arranging content. And no one is amused because you decided to change things up "to make it look more interesting." Frustration while trying to find something is never interesting.
Decide on website organization that you think will be clear and easy to use and then get feedback on how it serves its purpose. One the best way to do this is to have some people totally unfamiliar with your church test your website while you are watching and see what they have trouble finding. You can also recruit some current church members and have them navigate the new design. Don't ask either group how it looks—people are innately polite and will say nice things no matter what they think.
To get a realistic view of how your site works, give them tasks to do: find out the time of an event; find the audio of the pastor's sermon; find out about adult and children's Bible training; figure out what small group to join and make contact with the group leader. If they have trouble doing these things quickly and easily—work on the organization and test again. If it works, keep it that way for as long as you can. Constantly add new and updated content (discussed in more detail in the next characteristic), but keep the organization consistent.
After all of the above, what sets apart a truly effective church website is that all the information is current. As ministries, people, events change every week, this is a huge challenge, but without it, without your congregation being to trust that your website to be current, you won't accomplish all that you could with your website. As Hebrews 10:36 reminds us:
For you have need of endurance, so that when you have done the will of God you may receive what is promised.
Keeping your website current involves more than the mind-numbing and often frustrating task of being sure that the dates, facts, and schedules are correct every week, when people forget to update you and you have to track down tiny details—it is truly "a long obedience in the same direction." Eugene Peterson
It is also spiritual warfare. Like the soldier who must constantly clean his rifle, check his equipment, making certain that everything is in perfect order for battle—you must make certain all your communications are as current and correct as they can be for the needs of your people. You might never know the spiritual destiny a tiny detail can alter. If you leave out the time of an event, perhaps a spiritual seeker does not connect with the church, a child is left lonely without an opportunity to meet friends, a believer who desperately wants to grow finds no resources. You are never merely dealing with schedules and numbers, you are making available tools for the salvation and growth of eternal souls.
Content-rich, comprehensive, connected, consistent and current—these essentials that make your website more than a pretty face are time-consuming and challenging to do, but if you want to make your website more than a pretty face, but something that helps people find Jesus and grow in their faith, the time spent on each of them is than worth it.