Your Church’s Digital Front Door: Choosing your online presence

These church website findings may surprise you

You’re spending a weekend in an area where you don’t know anyone. Or you’re sending your child off to a large university known as a party school. Either way, you want to connect with a church. But which one? If you’re like more and more people these days, you go online.

Congregational research by Monk Development found that of people who’d been attending a church for less than a year, 27 percent had found that church online. And 61 percent of that group said the church website had been 'somewhat to very important' in their decision to attend the church.

Yet before rushing into technical discussions about creating or redesigning a church website, consider this caution from Drew Goodmanson, Monk Development CEO and co-founder of Kaleo Church in San Diego, California. “Pretty websites are a waste of time and money because they are not enough,” he often says.  

Instead, he and other church communications experts say you should agree on your main message and main target groups, before choosing how to deliver your message to your intended audiences.

What’s your shared vision?

Remember that the reason for being online should not be “Everyone’s on Facebook” or “Cool pastors blog and Twitter” or “A flashy website will show that our church is more with it than you’d think.” Internet technology and social media are simply tools for communicating your church’s ministry vision, just as you might already be doing through adopt-a-block prayer visits, a church bulletin, newspaper ads, or outdoor signs.

It’s also possible that the tools you’re already using are communicating a scattershot approach. Before adding another medium or message to the mix, take time to agree on and write out your church’s goals for internet ministry. These web strategy goals should align with your church’s overall mission. Goodmanson has found, however, that getting staff, ministry leaders, and congregation members to agree on core ministry goals is often the trickiest piece of developing a web strategy.

Because shared vision is crucial, the internet ministry team should include a staff member with decision making authority, according to Dave Bourgeios, a Biola University information systems professor. He founded Genesys11 to help churches improve their internet ministries. His research shows that churches with written goals report more internet ministry success than those who skip that step.

First Christian Reformed Church (CRC) in Grand Haven, Mich., is becoming known in its lakeside community for environmental outreach. The church is redoing its website to highlight its commitment to creation care. Last year First CRC collected more than 200 gently used appliances for people who can’t afford  new appliances. The new website will, among other things, make it easier to connect with donors and recipients.

Who are you trying to reach?

However your congregation expresses its mission, you want to reach and connect real people with each other and with God. Your web strategy should address visitors as well as “regulars.”

Describe your church thoroughly. Does your website assume a level of knowledge that visitors don’t have? If yours is among the scores of Peace Lutheran churches, how deep into your site must visitors click to discover that you’re located in Hurst, Texas? Potential guests won’t know, unless you explain, that Royal Rangers is a Pentecostal youth ministry for boys or that GEMS stands for Girls Everywhere Meeting the Savior.

Use your homepage to prominently direct visitors. Long Hollow Baptist Church in Hendersonville, Tenn., put its “I’m New” tab next to its home tab. “I’m New” links to the church’s gospel summary and core beliefs, worship places and times, brief staff bios, driving directions, and other important information for visitors. Grace Episcopal Church in Gainesville, Georgia has its “Newcomers & Visitors” tab next to the home tab. Website visitors can read sample worship bulletins, learn about Christian education for all ages, and see photos that show who comes and what they wear to church.

Jerod Clark says that most people peruse a dozen church websites before walking through a physical church door. That’s why he describes himself as “a fan of good welcome videos on church websites,” especially two-minutes-or-less clips that show the church from parking lot to sanctuary and include a pastor and people of all ages in Sunday action. (Clark is the Church Juice project leader for ReFrame Media, the English language outreach of Back to God Ministries International.)

Both visitors and members seek online sermon access and ways to serve or connect. Church administrator Mike VanLaan says that web redesign made a dramatic difference for Friendship CRC in Byron Center, Mich. “We rewrote homepage content and added easy links to what visitors might be interested in. We made our audio/video area much easier to get to and have had many more video views and plays. Also, our ‘My FCRC’ section requires a login and has been a great communication tool for members,” he explains.

How will you deliver your message?

Dave Bourgeois recommends creating a paper (not online) survey to find out how and when your congregation members use the internet and social media. Ask how often they go online to search for information, check email, view or upload photos, do online banking, or watch videos. What mobile devices do they use for text messaging or web browsing? Ask which features they’d use if offered on your church website, and use survey results to profile your target users.Bourgeios’ research found that 52 percent of organizations that collected data ahead of time reported internet ministry success, compared to 26 percent who skipped that step.

On most weekends at ChangePoint Church in Anchorage, Alaska, a third of committed members are enjoying outdoor recreation instead of worshiping. When communications staff noticed how many web visitors accessed ChangePoint’s site from a mobile device, they downsized the print bulletin, streamlined their cluttered website, and launched a mobile app using the company The Church App. The result? Online sermon listens soared, and members said they felt more connected to the congregation.

Telkwa CRC is one of three churches in Telkwa, a village in northwest British Columbia. Pastor Stanley Groothof notes in the Church & Web forum that since his church is “already quite visible,” few people would search for it online. Most visitors come because a neighbor invited them. Instead of a church website, Telkwa CRC uses a free Facebook page to post news, prayer requests, nursery and offering schedules, short videos, and links to Groothof’s blog.

Learn More

Take advantage of online resources or hire a consultant from Church Juice, Genesys11, or Monk Development. Hear Jerod Clark speak about church websites and Twitter at the Elmhurst GO conference, November 19, 2011, in metro Chicago.

Use or adapt Dave Bourgeios’s church internet usage survey (Microsoft Word document).

Internet Evangelism Day offers a free online tool for evaluating websites (scroll down to see).

Many churches use Clover, Faithwebsites, or Wordpress to develop their first website.

Connect online with others who have questions and answers about developing or improving their congregation’s online presence: Church & Web on CRCNA The Network; Church Marketing Lab discussion group on Flickr; and (don’t be put off by the name) Church Marketing Sucks.

Start A Discussion 

Feel free to print and distribute these stories for your staff, media, or outreach ministry meetings. These questions will help your church explore how to develop or improve your online presence:

  • Make a list of questions you would have before visiting a new church. Evaluate your church website in light of those questions. What do you notice?
  • What first steps could you take to make your church’s online presence more useful for visitors?
  • What first steps could you take to connect your church members through online technology and social media? Which members wouldn’t be able to participate?

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