Research conducted earlier this year, which surveyed hundreds of churches representing more than 70,000 members combined, attempted to drill deeper into two fundamental questions as the internet grows in its influence and importance in our culture and beyond:
1. Do church websites strategically help attract new visitors, connect people, and equip leaders?
2. And if so, what are the best practices for a church's web strategy?
Three significant discoveries, as well as several best practices, emerged from this work. This information can help large churches (congregations such as Willow Creek Community Church participated in the research) as well as small ones (church plants with fewer than 50 people also participated). These practices also are useful for most any situation, regardless of whether a church is using a volunteer, a church website design firm, or a staff member to design its site.
Kaleo Church in San Diego, where I serve as pastor (separately, I also operate Monk Development, the church and ministry web strategy firm that led the research), and six other churches now have created a cooperative to implement these best practices.
Discovery No. 1: Visitors Are Your Primary Audience.
When people seek a church, they often begin their search online, browsing multiple church websites before picking a place to worship.
"When we moved, a church's website has to be our first filter to find a church," said Ryan Heinese, regarding his family's search for a church when they moved to a new city. "A lot of churches had crummy websites, and regardless of how great a church they may be, we passed them by."
According to Monk's research, 16 percent of the people surveyed said the website was the first place they learned about the church prior to attending. Filtering down the results to people who have attended their church for less than three months, more than 30 percent said it was where they first learned about the church. In all, 77 percent of people attending a church less than three months said the website was important in their decision to attend.
And in Monk's research, 19 percent of the content that website visitors view is new visitor information.
Yet many websites do a poor job of connecting new visitors to the church.
"I don't think people are showing up to our church based on our website. In fact, we've had a lot of people say they love our church but almost didn't visit because of the website," said Drew Harriss, an elder of a church in Charlotte, North Carolina. Harriss' church website provides several pictures of the church's building as a primary graphic. The "Visitor Information" link is buried on the bottom right sidebar, which is difficult to find. And the website is 90 percent text, creating a visually boxy and dated look.
The church now is redesigning the site under Harriss' leadership.
Park Community Church in Chicago grew 65 percent, to more than 2,000 people a week, between June 2008 and August 2009. In June 2008, Park Community launched a redesigned website and moved into a new building.
Tim Schraeder, Park Community's communications director, led the church's website redesign project to present the church as city-centric, and to more clearly show its values. The current website (http://parkcommunitychurch.org/) includes pictures of the city, the people of the community, and a prominent "I'm New Here" button listed as the top menu item (and in a different color) to make it easy to find.
When people click the "I'm New Here" button, they receive basics about the church, information on its locations, services, and small groups, a calendar, and information about Chicago, including a map.
"With so many people moving to Chicago, we created a resource for people who are new to the city," Schraeder said.
Based on these findings, the cooperative decided that new visitors should be a church website's primary audience. In terms of best practices, the design should present the church's vision, motivate the visitor toward sharing this vision, and then encourage the visitor to engage in church activities. Such participation could include:
- Low-Value: Subscribe to a RSS feed (for email alerts regarding site updates), podcast, or the church's Twitter account;
- Medium-Value: Sign-up for an email newsletter, join a Facebook group, or complete a web form;
- High-Value: Show up to a service, small group, or other relational meeting.
The average visitor spends about 90 seconds on a church website's homepage. To optimize this time, the cooperative suggests church websites include:
- A welcome video from the pastor that plays when clicked;
- A banner area that presents the church's vision statement;
- A prominently displayed "I'm New" area on the home page, providing commonly requested information, such as location, directions, and beliefs. When the "I'm New" area is selected, it should answer common questions asked by new visitors.
Discovery No. 2: Your Web Strategy Should Integrate With the Online Communities People Already Use.
After "I'm New" information, the second-most popular content category that people visited online was group information. People sought out ministry groups, home groups, and other communities to connect into the community and serve.
When asked to select the top five features or activities they would like to see in their church websites, 39 percent of people selected "connect with other members," which ranked highest. And in the congregational survey, more than 70 percent said the website was important in facilitating participation in their church community. People desire ways to participate online with others from the church.
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. Respondents said the following features, listed here in the order of their popularity, appealed to them in a private, online community:
- Ability to post prayer requests or needs (with appropriate permissions);
- Ability to find opportunities to serve at the church, based on interests or gifts;
- Ability to access a phone/email directory;
- Ability to join and interact with home/Bible study groups;
- Ability to share resources.
"Church websites are going to change," Schraeder said. "Today, websites are a destination, but social media is going to shape how information gets to people."
In Monk's research, 18 percent of churches said they currently use a member portal or private online community solution. In addition, churches are using open-source solutions, such as Ning and Google Groups.
Churches need a private environment to allow their members to post prayer requests, see service opportunities, and access member information. Social media sites like Facebook or Twitter do not offer the privacy and control a local church may desire in handling this type of sensitive information. In the past year, there have been a number of web applications created to help foster private church member communities. Churches should provide a safe place for their members to engage in these private and church-specific functions but find ways to connect into the existing social media sites their congregants use. In Monk's research, one of the challenges cited by those who have implemented a private community is the ability to receive buy-in from people in their congregations, since many already are involved in other social media sites. Yet, 40 percent of respondents said connecting with their community through a private online network was one of the most effective ways to do ministry online.
Monk's research also showed a greater need for churches to know where they're represented online outside of their main websites. For instance, churches, including Willow Creek, saw congregants creating groups on Facebook and other sites that used the church name. Even though the groups were not malicious, the church did not have control over what was communicated. If a church finds itself in this situation, it's best to first try to reach the person who owns the name (this worked for Willow Creek). If the person does not respond, the church will need to make an official complaint to Twitter or Facebook.
A church also should investigate and register its usernames on up-and-coming social media platforms, such as Twitter or TokBox. Churches who do not determine a strategy will find other people (or churches) using their names, which also creates confusion for members.
Discovery No. 3: Your Website Should Equip Your Regulars.
Many Christians listen to sermons and messages to augment their spiritual growth. A Barna Group technology and faith study in 2008 found that 38 percent of evangelical Christians have at some point downloaded a podcast (podcasts in this study were considered direct downloads off of a website, or delivered through iTunes or another subscription system).
Monk's research also supported the popularity of podcasts. Excluding visits to home pages, Monk found that 7.8 percent of all website visits are for sermons and messages. Almost half (43 percent) of all respondents access sermons at least once a month, and another half of those listen weekly to sermons (23 percent).
Monk's survey also found 48 percent of churchgoers said the website played an important part of their spiritual growth, and almost half said the website helped in their ability to share their faith with others.
College Park Church in Indianapolis posts resources to its website (http://yourchurch.com) for leaders and congregants to download. Individual sermons offered on the site each get downloaded between 300 and 1,000 times.
"We recently did a series on relationships and posted the audio, notes, and small-group resources for people to download," said Paul Spilker, acting communications director at College Park. "The other day a woman told us they were using our sermon notes to teach students English in China."
Churches should record their sermons and upload them in a file format, such as mp3 for audio or MPEG or Quicktime.mov for video. Choose a file format based on the church website's media player, but ensure that it is an accessible format for people to download or stream these files. Optimize multimedia files for the web; this minimizes file sizes to maximize download speeds, and it allows people to more easily play the files on the internet.
Churches should provide a way for visitors to sort sermons based on date, preacher, scripture, sermon series, or other categories. And churches should provide a way for users to effectively search the website to find resources—in usability studies, 88 percent of web users go to a site's search engine first to accomplish a task, according to Prioritizing Web Usability by Jakob Nielsen.
Several of the church websites that Monk reviewed posted the most recent sermon to the home page with a link to the full archive of sermon messages. This is important, since potential guests may want to see the current sermon series or listen to a few recent messages prior to attending a church service. In today's mobile environment, it's also important to develop a podcast feed of the sermons so that people can directly download them to their iPod or other mobile device.
Several churches have developed applications to deliver sermons and other content in new ways to their members. Mars Hill released an iPhone application in August 2009 that includes its blog, music from a variety of its bands, the ability to find one of its many locations, give tithes online, and download its pastors' sermons. LifeChurch.tv has developed several products, including YouVersion, an online Bible, which the community can add notes to, do surveys, or even ask questions and get answers during the message, as well as an Internet campus where people can participate in online services.
Consider the Costs
A church can spend a lot of money—perhaps hundreds of thousands of dollars—to build a comprehensive web strategy, particularly if it plans to do all of these things on its own. There are several ways to spend a fraction of the total costs for these services, though.
First, there are several companies that offer products that can be suited to meet a church's needs.
Second, Kaleo partnered with other churches to create a cooperative and share the costs with a kingdom mindset, rather than try to build a strategy on its own. The goal is to share the best practices that participating churches learn now and in the future.
But remember, the rapid change of technology can make the best laid plans obsolete in a number of years. 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)
Drew Goodmanson serves as chief executive of Monk Development and is co-founder and pastor of Kaleo Church.
Copyright © 2009 by the author or Christianity Today/Your Church magazine.
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