Fifteen years ago, I made my first website. I was a young and wide-eyed student pastor and a young and wide-eyed Internet user. The website was for our high school ministry, and it resided in the free server space that came with my first dial-up account. The address contained lots of tildes and slashes and such—maybe even an umlaut. I’m thankful for the handful of students who spent the three minutes it took to hunt out all those characters on their keyboard and visit that webpage. More than anything, I’m thankful that it helped a few students connect relationally with me and others in our student ministry.
Since then, the Web has changed. Widgets, tweets and URL shorteners have replaced tildes and other URL bloaters. Today, I split my time as a pastor and a maker of websites, so I have a lot of ideas and opinions about church websites. But I have not let go of the lesson I learned from that first adventure into HTML—a meaningful website serves as an online connection to create and strengthen offline relationships.
I’ve served in three churches and I’ve been on the (or I’ve been the) website committee in all three. Between that and my freelance work, I’ve lost track of how many church websites I’ve been part of making. There are a handful of questions that come up again and again:
- Is our website a brochure for people who aren’t part of our church or a newsletter for those that are?
- What is the most important information to have on our website?
- What are our site visitors looking for?
- Do we even need a website anymore?
- Are we better off focusing on shared social media outlets such as Facebook, Twitter, Flickr, and Tumblr?
I’ve wrestled through these questions a time or two, and I’ve come to one conclusion that works for each question. It’s not so much meant to be an answer to these questions as much as it is a defining goal for any church website. Ready?
Your website is an outlet to tell your church’s story and invite someone to connect with it. Hey, I know that’s a straightforward and vanilla answer; I didn’t promise rocket science here. But I can tell you that a lot of church websites don’t do a good job of embodying this concept. Think of it this way—your church’s website is a collection of windows into your church, allowing any interested party to peer in to see what is going on.
Here’s a less creepy way to think of it: If you are in leadership at your church, and you were meeting someone over coffee to tell them about your church community, what would you say? That conversation is what you need to capture on your website.
Am I saying, then, that the ultimate point of a church website is to share information with potential visitors? Not entirely, though it’s true that potential visitors are more likely to scrutinize most of your website before they ever make direct contact (especially if they are Christians). But the same narrative about the who’s and why’s of your church need to be seen by regular attendees as well. It’s a story you want to keep retelling to curious passers-by and to anyone connected with your community. Your most important content should be easily found by visitors, but also framed in such a way that those who are part of your community won’t overlook it.
There is one can’t-miss tool when it comes to gauging the layout and content of your website: user testing. When I lived in Seattle, Amazon regularly advertised on Craigslist, offering $100 gift cards for those who would come and test new features or designs on their website. (Sadly, my experience making websites seemed to disqualify me.) Every company that is serious about its website does this, and your church should too. You will learn a great deal about how people experience your website by asking people to sit down with you and talk out loud about what they see, or what they want to see but can’t find.
Aside from user testing, if you already have a website, it is important to track what pages are being visited the most, and what search terms visitors are using within your site. This data should be reviewed every few months, and your current content and navigation should be evaluated in light of it. If content you think is important isn’t getting enough traffic, ask yourself how can you bring more attention to it. If people are searching for information you hadn’t thought of, ask yourself where can you add that information to your site.
Last fall, I collected data from a number of church websites to get a sense of what people who visit church websites are looking for. I won’t pretend there is anything scientific about the results, and I am not a threat to George Barna or George Gallup. But, in the handful of sites I had access to, some clear patterns were evident. It can be helpful to compare these trends to your church website to see what might be missing.
You would assume the home page is the most trafficked page, and in the case of the sites I surveyed, it was—every time. (But don’t make the mistake of assuming that will be the first page a new visitor to your site will see. They might arrive deep in your site’s structure through an RSS feed or from a search engine.) Beyond the home page, these were the most popular pages:
Leadership/Staff: A page listing the leadership, usually the staff, of the church. This was in the top 10 pages on every site, and was the most visited page on several. People want to be able to put names and faces with your church, and they assume this is where they can start.
Worship Services: A description of the service along with time and location. On a related note, I’m often surprised how many churches don’t at least say what city or metro area they are located in on the homepage. Don’t overlook this!
Weekly Schedule: A page describing the weekly schedule or rhythm of the church beyond Sundays. Not every site had a page like this, but it was popular for those that did.
About: Some kind of Communication description of the culture and characteristics. This one is difficult to categorize because different churches frame this information in different ways, but it is often the story of what the church is about.
New Here: Less than half the churches I surveyed had this page, but it ranked high for those that did.
Podcast: For every church that had a podcast available, this one was in the top 10.
Mission/Vision/Values and Beliefs: Usually, these are separate pages, and they aren’t ranked as high as you’d expect, often barely skimming into the top 10.
My favorite part of making a website is starting the design. I love opening a blank canvas in Photoshop and seeing a new site take shape. But as you may have noticed, most of this article isn’t about design—it’s about what your website has to say. Good design and a good website is about featuring the content that matters to you and your site’s visitors. If all that goes well, then we can hope and pray together that it will lead to relationships growing toward maturity in Christ.
John Chandler is the pastor of a church start-up called Austin Mustard Seed and a freelance web designer/developer. He blogs at by John Chandler and mutters daily on Twitter as @johnchandler. He is powered by espresso beverages.
Main article image source: SXC