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Improving your church website

By Tim Spivey

Churches not paying attention to their websites are missing the forest and the trees when it comes to creating a port of entry for people to discover their church. Because of our unique journey, our church has been an experiment in the impact of social media on new church starts. It’s been a vital part of our strategy from the outset, and perhaps I’ll do a separate post on that sometime. Today’s post is about websites.

In 2011, Calvin Institute of Worship published a study titled, “Your Church’s Digital Front Door.” Among their findings: “Congregational research by Monk Development found that of people who’d been attending a church for less than a year, 27 percent had found that church online. And 61 percent of that group said the church website had been ‘somewhat to very important’ in their decision to attend the church.” Translation: the web continues to be a growing factor in people’s decisions to check out churches. I heard another study somewhere say more than 40 percent of people check out a church online in more than one place before visiting the first time. Wow.

The beta version of New Vintage Church’s new website is up, and I would encourage you to explore it and offer feedback. We’re trying to get better with each iteration. This post will let you in on some of our learnings as we went through the process. I’m not writing this to suggest we are setting the bar for church websites. Rather, the process by which we designed our new site gleaned some insights I’m hoping you find helpful.

Here we go:

  • Check analytics thoroughly to see who visits, what browsers they’re using, what pages they visit, and in what order. By a long shot, times/directions and sermon content were the most viewed areas of the site – despite the fact it would have taken multiple clicks to get there. Now, both are on the front page, and we’ve organized sermon content to be viewed by audio or video selection within two clicks.
  • Remember, the site is for the viewer, not for yourself. We put our vision/mission/beliefs prominently on our former site because that’s what we wanted them to view. It’s the most important thing to us. But, it came in seventh or eighth in click-count on a site without a ton of content. It’s still prominent, but this time we’ve added an, “Our Story” section and organized the stuff people really seem to want more prominently.
  • Pay attention to “vibe” of the site. What do you want people to feel/think when the site first opens? Our first website was black; this one is stone-colored. It reflects our evolution as a church and a different feel. When we were meeting at nights wherever there was room at the inn and struggling for survival, our first website reflected our neophyte existence. This site maintains a contemporary feel, but is brighter and reflects the energy of the church. It reflects better who we are today. We hope when people checking out our church opens the site, they’ll sense that when the site opens.
  • Pay attention to “chicken and egg” logical leaps you might be making as you plan. For instance, if you bury your sermon content, the sound/video quality is terrible or don’t offer it. Don’t be surprised if it isn’t at the top. The question to ask is, “is it sermon content in general that isn’t very important to our viewers, or is it because of the way we’ve organized our site?” Preachers, we need to also be willing to consider our teaching’s quality as a factor.
  • Build a site you can maintain. Maintenance is more important than launch. Nothing is as bad as publicly demonstrating incompetency with misspelled words, advertising the church pot luck from 2009, or listing as on staff the preacher who was fired 18 months ago. If all you can manage is a decent looking site with two pages…do that. Decide now who will maintain it and stick to it. Also, avoid the other extreme – every prayer request of every church member listed (and beyond) in a horribly ugly format. Before offering something, ask, “Can we do a decent job offering this? Can we maintain it consistently?” Even some of the best church websites out there from a content/vibe standpoint offer shining examples of failure to maintain.

There’s more we noticed along the way, but these are some of the initial learnings. I’d love to hear your observations on church websites in general. What have you seen work/not work? Does your church’s site serve you well? Why?

Dr. Tim Spivey is lead planter of New Vintage Church in San Diego, CA. Tim is also an adjunct professor of religion at Pepperdine University and purveyor of New Vintage Leadership, a blog offering cutting-edge insights on leadership and theology. He is the author of numerous articles and the book “Jesus, the Powerful Servant.”

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