Should a Church Have a Website?

Series: Improving your church website

Improving Your Church Website
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[This is my first Web Wise column (October 2004) for Good News Etc.]

Sounds like a ridiculous question in this day and age, eh? Let me explain myself…

There are basically two types of folks who will visit your church’s Web site:

  • potential visitors
  • current attenders

The purpose of this new column is to primarily focus on the first group…how to attract new folks, both believers and unbelievers.

Most people in the U.S. today are using the Web to get info on the things they need to know, like what exactly is that illness the doctor said I have; what’s the closest fabric store; how much does an iPod cost; and what churches are in my area?

I’ve been in enough focus groups to know what has been proven over and over: People judge the quality of a company, store, organization, and, yes, even a church on the quality of their site. If it has a professional, inviting, consistent, and pleasing design and is easy to navigate, then most people will stay there to explore more. If it doesn’t, they won’t . Period.

In other words, you only have one chance to make a first impression.

Yes, the overall state of church Web sites has improved dramatically over the last couple of years. But, frankly, we have a long way to go – especially the sites of small- and mid-sized churches.

For whatever reason, these churches have not seen fit to commit a reasonable amount of money to develop a decent site to represent them. In the last few years I’ve talked to many pastors and youth workers, and when I ask them about their Web site, I have never gotten a positive response. The usual response—with head hung low—is, “Our site is really embarrassing.”

Isn’t that a shame? Especially since there are so many potential visitors checking out their site, and coming to the same conclusion: “How embarrassing!”

So what can our church do?

I think the best (and cheapest) thing to do is to go to the sites of large churches – ones that have invested in a professional Web site. See what they’ve done. How do they present their goals and mission? How have they organized their sections? How do they utilize photos?

You may not know it, but you’re doing a “best practices study.” In other words what are the most effective methods for presenting a church on the Web? How can you adapt these practices to your site?

A word of warning: Just because you may like the way a site does something doesn’t mean that it’s the right thing for your site. There may be regional, demographic, or other differences that could mean disaster if you try it. And it may be something that is not effective for the user experience. In other words, you may understand what they did, but the site’s visitors do not.

So, to answer the question heading this column: It depends. If a church has an “embarrassing” site, it might consider putting a simple, one-page site in its place, with only the church’s vital information for visitors. Gateway Church in El Cajon has a perfect example of this – hopefully it’ll still be up when you read this. (However, never put “Under Construction” on a page! Better to not have that page then frustrate a site user that way.) If a church is just starting to work on a new site, they would be wise to see what good church sites do and/or hire help.

I’ve been leading Web site development projects for over nine years – mostly for Christian events, training organizations, camps, publications, speakers, and stores. I’ve focused on learning these best practices in the Internet world, with an emphasis on usability (or, how usable is a site). There are many simple techniques that can be employed to ensure a site’s ability to retain visitors. That’s what I want to focus on in this column. And we’ll look at some cool things other churches and ministries are doing on the Web.

I’m also leading the Web site redesign for my own church, Community Covenant Church in El Cajon. (The current site (yuck!) is over 6 years old – that’s over 100 years in Internet time!) So I’ll be able to share some of our experiences with you as well.

Mike Atkinson has three kids with birthdays in October, is the president/founder of uneekNet (helping your organization succeed on the web); and runs a daily humor email list at Mikey’s Funnies.