Last year my friends and I were looking for a house to rent. We are all young, single guys so we knew we wanted a cool house that could accommodate us. After weeks of searching, we stumbled upon an amazing vintage home close to downtown Dallas that was the right size and price. We were so excited to find such a “perfect” home that we forgot to look for any signs of problems with the house. A year later (and a sunken foundation, a sewage leak, and several exorbitant energy bills later) we realized that the house was not all that we thought it was. Behind the pretty façade was a rotten, dying house that was draining our money. Suffice it to say we didn’t renew our lease.
The hard thing about looking at houses is that you can’t always see the problems beneath the surface. The owner may manage to paint over all the cracks and water spots, but those problems still exist. Unfortunately, some churches pull the same stunt when they try to look appealing to people outside the church, especially when it comes to their websites.
Most contemporary churches readily recognize the value of having an adequate website. Clearly, a church website is an essential tool in reaching out to our communities and providing information about the church to members and non-members alike. But too often churches focus on fixing their websites rather than their ministries.
The Website Makeover Misconception
You might remember that a few months ago COLLIDE hosted a website makeover contest. In order to enter the contest, we simply asked contestants to tell us why their church deserved a new website. Many responded that their current site was horrible, and they didn’t have the money or personnel to update its look or functionality. However, a few people responded in an unsettling manner, and it became clear that some church leaders still don’t understand how ministry and websites should complement each other. They wrote in to us saying that if they only had a better looking website, then their ministry would be successful and their church would grow.
The entrants usually explained that the majority of their congregations were older and less likely to value a fresh website. Some would even go as far to admit that their ministries were failing and that they believed a new website would give them the boost they needed to get going again. Do you see the problem with this way of thinking?
Buying the newest Canon 5D Mark II camera doesn’t mean you will become a great photographer. Sure, the new camera may take better pictures than your old Kodak, but without proper training and education your pictures will never be on par with those of professional photographers. Likewise, having a new website won’t suddenly make your church’s ministry effective.
A failing church or ministry has far greater problems than a website in need of a redesign. We can paint over the cracks in the walls and sand the doors down so they close smoothly, but we’re not addressing the root of the problem. It’s tempting (and easier) for a church in need of change to start with its exterior image rather than its foundation, but this is, at best, a temporary fix. No matter how elegant the mask, attempting to cover up the shortcomings of our ministries doesn’t ultimately solve anything.
From the Inside Out
We as church leaders can’t continue to play the “if/then” game and rely so heavily on our websites to improve our image that we forget about our actual ministries. Ministry must always come first. Sure, you might draw people to your church with a slick website that features ethnically-diverse stock imagery, but unless your ministry draws people into a deeper relationship with Christ and others, your new visitors won’t stay around for long.
Change must start on the inside. As any good contractor will tell you, you need to fix the foundational issues before you start repairing the cracks in your walls. Making the walls look better will never fix a foundation in need of repair. Likewise, upgrading your website won’t change the core identity of your church.
In a recent blog post on ChurchMarketingSucks.com, Michael Buckingham writes that change is an inside out endeavor, “If you want to be diverse, begin by being diverse.” If we want ethnic diversity in our churches, then we need to seek out opportunities to reach out to and serve different ethnic groups. We can’t just put a diverse stock photo on our church’s homepage and hope that that will do the trick. If we want to reach the younger generations, we need youth pastors who are willing to innovatively reach out to youth. We can’t just mention on our website that our youth facilities are nice.
Don’t allow your website to depict the ministry you wish you were. Design your website so that it accurately reflects your ministry or church’s current identity. If you’re unsatisfied with your current identity, work on changing it. A website that presents an inaccurate picture of your church will only hurt, not help, your ministry.
I don’t want to downplay the importance of a strong church website, but if your website is stronger than the church itself, you’ve mixed up your priorities. While your current website may need an update or an overhaul, it must be coupled with an update or overhaul of your identity.
We must stop thinking that if we only had a better website we would attract more people to our ministries. While a great website may serve as a bridge to draw outsiders in, a ministry that doesn’t live up to its own image will simply send people right back out the doors through which they entered. We can use church websites and other media to make our church look attractive and successful, but at the end of the day, we are what we are. If your church isn’t changing lives and bringing people closer to Jesus, now is not the time to worry about your website. But if your church is changing lives and making a difference, a great website is a powerful tool for sharing those stories with your community and the world.
Daniel Darnell is a Scott McClellan writer.