Designing a Church Website: Thoughts from a “younger” person

Designing a Church Website

Thoughts from a “younger” person

Who is this “younger” person?

I say “younger” because I’m no longer in my twenties… but I’m generally still within the age group that a lot of churches say they want to attract to their church. These are some thoughts and suggestions I have, based on my own experiences researching and visiting churches, as I looked for a congregation to be part of. My experience is largely based on Ohio churches in the ELCA Lutheran and Episcopal denominations of Christian, but the suggestions and thoughts apply more widely.

What am I looking for (and other visitors too)?

When I am looking for a church, I research using a church’s website. So the things I look for right away are:
  • What denomination is this church?
  • When is its service(s)?
  • Where is it located? 

Really, that’s it. Anything else you want to put on the website is great, but shouldn’t be the first thing I see.

Other useful things to have easy to find:

  • Pastor/priest’s name, and a bio is interesting
  • A welcome greeting to visitors
  • a “who we are” statement – NOT in churchy language! Needs to be easy for a non-churchgoer to figure out!

Also – make sure your Google Maps listing is up-to-date. You can make sure that the phone number, address, website, and “type” are correct (one church was listed as a “museum” which made it harder to find). You can also add office hours and service times. This is the first place many people check, especially if they are first-time or very sporadic visitors.

What purpose should your website serve?

This can be a pretty broad question, but as I implied above, a website is a great first-interaction. This means that visitors see the website as your “face” – it’s how you’re presenting yourself and your congregation. Yes, include activities and pictures and events, but make sure they aren’t hiding the info a first-time visitor needs to see. A welcome message from the pastor/priest can be great. A basic statement on who you are and what your type of church believes can be really helpful. If you want to have a section for members, where there is info on events and sign-ups and schedules for volunteers, that’s wonderful! Make it easy for them to find, but don’t hide the info the first-time visitor needs. The more I have to search for info, the more likely that I’ll give up and not even try to come to your church.
Don’t assume that, in order to appeal to young people, your church has to have a certain type of music or worship. Just like any generation, young people have varied interests and needs. Simply be clear about what type of church you are, make it easy for me to figure out – and I’ll find the church that fits me, rather than going to a church that isn’t a good fit and being miserable.
 

How a church makes me feel welcome (or excluded)

One of the things I have found is that a lot of churches say they want young people to come, but they don’t always act on that. By that I mean that many churches are very comfortable with how they have been for many decades. The act of including new people, fresh eyes, is by nature an act of change. Someone with fresh eyes might point out that something no longer makes sense, or comes across as hypocritical. Meeting those observations with an open dialog will create an environment where someone new feels welcome. Shutting down conversation will have the opposite effect. I love tradition – but a tradition with no purpose and no reason, especially if it comes across as hypocritical, may not actually be a tradition – it might be fossilization. Being willing to recognize that and be open to change can make a congregation really wonderful for a new person.
Additionally, many people my age have children. Make it clear what opportunities there are for children and how they are welcomed! They are the future of any church, and if they aren’t welcome, their parents won’t feel welcome either – and there goes the future. Have great programs for the kids in your church, set up safety protocols, create an environment where the children learn about what your church actually believes – and then gush to the visitors about it! We are excited to hear it – even if we don’t have living children of our own yet. Many churches can also get really picky about children making sound during church. It’s joyful noise and they are your future! But if your congregation isn’t open to children who might make noise during service, make the information about your cry room or nursery easy to find, and clear to understand. Families that are comfortable with that style of church will find you, and those who don’t feel comfortable with that and won’t feel welcomed will know to find another church.
Singles are also interested in church sometimes. It is great to have activities at times of day that singles can participate (such as, not just Tuesday morning crochet group – That is a fine group to have, but excludes anyone who works. Think about evening and weekend times too. What about kid/stay-at-home-parent groups? Those could be during the day. Vary it! Change it up!). Make it easy to find information on activities, and who is welcome in each one, but don’t push a visitor to join a group or especially to get on a committee. Pushing me to get on a committee makes me think you’re desperate and don’t care about me – only the labor I can provide. I had one pastor push hard for me to join a committee – the very first time we met! I shouldn’t have had to blurt out “my son just died” for her to realize she was pushing too hard… Once I feel welcome, invite me to sit in on a group. Make it “no pressure”. If I like you guys, I’m sure to become involved!
If you make an effort to care for God’s kingdom/the earth, highlight it!!! It’s great to see churches living out the word they preach by doing things such as recycling, using reusable dishes, banning Styrofoam and plastic (one place even gave plastic up for Lent as a whole congregation!), or even larger projects like solar, green roofs, bioswale drainage management, etc. This is important to a lot of people now, so surprise me with what you do! Try new things!
If you recognize visitors are there, it’s also a great idea to announce whether or not they are welcome at communion, to point out how to sign up for notifications if you have them (see the next section), and to make sure that your service leaflet is clear (will they know which book to grab? Does your leaflet explain that? A “welcome to visitors” paragraph can be helpful.).
Once you have an idea of who you are as a congregation and how you want to approach visitors, it might be helpful to make sure the congregation all knows, too. We once visited a church where literally no one said hello to us. We may as well have been a part of the wall. Greet your visitors! Maybe consider having ambassadors, who will greet visitors, make sure they have a leaflet. Maybe sit with them? Offer them a tour of the church, and tell them about the church! In the churches where this was done, they ended up being wonderfully welcoming churches in many ways, so to us this indicates an overall attitude of openness to new people, which was great. Also, LISTEN to visitors if they tell you something isn’t working! This happened to us once (their website wasn’t mobile friendly, we mentioned it, and it was great by the next time we came!)  Especially if we get a chance to see it fixed, it really can raise our opinion of a church!
Show and talk about your vision for the church going forward. While tradition and history are essential, as a visitor who might be considering joining, the future of the church is where I’ll end up, so that’s important to me. This can be demonstrated in how you handle current events, where children fit in the congregations and the programs for them, community involvement, use of church building and grounds on days other than Sunday, etc. Running the church like it was 40 years ago can be very comfortable for the people who are already there, but it can make it very difficult to join in as a young person – especially a young single or a young childless couple – who might be very concerned with current issues, how the church reconciles theology/tradition with the here-and-now, and are looking for a place that can provide support to them and a home for them. Awareness of current topics, concerns, and technology, while being alert for hypocrisy or even heresy will make the church more accessible. Showing that decisions in the church are made with forethought, planning, and deliberation also shows that the congregation has an eye to the future.

How else can a church communicate with me?

Since we started out by talking about the website, let’s get back to that. A website is your #1 place to put up announcements. If your services are combined one week and at a different time, put it on your website! If you have special services, like holiday services or memorial services that are open to the public, put that on your website too! Make it easy to find. A “calendar” page can actually be confusing. It’s fine to have for members, but consider a list of events to make the info easy to find for non-members. Also, highlight how the church is active in the community doing God’s work and living his message, not just what is offered within the congregation. This is a key piece for many people looking for a church – do you live what you preach? P.S. Make sure your site is mobile friendly! That is one of the frequent ways people will be accessing it, so it needs to be easy to read and navigate on a phone screen. Note: having to download documents to find information is cumbersome, and can even be truly impossible on a phone, so please have it all in html. Flash is also hard to manage on mobile.

If you want to keep repeat visitors informed, who aren’t regulars, a great way is an email or texting service. Make it easy to sign up (put it in your bulletin or service leaflet! The pastor can even talk about it in the announcements if they notice new people). Send out updates anytime something is not standard!

If you send out weekly or monthly newsletters, that’s awesome. You might consider having it as a separate signup than the “announcement” emails/texts, but maybe not. Make sure all the content is clear and easy to read, and is in the body of the email (clicking links or loading pdfs is clumsy, and many people won’t do it because it’s an extra step and doesn’t function as well on mobile). This is a great way to communicate to all your members too, but remember to make sure you know who needs their copy mailed! Not all people – even “young” people – want everything digital. There are always some who are hard-copy people, and they should not be left out.

Facebook and other social media are nice, but not crucial. That said, having a basic Facebook business page, which is rather like a website, give you another place to list the basics: denomination, service times, location. It can make you easier to find. Posting updates here for particular services or time changes and announcements is easy, and it’s a great place for occasional additional content like sermon excerpts, music, or pictures (make sure you have permission of all the people in the picture).

~~~

Thanks for listening! I’m about to start this whole process again, and I can guarantee I’ll find many sites that look like they were built in the 90s and never updated, ones that are great for members but impossible to navigate for visitors, and some churches with no website at all – but I also anticipate that I’ll find a handful that are great and that I’ll learn even more great ideas from!

Yours,

Sarah

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