Websites are one of the most significant forms of outreach today because they offer churches a great way to connect with many new people. The challenge, however, is that these people begin to explore your church as unseen guests. Before they set foot inside your church, they will almost certainly have explored all they can find about your church on the internet; through your website, social media, ratings/reviews, and news articles.
Think about it. Before you try a new business or go to an event, this is also likely your approach, if for no other reason than to map directions and determine business hours. It is no different for people considering going to a church. Almost everyone checks on-line first.
This means your website is one of the first impressions that you will make on a potential new congregant. What the website looks like, what it says, and how easy it is to navigate all lend to the story of their decision to move closer or farther away from an actual visit your church; as opposed to visiting another church across town, or scrapping the idea of visiting a church at all.
The good news is that in 2017, simple websites that make a great impression on first-time visitors can be built and maintained by people with very little technical skill, and for very little monthly cost. Here are my top 10 things to consider in critiquing your current site, or building a new one that better keeps first-time visitors in mind:
Websites must now be mobile friendly
Increasingly, people are accessing the web from mobile devices like smartphones and tablets. You could very well be reading this article on your phone! For many websites, more than half their traffic in 2017 is coming from users on phones, not computers. The way a website looks on mobile devices is a huge factor in that it may determine if a user will try and explore the site, or give up before getting the information they seek.
Does your website work well on phones and tablets? Are there features that are hard to click on or items you can’t view without a computer? These should be some of the first things to identify and fix.
Use a template
Thankfully, today there are many companies who offer beautiful website templates that are designed to work well on mobile devices, and be maintained by people who are not particularly skilled technically. Companies like Squarespace and Clover Sites are a good place to start for a cheap, mobile friendly site that your visitors will love to use.
Your website needs great photos of your church life
We live in a very visual culture. Tell the story of the Life of your church (i.e. not just the building) through vibrant photos. This will help newcomers feel intuitively more connected and engage them emotionally with what your community is like. They may be asking- are there people like me at this church? What will it be like? What should I wear? Photos also give people a sense of the type of worship you practice. Is it more traditional or contemporary? How many people will be there?
It is very likely that you already have some novice or even professional photographers in your congregation who can help take photos a few times a year. I find that photographers are often just looking for an opportunity to serve in this skill! But if you can’t find someone, it’s worth the investment to spend a few hundred dollars to hire someone who can take photos of Sunday worship services, or some of the special events at your church, for the website.
There is nothing worse than a newcomer showing up at church for a service or program based on times and locations on the website, only to discover those times have changed and they have missed half the service. And what about the church website that advertises a church picnic that happened 10 months ago? This speaks strongly of a church that doesn’t care much about newcomers, visitors, or accuracy. It is far better to recruit a trusted volunteer who loves details, and who will regularly update the information and events on your site. Provided with an updating email from the church administrative assistant each week, new information could normally be added to most websites by a volunteer in 15 to 20 minutes on a set day of the week.
Post your sermons online
For newcomers this is where they can learn more about what you believe and what your pastor is like. It can be recorded simply on a smartphone for audio or video, and uploaded for free to iTunes, SoundCloud, or YouTube. Then you can link to that from your website. There are more and more stories of people all around the world coming to Christian faith through the ministry of online sermons. Websites give us an amazing opportunity to let the hard work that went into a sermon to extend beyond Sunday morning, offering truth and encouragement to people every day of the week.
Filter for “Religious” Language
New people to your site may know very little about the Christian faith. Explain what you mean when you use religious language. What is a “Eucharist”? What is this “diocese” you’re inviting me to? Why are they all “washed by the blood of the Lamb”? Is this a cult?! Use common language and phrases to explain activities of your church and your beliefs. Don’t assume the person has any idea what you’re talking about. Read every page on your site through the lens of someone exploring Christianity. For example, if you’re having a Bible study, explain that this is a chance to meet people, have coffee, and discuss a story from the Bible around tables, while asking all sorts of questions about God and faith.
Create an “I’m New” page
Include everything a first time visitor might need to know all in one place, and make that page really obvious right when they arrive to your website. “New? Click here!”
Include services times and when to arrive for coffee or dropping off children in advance, location, where to park, what to wear, what is available for children (or explain that children engage with the parents in services), a name and contact for newcomers, and any other FAQ about your church, its history and beliefs.
Introduce the leaders
One of the most visited pages on any church website is the staff page. Use photos of each staff member, add their contact information and a fun bio about them to introduce them to newcomers and make them feel more on the inside right away. Many people will choose a church because of their connection to the leader(s).
Learn from others.
Look at other church websites and gain ideas about what you love and don’t love about them. Browsing other church sites as a visitor will help you consider how to present your own information for newcomers, and will also help you stay away from mistakes others have made online. Every year Church ProTools offers a list of their favourite church websites and why they were chosen. It’s a great list to explore.
Less is more.
Your website doesn’t need to contain every possible thing a person could want to do or know about your church. Use it more as a welcome mat than a reference library. Offer them a glimpse into what makes you who you are. Then offer more information about ongoing events in person through: email and phone, in printed pamphlets, and on social media. This will make a newcomer feel less overwhelmed as they begin to connect with your amazing congregation!