Friday, November 27, 2015

How to / How Not to Make a Church Website (guest post!)

I’ve been visiting a lot of church websites recently. Probably not as many as Dean and Mindy (who, from here on out, I’ll be calling Dad and Mom, which I find it more comfortable and accurate, seeing as I’m their daughter), but quite a few.

I moved from Pennsylvania to Washington state last July, and even though my parents have been playing at church hunting, I’ve been doing the real thing, and I can say from the front lines that it can be exhausting.
Honestly, the worst part of the process isn’t finding churches or meeting a whole group of new people each week or even wading through the sermons (I’m looking at you hour-long-sermon-with-no-real-point). The hardest part is that every time I walk through a church’s doors, I have no idea what I’m getting into.

“But wait!” the hypothetical reader shouts. “What about their websites?
And to some degree, the hypothetical reader is completely right. We live in the 21st century, and even the smallest congregation can put together the funds to get a domain name and slap together a few pages about what they believe and when they meet. Theoretically, this should be helpful.In practice, though, every church website ends up the same. If I had to break it into to three components, here they are: 

About section -- This is here to assure you that they are a Bible based church that believes in Jesus, the Trinity and all that good stuff.
Wear whatever’s comfortable” -- Most churches that feel they’re hip enough to have a website want to make sure you know you’re welcome at their church no matter what you’re wearing. Some do include a note that many of their congregants still dress semi-formally, just to give you a heads up, but then reassure you that they will welcome you no matter what you wear.
Service time and location -- This is generally why I go to a church website. Although I check for the other two, it’s usually safe to assume they’re there, but this is the essential one. On some websites it’s the hardest to find, nestled away in some weird contact page, beneath three paragraphs describing child care. Just in case any church website planners are out there, I have a personal request: Please put this on the about page or the front page. If I can’t find it, I can’t go to your church.


Notice the things that aren’t on this list of common elements: service length, general congregation age, church size, style of worship, whether or not your church is filled with unrepentant serial killers (OK, I can assume on that last one).


Because websites are so easy to make with tools like Squarespace, Wordspace or any of their other fine competitors, the site for a church with six members might look very similar to a mega church’s site. (I once visited a church that, by their good site and decent signage, I expected a large crowd -- only to find about 9 people and a pastor with a guitar.) This makes websites almost completely useless. Which brings me to marketing.

It feels weird to talk about good marketing for a church, but I feel like it’s not a bad mindset to use. Bad marketing gets as many people as possible to look at your thing. Good marketing helps people figure out whether or not they want your thing, then brings them in. So here are a few things I’d love to see in a church’s about section:

Age -- Does your congregation have a lot of families? Let parents know, they’ll be happy to know their kids will be able to make friends. Do you have an older congregation with traditional hymns? That’s great! It’ll bring in both nice old people, and the younger people who love nice old people will be there too (at my college, some of the girls loved their church full of blue haired ladies since the students got treated like extra grandchildren).

Worship -- Do you have a top notch band who can provide a great worship experience, even for people who don’t like to sing? Advertise it. Do you sing the great old hymns and invite people to sing along as loudly as they can, even if they’re off key? Tell me that too.

Size
 -- Big churches are a little easier to identify; they usually have multiple services, but if you’re a small church or especially a very small church, I’d love knowing that. Some people might be intimidated by quiet singing and empty pews, but other people would love the community you’re able to build when you know everybody at your church.

Typical service length -- This is just practical: will I be there all afternoon? Let me know so I can plan accordingly. Some churches do actually put this in already, and I love them for it.

Style
-- How demonstrative am I supposed to be at church? Now that congregations are getting a little more shy about talking about which sect they’ve chosen--or if I don’t recognize the name of their branch of Christianity--it’s harder to tell what I’m getting into. Smith Bible Church might be a quiet Presbyterian place where everyone keeps their hands on their laps, but Jones Community Church down the street loves throwing their hands up in the air and pausing services to let the congregants share their visions or prophesy. Neither of their websites will say a word about this.

Politics -- Are you, in the first place, at all political? Do you feel like your church is the place to rise up for important causes that you feel are related to your faith, or would you rather keep the politics at home? Where do you fall on the political scale? Additionally, national politics aside, does your church tend to be more liberal or conservative when it comes to their theology?

Photos -- These might be the most important. I’ve really appreciated sites that have at least one photo of worship (staff pictures don’t count). Pictures answer a lot of the questions I mentioned above without awkwardly saying “We’re a big mega church” or “We’re all old.”


I’m going to backtrack here. To some degree, the grab bag element to churches can be a good thing. Over the last year and a half, I’ve spent over ten months church hunting (here in Washington and in Pennsylvania as well). Because I don’t know what I’m getting into, I’ve seen a lot of churches I wouldn’t have otherwise, and some of them were great, and some of them were fun horror stories to tell my friends.

The problem, though, is the more bad fits I find, the more exhausting the search becomes, and the harder it is to try another church. Blind dating churches who aren’t quite the right fit wears you down just like any bad blind date would.

Obviously, this solution wouldn’t fix everything. The church I left because the pastor seemed to think the fact that nonbelievers can do nice things too was some amazing revelation won’t put that on its website. The church I probably won’t pick because their pastor’s sermon put me to sleep wouldn’t be able to anticipate that on their website either, but these suggestions might make the waters of church hunting a little less murky.

So, churches: use your websites. Tell me who you actually are. I’d love to meet you.

UPDATE 12/9/15 Paige just found a church website that she says "tells you exactly what you're getting, and I appreciate that. Their list of 'Rejected Church Slogans' has more personality in it than every church website I've seen combined."  Check it out! 

Paige Lowe graduated from a Knox College in Illinois a year and a half ago. Since then, she's lived in two communities on opposite sides of the country. She's sought out church homes in each place...but it hasn't been easy.