A View from the Pew: What Is Your Church’s Website Saying?

By now even the most stubbornly resistant to technology among us have navigated the World Wide Web and have expectations of how it should work.

Churches learned to leverage this communications channel as a primary medium to let people know they exist and what they are about. However, as with all innovations, the second or even third and sometimes fourth iteration can lose its impact over time if it’s not carefully managed. The design and content must be kept up to date, and the overall message visitors to the site receive must be created with intentionality.

It’s easy to lose sight of the purpose of your website, especially when the priority imperceptibly shifts to convenience.

I’ve been thinking about church websites a lot lately because we’ve been looking at our church’s site with fresh eyes. What we discovered is that most of our members never look at it, myself included. We get the information we need from the weekly email, social media accounts, or the worship bulletin. As a result, the content in some sections has become stale, particularly after the pandemic when everything was a little haywire.

It felt like we just redesigned our site, but when we started digging in, it had been nearly eight years. Time has a way of getting away from you.

As we reconsider the message our website is sending, here are the questions I am asking:

What do people see when they come to our site? Your site should have more pictures than words. The images of the church you choose should help someone considering attending know what to expect. Your first order of business is replacing outdated images with more current photos.

Many churches have at least one photography hobbyist or even a professional among its membership. Ask them to bring their camera and take pictures of everything that happens for a week or two. Aim for a good mix of facility images, action shots, and close ups.

Interesting detail shots also work well to spruce up headers and other elements of the design that otherwise would be just words. Faces are inviting and convey as much as pictures of the buildings. Remember to ask permission from your members before posting their photos. This goes double for photos of children. Some parents do not want their kids’ photos online for a host of reasons that should be respected. It’s best to have them sign a photo release form that you should keep on file. Parents or guardians can sign for their minors.

How does our site show our worship? During the pandemic shutdown, many churches developed the ability to stream their services online, even if they hadn’t before. Including video of your services on your site will help people get to know you in a way that will make them feel more comfortable about visiting. It is essential in today’s world, in which not everyone has attended church at some point in their lives.

Is it obvious where we are located? The purpose of the website is to introduce would-be attenders to your family of faith, and the first step is visiting. To do that, they need to be able to find you. Make sure your address and phone number are clearly visible on all pages. The footer is a good place for that information, and a directions page isn’t a bad idea either.

Is our calendar up to date? Lack of attention to your schedule of services, opportunities for the week, and special events will discourage web users from visiting your church. If you don’t care about those details, it raises the question of what else you aren’t concerned about. Again, if getting people to visit is the point, they need to know when to show up.

What are we asking people to do when they visit? I’m finding more and more that people like a church that gives them an opportunity to serve. If you make ministry opportunities and mission needs clear on your site, people will understand that you exist not just for yourselves but for reaching out to others. It’s a good idea to set the expectations of serving up front.

Who are our members? You don’t have to publish your member photo directory publicly, but be sure the site accurately reflects who your members are. If you rely on stock photos purchased online, you can be creating a false impression of your membership. No one likes a bait-and-switch. Feature your actual staff and members on your site. A common fear is that your congregation will not appear “young and with it.” Don’t sacrifice the truth for something you think will have mass appeal.

Are we using the right words? Try to avoid jargon and overly churchy language. Plain English works best, if you’re an English-speaking congregation. If you’re not or if your church has a mission congregation of another language group, be sure your content is in that language or at least has a link to a version of the site in that language.

Can people tell what our church believes? Speaking of words, how you describe your beliefs is essential. You don’t have to get granular here, but be sure to let web users know what kind of church you are. This is even more important today when your church’s denomination may not be in your name. If what you convey on your website isn’t matched by people’s experience in person, they will never come back. Trust matters on the web as much or more as in person.

Managing a website is digital agriculture. It’s a daily task that needs constant attention. Ignoring it prevents you from using all the tools at your disposal to tell your story, and the story of Christ, to your community.

Lance Wallace is a Baptist layperson and member of Parkway Baptist Church in Johns Creek, GA, does media relations and issues management at his day job, and blogs at newsouthessays.com.

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