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MY CREDENTIALS: The following article started out small, and is now a “collection of topics” related to Building a Better Church Website. My advice here is mostly for the novice, pastors, committees, and church techies. I can’t stress enough how much of my advice comes from real website experience, both good and bad in the church. I’ve built cool church websites, and seen them dismantled after I left. I’ve seen volunteers struggle and pastors not care about the results. In short: I believe simple, fresh, and friendly is best, –built using an online tool, such as WordPress, so that others can help build and manage it. I like WordPress because it has a huge user-base, great support, has been around a long time, and continues to grow and improve. It’s not the easiest, but it is the best. Hope this collection of do’s and dont’s help you. If you’d like me to give you an honest REVIEW OF YOUR WEBSITE, I’d be happy to.
I’m a Presbyterian minister who has been building websites for my own businesses, churches, friends, and favorite non-profits since the mid-90’s. I’m the guy in your church you turn to who knows how to build a site, knows how to fix things, and knows what tools to use (and not use). I’ve developed and sold 18 interactive software titles through sundaysoftware.com. I created and manage an online community (rotation.org). Once upon a time I was a contributing editor to Church Web Advisor magazine.
<>< Neil MacQueen
The following article started out small, and is now a “collection of topics” related to Building a Better Church Website. My advice here is mostly for the novice, pastors, committees, and church techies. I can’t stress enough how much of my advice comes from real website experience, both good and bad in the church. I’ve built cool church websites, and seen them dismantled after I left. I’ve seen volunteers struggle and pastors not care about the results.
In short: I believe simple, fresh, and friendly is best, –built using an online tool, such as WordPress, so that others can help build and manage it. I like WordPress because it has a huge user-base, great support, has been around a long time, and continues to grow and improve. It’s not the easiest, but it is the best.
Hope this collection of do’s and dont’s help you. If you’d like me to give you an honest REVIEW OF YOUR WEBSITE, I’d be happy to.
BUILDING A GOOD CHURCH WEBSITE
by Neil MacQueen
What is a “good” church website?
→ Good means attractive, fresh, friendly, and not amateurish.
Good mean your site is managed and refreshed by a group of volunteers and not a lone ranger. If you can afford to pay a talented staff person or web-design company to achieve good and fresh, God bless you. Most churches can’t afford that. And without a system of support feeding the site, it will eventually turn into a toadstool.
→ Good means your site looks good (and works) on a Cellphone
The odds are now extremely high that a visitor’s first contact with your church will be via their cellphone’s web browser. That means they want to see where you are on a map, “get directions” and see worship times.
It also means that your “good” church websites must have “responsive design.” That means your site’s layout and text can adapt to whatever viewing device your visitors are using: desktops, tablets, and smartphones. If your church website isn’t responsive, then it probably looks like crap on a visitor’s phone. Nowadays, it’s best to pick an online webpage development tool that has responsive code built in. I recommend Wordpress, but Squarespace, Wix, or Joomla are okay too. Online webpage development platforms allow you and other site volunteers to edit the church’s site from any device and and from anywhere. They are secure, backed up, and they are constantly updating the ‘backend’ of your site to keep it compliant with the latest standards and security needs. And they offer design templates and ready-made code ‘widgets’ to drop in and make your site do cool things.
→ Good means your web team knows what they are doing.
Your church’s virtual front door is no place for amateur hour. This should go without saying, but even in a recent former church where I attended, the Evangelism committee in charge of the website had never made one, and the committee member in charge of the site had never made a site. I offered to help, but unfortunately, the tech-averse pastor said, “let them figure it out.” (Yet that pastor would never think of letting members learn how to preach in the pulpit, would they.) The main page of that Florida church featured a cross against the mountains (of which there are none in Fl). The map to the church was a static image buried two clicks away. There’s rarely current info on the main page. It hasn’t been updated in months.
Be careful of well-meaning volunteers making decisions about “what the church site should look like,” and the tools to make it with. Some church volunteers look at an online web company’s development tools and pick the “nice looking” one. Techies look at the features. Some volunteers look at the price sheet first, rather than ask important questions like… “does this tool allow multiple authors?” Some church volunteers look at other churches’ websites to “see what they like.” That’s a good idea, but in many cases, they ‘like’ what another church has paid a lot of money to create, or has a media person on staff making for them.
→ Good sometimes means paying for help.
If you do get help, be sure THEY know what they’re doing, and insist that they set up your site you can take it over from them. Companies will invariably create a site that requires YOU to continue paying them to make changes, unless you insist they build it in WordPress, or the like.Yet, it is sometimes wise to have a professional look over your site, or do some of the technical lifting if you’re migrating to a new platform or domain.
→ Good means lots of fresh photos of your community in worship, fellowship, and service.
A good church site has photos that make me want to be there! Please avoid stock photos of beautiful people with perfect smiles.
→ Good means your site meets current web technical standards. Having a secure site (https) is essential these days, as is building a site that can adapt to various devices, like cellphones and tablets..
A Good Church Website…
Features your community,
not the institution or building.
Features your congregational life,
not the pastor’s face.
Puts contact information front and center.
not just information.
Helps members connect and talk with each other.
Alerts members by text or email “subscription” when new important content is added.
Is created and manageable online so that a number of volunteers can work on it from home.
And is built to today’s security standards.
A Good Church Website for Visitors…
Is designed to showcase the community that visitors will want to be part of.
They begin to imagine themselves in your photos, so use a lot of them!
Is designed to quickly give them the address, phone, email and worship times.
Be sure to link the address to an online map, and be sure to make the phone number clickable by those on smartphones -so they can call you.
Representative Examples of “Not So Good” Church Webpages:
I hope and trust these churches have made changes. My screenshots here are for instructive purposes only. Mostly, they speak to what little quality control the leadership exercised on their church’s virtual front door.
This first screenshot is from 2018 but looks like 1998. It’s a church near where I live that we were considering attending. My daughter went to the site to find out if they had certain ministries and what style of worship they had. What do you think she said?
I have a strong reaction to “fake” generic photos, and others do too.
Spent all their money on the building, not the website….
This new Florida church put this header image on the top of every page, -even though it was pointed out to them that Florida doesn’t have mountains…
And it stayed that way for two years.
Educational Ministry may be vital, but apparently, the webpage is not…
Calendars always seem like a great idea, as long as someone else is responsible for them(and actually does them).
This Wayside Women’s page snapshot is an oldie-goldie. I used to call this, “Whoops Wayside Did It Again.” Fortunately, geocities and its ads are no longer in business. They eventually did change their site, to one that only looks 10 years out of date.
This screenshot from 2012 shows a color-challenged church…
Examples of Some Good Church Websites
You can now see a lot of good looking church websites out there. Things are obviously improving. I would suggest simply googling the churches in your area. I’ve stopped updating the “good” examples because things change. Some that were good went bad. Two of the churches that used to be on this list even went defunct.
Here are a few examples of nice church websites.
I’m only showing you three. I used to have more but it is AMAZING how often a “good” site turns bad. Probably because they change volunteers. I’m sure you can search and find good looking sites. If you are going to “make your own” –be careful not to pick websites that were made with lots of money and a professional team. IMHO: you don’t want the church’s site to look “too polished.” People are looking for a church home, not a church business.
www.stcroixreformed.org …my former church’s simple wordpress-created site. Costs less than $30 a year and is still managed by volunteers. The site alerts its members/subscribers to new posts via Feedburner. This is a very small congregation.
http://www.jamesriver.org/ -church website that’s fresh and modern looking. Also made in wordpress.
http://www.wpcdenver.org/ …colorful, moving, nice. And yet another wordpress site! How can I tell? By right-clicking the page and “viewing source.” I look for the “wp-content” folder name which all wordpress sites use.
Note: I’m not adding any more. You can search google, but be careful about the “50 Best Sites” articles that pop up as they are often published by web developers, not independent reviewers like me.
If you’d like me to LOOK at your website and give you an opinion, email me at email@example.com
Neil’s Rules for deciding the church’s web address: (also known as “domain name”)
Rule #1: It’s never too late to change!
A Good Church Web URL is…
1. Easy to spell when you’re saying it out loud to someone.
2. Easy to remember
3. Easy to say
4. Easy to understand when heard
5. Rolls off the tongue
6. No hyphens, extra ‘dots’ or underscores
7. Relatively short
8. Reasonably descriptive of what the site is
9. Use .org, not .com (A surprising number of churches list themselves as commercial sites)
10. Will wear well over the years.
Why is this bad?
Too long. People will misspell Presbyterian, and churches should be dot-org, not dot-com.
Why is this bad?
Try speaking the url outloud to yourself. “First as in the number 1, stchurch dash indy”. Takes too long to explain it.
If you have a BAD domain name, change it now. You can put in a simple “redirect” to send people from your old domain name to your new one. And it doesn’t require creating a second site. Your webhost or techie can help you do this.
A Few Hard Lessons from Real Experience
My personal cautions to the techies responsible for building the church’s website.
Over the years I have created 14 different websites and consulted on several more. Each has taught me something about website management, design and usability. I especially learned some difficult lessons handing over sites to new volunteers and then departing.
I have concluded these three things:
1) “What a church or staff says it wants, isn’t necessarily what it will support or use.”
2) A Modest but well-done website can attract a surprising number of visitors. But does it make a difference? And will they come back to the site? Yes, but only if you invite them to follow the site by subscribing to it (see my notes on this page about that)
3) After you’re gone, if the staff didn’t really care about it, or if you didn’t design it so others could easily add to it or take it over, then your efforts can be deleted faster than you can say “Death Valley.”
1) “What a church or staff says it wants, isn’t necessarily what it will support or use.”
In one former church, I had to regularly remind church staff to keep things updated, even though we made it VERY easy for them to update it themselves. There’s nothing wrong with that. All leaders need helpers, …and I’m willing to help. But what this means is IF you build a website for your church, you need to plan on working on it over the long haul. You know that old proverb, “raise up a child in the way they should go” ? You have to train your church and staff to use the website too. To put it another way, build it, and they still may take a while to come.
In another former church, the tech-averse pastor asked me to take over the site, but then changed her mind when a volunteer with no previous web experience said they “wanted to give it a try.” The pastor was about letting people take leadership. But seriously, let them practice somewhere else, and not on the church’s front door. I seriously doubt that pastor would let that member “give it a try” in the pulpit on Sunday.
This screenshot here is from that church where the pastor wanted to empower a volunteer with no web experience. Mountains in Florida? hmmmmm….
If you’re the pastor reading this, you need to know that pastors often lament to me about the person who volunteered to build the website. They didn’t know what they were doing, and/or didn’t stick around for the long haul to keep improving things. Others lament having a website that’s impossible for the next volunteer to change because the first one created the website with special web codes and databases which not every web volunteer understands or has the tools to update.
Some churches hire someone to do the heavy-lifting of building the website, then use a volunteer to provide updates. This means that if you hire someone to build your church website, you will need to budget “update” money. It’s not a bad idea. But make sure you’re hiring someone who knows how to build a website. I run across church websites all the time that are poorly designed by companies.
2) A Modest but well-done website can attract a surprising number of visitors
I was at a small suburban church for 10 years, and helped them with their site for 6 years. The site wasn’t fancy, but it was colorful and happy, and utilized many of the extra special techniques mentioned in this article.
Our server stats told us the people were visiting the site. We had visitors to the church who told us they visited our website. One Sunday over two-thirds of the members in our worship service raised their hand when asked if they had visited the website in the last month.
But this seemed to fall on deaf ears of the staff who regularly had to be prodded to add fresh content, or submit it to the webmaster (me) who would post it for them.
The site I have described above was one I worked on for a church where I used to attend. They had been enthusiastic about the website we had built. A Tech Committee was formed and embraced it. Pastor said how much he appreciated it. Then we moved out of state.
Curious, I visited their site every month to see how they were keeping it up. The first couple of months they didn’t change anything except the easy-to-change main page text about upcoming events. (Even that didn’t look so good, as they no longer had me there to spell check, center text, and adjust a few things, -but hey, they were trying.)
Then about six months later they nuked virtually everything we had created. In it’s place was a website I can only describe as “something that someone with NO web experience had posted.” It was awful. Actually… it was beyond awful. It was amateurish, unkempt, and lifeless. It became one of those sites that this article was written to combat. Their awful new site says one of two things: 1) They didn’t really care about their website. or 2) They didn’t really care about doing things well. Update: 2 years later and it’s still pretty bad.
And now you know one of the reasons we moved-on from that church. What they did to the site, and what they accepted as a website prior to building them a better one, was an example in microcosm of the problems within that church. I originally wrote this previous sentence during Holy Week -viewing the site and seeing no mention of when special Holy Week Services are to be held. There was also no mention of the building project they have started, and only one poor photo on the CE page. There are new pictures of the church leaders, however.
Bottom line: you can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make them drink, -especially if they’re not thirsty, or don’t know how, or simply don’t think it’s that important.
In retrospect, I should have helped the church identify people within the congregation who could maintain the website -other than me. Having a committee that cheered me on and offered suggestions — didn’t help. I should have also trained someone to understand how to put graphics on the website. The problem was this: as long as I was there to do it, they didn’t need anyone else to do it. Of course, without me there, they should have found someone else who knew how to maintain and/or improve on what was there. That it looks 1995-ish and abandoned is a metaphor for church problems in general.
Taking over a site from somebody can be difficult as well, especially if they didn’t know what they were doing and have lost things like the username and password to the domain name’s registration. Been there…. have the stripes! Read my blog notes on “Domain Name & Voluntech Blues” at http://sundayresources.net/neil/2009/04/28/domain-name-voluntech-blues/
I’m a Presbyterian minister, software developer, and webmaster for several sites. For a simple WordPress site I set up for a former church, go to www.stcroixreformed.org. I no longer maintain the site, but they do keep it current. Costs them less than $50 a year to maintain, and all new posts to the site get automatically emailed to every member. You might also enjoy looking at www.rotation.org, a CE site I do the web-tech and content management for.
You may also enjoy reading “15 Church Website Pet Peeves”