Online solutions provide an extension of ministry and allow churches to meet people where they’re at.
By Keith Baldwin
When most churches think of a building project, often images of bulldozers, fundraising consultants, bricks and mortar come to mind but rarely a Web site. Although, countless studies have shown that the Web site is the first stop for many people looking to discover more about the church and determine if it might be a place where they could belong.
Essentially, the Web site is a window into the heart of your church. How accurately is it reflecting the values, culture and DNA of your church today?
The weekend experience is just that — an experience which needs to be translated online as well. It’s a direct channel for delivering the heart, vision and strategy of your church. So where to begin? Unfortunately, it’s not uncommon for organizations to focus first on what the Web site should do. The features, functionalities, bells and whistles can help enhance the experience, but should never be viewed as anything more than a means to an end. Otherwise teams run the risk of chasing rabbit trails and end up overbuilding a site or creating something that is difficult to maintain. Instead, we’ve found successful site planning begins with three key questions:
1. How do we want to change the relationship we have with our audience today? This begins with understanding who your audience is and redefining the primary goals of the site. It should be less about driving traffic and more about engaging people on a deeper level. Meeting them where they’re at and helping them to take the next step, whether that’s registering for an event or volunteer opportunity, downloading the prior week’s message or just learning what time the service starts.
2. What information does our audience truly need? How might those needs change in the future? Part of understanding your audience is going beyond the demographic information and into their psychographics, or mindset. What is important to them? What are they looking for or hoping to accomplish on your Web site? This is important to take into consideration when designing the architecture of your site so the navigation feels intuitive for your users.
“Unlimited pages” should not mean “unlimited content.” It’s not possible to be all things to all people all the time. People who feel confused or overwhelmed with information will get frustrated and leave. It’s more important to focus on your primary and secondary audiences and build a Web site that will work hard for them.
3. What things do we do well as a church and how does that align with our vision? Leaning into your strengths helps to give people an idea of what they would experience with your church and ensures you will be able to support whatever is built over time. It doesn’t make sense to build something that uses a lot of video if you currently don’t have a video team in place. But if you have a phenomenal teaching pastor or are actively involved with community service projects, it seems only natural to include a podcast of the message or a list of this month’s serving opportunities.
Consider the vision
Taking the church’s vision into consideration also ensures the new Web site isn’t something the church quickly outgrows. Are multiple campuses on the drawing board? Small groups? Resourcing other churches? Building a Web site is a lot like building a house. Establishing a set of blueprints in the planning stages will avoid unforeseen add-ons in the future.
We’ve highlighted the thinking behind the design of three influential churches’ online solutions to explain about the “what” and “why” involved with each. Two are complete redesigns and one is a newly launched Internet campus with a media player.
Willow Creek Community Church, South Barrington, IL: Five multi-site campuses averaging more than 22,000 in total weekend attendance (willowcreek.org).
With size often comes complexity, which sometimes can be a double-edged sword. Depth in ministries, resources and campuses can allow a church to meet a variety of needs but can also feel overwhelming and confusing for the very people the church intends to serve.
Willow Creek tackled this challenge by creating a central landing page with three “doors” users can select, based on the information they seek.
• New to Willow
• I attend
• Looking for resources
What follows in each section is information tailored for that audience with next steps to learn more. Whether that’s someone who’s never been to church and wants to learn more about Willow, committed members wanting to grow deeper in their faith or other churches around the globe looking for tools and resources.
Willow Creek 2:42
People are more inclined to watch a quick video clip than read large chunks of text online and video production is truly one of the strengths of this church. When combined, the result is a two-minute and 42-second promotional clip that gives viewers an overview of the church’s latest happenings each week with just a mouse click.
Seacoast Church, SC, NC, GA: Twelve physical multi-site campuses and one Internet campus which all together average about 9,000 in total weekend attendance (seacoast.org).
Seacoast discovered the optimal size campus for their ministry model is around 500 in weekend attendance. This resulted in an expertise of launching new locations efficiently and a lot of campuses to choose from.
The church truly lives out its promise of being one church in many locations, yet each campus is unique. It was important to create a system that made it easy for new people to know which campus to attend, while allowing each campus the ability to customize their own content.
The solution led people to first choose a campus by city and state, which led them to the right campus landing page, complete with information relevant to their area.
Granger Community Church, Granger, IN: Two multi-site campuses and one soon-to-be launched Internet campus. Averaging between 5,000-6,000 in total weekend attendance
Granger Community Church is well known for leveraging pop culture to help people connect the dots between their daily lives and biblical truths. This church is also very strong in the arts, consistently performing creative dramas and stellar worship sets.
Their audience values creativity and has a heart for reaching people who don’t go to church. So a media player was created that makes it easy to send elements of the weekend service to friends. Users can also create playlists of their favorite messages or drama skits, watch the message online and quickly find the most popular or recently added media.
Replicating the feeling of community
Granger also recently launched a campus on the Internet that follows the same vision as their physical campuses: “Helping people take their next steps toward Christ together.” The goal was to create an experience online that replicated the same feeling of community one would find at a physical campus.
The results included an ability to see and send messages to others “attending” the service, receive messages from the campus pastor and participate in the same weekend teaching held at the physical campuses.
The online solutions implemented by these churches effectively reach out to their communities and serve their congregations through the relevancy of the Web.
Keith Baldwin, is founder and chief creative officer of AspireOne, Sycamore, IL, a strategic branding firm with a passion for helping churches reach people more effectively. [AspireOne.com]
Fast Five Guidelines
1. Define your primary audience
For many outreach-focused churches, these are your guests and people new to the church. Make it as easy as possible for them to learn more about your church and how to get connected or take their next step.
2. Employ intuitive navigation
People don’t accidentally stumble upon your Web site, they are hunting for information. If they are confused or believe they’re headed down the wrong path they will get frustrated and leave.
3. Technology isn’t the driving force
Tools and technology are designed to enhance the flavor of the experience and accomplish the strategic goals of the church. Ask first, “What do we want to accomplish,” not “What tools should the Web site have?”
4. Be authentic
The Web site is a window into the heart of your church, so ensure it’s an accurate reflection of who you are. It’s better to under promise and over-deliver than to potentially mislead someone by pretending to be something that you’re not.
5. Keep it current
Outdated content is considered a cardinal sin in Web design. Ensuring your site has a content management system that’s easy to use and flexible is key.