This year, I was holidaying in the USA, and I wanted to go to a church. I was in LA, California and I was recommended by some friends to go to this church that they went to when they were here.
So I did what nearly half of people do when they want to visit a church, check the location and times for a service on their website. (43% of visitors go to a church website to find out the locations and times.)
It was a very flashy site; it told me their recent history, their service to the L.A. community, and the reason why they do it, The Gospel. But it didn’t tell me when they meet very well. They had a section about events coming out, but nothing else. It was split up by city, but didn’t make the connection between two campuses. So I found myself, going to the 5 pm church service, but went to the wrong building. And where they had the service was around about 2 hours away by bus. So alas, I didn’t get a to go to a church while in LA.
While the website was well designed, It wasn’t the best organised, or the most useful website for a newcomer. It made one person unfortunately decide not go to church that week.
Why do I tell this story? Well, I'm the webmaster at our church and…to be honest, we're due for a new website in a coming year or two. Not a new design, but a completely re-written church website. Much of the content was written back in 2008 to replace an old looking, difficult to update site. As an example, there was a spelling error on the front page for almost 5 years which we couldn't fix! Since then, we've only modified the content to make it up to date, and we've changed the theme every few years to modernise the site. But we haven't made much changes to the content for these past 5 years.
Much of the content is based around what our previous senior minister wanted, and not so much on what our current minister wants. So now it seems to be a good to start the process.
But going back to the story above, it made me realise that it’s important that two things are apparent when developing church sites, that…
1. a church websites’ content should be guided by the way Jesus and the early church communicated the Gospel, and
2. a church website should be able to serve what a newcomer, or a visitor wants to know about.
I’m going to tackle the first part in this post, and the second in subsequent posts. None of this will be necessarily be about design, but more about what a church website should have in mind when writing content. I also don't think that any of this is groundbreaking, but I do think we need the reminder.
But why talk about this? Usually, books, articles & other material about church websites only discuss the practical questions. They cover topics like what a site should have, how to get good SEO, the design and layout of websites, and what new trends you should be following.
As a side note, there has been a slight shift from some people that says that we may have the way we develop websites all wrong. A recent development has been the view of Content First Design; having content the forefront of development than thinking through design. This is especially apparent in the age of apps like Flipboard and Feedly, where they take away the design and leave you with just the content (though this is more for blogs and news sites). It’s apparent in the age of Voice Search like Siri and Google Now. Even the recent trend of Responsive design isn't really about design for most people, it’s about focusing more on content then pushing pixels.
In the articles and posts that I see about developing church websites, many of them are looking at church website development from a non biblical view. Many of these posts are great practical content, but they don’t say anything from a biblical viewpoint. Much of this material bases their information from web’s best practices. But rarely do they look at the bigs truths of the bible and seeing how that influences the way you develop a website.
I want to see what happens when we look at what the Bible says; about humanity, about the Gospel, and what Christians are asked to do. I'm then going to take those ideas, and then think how we could change our thinking about how we make websites.
In a sense, I'm going to point out what should be is obvious to the Christian, and then apply it to how we think about create content and design.
Some Biblical Ideas
The heart of the the Christian faith is Jesus Christ himself. What he did for us, by dying on the cross and to rise again, allowed us to be right with God again. We were once far away away from God, where we rejected him and didn't want to know him, and live our own way, something that was detestable to him, but in this act he welcomes us in, back as part of his family. He doesn't just do this for a select group of people, like he did during the Old Testament, but he does this anyone who wants to believe in him.
When Simeon, a righteous and devout man in Jerusalem, sees the Child Jesus he praises God by saying,
“For my eyes have seen your salvation, which you have prepared in the sight of all nations: a light for revelation to the Gentiles, and the glory of your people Israel.”
He wasn't making that up on the spot, he was riffing on what the prophet Isaiah said about a faithful servant.
“It is too small a thing for you to be my servant to restore the tribes of Jacob and bring back those of Israel I have kept. I will also make you a light for the Gentiles, that my salvation may reach to the ends of the earth.”
This was always going to be God’s Plan to include as many people from all nations. It wasn’t about one group receiving salvation and blessing, as it appeared for the most of the Old Testament, but now all who want to be part of this can be. Jesus shows us this in his earthly ministry.
When you sit down and read one of the gospels, you are struck by the diversity of the people Jesus hangs out with. He hangs out with the Jew and the Gentile (Mark 7:1–30), the well liked and the disliked in that society (Mark 2:15–16), the well abled rich person and the disabled homeless (Luke 18:18–23, 17:11–19), the child and the adult (Matthew 19:14, 19:16–30), the righteous Pharisee (John 3:1–3) and the tax collector (Luke 19:1–5) and prostitute (John 4:1–26) and the list goes on. Even what Jesus was doing was counter cultural in that society. (John 4:9)
But why was Jesus hanging out with all of these people? Was it to tell a nice story or two, and some nice advice? No, he came with a reason to proclaim the Gospel, or the Good News of God (Mark 1:14–15). As the Great Commission to the apostles commanded them to make disciples of all nations, the early church continued proclaiming this Gospel to everyone (Matt 28:16–20).
For I am not ashamed of the gospel, because it is the power of God that brings salvation to everyone who believes: first to the Jew, then to the Gentile. For in the gospel the righteousness of God is revealed — a righteousness that is by faith from first to last, just as it is written: “The righteous will live by faith.”
The gospel is something we shouldn't be ashamed of. We celebrate it at every church service. That’s one of the reasons we're there; to encourage one another to keep going in believing in the Good News of Jesus Christ and what he has done for us. Paul after this verse talks about our unrighteousness with God; how we have rejected him, and gone living our own way. But then, in Chapter 3, Paul shows the hope that we have.
But now apart from the law the righteousness of God has been made known, to which the Law and the Prophets testify. This righteousness is given through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe. There is no difference between Jew and Gentile, for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and all are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus.
There is now no longer any difference, all of humanity has the chance to believe in the message of the Gospel, to be redeemed by God. Looking at this, it should drastically change the way we think about how we communicate the Gospel to others.
There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.
Okay, but how does that relate to developing a church website?
Why do people post stuff online? One of the main reason is that other people can read it, think about it, maybe respond to it. I know this is very much “O RLY?” but think about it. Look at the main thing that Reddit does, they post stuff, people think about and respond to it.
If we believe that everyone should hear the Gospel, then there are implications in the way that we create a church website. If we believe that the Gospel should be revealed to everyone, then there are implications in the way that we develop it.
Here are just some examples.
Just like Jesus and the early church where they spoke with and helped the sick and disabled, we need to develop our sites’ content to be accessible by those who cannot see or hear websites. Assistive technology such as screen readers, text-to-speech software, are being used to allow the disabled to feel normal and equal online. Providing an accessible friendly site will be helpful for the disabled. (It also isn't that hard for what we’re trying to do.) This also means using alt tags on images to explain what the image is. It also means things such as subtitles on online videos that we use needs to be made available.
Just like Jesus and the early church spoke with many races and cultures, and not just to the Jews, we need to be able to develop our website content to be accessible by those who do have trouble reading and speaking our common language. This is particularly evident in churches where there is a non-english congregation.
Website software such as WPML have made this easier for people to make sites multilingual.
Just like Jesus and the early church spent time explaining and discussing complex ideas (John 3), we need to be able to develop our website content to be accessible by those do not have a church experience. It means that that we avoid using complex words or christian jargon without explaining it. Instead we should strive to be as clear as possible in what we say.
Just like Jesus and the early church helped and spoke in love with as many people in the communities around them, the church website needs to show what they serve their local community because of their love for them through Jesus.
Ultimately, having a church site that is marked by the Gospel, and marked by the way that Jesus acted and spoke with the people around him, will make communicating Jesus far more effectively online. That’s far more important than the recent trend or idea in web development.
In part 2, we start looking at some of the things we include on a church website, starting with our locations and times. What works and what doesn’t?