Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Haven't We All Heard Enough About Church Websites? Part II

So I am probably going to be moving this summer, and for the first time in ten years, I am looking for a church not for vocational reasons, but to be a member.  I'm looking at church websites with fresh eyes, and friends, it is a frustrating world (wide web) in which to be a seeker.

To be clear, I am not church shopping.  Well aside from one thing.  See, my children have been happy participants in a Spirit Play ministry now for two years, and it has made a tremendous difference in their spiritual lives. I really, really want them to have that ministry for at least another year or two. So yeah, in that way, I am shopping for a program (largely unsuccessfully I might add, since it seems the closest church with a Spirit Play ministry is about an hour's drive away).

No, I'm not church shopping, but seeking.

I am seeking a tribe. I am seeking a band of folks with whom my family can join for the next three to six years. Though three to six years is a relatively short-term prospect, it will cover the span of my children's lives all the way from ages five and six to ages eight and nine at least, if not to ages eleven and twelve.  Those years of their lives will be significant.

It's a big deal, this finding a tribe for my family thing.


So, religious leaders, how can I say this delicately? When I visit a church website and can't find a photo of the minister or the professional staff, or real photos of real members, I can't really envision myself in the tribe, you know?

When I click on "leadership" and your website takes me to a list rather than a series of photos, I am just a hop, skip, and a jump away from closing out the window. I'm still browsing a few sites.  I don't really care what your names are yet. I want to see some faces behind all that text on your site because it is actually true that a picture is worth a thousand words.

When I click on "sermons," I need to hear something so I can imagine myself sitting amongst the other members of the tribe, hearing what you are hearing.  Better yet, I'd love a You Tube video (parceled into parts) so I can see and hear as if I was there.  This isn't a research project. I don't want to sit and read your sermons, I want to hear your voices.

And friends, I know you all want to have a photo directory on your website but can't make it public for safety reasons, but truly, those "for members" links and password protected parts of your site that I stumble upon so easily communicate to me that I am an outsider. Even though I totally understand the reasons you do it, I find that somehow it still feels terribly uninviting to me, this person who is considering bringing up her family among your people.

Calendars are similar.  Please, when I go to find out what is going on in your church, I don't want an actual calendar.  I know you've done that cool thing of actually putting links in for each calendar entry so I can click to get more information.  And truly, that's better than the way things used to be.  But it's cumbersome, it's boring, and it doesn't inspire me to imagine myself with you. 

Actually, the ever-fabulous Andover Newton Theological School provides a fantastic example of an alternative to a calendar.  Stay on their homepage for a few seconds and you will see the primary graphic on the page as a slideshow with events advertised.  Each one has a "headline" and a way to click for more info.  Then, look over to the right side of the page.  The first thing you see is "new and current."  Your eyes naturally lower and then you get "fall 2010: key dates."  Now that's the kind of thing that says, "join us."

Here's a screenshot:

Another issue is that if you can't tell me in three or four sentences who you are, I get the feeling that you don't really know, and then how can you expect me to imagine myself as one of you? Yes, I will want more information, but you would do so much better to keep the headlines clean so I can settle into your picture of words for a minute.

If you have links to your bylaws and your meeting minutes, I am like "whoah, TMI." We've just met one another. I feel like you are airing all your laundry, clean or dirty, and it blocks my view of you the people.  When I picture myself walking with you, I see myself carrying a big pile of laundry by your side. Not too inviting.  (By the way, your members rarely if ever use those links themselves, anyway, no matter how much they say they want them.)

That's actually the crux of the issue.  Are our websites invitational?  Do they inspire imaginings about joining our tribes?

We as religious leaders need to continue to revisit our websites again and again, asking ourselves these three simple questions:

1. When people visit our website, is it clear what kind of tribe they've stumbled upon?
2. Oh yeah, what kind of tribe is that? Is that an accurate reflection of the tribe we actually are?
3. What sights (photos of members and staff) and sounds (sermons) do we have on our website that help people imagine themselves walking with us?


  1. Here's my $0.02.

    On the one hand, I agree w/ you in your exasperation w/ the number of bad church web sites (heck, bad web sites of any kind) out there. And I agree w/ most of your points.

    On the other hand, I feel for people who are in charge of designing them.

    You see, I have somewhat different needs (admittedly, this is an academic exercise for me; I'm not seeking a church now, as I have two that I like very much :-) ) I'm just going to zero in on one: sermons. I understand the appeal of video sermons, and sometimes I like them. But I'm much more of a reader than a listener. I feel so pressed for time so much of the time that I much prefer to read a sermon -- OK, skim it -- and probably be able to get through it in 1/2 or even 1/3 of the time that it would take to watch it on YouTube. That doesn't mean I don't appreciate a good delivery, and perhaps at some point in my hypothetical church shopping example I might, as you do, need to listen and watch, not just read. But my point is really that web designers need to think about people with varying ways of wanting information and, if they want to draw in a variety of different people, need to be prepared to do different things to attract them. And all with a lot less clutter than too many sites have today.

    Really good post, by the way.

  2. I understand that you have particular things you are looking for in your web visit of church sites. But others of us have other sensibilities and needs. E.g.:

    Calendars. I much prefer an actual calendar with links for more information. An alternative is a list of all events and activities in chronological order with links to more info. But the changing banner announcement that works for you drives me nuts.

    Sermons. I get where you're going with this, but I also agree with DSD that I want text in hand because I am more likely to get something out of it that way. But I am truly torn about posting sermons. For lots of reasons.

    1) My home congregation is very small and lay-led. So most service leaders depend on (properly attributed) sermons found online. Given the absence of a budget for projection equipment, that only works if there is a printable text the lay leader can read from the pulpit.

    2) As a minister-in-training, I'm not sure I want to make my own sermons available online. I may change my mind. But it takes a huge amount of preparation to produce a sermon. Do I necessarily want to give the entire "product" away?

    3) Yes, I realize that #1 and #2 essentially contradict each other.

    4) Even if a minister decides to share hir sermons online, does it really make sense to keep an online archive? I prefer the notion of the minister's carefully selecting a handful of sermons that worked especially well. Then make those available (in multiple media: text, audio, and video, if that is what people want). But don't just offer streaming media in place of text.

    You don't want a link to a members-only space, yet that is exactly what is needed for some of the other items you don't want to see but that members ought to have ready access to, like bylaws, minutes, reports, directories, and so forth. Would you be less turned off if the link said something like "Congregational Business" without telling people that when they click a password is needed to proceed?

    I agree that I want to see pictures of ministers especially and also probably other staff and volunteer leaders of particular key projects (probably not every committee chair, though). And, yes, a concise statement of who they are and what is important to them in that position, without having to read a book.

    I also want to see pictures of the congregation at worship. In whatever architectural space they inhabit. Doing whatever it is they do together. And pictures of the church in its service projects. Not every project can meaningfully be photographed, but many can.

    And I want the Sunday service times to be clearly visible on the homepage without having to hunt them down.

  3. DSD and Paul, thanks so much for your comments! I love getting some conversation on my blog, which is my goal. Here's my two part response:

    My sensibilities and needs in regard to church websites right now come very specifically from the place of the seeker, which is why I think they are important to talk about.

    I have been following and commenting on trends in church website design for years, but being in the position of moving, I have refreshed my "seeker lenses" and am able to see things from a different angle right now.

    According to some statistics I've recently heard bantered about, 80% of folks go online to figure out what church they want to attend. Experts have provided ample argument that the website isn't for the current members, it is for the seekers. That is, if a church wants to have their arms open to the seeker.

    I think I would have hesitated more in writing what I wrote if it wasn't part of a well-documented growing trend of needs (I speak partly from the sensibilities of the "under 40" folks who will spend the next 20 to 50 years shaping churches that speak to us).

    Don't get me wrong, I love to read sermons. I hope people continue circulating their sermon texts. But when I am seeking a church, there is nothing more powerful than audio or visual sermons that give me some of the sensory experience of being with the people of the church in worship.

    I agree with both of you that I don't want to see *every* worship service or every moment of every worship service. I also agree with DSD that I don't have time to sit with long videos. What I like in particular is 2-3 part videos or recordings of the sermon only. They need to be cut and edited, and the ones that stay on the website ought to be the best of the best.

    Actually, if there is a benefit to keeping the text, the former "Speaking of Faith," now "On Being" radio show has nice examples of combining audio availability with written text: for example.

    I understand that as you look ahead to your own ministry, you have a hesitation about posting your sermons online. I can totally relate to that, but given the research that is out there about how people navigate and use the web these days, I feel pretty confident in my guess that the churches that grow the most easily in the future will be churches that are not gun shy about this kind of thing.

  4. Part two of my response:

    Part of what I like about the Andover Newton website, in terms of calendaring, is that it fulfills both my need and yours. Yes, there is the transitioning banner that drives you nuts (and I can understand why...I sometimes wish they had an arrow below so one could click back or forward as desired, like the MSN main page news and interest items). But they also have the list of events and activities in chronological order with links to more info (on the right).

    I maintain that the calendars are just awful for the majority of seekers. I just tried really hard to open my mind and scanned through about a half dozen websites with calendars (I recommend this, as it is very interesting and informative), and I just can't see them as inviting.

    The rest of what you post, Paul, is really a matter of accepting the research that websites are for seekers, not for members.

    1) Churches that need sermons found online can get these in multiple ways. Again, mixing text and audio on church websites is fine with me. All I am saying is that the seeker is invited in, in a really much more engaging manner, when there is audio or visual in the invitation.

    Alternatives to posting sermon text on the church website include but are not limited to: (A) a sermon blog or facebook note page and (B) posting the sermons with a sermon aggregate site or on a listserv that serves the needs of congregations like yours.

    2) Yes, a "Congregational Business" link is preferable to a "Members" link if it must be on the site. But again, if we want to share ourselves with seekers, then we have to realize that the website isn't really for us.

    I've been in the church setting my whole life, as a leader from my early teen years, and vocationally for the last ten years. I've known intimately a share of the churches that post minutes online, and I have never seen more than a rare few take advantage of that.

    It actually may not be that important to have these online. But if you think it is, if you think that is the best way to archive things and keep leadership in the know, then fine...start a leadership blog (which can be password protected if desired) and create a tab for each of the committees. Use Google Docs. Doesn't Constant Contact have something for this? Anything but the main church website, your "billboard" to the whole world.

    Directories are different. I'd love to know if anyone has researched this. Does anyone know if you have to host the directory on your own site or if you can have it hosted by, say, the directory company you work with (if any)? I'm more forgiving of a link for directories than anything else password protected.

    I am totally with you on the worship service times and the photos.

    Well, service projects are tricky for me, but that's a post for another day...

  5. P.S. Just noticed that Andover Newton has a calendar too. I like how they keep the whole thing in one window.

  6. While I, too, look at web sites while seeking a congregation, I look for different things than you do. I have a background in web design and testing myself, so I'm very much aware of how a site represents an organization and what it takes to maintain a site, as well.

    Photos are good. There's no reason not to have photos of the minister, staff, and congregational leaders alongside their names and brief biographical sketches. Some good, candid shots of people worshiping and otherwise going about the life of the church are reasonable, too, as long as the people in those shots don't mind having them put on the web site (always get signed photo releases first). I'd stay away from shots containing children, unless their parents agree to the photos and their intended purpose ahead of time.

    I like seeing a few sample sermons available, because I want to know if there's any meat there, or if there's just going to be fluff. For instance, does the pastor or other speaker make political or other claims without providing references to back them up? I want to know that she's done her homework.

    I'm not likely to listen to a recording or watch a video - and there are people who aren't able to do so, so the text wins on accessibility, too. However, if I'm impressed enough by the content I read, I might download a recording for my partner, who prefers audio - and if it's only available streaming, that's fairly useless, because he wants to take it with him on his iPod. Generally speaking, though, video seems to be more attractive to younger visitors.

    There's a lot to be said for a list of typical activities so that visitors can see what generally goes on at a glance. Is this place interesting? Are these my kind of people? But I want to see a few months sample calendars, too. I don't insist that they be the real, live calendars of actual activities for that congregation, due to security issues, IF they have one of those members-only sections (see below) - but if they don't, I want to see the real thing.

    Our family has visited some congregations that claimed to have, for instance, regular book discussions or youth groups or what have you, but when we checked to be sure that they were meeting at the time stated on the calendar on the web site, we were told, "Oh, no, we don't do that any more," or "Well, nobody was really interested." An acquaintance related visiting a church where she asked about the children's choir and was told that "(blank) used to lead that before he got arrested." (Not a UU congregation, happily.)

    I'm quite happy to see a password-protected section for members, because it indicates that there is some awareness of the need for informational security. That's quite a relief to me. I don't want my family's information and photographs splashed around with indications that they'll be at a particular place and time on a predictable basis. In fact, I don't want to see that done with any child's information, especially.

    If there's a link to Bylaws and meeting minutes such, I'm not offended at all. I'm happy that there's so much transparency. If you had ever been part of a congregation that fell apart or had a crisis due to the lack of it, you probably would, too.

    It is so very simple to set up community sites using something like Drupal these days that there's really no excuse for not sharing information electronically, and it's honestly much cheaper and environmentally friendly than mailing out a bunch of newsletters.

    Spirit Play looks wonderful. I wish it were around when our kids were of the appropriate ages (they're all in college now). I appreciate the link and plan to pass it on to someone who will appreciate it.

    I hope you find your tribe. Our family is unlikely to move any time soon, so I'm not feeling terribly optimistic about our chances these days.

  7. technomom, thanks for sharing what you are looking for in a website! That story about the children's choir is horrifying!

    I think that while seekers may have varying needs and interests in a website, there are some general trends that can be tracked. I'd argue that congregations that want to remain vibrant should consider tracking those trends particularly as they relate to "upcoming generations..." not so much because they are the market group (though it is great if they are), but because in terms of technological stuff, it seems like the trend setters tend to be younger, and that older generations eventually fall in (think Facebook).

    Based on this discussion, if I was going to summarize suggestions for someone looking to design or redesign their website, I would say (I will post this as a blog entry too):

    1. Photos are absolutely key. Especially of ministers and staff but also "candid ones" from church activities or worship. We all agree on that.

    2. Sermons are important. Posting just a few of the best ones is useful. Posts should include text. Additional audio (or video) is helpful for those who like what they read and want to follow it with audio or share it in audio. I still argue that more and more with people my age and younger, the audio and video will be important.

    3. Go ahead and include your calendar if you would like, but be sure on your homepage to highlight what is happening with "happening this month" type lists that include the highlights.

    Prioritize keeping calendars and lists updated so that newcomers don't ask about that book group, etc. only to find out it is defunct. People want to know what you are really doing.

    4. Folks say they really like to have congregational business online. I will not sway from my position that this stuff is more appropriately placed online somewhere other than your billboard for the world (website). However, as evidenced in this conversation, people do feel it is important to have this stuff online, so by all means, put it there...again I recommend blogs, google docs, Constant Contact, etc. A single "congregational business" link should suffice if you want to link it from your website. Link to directories, password protected, if you need to, but consider alternatives.

    5. Know yourself well enough to keep your "headlines" clear in that "about us" link.

  8. P.S. technomom, I am so glad you found the Spirit Play website something good to pass on!