Wednesday, May 7, 2008

Top Ten Tips for Church Websites

#1 - Every church needs a web site.
We are living in the 21st century. We are living in the Information Age. The Internet has become the primary tool used by people to find information on anything and everything. According to the mindset of a large and growing number of people in our society, you don't exist if you can't be found on the Internet. This trend is continuing to grow every year and is here to stay.

#2 - People will visit a website before they visit a church.
Because the Internet has become the primary means people use to research and gather information, it has become increasing likely that potential guests will "check you out" on the web before making a decision on whether or not to visit in person. Also, studies show that people seek out Christian resources online as an alternative for attending church. While this trend certainly does not reflect the goals of Apostolic ministry, it does demonstrate an opportunity to make connections with individuals searching for religious/spiritual content.

#3 - A website is typically the "first impression".
Because a church website is frequently the first point of contact with people in the community, the site may "make or break" the church's chances of drawing new guests. If a website is attractive, professional, current, informative, and compelling the chances of people deciding to visit are significantly increased. If a church website is shoddy, amateurish, outdated, uninformative, and so forth the church may be forfeiting many opportunities to attract new visitors.

First impressions are very real and, therefore, critically important. If you want to drive potential visitors away from your website (and your church), make sure you have: typos, spelling and grammar errors, dead links; error messages, outdated content, annoying 'features' (videos/music that launch automatically and cannot be stopped, etc.), long boring pages of text, silly gimics (blinking text, spinning logos, etc.), ugly color schemes, 'under construction' disclaimers, and so forth.

#4 - Yours is not the only church website that people will visit.
If your church website is not alluring or compelling, rest assured that your otherwise potential visitors will find another one that is. And, they will be much more likely to visit the church with the better website. Like it or not, you are in competition. If the website of your church is sub-par you are fighting a battle you will not win. Checkout the websites of other churches in your area and make sure yours is the best. Your church website doesn't have to be the best in the world, but it should be among the best in your community.

#5 - A "web presence" is not sufficient.
Since the church website is the first impression for many in the community, there is a lot at stake. A "web presence" is not enough. The church website must be attractive, impressive, and interactive. It must have good content and information. While the name, location, and service schedule of the church is critical information, this data alone will not convince or compel people in the community to visit the church. Think "e-ministry" not "web-presence".

Having said this, a simple but elegant web page is certainly better than no web presence at all. But, no web presence at all is probably better than a really bad website.

#6 - A church website must be professionally developed.
A website is a critical outreach and public relations tool for the church of today. It is the primary gateway and point of contact to the community. A website is one of the most important investments a church will make. Therefore, a church website is much too important to be relegated to the hands of a novice.

Many churches have skilled web designers and developers within their congregation that could be recruited to build and maintain a professional site on a volunteer basis. If this method is utilized there must be accountability in place to ensure the job is taken seriously and deadlines are met. The other option is to hire a professional. There is much to know about selecting and hiring a web developer, but that is a subject for another article. In any event, don't succumb to the temptation of settling for a amateur or mediocre website due to cost, hurting someone's feelings, or other reasons. There is too much at stake. You cannot afford to have a cheap and/or poor quality church website.

#7 - Content is critical.
Ascetics and visual appeal are very important elements of an impressive website. While these aspects cannot be overlooked, they are no substitute for good, informative content. Web surfers are more technically knowledgeable and discriminating than in times past. Fancy websites abound on the web today, and we are all accustomed to seeing them. People are no longer impressed by visual bells and whistles alone -- they are looking for pertinent and useful information.

Church websites must contain all the anticipated basic information to satisfy the questions that potential visitors have. If you were considering visiting a church what would you want to know about it? Your church website should address these same questions and concerns.

#8 - A personal touch goes a long way.
A good church website will impact viewers on an interpersonal and emotional level. An attempt should be made to connect with people. This can be done in many ways including: pictures of church members prominently displayed, a brief and professional video welcome message, a 'meet our staff' section, pictures of the church building (inside and out), and so forth. The main idea is to provide a way for potential guests to visualize themselves participating and meeting new people.

On a related note, research shows that the reputation, charisma, and general likability of a Pastor is often the most significant consideration people use to decide whether or not to join a church. With this in mind, the church website should highlight positive characteristics of the Lead/Senior Pastor and other significant contributors to the pastoral staff. Suggestions may include: photos, biography, good sermons (e.g. audio or video clips), ministry experience, accomplishments, and so forth.

#9 - Church members are not the primary target audience.
In case the preceding eight tips haven't made it clear, the primary purpose of a successful church website is to draw, compel, and attract un-churched people, non-Christians, and unfulfilled 'believers' to visit the church with the goal of experiencing a saving relationship with Jesus Christ. While the website can and should provide some specific features and services for the convenience of church members, this is not the primary purpose. Any such features should be added or enhanced only after the primary purpose of reaching for and appealing to the lost is well underway.

With this in mind, there are specific considerations for communicating with an un-churched and/or non-Christian audience. Don't use 'churchy' jargon and 'Christianese' language. Attempt to break the common stereotype that church people are judgmental killjoys by presenting them as normal, fun-loving, and caring. Find creative and sensitive ways to connect with your primary audience with respect to their unmet spiritual needs, desires, and concerns. These are just a few examples. The main point is do not lose focus of your primary target.

#10 - A website is not the end-all outreach tool.
A church website is a fantastic and necessary tool for outreach and evangelism in the 21st century. However, we must not deceive ourselves by believing that it is the only tool we will ever need. It is not the answer to all of your evangelism and outreach needs. A website can not and does not take the place of good old-fashioned personal contact.

Having said that, a church website can play an important role in enhancing the outreach, evangelism, and (sometimes) discipleship endeavors initiated by personal contact. For example, often people have questions that they are too shy or inhibited to ask in person. Obtaining information on a web site may be perceived as a 'safer' way of finding out more about a church once the personal contact has been established.

Therefore, church members should utilize any and all means available to promote the church website as a part of personal outreach endeavors. For example, the URL of the site should be displayed on all 'seed cards' (business cards), tracts and pamphlets, letters (e.g. on the letterhead), fliers, and so forth. It should also be displayed on the church sign, on billboards, in newspaper ads, in the yellow-pages and anywhere else that the church advertises. There are also a number of ways that a church can increase the visibility of their website and the likelihood it will be found online, but that is the subject for another article.

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