70+ tips for effective church sites
Design and build a website to reach the community
“A church is the only organization that exists primarily for the benefit of non-members”
– William Temple
“Week in, week out, more visitors turn up at our church on a Sunday because of the website, than anything else”
– King’s Church, Kingston UK: a church site design using these principles
- Most church websites are designed entirely for their members, or unwittingly
exclude non-Christians because of their choice of language and content.
More This is the main reason why church websites fail to reach into the community. It is a tragic missed opportunity. Biblical communication requires that we move over to where the non-Christians are, rather than expecting them to make the journey.|
- A good church site must communicate with three very different target groups:
More • the church members
• Christians moving to the area who are looking for a new church
• non-Christians in the community
“Visitors are increasingly checking out churches online before walking in to a service,” says Tom Harper of ChurchCentral.com.| Extra
- This ‘three-way stretch’ is a challenge, but can be achieved.
More If you wish your site to reach non-Christians in the community, make a conscious decision that this is to be an over-riding priority for every aspect of the site. It’s ability to speak to non-Christians must be intentional, rather than hoping for some sort of ’trickle-down’ effect.| Extra
- Take time to consider the needs and viewpoints of non-Christians.
More We cannot reach those we do not understand. The first task of an overseas missionary is to learn the surrounding culture. Although we are immersed in our own culture, we may not understand it, or the needs and pressures that most non-Christians in our society are facing.|
- Avoid all ‘churchy’ jargon and ‘Christianese’ language throughout
the site, especially on the homepage.
More Non-Christians, almost by definition, do not like or understand these words. This even applies to the navigation menu. Many churches have a menu link called ‘ministries’. This is actually a jargon word meaning ‘Things we do’ or ‘what’s on’. Much better to use neutral alternatives like these.|
- Non-Christians may have negative images of Christians: boring, killjoys, judgmental, etc.
More A light-hearted, informal, witty website may help to counteract these misconceptions. Opinion polls show that evangelicals are increasingly perceived in a very negative light, in almost all countries. | Extra
- Christian outreach often fails because Christians do ‘megaphone proclamation’ from behind the protecting walls of their ‘ghetto’.
More A church website should not aim to be an impersonal electronic ‘cut and run’ tract distribution system. Its primary aim should be to draw people in the community towards real relationships with real people within the fellowship. Most conversions result from relationships: see ‘Extra1’ and ‘2’ links.| 2
- A primary task of the website is to convince non-Christians of these four things:
More • our church is made up of ordinary real people
• we understand their life problems
• we are community, family, and there is an unconditional welcome waiting for them
• in that context, God can meet them and help them| Extra
- Do not think of your church site in isolation, merely as a stand-alone online brochure.
More Integrate it into your overall strategies, both as a way of contacting individuals, and giving the fellowship a higher profile within your community.
- Church is people: the home page should have at least one photo of a church member. This is absolutely foundational to good communication, yet infrequently done.
More Although you can also use a photo of the church building on the home page, this is impersonal – however attractive your building may be. So use people too. Inside the site, include more photos of real people. Make sure you have signed permissions to add any picture to the site where a face is clearly identifiable.. Do not include full names or personal information about children and young people.
- Internal pages on the site can include photos of both outside and inside of the church building.
More But again – include people. If potential visitors feel themselves to be familiar with the building and the people, they are more likely to make the quantum leap of visiting the church.
- Include some ‘meet our members’ pages.
More These may well not be full-blown testimonies, but brief informal first-person profiles, with ‘real’ information about their lives: jobs, places of study, likes, hobbies, pets.
- All links, page titles, and sub-headings should sound enticing.
More The use of query marks can make subheads or text links sound more interesting: “What happens at Teen Link?” rather than “For Teens”.
- If testimonies are used, they should be completely free of religious jargon, exaggeration and sentimentality.
More Non-Christians can see through religious veneers easily! “Everything in my life is now permanently wonderful” does not ring true. Such well-meaning statements do not honor God. |
- Consider a ‘New to this site?’ visitors link on your homepage. This enables you to
offer a particular welcome to an outsider.
More But – very important – this is not a ‘let out’ so you do not need to apply these strategy tips to the rest of the site. The entire site must be user-friendly to non-Christians.
A visitor page should be very welcoming and written in plain language. It needs to provide all the info a potential newcomer to a church meeting would require. Click on ‘Extra’ link for an example. | Extra
- Games and fun stuff are attractive and make a site
stickyI.e. encourage repeat visits, because of the interesting and possibly frequently changed content..
- Consider adding some ‘bridging’ pages to the site.
More You can create ‘bridge’ pages about secular topics of local interest, which will draw people into the site. These could be local history, community events, pictures, or a page of best secular local links. Follow the ‘Extra’ links for more information. | Extra1 | 2
- Involve your church members in praying and supporting the web design team, and ‘owning’ the site.
More Encourage your church members to understand the purpose of the website, pray for its effective outreach, and make it known to others. Members who have blogs or other types of site can use them to give the church a higher profile.
- Demonstrate a specific welcome for people with disability.
More Explain what facilities are available for people with disability: level access, lifts, loop system or large print books. Ensure also that your website complies with usability guidelines for sight-impaired users, including appropriate use of the ‘alt’ tag for graphics.
- Summing up: the overall impression of the site must of a gentle, loving, enticing welcome. But...
More ... of course, people who then visit a church meeting must actually receive a welcome! There are many shocking stories of first-time visitors being only spoken to by an usher as they enter, if they are lucky. It ought to be self-evident, but all churches should train their members to speak first to someone they do not recognise, after (and indeed before) any meeting, IN ADDITION to any formal system of greeters that is in place.
- Sadly, it is this issue of welcome and assimilation that frequently breaks down.
More In a recent survey of people who stopped attending church after six weeks, 92% of them said it was because no one talked to them. How will churches grow if this is people’s experience?| Extra1 | 2 | 3 | 4 | 5
- The context of your country, area and culture may lead you to apply these principles in different ways. AnalyzeTake time to analyze these sites, using our list of printable questions. how some very effective church sites are using them: Brandywine | Southside | Bridge | King’s Church | Atlanta | North Branch | Questions
- Church websites are not the only form of web evangelism.
More The Web is a God-given tool with huge potential to reach the world. For those in your church with the gifts and calling, it could be a wonderful outlet. And surprisingly, there are many opportunities for people with no technical knowledge at all!|
- Your church site will be the first point of contact for many people in your community.
First impressions count.
More It should therefore be at least as professional and attractive as your outside sign-board or newsletter. Before planning your site, spend a long time studying the examples and questions in the previous tip.| Extra
- Do not place too much information on your homepage.
More It needs just sufficient graphics and text to explain at a glance who you are and what is available elsewhere on the site. The homepage should be a doorway, not a stopping point. It should not take the form of a welcome letter from the pastor – a website is not the same as a printed brochure.
- And all important information should be ‘above the fold’.
More In other words, almost everything should be visible without needing to scroll. The homepage should not be much more than one screen in height.
- Avoid ‘churchy’ graphics – open Bibles, stained glass windows, doves, candles. And appeals for money.
More These are off-putting to many non-Christians. There are even church sites out there using 1990s animated graphics: revolving golden crosses and doves with flapping wings. Do not add automatically starting Midi hymn tunes or music files to your site either – these are very irritating. And finance, if it must be mentioned at all, should only be in areas clearly aimed at the members.
- Use at least one graphic of a person’s face on the homepage.
More This tip is so important, it is in here twice! Churches are primarily about people, not buildings. A well-chosen picture can express far more than many words, and illuminate the meaning of your text.
- A 3-column layout is often the most suitable for a church site.
- Never use an introductory ‘splash page’.
More A ‘splash page’ is an introductory page containing nothing but a graphic (or even animated sequence) plus ‘click here to enter’ link. These are intensely irritating to users. Many people will leave the site, rather than clicking through. Splash pages can also reduce your ranking in search engines.
- Every page should display the same overall appearance, with the same navigation options in the same place.
More Pages which lack consistent style will confuse users, who wonder if they have strayed onto a different site. A navigation menu should appear on all pages – don’t force people to go back through the homepage to find another page.| Extra
- All links, menu options and buttons should be clearly identified as ‘active’ –
they should change color when hovered.
More Links and buttons, which do nothing when hovered, appear dead. People need these visual clues. Also think long and hard before introducing link styles that are not standard. A blue underlined link remains the ‘language’ that most people understand. (Don’t underline any text which is not a link – this is really confusing!)
- Don’t use frames – a page design with code which enables one or more blocks of content to be scrolled independently –
for site design.
More Although there are a few specialized situations where frames can be used effectively, a standard church website is not one of them. They have a range of disadvantages, which even expert design cannot overcome.
- Learn how to use ‘include’ files – a great time-saver.
More If you have not yet discovered the time-saving benefits of site-wide ‘include’ files (where a single file generates headers, footers, menus, etc. within a page) now is the time. Do a Google search for ‘server side includes’.
- Also learn how to use CSS.
More CSS (Style Sheets) is another essential site-wide method of setting page appearance and structure with a single file – see the ‘Extra’ link. Time spent learning ‘includes’ and CSS will repay a webmaster many times over. | Extra
- Use colors correctly: understand how to choose a color scheme, how colors relate to each other, and what mood they communicate.
More Ask a graphic designer for advice. Most of us do not have an eye for color. Clashing or inappropriate colors will negate the message of your site, and drive visitors away. | Extra
- Don’t use patterned graphic backgrounds behind body text.
More With very few exceptions, black body text on a white (or near-white) plain background is best.
- Consider a ‘liquid’ page design: the content should flow naturally and fit together, at any screen resolution (i.e. size of the monitor screen measured in pixels) or reasonable font resize by a user.
More This is arguably better than making a fixed-width 800-pixel-wide page design. (A majority of people now use 1024 x 760 anyway.) The Internet Evangelism Day site, for instance, is completely liquid, even down to the old 640 x 480 screen resolution.
- And don’t put ‘best viewed at resolution’ or ‘best viewed in browser Y’ on your website.
More This is irritating to people who use a different resolution or browser. It is your job to make their viewing experience a positive one, whatever screen resolution, browser, or operating system they use. Don’t put a visible ‘visitor counter’ on your pages either.
- Don’t include ‘mailto’ email addresses in plain coding on the site.
- Your site need not be large or complex.
More If you do not have the gifts or staff to maintain a large site, it is OK just to have an attractive single page, or a handful of informative pages. A group of churches in a locality could even build a combined co-operative website.
- Don’t leave out-of-date content online.
More Few things rob a site of credibility more than this.
- Use several people to proof-read for typos and poor grammar.
More Mistakes also rob a site of credibility in the eyes of many people. Proof-reading is best done on paper printouts, not on-screen. | Extra
- Make your pages printer-friendly.
More This can be done automatically, using a ‘print’ CSS style-sheet. This page uses a print style-sheet derived from alistapart.com – follow the ‘Extra’ link. | Extra
- Take time to assess your target audience, their interests, needs and circumstances.
More Understanding your audience is essential to any form of communication. Use our worksheet planner to help you build up a clear picture of your potential site visitors: click on the Extra link. |
- Not least, pray – both for planning and implementation.
More A church site has the potential to touch many needy people. We need the Lord’s wisdom for initial planning and strategy, and for ongoing effectiveness. It is a ministry that needs prayer. | Extra
Your church webmaster/team
- A church webmaster or team needs a clear job description.
More The church must state clearly what is expected of him/her/them. If the webmaster/web-team leader is not on the church leadership team, there should be a clear line of responsibility to the church leaders. However, leaders who do not understand the Web should not try to impose on the webmaster their own ideas about web design!
The church should encourage the webmaster or web team in their back-room role.
- What if there is no-one technical in your church, to take on the webmaster role? You can use a pre-designed template system. These also answer
the problem of what to do if the only technical person in the church moves on, leaving a website that no-one really knows how to update.
More Many ministries offer ready-made ‘CMS template’ church sites, usually on a pay-for basis. Content is added using text boxes within your browser. Before choosing such a provider, take considerable time to compare what is on offer. |
- A larger church site can benefit from ‘CMS’ –
Content Management – is a system whereby different people have permission to update content within a site, without reference to the webmaster. (Template systems explained in #49 also use CMS and can be edited by multiple users.) In a larger church, it enables different departments to post their latest news and activities online, using only a browser interface, accessed via a password –
which enables multiple users to keep the site updated.
- Learn from others. Help is only a mouse-click away.
More There are email discussion lists and forums where church webmasters can ask questions. Check the links on our church page. You can also use Google to find answers to technical problems. Get style inspiration by looking critically at other church sites.
- For normal body text, use black font on a white or near-white background.
More Colored fonts are harder to read, even on a white background. Colored fonts on a colored background are even worse. Only use ‘reversed out’ print (i.e. pale lettering on a dark background) for header blocks or menus, not for main text content.
- Do not used fixed font size in your coding.
More Allowing users to alter their font sizing may slightly mess up the page layout – but people who need larger sizing will be used to that. Better than them leaving your site because it is too much of a strain to read!
- Therefore make all font sizes relative, so that users can resize text if they wish.
More Different people have different screen sizes, different qualities of eyesight, and must have the freedom to adjust print size. (CTRL + mouse-wheel is the best method.) Firefox over-rides fixed font sizes anyway. Internet Explorer can be set to over-ride them, but most people do not know how to do this, and it does not look good with this setting.
- Choice of fonts is important. The Verdana font is designed for computer monitors, and is widely perceived as the most readable for body text.
(Note how upper-case I is distinguished from number 1 or lower-case l.)
Test it yourself: view this page in
default sans-serif| default serif | times new roman | restore verdana.
More This page uses Verdana. Our style sheet also makes this specification for users whose computers may not have Verdana: font-family: verdana, helvetica, sans-serif, arial. It also specifies font-size as 90%, and then open up the line-spacing to 150% to make text easier to read.| Extra
- Understand how to make your site user-friendly to color-blind and visually-impaired visitors.
More Avoid color combinations that color-blind people cannot distinguish. Learn how visually impaired people use a screen reader, and how to make your site work well for them.
- Test your site from a technical viewpoint in different browsers, and at different screen resolutions.
More At a minimum, it should work well at 800 x 600 and 1024 x 768, in Internet Explorer 5+, Firefox and (if you have access to a MAC) the Safari browser.
- Also test your site with real first-time users. Remember, you know your site backwards. They do not.
More Ask them to find specific information within the site, and watch how well they can achieve it, without any prompting from you. Their failures are your fault, not theirs! |
- Find non-Christians to critique your site. Yes, non-Christians! They are your primary target audience.
More What parts do they find obscure? Off-putting? Irrelevant? Full of jargon? Cringe-making? Listen carefully and make modifications.
Navigation and usability
- Good navigation allows a first-time non-technical visitor to move round your site easily.
More Bad navigation gets visitors quickly lost – probably never to return to the site.
- Good navigation gives visitors constant clues to fulfill the vital requirements: ‘Where am I, where have I been, and where can I go’. Many websites, of all types, fail to be effective because they lack a good intuitive navigation system.
More A ‘you are here’ highlighter color or arrow on a navigation menu helps. A bread-crumb trail (showing the relationship of the page to a subject area and the home page) can also be used. The page left-margin is usually a good position for a navigation menu.
- Do not offer too many links in your navigation menu.
More Some churches include every page they have in a menu – 20 or more. Too much choice is confusing. Some less important pages do not need to be on the menu anyway. ‘Our history’ or ‘doctrinal statement’ (probably not of initial interest to a non-Christian visitor) should not be part of a main menu. If you have such pages, they should only be links from a second-level page – for instance one called ‘about us’ on the main menu.
- You can use ‘paper prototyping’ to plan different ways of structuring links within the site.
More Create sheets of paper, one to represent each page. Then arrange them on a flat surface to represent the links between the different pages. | Extra
- Make sure your pages download quickly.
More Not everyone has broadband. Slow-loading pages are very irritating. Ensure that graphics are not too large – both in pixel dimensions and file size. Include height and width attributes in the code for graphics: this ensures that the page will format correctly even before all the graphics have downloaded.
Being found – online and physically
- The title tag – these are the words contained within <title> and </title> tags – invisible on the text of the page, but visible to search engines. It is essential to use this opportunity fully. You can use up to 90 characters –
in the head of your homepage, which should contain the full name of the church, plus town, state and country.
More It is also essential to include in your page head some invisible coding called a ‘meta description’ (and also ‘meta keyword list’). This ‘meta description’ is often used on a search engine results page as additional site information displayed below the words taken from the ‘title’ tag – so make them enticing and informative. Follow the ‘Extra’ link. | Extra
- Your church name, street, town, area/state, country and phone number should also appear in unabbreviated form in a small font in the footer
of your homepage (or preferably every page).
More This assists ‘local search’ listing in search engines. Write this information in full, rather than abbreviated.
- Submit your church site to main search engines and secular directories.
More Look for the ‘submit URL’ link, and add your homepage to the ‘spidering’ search engines: Google, Yahoo, MSN, AllTheWeb. Also submit to directories – at a minimum to Yahoo.com (the directory, as well as its spidering search engine), zeal.com and dmoz.org, plus all regional/local listings in your country or area, and Christian directories including church listing sites. | Extra
- Make every page of your site a logical entry point to your site.
More This way, if people find an internal site page via a search engine, they can easily move through the rest of the site from that starting point. Each page should have its own unique title-tag wording, relating to the particular content of that page. (It is a frequent error to use an identical title tag right across a site.)
- Framed pages– a page design with code which enables one or more blocks of content to be scrolled independently –
present problems to being listed in search engines.
More For this and many other reasons, do not use a framed structure for your site.
- Ensure the church URL is easy to remember. Take every opportunity to give it a high profile.
More Print the URL on all business/contact cards, road-side church sign-board, leaflets, church letterheads, press advertising, news releases.
- Make full use of press releases to local newspapers and radio stations. These should always include your URL.
Larger churches can consider publishing regular news using an ‘RSS’ feed.
More Many news editors monitor RSS feeds. Other websites (for instance, local Christian portals) can also draw down your RSS news into their own pages. (Follow ‘Extra1’ for making effective press releases and ‘2’ to learn more about RSS.) | | 2
- Include clear directions for finding the church. Give details of parking, public transport links,
and a map.
More There are free online map services you can link to, which will automatically display your location centrally within a street map, or even show a route from the user’s home to the church. Or have a map professionally drawn. Maybe include a church office phone number on this page that people can call if they get lost.
Responding to emails
- Ensure that every day, someone reads incoming emails to the church.
More This includes weekends and holiday periods. Some emails may be urgent. Ensure that all incoming emails are responded to in a timely fashion. Some churches have a very poor understanding of this need and, incredibly, often do not reply to emails. Suitably equipped/trained volunteers can give email/face-to-face counsel and friendship. It need not be all done by paid church staff.
- Some people may be emailing for help on serious life issues.
More Suitably equipped/trained volunteers can give email/face-to-face counsel and friendship. It need not be all done by paid church staff.| Extra
- It need not necessarily be the pastor or pastor’s secretary that does this, especially out of hours.
More Responsible person(s) can pick up email at home evenings/weekends or holidays on a rotating basis and forward emails to appropriate people for reply. Use of a ‘contact form’ (as we have on this site) allows an immediate automated reply to go back to the email sender.
Making church sites into evangelistic tools
Hover your mouse on blue More links to view a popup with more information on that topic.
Green Extra links take you to appropriate, usually offsite, pages on the same subject.
Our lets you assess your church site using these principles, and creates a free evaluation report.