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?