Church websites keep visitors in mind
By Liz Applegate
Barbara Copher of St. Louis, Mo., has checklist in hand as she begins researching the Internet, hoping this will make her decision easier. Browsing through websites, she makes her choice.
Ms. Copher is a recently divorced mom of two teenagers and in many ways starting over in a new life.
She is not shopping online for a car or new appliance. She is shopping for a church—a place to attend worship on the upcoming Sunday and eventually a place to call her church home.
“I would like to know more about a place I will be walking in to, “ says Ms. Copher.
“It can be daunting visiting a church where you already feel like an outsider,” she says. “I don’t need to stand out any more than I already feel I do.”
Jim Carrillo, a member of First United Methodist Church Plano, a suburb of Dallas, Texas, remembers searching for a church online when he and his family moved from Atlanta, Ga.
“We didn’t know anyone [in Plano, Texas], so it was part of our plan to get plugged into a church as quickly as possible, “ says Mr. Carrillo. “I did quite a bit of digging on the web before we even walked through the doors.”
While some congregations may feel these are isolated incidents of visitors searching online for a church, research suggests otherwise.
According to the Pew Internet & American Life Project, nearly two-thirds of adults who use the Internet in the U.S. used it for faith-related matters. Nearly 82 million Americans had used the Internet to find information to attend a religious service.
And it’s not just youth and young adults who are using the Internet. In a survey last year, Pew found that Internet users ages 33-72 were more likely than younger users to look online for religious information.
Patrick Steil of ChurchBuzz.com, a website development company that specializes in helping churches build effective sites, believes these rising statistics shouldn’t be ignored.
“I have seen statistics that 80 percent of church shoppers do so first online before becoming a member of a church,” said Mr. Steil, a member of Lake Cities United Methodist Church in the Dallas area.
“Some may not agree that churches should use the Internet to share their message, but people need to remember that visitors will be looking for more information in one way or another,” he says. “It’s the consumer culture we live in now.”
Mr. Steil sees his role as a ministry and wants churches to view their websites as the same.
“It’s how you can reach out to your community. What can your church be for them? What resource can you provide? You can use it [the website] to help others—to be the church for the community,” says Mr. Steil.
The Foundation for Evangelism, an affiliate of the United Methodist General Board of Discipleship, has tracked the attendance of thousands of churches and identified thriving churches—those that have grown 20 percent within the last five years.
Though the websites cannot solely be credited with the continued growth, Jack Ewing, executive director of the Foundation, feels they have helped shape the churches.
“Is it the website that helps the church be proactive with good evangelism, or is it the church’s overall clarity of mission and vision that is translated into a website?” he asks. “I think there is a correlation with the quality of the website and the fact the church is thriving.”
Dr. Ewing believes churches should view their websites as an evangelism tool and an extension of the mission of the United Methodist Church.
The staff at Kearney (Neb.) First UMC, one of the congregations on the vitally growing list, knows first-hand the importance of a church website.
“We had one family moving from Louisiana who researched us online, decided this was the church they wanted to be a part of, before they even visited,” says Michael Evans, co-director of youth and assimilation.
“Their research led them to choose our church and they asked for a membership transfer before they even moved here.”
The websites of the vibrant churches are different in many respects but show similarities: Though they varied in technical appeal, they each had up-to-date information and were user-friendly to a casual browser.
Many churches feel overwhelmed with constant technology upgrades, knowing effective websites need to be high on design and graphics. But website aesthetics are secondary to updated information, says Mr. Carrillo.
“To me, outdated information either meant that the church didn’t have much going on or the church was out of touch,” he said. “The website didn’t have to be flashy and modern, but at least they were making a priority to get their information out to the community.”
The Carrillos eventually chose FUMC Plano, based the quality of the information and the activities available for their family.
At Kearney First UMC, staff actually cut back on technology used for their calendar function, says Mr. Evans. At one time, the church website’s calendar would update automatically to members’ Blackberries.
“It was a great function to have,” he said, “but it was labor intensive to keep updated. So sometimes people wouldn’t get the updates in time.”
The church decided to go back to a daily list of events, choosing a technology that staff could more easily maintain and keep up-to-date.
Vibrant churches also had websites that were user-friendly for visitors. Most had a section to answer common questions for visitors, such as worship service times, information about the nursery and Sunday school, and even a map showing how to maneuver the church campus.
The hardest part of designing a website, according to Alan Gill, contemporary worship director at St. James UMC in Greenville, N.C., is to provide information the church body needs as well as to anticipate help for those who need a church home.
“All of evangelism is that way,” Mr. Gill says. “You want to be true to your flock, but you also want to make it attractive and draw in the seekers that are trying to find a place.”
Dr. Ewing says the best sites are “clutter-free” and quickly give visitors a feel for the church by walking them through what to expect if they visit the congregation.
Ms. Copher agrees that those points are essential for people searching the Internet for a church, many of whom want to know what their experience will be like before they even step foot in a physical worship space.
“I would like to know what to expect before I visit—what they believe, the time of worship services, what I need to wear,” Ms. Copher said. “I feel like if they want me there, that kind of information is easy to find on the website.”
But while many church websites lack needed information, Mr. Evans found that Kearney First UMC actually had too much information on the Internet.
“We had hundreds of pages of too much detail,” he said. “We had the classes and who taught them. We wanted to get as much information out there as possible but realized you can go too far with that as well.”
The ministry team at Kearney experimented with what worked best and eventually developed a system of both static pages and those that get updated regularly. The church’s homepage, or first page of the website, now typically changes two or three times a week.
Travis Abercrombie was hired in February as a worship leader at Mauldin UMC in Mauldin, S.C., and took on the additional responsibility of making the website relevant for people looking for a church, including posting more photos and providing more thorough information on classes and ministries the church offers.
“I was that passionate about it, that it needed to be updated and given a modern look,” he said. “You have a lot of non-denominational churches that spend a lot of money on technology, so as United Methodists, we need to step up our game a little bit.”
Dr. Ewing cautions that a good website will not make a church successful, but it can help shape the view the public has of the church and the denomination.
“We should be developing websites that connote quality, quality in ministry: Here is what we stand for and this is what you expect to find,” he said.
“If we were able to get churches to create a website not just for the sake of creating a website but helping to clarify who we [United Methodists] are and where we are trying to go, it would be a wonderful strategic planning format to use.”
Mr. Abercrombie at Mauldin UMC reminds United Methodist church staff that they shouldn’t think their job is done after the website is built.
“Obviously, when visitors get there on Sunday mornings, your greeting team and your congregation [still] need to be open and gracious,” says Mr. Abercrombie.
“It’s all about the worship experience, and that can begin with a good first impression.”
Suggestions for church websites
Make sure important information is easily found.
· Location—including city and state
· Contact information
· Worship times
Have a specific “visitors area” to answer questions. Think like a visitor!
· What is the dress code for Sunday worship?
· What nursery-safety policies do you have in place?
· How are your two (or three, or four) worship services different?
Don’t use “insider” language that non-members would not understand.
· No acronyms.
· Use proper names for ministries: i.e., Children’s Ministry, not “Sonbeams.”
Be clear, concise and consistent.
· Remember, most people scan websites for information.
· Be consistent in how you describe events, ministries, programs.
· Use the 3-click rule: important information should be found in 3-clicks or less.
· Good rule of thumb: Write your content, and then reduce by 25 percent and then reduce by 25 percent again.
· Put important information at the beginning of sentences and paragraphs.
· Use bullets whenever possible.
· Use contrasting colors for lettering and backgrounds.
· Make sure font size is legible—and not too small.
Include photos of people and activities.
· It’s about emotion and connection.
· Get permission to use photos; develop a photo-use policy, especially for children.
Don’t overuse logos, clipart
· Not every ministry or class needs a logo.
· Keep your website clean with lots of white space for ease of reading.
Don’t use Flash animation.
· Smart phones (iPhones and Blackberries) cannot display Flash, and the number of users accessing the web via Smart phones is growing everyday.
Realize that that your church website is a dynamic entity.
· The website is never “complete.” It should go through periodic changes.
· Be open to suggestions from members and visitors.
· Ask visitors in welcoming classes or new members for suggestions.
Published originally United Methodist Reporter.