On this page:
Building a Better Church Website
Thinking About Who Will Visit Your Church Website
How to use Wordpress to build a better church website
...and my real life experiences building websites for my former and current church

An article by (Rev.) Neil MacQueen, Sunday Software

You will also find other "church web & church tech" articles at my SundayResources.net website. That site also has my blogs about improving the church/staff/meetings, "Green Jesus" (church & eco/energy issues) and books I recommend.

My articles aren't about creating "fancy looking" websites. They are about creating & maintaining FRESH and SUSTAINABLE church websites.

Over the years I've revised and kept adding to the article you see below. It shows!  Good thing I'm not trying to attract you to my church with this monster. As always, your feedback and questions welcome. neil@sundaysoftware.com  <>< Neil

UPDATE:

This article has been improved and moved to

http://sundaysoftware.com/site/webpage/

 

BEST ADVICE: 

If you don't want to spend a lot of money, or don't have time or a lot of technical expertise, then I recommend you take a SERIOUS LOOK at creating their church site in WORDPRESS. See my article about this subject at www.sundaysoftware.com/wordpress.htm   Wordpress has a lot of the features that help churches communicate on the web effectively, without many of the pitfalls described in this article below and in the Wordpress article.  My Wordpress article also has a lot of tips for church websites using it, including how to see up a free email church newsletter at your site.

Why Wordpress for your Church Website? 

  • Wordpress is a great way to quickly and inexpensively create a professional-looking website that can have several advanced features.

  • Wordpress allows you experiment for free, and it's incredibly cheap from there on out.

  • Wordpress can be accessed by any computer, from home or office.

  • Wordpress allows multiple volunteers to work on the site.

  • Wordpress allows you to easily integrate some of the most IMPORTANT FEATURES any church website could ever have: a site that alerts members to new content.

Read my full article about creating a church website in Wordpress over at www.sundaysoftware.com/wordpress.htm  

WARNING: SOME "web techies" will turn up their noses at this suggestion. They would rather build you a custom website using their favorite web tool, which of course, puts them in control and puts all the files on their computer. The problem is that over time, they will quit working on the site, and then what?  If there's one single common problem with church websites, that's it.

There are some other great template-driven webpage building tools and services out there, especially if you have the money and expertise. Wordpress, and other similar web-based, site-building solutions, allow access by multiple contributors to the tools and content. The tools are at the website, not on somebody's computer. And they are easy to use. This helps your website "SURVIVE" the inevitable demise of the original web-techie's enthusiasm. 

This is real advice from not only myself, but from many of the church techies and pastors I've been talking with for over a decade about their websites. Ignore it at your own risk.


BUILDING A BETTER CHURCH WEBSITE

The Old Idea:  Our Church Website is a "Billboard for Visitors" on the Information Superhighway

The Better Idea: Our Church Website is our church newsletter & more. It's a place to learn, get the latest info, download resources, and connect with members. It's not just top down. It allows members to connect with each other.

The Evolving Idea:  Our church website is connected to our membership database, and small group sign-up forms, and meeting files, and my giving statement. Many church data companies are now offering online tools that can connect with your church website. It's the direction things are headed and it makes a lot of sense, in part because it allows people to be their own church secretary and saves paper and time.

Back when most people weren't on the internet, churches were pleased to put up Billboards for visitors saying "here we are." Now that nearly EVERYONE is on the internet, church websites can now function like church newsletters, and as a way for members to get in touch with each other.

Funny thing is, VISITORS are attracted to a friendly member-centric website. They are attracted by fresh content that shows off a vibrant community. "Message to Visitors" pages are ok, but it's the rest of your site that's the real message. And most visitors are looking for a community that looks welcoming and like a place they will fit in. Show that by posting lots of good photos.

Your site doesn't need to be a one person effort, or one-way conversation these days either. Creating your software using a web-tool like Wordpress allows multiple authors to keep the news flowing, and the conversation going. Wordpress was originally a "blog" software, so it has many features which allow people to "talk back" to your postings and to each other. Learn how to build your site in Wordpress at  www.sundaysoftware.com/wordpress.htm  

Ultimately, you want people to come back to your site. Thus, adding an email newsletter subscription or "feedburner.com"-like service (for free) at your website gives YOU a tremendous tool for ALERTING people about new content. I can't stress enough the importance of these features to bringing people BACK to your website. I discuss how to add a feedburner service or email newsletter to your site -over at  www.sundaysoftware.com/wordpress.htm  

Connecting and Reminding are two great reasons why your church website should link to your church's Facebook Page.  In my (new) church, the pastor didn't use Facebook much and so didn't think it was important. The Outreach Committee created a FB page for the church and 40 members signed up for it within a week....many of them RETIRED.  I had a dozen of them "friend" me that first week, and we can now follow each other's lives in between Sunday

Update: There are many "wordpress-like" website design tools on the web now. Some are free, some are not. The thing you want to watch out for: web-builder companies that go out of business leaving your church site high and dry and un-updatable.  Wordpress has been around a long time and continues to grow. Others are good too, but will they be there in 2 or 3 years? It's something to factor in your decision.

UPDATE:

This article has been improved and moved to

http://sundaysoftware.com/site/webpage/

 

Neil's Definition of a Good Church Website:

GOOD = Fresh, inviting, and helpful.
GOOD = one that church members regularly go to for info  ...and visitors actually visit.
GOOD = allows members to talk or at least connect with each other through the site.
GOOD = one that's easy for volunteers to maintain.
GOOD= A website that reminds your members that it exists via email by giving members the option to "subscribe" to an email alert/newsletter from the website. If they don't get reminders, they won't come.
GOOD= A site that's collaboratively built, and not dependent on one person. 
 

Neil's Definition of a Bad Church Website:

Bad = Fancy out of date content.
Bad = Professionally created but lifeless.
Bad = So time consuming that the project eventually grinds to a halt.
Bad = Nobody goes there.
Bad = No way for members to connect with each other.
Bad = No automatic alert to subscribed members that something new has been added to the site.
Bad = One that the staff and other communications ignore or rarely mention.
Bad = One that visitors will CRINGE AT when they visit.
Bad = Full of fake or posed photos. (lacks authenticity, looks too slick)
Bad = Created and controlled by one person.
Bad = "Your Bad Here"

Bad design and graphics go without saying.

Notice I'm not saying your site has to LOOK FANTASTIC. 
Fresh and Nice is better than Fancy and out of date.
(Or in the case of this article ...where I'm trying to be informative instead of trying to get you to come to my church.)
 

View several examples of good and bad church websites

TEST YOUR CHURCH'S WEBSITE!

It's probably not a good church website if....

...if your church's main page prominently features a picture or drawing of your church building. Feature who you are!

...your website's main page is dominated by a photo of the pastor and welcome message. Feature your community!

...you can't find a picture of smiling church members on your main page or when I click on my first link on your main page.  Why would people join that?

... 3 of the next 5 volunteer leaders you approach at church cannot tell you the church's web address. Being online is not the same as being on people's minds.

...if you have music playing on your main page, or a spinning graphic on your main page. That's soooo 1996.

...your source code has no meta=keywords or meta=description tags in the header. This is how search engines will find and catalog you, but a surprising number of church web volunteers leave these out. Bad sign!

... you are the only one really working on it. It's not "good" if you're the only one who cares, or contributes, because eventually the site may die when you leave or move on to another project.

 

Here are some Tips for Building a Better Church Website:

  • Design your site for your members, especially those who surf. Design a page they can use as their "start" page or "home page" that pops up every time they turn on their browser. Put a button on your main page that says "make this website your homepage." It's an easy button to code. Every browser is designed to open up to some webpage. Make your church's site the first thing your members see when they start surfing the net. (Notice this is my top suggestion. Create and coding the habit of coming to the church's page is important IF you are creating a site that will stay fresh.)

  • Design your site ABOUT your members.  Show visitors who you are, what you're like, and it will also remind members why they are members!  This requires plenty of PHOTOS. They are word a thousand words.

  • Keep it simple. Don't create so many pages that the work of updating becomes tedious. 5 or 6 well done up to date pages are better than 10 pages that look amateurish and are out of date. One or two "updates" a month will suffice for most members (see my discussion above for this reasoning).

  • Friendly photos + photos that are friendly + photos of friends!

  • AVOID using "stock photos" of models who don't look like your members. Such photos are common on 'site builder' sites but lack authenticity. As a visitor to your site, I'm looking for "real".  See an example of a church's stock photo use that looks UN-authentic to me.

  • Make sure you have excellent server-provided web statistics. Cheapie "counters" like you see on some sites are useless. Stats will help you build your case for a better site, more staff input, or keep your creative work under control. Share these stats with church leaders. Many will be surprised. It will also get them to use the site!

  • Instead of boring mission statements and 10 second downloads of the church steeple, give them a brief reminder of a coming event and a pithy verse, quote or recent sermon one-liner to start their day (or evening) on the Internet. Keep it fresh.

  • Watch your language. Many church websites read like they were written by computer geeks. Write them from a P.R. angle. Give your website personality!

  • Provide links right on the main page to major search engines like Yahoo! which is probably where they will go next.

  • Maintain a "links" page of Internet sites suggested by fellow members, such as websites for parenting issues. One of my favorite sites to recommend is a family movie review site (you can link to it at my software page). List the local movie theater. A lot of web surfers check the web for movie times and reviews.

  • Create opportunities for members to share with each other. Talk to a website designer or your Internet Service Provider about list-serv discussion possibilities for bible studies and discussion groups -or do these through a message board right on your website.

  • Create an email newsletter members can subscribe to for free. The e-news can alert them to upcoming events, changes and new resources at the website.

  • Create a message board page or have a comments feature that allows your members to respond to each other's needs, ideas, and can conduct a running bible study. If your church is large enough, you may find that it fills a need for a small percentage of your members, and will grow with time. A message board can also provide you with an email newsletter function. You can also build your site using WORDPRESS to allow people to leave comments to posts and talkback to each. For more on building a church website using Wordpress, go to www.sundaysoftware.com/wordpress.htm

  • Connected to your church's Facebook Page.  Why? Because many of your members check their FB page every day, and your FB page can be updated by everyone.

  • Don't use pale colors and small text which make it hard to read for older people.

  • Work with a committee.

  • Make sure somebody other than yourself believes the website should look good and be functional, -and knows how to make it so!  ...otherwise there will come a day when you move on and your work ends up a wasted effort.

  • Don't forget to create a FACEBOOK PAGE for your church. Many of your members, especially your younger ones, are on Facebook everyday via their computers and cellphones. Put a link on your webpage to "follow us on Facebook."


More Church Website Tips....

  • A boring "Welcome from the Pastor" is of dubious value. Instead, provide a happy picture of the pastor having fun at a church event. Include three or four sentences from the pastor, MAX. This can change every month.

  • Spare us the two page TEXT description of the youth program. Instead, post two recent youth photos, coming events and contact info, and a page to print containing the standard medical release form they have lost. Post a page of links for youth submitted by youth.

  • Mission pages are a must. Give us a list of the projects you support along with two or three pictures of members in action (small file size please).

  • I lose about two softball schedules a year, give me a page where I can print out a new one.

  • Create a page new-comers can print out that has critical info they can post on their refrigerator: Sunday schedule, phone, staff names, map to the church.

  • Keep your content brief, well organized and fresh. Make it look nice but don't over do it.

  • Change/Add something new about every two to three weeks. This can be as simple as worship updates and a "favorite photo" of the month.

  • Change a significant design element on your main page every couple of months. Keeping it fresh with "site of the month" type of stuff will keep folks coming back.

  • Save us from poor web design, sites designed by automatic "free web page" offers, and sites hosting by providers like Geocities that place advertisements on every screen.

  • Everybody likes to get email.. Create opportunities for members-to-member and member-to-staff email.

  • Post council minutes for officers (especially for those who travel).  You can set these up in password protected folders.

  • Post sermons, newsletter articles and pictures of recent events.

  • Learn how to optimize your photos and graphics for quick download.

  • Create a section on your main page that has changing pictures/graphics. There are several Java scripts that do this automatically --with no management needed other than posting new photos to a file. These scripts can be found for free on the Internet.

Still more good tips...

Put your church's website address on absolutely everything: your lawn sign, your letterhead, and in your bulletin. Purchase refrigerator magnets with the address printed on them. Publish your website URL in the newspaper with an article about how you designed it. Having a site nobody knows about doesn't work.

Spend the money to get a "domain name" such as "www.firstlutheran.com." Do not cheap it out and create a site at "www.firstlutheran.freewebpages.com." Eventually you will want to move your site to a new provider and all your literature will have the old web address. By purchasing a domain name, you can switch service providers and never have to change your published web address. If you create your site in Wordpress, you can pay a small fee to have them register it to the domain name of your choice.

Take GOOD photographs, and make sure you process them correctly for the web. I've seen many church websites with good text and graphics, but lousy photographs, or photos whose file sizes are so big, the page bogs down on slow connections. One church recently asked me to review their website. They must have had 30 photos in a nice online album. But I kid you not --almost every person in every photo looked like they had just swallowed a Bible, -sideways. Members like to see themselves, but nobody likes to see themselves look bad. Visitors are trying to imagine "if that congregation looks friendly, and will I fit in." Take good photos, but also know how to process good photos for the web.

Your photos must be compressed and processed for the web. No photo should be over 60kb. Most photos need cropped. Most photos need lightened and their colors slightly boosted. Compressing photos for the web makes them a bit dark. This all takes a good software program. I recommend Photoshop Elements 2.0. It's under $80 and will make your web photos look great.

Yes, you can use photos of Members and their Children on your Website without permission. -an article spelling out your rights and theirs.


A Few Hard Lessons from Real Experience
My personal cautions to the techies responsible for building the church's website.

I have created 12 different websites and consulted on several more. Each has taught me something about website management, design and usability. I've worked on sites and let others take them over too. You can learn a lot about churches and websites when YOU are no longer driving them. There's no experience like real experience.

Having rebuilt my own FORMER church's website TWICE, trained staff and volunteers to update it portions of it, watched the statistics closely (real stats provided by the server, not those hokey "749 visitors since 1903" counters), and then watched what happened to the site AFTER I was no longer at the church...

I have concluded these three things:

1) "What a church or staff says it wants, isn't necessarily what it will support or use."

2) A Modest but well-done website can attract a surprising number of visitors. But does it make a difference? And will they come back? Yes, but only if you invite them to follow the site by subscribing to it (see my notes on this page about that)

3) After you're gone, if the staff didn't really care about it, or if you didn't design it so others could easily add to it or take it over, then your site can become a wasteland faster than you can say "Death Valley."
 

1) "What a church or staff says it wants, isn't necessarily what it will support or use."

In my former church, I had to regularly remind church staff to keep things updated, even though we made it VERY easy for them to update it themselves. There's nothing wrong with that. All leaders need helpers, ...and I'm willing to help. But what this means is IF you build a website for your church, you need to plan on working on it over the long haul.  You know that old proverb, "raise up a child in the way they should go" ?  You have to train your church and staff to use the website too. To put it another way, build it, and they still may take a while to come.

If you're the pastor reading this, you need to know that pastors often lament to me about the person who volunteered to build the website. They didn't know what they were doing, and/or didn't stick around for the long haul to keep improving things. Others lament having a website that's impossible for the next volunteer to change because the first one created the website with special web codes and databases which not every web volunteer understands or has the tools to update. 

Some churches hire someone to do the heavy-lifting of building the website, then use a volunteer to provide updates. This means that if you hire someone to build your church website, you will need to budget "update" money.  It's not a bad idea. But make sure you're hiring someone who knows how to build a website. I run across church websites all the time that are poorly designed by companies.
 

2) A Modest but well-done website can attract a surprising number of visitors

I was at a small suburban church for 10 years, and helped them with their site for 6 years. The site wasn't fancy, but it was colorful and happy, and utilized many of the extra special techniques mentioned in this article.

Our server stats told us the people were visiting the site. We had visitors to the church who told us they visited our website. One Sunday over two-thirds of the members in our worship service raised their hand when asked if they had visited the website in the last month.

But this seemed to fall on deaf ears of the staff who regularly had to be prodded to add fresh content, or submit it to the webmaster (me) who would post it for them.

3) After you're gone, if the staff didn't really care, the site can become a wasteland faster than you can say "Death Valley."

The site I have described above was one I worked on for a church where I used to attend. They had been enthusiastic about the website we had built. A Tech Committee was formed and embraced it. Pastor said how much he appreciated it. Then I decided to leave. Curious, I visited their site every month to see how they were keeping it up. The first couple of months they didn't change anything except the easy-to-change main page text about upcoming events. (Even that didn't look so good, as they no longer had me there to spell check, center text, and adjust a few things, -but hey, they were trying.)

Then about six months later they nuked virtually everything we had created. In it's place was a website I can only describe as "something that someone with NO web experience had posted." It was awful. Actually... it was beyond awful. It was amateurish, unkempt, and lifeless. It became one of those sites that this article was written to combat. Their awful new site says one of two things: 1)  They didn't really care about their website.  or 2) They didn't really care about doing things well.   Update: 2 years later and it's still pretty bad. 

And now you know why we moved-on from that church. What they did to the site, and what they accepted as a website prior to building them a better one, was an example in microcosm of the problems within that church. I originally wrote this previous sentence during Holy Week -viewing the site and seeing no mention of when special Holy Week Services are to be held. There was also no mention of the building project they have started, and only one poor photo on the CE page. There are new pictures of the church leaders, however.  

Bottom line: you can lead a horse to water, but you can't make them drink, -especially if they're not thirsty, or don't know how.

In retrospect, I should have helped the church identify people within the congregation who could maintain the website -other than me. Having a committee that cheered me on and offered suggestions -- didn't help. I should have also trained someone to understand how to put graphics on the  website. The problem was this: as long as I was there to do it, they didn't need anyone else to do it. Of course, without me there, they should have found someone else who knew how to maintain and/or improve on what was there. That it looks 1995-ish and abandoned is a metaphor for church problems in general.

Taking over a site from somebody can be difficult as well, especially if they didn't know what they were doing and have lost things like the username and password to the domain name's registration. Been there.... have the stripes!  Read my blog notes on "Domain Name & Voluntech Blues" at http://sundayresources.net/neil/2009/04/28/domain-name-voluntech-blues/

REAL LIFE EXPERIENCE UPDATE:

From 2008 to 2011
my family and I lived on an island and worshipped at a Reformed Church. I was asked to create them a website. Knowing we were there for only a few years (my wife was on a contract),  I built them a site in Wordpress so that volunteers could help me manage it and take it over.

  • Wordpress allowed me to create a good looking site very quickly.

  • Wordpress let's other collaborators easily contribute content.

  • Wordpress will always be there evolving and improving long after I'm no longer in charge of the site.

That church only has 70 members, but we have over 50 families/individuals "subscribed" at the site, getting its updates emailed to them through Feedburner. Every time we post something new an email with that new content is automatically generated and sent. It functions as our church newsletter.  Miss that church a lot!  ...and they continue to have a good looking website with a new volunteer who had never done a website before.

In 2012 we landed at a church here in Florida. We found it by searching the internet for churches of our denomination near us. Their site was nice, but I could tell whoever created it had never coded a site before. Several months after joining there, and after several questions about the site, my concerns were confirmed. I gently offered to help, and was rebuffed. The site isn't bad, but it had some MAJOR NEWBIE MISTAKES, such as, they didn't know about compressing photo sizes. They were uploading several 2 and 3 megabyte photo files to their pages!  The Home page was a 3 megabyte file!  (which is about 1000 times bigger that it should be). My smartphone couldn't load it.  So I copied and compressed the photos for them and emailed them with an explanation. They did make the changes, and that's basically where it was left. Being the new guy, and feeling like they didn't really want help (or admit they needed it), -and due to the pastor's disinterest, I shut up and volunteered doing other things. Fortunately, the site isn't that bad.

One of the things I suggested to my new church's web person was a Facebook page. The pastor didn't know why we should have one. A few months later the Outreach Committee started one, and within a month we had 50 members "following" the FB page, and even more now. It's updated more often than the church's webpage. I sent some code to the church website techie that would install a "like us on Facebook" button on the church's website. 3 months later, they haven't done anything with it.

UPDATE:

This article has been improved and moved to

http://sundaysoftware.com/site/webpage/

 

 

Neil's Rules for deciding the church's web address:
(also known as "domain name")

I wrote this years ago when many churches didn't have a web address. Some are still saddled with a former bad choice, so I'm including this for you!

A Good Church Web URL is...

1. Easy to spell when you're saying it out loud to someone.
2. Easy to remember
3. Easy to say
4. Easy to understand when heard
5. Rolls off the tongue
6. No hyphens, extra 'dots' or underscores
7. Relatively short
8. Reasonably descriptive of what the site is
9. Use .org, not .com (A surprising number of church list themselves as commercial sites)
10. Will wear well over the years.

EXAMPLES:

Good: www.secondchurch.org
Bad: www.second-presbyterian-online.com

Why is this bad? 
Too long. People will misspell Presbyterian, and churches should be dot-org, not dot-com.

Good: www.First--Indianapolis.org
Bad: www.1stChurch-Indy.org

Why is this bad? 
Try speaking the url outloud to yourself. "First as in the number 1, stchurch dash indy".
 

If you have a BAD domain name, change it now. You can put in a simple "redirect" to send people from your old domain name to your new one. And it doesn't require creating a second site. Your webhost or techie can help you do this.

Read me complete article about Creating a church website in Wordpress at www.sundaysoftware.com/wordpress.htm

If you have questions or suggestions on this topic, feel free to email me, Neil MacQueen, neil@sundaysoftware.com

Neil MacQueen is a Presbyterian minister, interactive software and web designer, and President of Sunday Software Ministries. Created in 2004, and updated every year since!  Copyright Neil MacQueen. This article may be copied or excerpted for non-commercial purposes provided that the author and this website remain with the article.