Navigating the church website (re)design
Navigating the church website (re)design

Christ Church website screenshot

This post is the second in a series on best practices for using digital media in ministry. Read the first post (on blogging) here.

Among the most frequent questions I get when wearing my “digital missioner” hat is this doozy: “Our church website is terrible. Where do we begin?”

If there were an easy, straightforward answer to this question, I suspect we would have a lot fewer awful church sites adrift around the Web.

Fortunately, a number of professional communicators have heard or been a part of enough stories of success and failure to extrapolate a bit and offer guidance to the rest of us. I’ve tried to pull together from the best of their advice.

While there is certainly no one-size-fits-all solution, many churches have succeeded in dramatically improving their Web presence by following something like the following steps.

Plan

About the worst thing you can do to get started is gather a bunch of people around a table and ask “What information should be on our website?”—or worse, “What do we want our website to look like?” It’s asking for trouble to put this particular cart before the corresponding horse.

The horse, of course, is your church communication plan. You really need to have one of these, even if it’s provisional and imperfect. What do you want to tell the world about your faith and your congregation? Who will help you do that, and using which tools (including but certainly not limited to the church website)? Once you start getting a handle on these questions, the path forward will be clearer.

Jim Naughton and Rebecca Wilson (whom you will be tired of me citing by the end of this series, but that’s how good their book, Speaking Faithfully, is) offer a fantastic chart to guide your creation of a communication plan. It’s worth the cost of the book. You might also check out this planning resource from the United Methodist Church.

With a plan in place, you can start thinking about content and organization for the site itself—Speaking Faithfully has guidance there too. Keep in mind this list (from a study by Grey Matter Research) of the most common reasons people visit church websites:

  1. to check service times (43%),
  2. to access listings of activities (29%),
  3. to get directions to the church (28%)
  4. to watch or listen to streaming media (sermons, welcome videos, etc.) (26%)

Great role models for making this information easily available are two church sites built by an Alabama design firm called DC. Both Christ Church and St. Paul’s in Alexandria, VA, feature prominent welcome buttons that take visitors to the place where all this information lives together.

People

Once you know what you want for your website, you’re at a crucial decision point: Are you going to try to build the website “in-house,” using staff and volunteers from your church? Or do you need to outsource at least some of that work to professionals?

How you answer these questions will depend on the goals you have for your site and the local talent you have available. Remember these key points as you deliberate:

  • Teams are better than individuals. Building websites is a deceptively large amount of work, and all but the heartiest of volunteers will need to share the load in order to be effective.
  • Don’t be afraid to outsource partially. Sometimes you only need an outside vendor for a couple of tasks: graphic design, managing or updating your web hosting, or setting up your content management system (see below). Here’s a video about how one church decided to navigate this challenge. (Watch from 2:12 to 4:06. Full disclosure: I serve this parish part-time, but I was not involved in the website redesign process.)
  • Time is money, even for churches. If your process is going to chew up a bunch of staff time, or keep your tech- and communication-savvy volunteers busy building the site instead of maintaining the site, it may be worth the investment in a professional contract.
  • Beware of the in-house professional. There’s nothing wrong with paying a Web developer who is also a member of your church, especially if he or she is willing to do the work at a reduced rate or gratis. But this kind of relationship can go south quickly if both sides aren’t clear on expectations. It’s also important to independently verify the quality of your member’s work before bringing them onboard.

Platform

If you take one thing away from this blog post, let it be this: You must build your church site (or have it built) using a content management system (CMS).

CMS software makes publishing content to your website a matter of navigating menus in your web browser and adding words and pictures using an interface that’s not so different from modern word-processing software.

Whatever you do, do not invest in a website that your organization will not be able to maintain itself.

That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t consult a professional for help with major changes and customization. But your church’s staff and volunteers have to be able to keep the calendar updated, upload photos and sermons, add news items and feature stories, and otherwise handle the day-to-day administration of the site. If you can’t keep it updated, you might as well not even have it.

Two of the most common platforms throughout the Web are Weebly, which is very accessible even for total beginners, and WordPress, which is a little trickier but a lot more powerful. Many, many church websites are built on these two platforms.

For completeness’ sake, I should mention that there are also a number of companies offering church-specific content management systems. Two platforms that are available and seeing some use in the circles I follow are Ekklesia 360 and Digital Faith Community.

Frankly, I much prefer WordPress because of the low cost, the power and flexibility of the platform, and the number of people who have training in it because of its ubiquity on the Web.

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If you found this list helpful, you may want to check out the entire presentation.

Kyle Matthew Oliver (@kmoliver) is the digital missioner and learning lab coordinator in the Center for the Ministry of Teaching, content developer for the e-Formation Conference, a contributor at Faith Formation Learning Exchange (where this post originated), and a panelist on the Easter People podcast.

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