If your website is not attracting Sunday visitors and engaging your members, you’re not alone.
Two out of three churches consider their websites ineffective, according to a study by David T. Bourgeois, Ph.D., associate professor at Biola University’s Crowell School of Business.
That’s the bad news.
Here’s the worse news: If your website is not working for your church, it may actually be working against it. Fair or not, everything about your church’s website reflects on your ministry. If your website is poorly organized, dull, unattractive, outdated or incomplete, it creates the impression that your church also is disorganized, dull, dowdy, out of touch, or unable to communicate the most basic information — and who would want to go to a church like that? Whether your church actually is any of those things is beside the point; it’s the impression you’re making that counts, as the impression affects your church’s ability to attract newcomers through its website.
Now, here is the good news: You can fix what is broken. Here are 11 key ways a church website can work for you (or 11 ways your website might be working against you).
1. Clearly communicates what makes your church unique.
Just as there is no one else in the world exactly like you, there is no other spiritual community exactly like yours — and that is your church’s point of power in the world. “What is the unique promise that your church offers people? This is the million-dollar question. If you can answer this clearly and concisely, and in a way that is meaningful to the people in your community, you are ahead of 95 percent of churches,” says Rod Arnold in What Smart Churches Know. If you have not identified your church’s unique promise (which always reflects, at least in part, your geographic location), read Phil Cooke’s Branding Faith: Why Some Churches and Nonprofits Impact Culture and Others Don’t. You’ll learn how to discover your ministry’s point of power and how to use it to create a thriving church.
2. Tells the truth.
Whatever you present on the web about your ministry will create expectations, which then must be fulfilled when new people come to your services. If you put your church out there as a warm and welcoming place, but your ushers are not trained and speak only to people they already know, then you have created a credibility gap. Your visitors will spot it immediately and wonder, “What else isn’t true?”
Of course, your members can spot a misrepresentation just as quickly and begin to wonder: “Which church do I belong to — the one I attend on Sunday mornings or the one I see on the web?”
“Never promise anything you cannot deliver – you may get people in the door, but they will not return if you don’t perform the way you say you do.” — Ministry Marketing Companion, Association of Unity Churches (now Unity Worldwide Ministries)
To create an effective website, promote and build on your strengths. Focus on inspiring teaching or the wonderful intimacy of small gatherings; on the opportunity to make a big difference in the life of a small church; or on the church’s commitment to serving people who have had a hard time fitting in elsewhere. Let your true light shine, and those who are meant to find your church will find it irresistible.
3. Welcomes visitors and answers their questions.
All church websites serve two audiences. People looking for a new church home are the primary audience; existing congregants comprise a second (but also important) audience. Studies have confirmed that most people looking for a new church home decide where to go next Sunday morning based on what they find on the web. A study by Drew Goodmanson, pastor of Kaleo Church in San Diego, revealed that “77 percent of people attending church less than three months said the website was important in their decision to attend.” (You can read the full report, based on responses of 70,000 church members, here.)
Effective church websites clearly welcome visitors and serve them by answering common questions, such as: Where are you located? What time are Sunday services? How long does a service last? Do I need to dress up? Do you have Sunday School for my children? Where can I park? When this kind of information is packaged into a prominently displayed “I’m New” page, it is the second most-visited page on a church’s website (after the home page), Goodmanson’s study revealed.
4. Is easy to navigate.
The most basic information (church name, location, Sunday service times) must be easy to find on the home page, and all other information on the website must be easy to locate, as well. Your visitors must be able to see what’s available on your site from any page — and be able to go there with just one click. Because millions of sites on the web are well-designed, web users have little patience for sites that are not.
5. Is always current and correct.
Do you ever check a newspaper for movie times, a restaurant’s website for its hours, or any source in print or on the web for information you need? And if it turns out the information you need is missing or wrong, what impression do you get?
When what you publish on your website is outdated, incomplete or just plain wrong, here is the message delivered, loudly and clearly: We do not care enough about you, our visitor, to give you reliable information.
That is not the message you want to send, so take time to get everything right and keep everything current. It matters.
6. Provides complete information.
When creating content for your church website, write primarily for visitors, not for members, so that your church online is both visitor-friendly and user-friendly. It is not enough to simply republish information from church bulletins and newsletters on your website, as you’re likely to leave out most of the information that visitors to your website need to know. For instance, consider the following announcement from a recent church bulletin, also published on the same church’s website:
June 4th Men’s Fishing Trip. Sign-up sheet on the bulletin board. We need to know how many are going.
When this kind of announcement appears on a church website, it suggests that the church is insular — living in its own world and not really open to newcomers — because the information newcomers need is just not there. Fortunately, this appearance is easy to change, simply by adding missing information. For any entry on a church web calendar or any announcement about a class, meeting, social gathering or any other event, answer these questions: Who, what, when, where, why, how, and how much? Then, always give the visitor to your website a way to respond or request more information, right now.
Here is a visitor-friendly version of the above announcements:
Men’s Fishing Trip! If you love fishing or just want to get away with the guys, join us for a five-hour chartered fishing trip on June 4. We will meet at 8 a.m. and carpool from the church to Muskegon, where we’ll catch a boat to go fishing for salmon, steelhead and trout. We’ll be sharing the charter cost ($375) and the cost of gas for the trip. Sign up by May 15 if you want to go. To reserve your spot or get more information, please contact us. (A link to a contact form should be provided.)
7. Is integrated with social networks people already use.
Both newcomers and existing members rank “connecting with others” high on their lists of things they want to do through church websites, Goodmanson’s study revealed. “The rise of social media sites, such as Facebook and Twitter, has trained users to seek online interaction with friends and family. Church members now desire this online experience for church.” When a church’s website includes a link to its Facebook Page, it’s much easier for people in the church — and potential visitors — to get acquainted, share what they love about your ministry, praise a recent Sunday service and do all those things they’re already doing on Facebook.
8. Provides free podcasts of Sunday services.
At least three studies have noted the popularity of podcasts. One-fourth of visitors to church websites listen to podcasts weekly, when they’re available; four in ten listen monthly. And people who visit church websites rank podcasts very high on their lists of things they want to see and use there.
9. Is a ministry in itself.
Millions of people are looking for spiritual education and support on the web. To meet the need, many church websites have evolved. They are no longer static brochures, but teaching tools that invite interaction with the church, its members, and ideas. Goodmanson found that “…48 percent of churchgoers said the website (of their churches) played an important part of their spiritual growth, and almost half said the website helped in their ability to share their faith with others.”
10. Is evolving.
“…remember, the rapid change of technology can make the best-laid plans obsolete in a number of years,” Goodmanson reminds us in his report, Website Wisdom. “It is important that the church continues to invest in a technology ministry as the world and the people around us continue to move more of their life and interactions online. A good reminder is Jesus’ words, ‘As you have sent me into the world, so I have sent them into the world.’ (John 17:18)”
11. Is mobile-friendly.
As of 2015, 60 percent of adults prefer to access web pages on mobile devices (phones and tablets). If your website is not easy to read and navigate on mobile, most of your visitors will not return, your site’s rank in search engines will suffer, and your website may soon become invisible to people who search the web for churches in your city. Learn more about the importance of mobile-friendly church websites.