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Are Churches Missing a Golden Opportunity?

Series: Improving your church website

Improving Your Church Website
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[I'm going to start doing a column in one of the monthly Christian newspapers here in San Diego, Good News Etc. They decided to start with an interview first so folks could get to know me. Here tis.]

An Interview with Mike Atkinson

The World Wide Web is more than a collection of computer files linked together on the Internet. It is the 21st century’s version of a bazaar – where just about anything (and some would say everything) can be found.

What can that kind of accessibility mean to churches? Is there a place for the Good News amongst everything else available in cyberspace? Is the Web an incredible opportunity for churches to connect with the unsaved? How would a church standout from the crowd?

To answer those and other Internet questions good news etc. sat down with www-guru Mike Atkinson. A native San Diegan, he’s worked with Christian organizations for over 25 years, and was instrumental in increasing the visibility and reach of Youth Specialties in El Cajon as their Internet Director – pioneering their online resources back in those days of yesterday (1995).

Atkinson is now an independent Internet advisor with his company uneekNet.com, which helps Christian ministries do the Internet right. He will also be writing a column on the Internet, beginning next month in good news etc.

Our interview was conducted in the waning days of July on – where else? – the Internet.


Why is it important for a church to have a quality Web site?

Whether we like it or not, we live in a noisy society. There are tons of things competing for everyone’s attention (ads, sporting events, new products, you name it). This culture affects how people evaluate and choose churches as well.

If someone wants to check out a church - maybe they’re moving into town, they want to change churches, or they’re spiritually seeking - many, many people are now going to a church’s Web site. What is that site portraying to them? It sounds crass, but in business terms this is called new customer acquisition.

Then you have folks who attend the church or who are members that need a site that gives them the information and tools to stay informed and involved. That’s customer retention.

Studies show that the better the site, the better the acquisition and retention. That applies to churches as well.

What is the current state of church Web sites?

Well, I could be kind and say that looking backwards, they’ve come a long way. And that’d be right. In fact, there are some great sites, but looking at the current state of the Web as a whole, they are usually woefully lacking.

In what ways are the church sites lacking?

In two ways. The first is what we see as a visitor. The design is usually unappealing. The content is outdated. The sections aren’t organized or presented well.

Can you give us some examples?

I was looking at a bunch of San Diego church Web sites last week. Many didn’t even have an e-mail address for someone to contact them! Many of them did have addresses — but after sending them an e-mail many bounced back as a bad address. And one had what’s called an auto-responder (as soon as it received my e-mail, it sends a standard message, like “out of the office” right back. The one from this church said, “This is an auto-responder. I’ll never see your message.” Really. That’s all it said.

Some sites had homepages that seemed a mile long. That’s been proven to turn away visitors. There were many, many other problems.

Is there some good news?

Absolutely! There are some excellent church sites. Of course, some of your larger churches can afford really nice sites, like The Rock and Horizon North Coast. But some smaller churches have very good sites as well, like The Church at Rancho Bernardo and Chula Vista Presbyterian. It doesn’t have to cost an arm and a leg to accomplish.

In what other ways are so many of the church sites lacking?

The other way is that the site is not set up to be functional for the church. They can’t easily make changes to the design or content.

Can you give us some examples?

I constantly see sites with information about an event “coming up” in, say, October 2003. Or the site is simply a two-page online brochure, with no helpful or functional information for the visitor - not even a map.

I went to a site that had the church’s name in the Web address and at the top of the homepage, but all the info in it is about a city in Tennessee! And there was an ad for 0nline gambling!

How can that happen?

Many churches are tempted by companies that offer free Web sites. But you get what you pay for. In this case, the church probably gave up using the site and the company took it over for other purposes — purposes that certainly weren’t consistent with the church’s goals or image.

How can a church know what to put on their site?

The site needs to follow what are called “best practices” in the computer/Internet world. This means that there are standards that have been established that people have come to expect.

Examples?

Simple things like “Contact Us” and “About Us.” Most people expect those on every site and look for them in certain locations on the page that many of the big sites have established. People expect simple navigation — easy ways to get to the information they need.

How many times do you go to a site and say, “Gee, I think I’ll just spend an hour or two on this site to find what I need.” No, if folks can’t find it, they either leave immediately or they are forced to stay and waste their time finding what is only on your site (like information on an upcoming event). The folks who have to stay are not very happy with the experience, and thus, the church. Those who leave are just gone.

It has been proven over and over that sites with poor navigation lose money for companies. That principle can hold true for a church as well.

What about volunteers doing the church site?

Unfortunately you usually get what you pay for there, as well. Sure, there are exceptions. But that typically isn’t the rule. Even if you get a great site from a volunteer, I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard about that person leaving the church and the church doesn’t even know how to get to the site! They’re stuck!

Don’t some churches hire agencies to create their sites?

Yes, and many of them are stunning to look at. But too many of them are unusable. They tried to be so cutting edge that you can’t find the information you need. The agency has created a site for their portfolio, not for the good of the people visiting the site.

Then what’s the best solution for a church?

The church needs a site that looks good and functions even better. By following best practices and “borrowing” what they like from other church sites - and even mainstream sites - they can create a friendly, inviting experience online.

If a church doesn’t have the means to have a site like that built, I highly recommend using a service that provides a tool you can use on your Web browser to easily build a site with calendars, articles, photos, and other cool things, besides the usual stuff you have to have. And you don’t need to know the languages and codes to build sites. These programs usually charge from $50-200 a month, depending on what your church needs.

For instance, the more expensive packages include a store where you can sell stuff like T-shirts, camp registrations, books, anything. You can also take donations online.

But the most important thing is that these services leave you with a site that anyone you assign can get into and make changes to the text, as easy as it is in Microsoft Word. It has to be easy to change!

What can we expect from your new good news etc. column?

Starting next month, I’ll be looking at issues and techniques from the Internet world that Christian organizations can be using for their sites to make them more effective as an evangelistic tool.


Mike Atkinson can be reached at 619/250-0133 or for the technically adventurous, try his email: mike@uneeknet.com.

The Good News, Etc. interview was conceived and conducted by contributing writer Stu Smith.