Is it possible to have a great church website? A quick google search can typically reveal some terrible websites. Does that mean they're terrible churches? Probably not. Fortunately there are good websites that accurately represent the ministry quality of local churches.
Are you looking to create an effective website for your faith institution? Or, are you seeking ways to improve upon an existing one? Then here are 5 rules you need to follow.
1. Know who you are before you start communicating.
To be known for something relevant in your community you need to know your thread which is a unifying brand concept.
If you communicate a plethora of ideas, benefits and ministries, you'll never be heard through all the noise. Most will simply see you as a "church"; a group of religious people that talk to themselves as a private club.
The sad truth? About a third of your community probably has no idea why the church would be relevant in their lives. Stop promoting yourself like a typical church and start presenting yourself in such a way that you have unexpected benefits for a world seeking solutions.
Don't be tempted to copy the big church that gets all the attention "because they're growing". Remember God placed you in a unique community to share the Gospel in a unique way so that everyone around you will understand that the Gospel IS the solution for whatever they're experiencing.
The Church needs to stand out for something. You need a theme, a thread, that your community and congregation is looking for. A concept that every ministry in your church wants to associate with. And when your community looks for it, they'll discover you. Once they look up from their busy world, you can gently make the messaging turn to Jesus and the Gospel.
Jesus demonstrated this (without a website of course). He traveled to the well and sat down, waiting for someone with a need. He knew that the immediate area would draw people who were thirsty. Instead of immediately engaging the woman who came about her spiritual issues, He started a conversation around her temporal need.
Then, once she engaged with Him, He made the turn to the spiritual by connecting the temporal to the eternal. Imagine a thirsty person looking for a drink being told she could have something that would quench her thirst eternally. Yes!
What's your thread? What are people around you looking for? Healthy marriages? Satisfying employment? Peace in chaos? It starts with understanding your audience and their needs and goals. Only then can you create a website that will interest them. Speak solutions and they'll find your website interesting.
Your website should simply attract your congregation and community to your thread story and show how they'll benefit from your ministries.
2. Be consistent.
Your thread is your brand. Now you need to put your "thread glasses" on and think about how your thread (your brand promise) will look. Decide on a couple of colors and fonts that will be a visual cue for your story. Then start telling your story being careful with the words you use. Be consistent with related keywords that someone in your community will use in Google.
For your website design, you need to create consistency too. The more complex looking your website is, the more people will identify your message as complex. And the gospel is simple! Make your message easy to find (see point 5) and easy to understand. Every page should have a similar responsive layout (one for desktop, one for iPad, one for phone) that is more about content than about the design.
Make the design professional and consistent to web paradigm though. Web paradigm is what people expect from a website. Stop trying to do something new and different with your design, user-interface, and user-experience.
Here's what we know most people are expecting from a website:
- A logo and tagline in the upper left, a simple menu right under the logo, then a content area under the menu. Be careful of the right side of the pages (since most don't look there thanks to online ads). Protect the left side of your content areas as valuable real estate. Make things flush left (rather than centered) and understand the first 3 - 4 words of a headline are read more than the rest.
- Most people like longer pages now with clear module separation. Limit clicking between pages since, thanks to mobile browsing, we like to slide down a page rather than finding a link to switch to other pages. Ensure that a simple footer says "this is the bottom of the page" while allowing a user to go to some other area without scrolling back to the top.
- Everyone enjoys pictures/videos that show themselves (people that look like the community) once they've engaged with the thread.
- Create an online environment that is consistent with your actual local church environment. You don't want to surprise the web user when they decide to attend your services with something they're not expecting. Show lots of pictures of the "real" experience on your website!
3. Do the heavy-lifting for your congregation and community.
Every person coming to a website wants to spend the smallest amount of time possible. You, of course, want them to stay as long as possible. Instead, you need to do the extra work so your web user doesn't have to.
What should you do for them? You know your church much better than most, so you need to weave your ministries together so they make sense and explain them as simply as possible. Then subtly connect every page or module to the thread concept.
Practically, make sure every page/module has links to find more information if they want it. Think like an outsider who simply wants information, and then lead them around your site with links at the bottom of each page to take them to the next place they should look.
Through consistency and professional presentation of content, people will connect with your brand and they'll want to interact, filter content, and leave personal information for you. Be sure they have easy ways to engage when they want to.
The web experience starts with you taking the time to organize your website properly. That means a simple menu that makes sense. Like a filing cabinet with 5-6 drawers where everyone would know where to find the smallest detail in each drawer, it needs to be obvious.
4. Simplify everything. Part of the heavy lifting required for a church website is editing. Edit your menu to the fewest items possible. Edit your content to the smallest amount of words possible (remove every nonessential thought and word), limit your videos to 2 minutes or less (with links to the full content if they want it), and edit photos so they are simple and quickly understood.
Rarely will you find someone who wants complexity when they're seeking solutions. Simplify every page and module so they can discover everything quickly.
Be sure to lead them to an action throughout your website, and ultimately make sure they know they're invited to your church services and events. Ensure that your directions and service times are on your home page. In fact, the header is a great place for this so it's on every page.
Most congregants are looking for event details while the community is looking for a brief description of who you are, who the Pastor is, and what to expect if they come. Say it all simply.
5. Be Found. This is where the magic happens. A simple website, set up with a common thread uniting your ministries, well-utilized keywords, and directed at a particular audience will be perfect for Google, Yahoo, Bing, and other search engines. They will help people discover you!
Internally, make sure everyone knows that they can trust your website. It sounds crazy, but most church websites are hard to navigate, too complex, and have information that's not accurate.
What's the response? Congregations turn back to the trusted, printed bulletin since it has a process and person who maintains the content.
Start reducing the size of printed communications and direct people to the website for the details. Refer to your website often so everyone understands it's the go-to communication source.
Want some examples of churches who understand great website communications? There are many to choose from. To be unbiased, these aren't produced by our team so they don't have the obvious threads like we'd like; but they are very good, simple and responsive church sites:
http://www.fbcjonesboro.com is a recent branding and website project that we produced (and the church is maintaining the content). This demonstrates how a thread should be obvious and controlled throughout a site.