Let me begin with a statement of fact: EVERY church needs a good website. I can tell you from a personal standpoint that if I can’t find a church’s website, I’m not attending that church. Period. Even if I know the church exists, where it is, and what it stands for. The mere fact that a church doesn’t have a website communicates something important to me and it’s pretty much a deal-breaker. I’ve had that conversation with others and most, if not all, agree on that.
But that’s not a very big issue because most churches DO have a website. The real issue is the quality and focus of some church websites. That is the problem I want to address in this article – how to design a GREAT church website and avoid common mistakes of website design. Some of these principles can be applied to other types of websites, such as non-profit or small business websites. Some of the points are very specific to church websites. So let’s get right to it…
The first thing you should always do before beginning your website design is identify your target audience. This goes for any website. How can you design an effective website if you don’t know whom you want to view it? (That was a rhetorical question, by the way.) So what type of person should a church website target? Actually, the challenge of designing a great church website is that you need to target two audiences – one primary and one secondary.
Your primary (and most important) audience should be people who do not attend your church – especially non-Christians. You should view your church website as a modern outreach tool. A website offers a comfortable, convenient way for potential visitors to find out about your church. They will most likely make a decision about whether or not to attend based on what they see on your website. Therefore, your site needs to be designed with that person in mind so they can get a clear understanding of what your church believes, teaches, does, and what kind of people make up your church. You want them to be attracted to attend in person.
Your secondary audience should be people who already attend your church. This group is less important than the first (in the context of website design), simply because there probably isn’t anything you can communicate on the website that they don’t already know, or can’t easily find out from another source. Definitely use your website to promote series, events, programs, meetings, etc. But not at the expense of losing your primary target audience. Don’t make the mistake of focusing on existing members and sending the message that your church is an exclusive club.
Once you’ve identified your target audience, you then need to understand what that audience wants to see. This should determine your site’s content. Keeping in mind that a great church website serves two audiences, you will need to make some decisions based on the primary audience over the secondary. I would recommend beginning with some basic questions about your primary audience and let those answers drive your initial design. You can later go back and add some elements that serve the secondary audience, as long as those elements will not diminish your primary goal of appealing to people who do not already attend your church.
Simply by identifying visitors as your primary audience, you’ve already determined a prominent part of your design: the “Newcomers” section. If you truly want to attract visitors to attend your church, create an area specifically for newcomers and display a link (or two) prominently on your home page. It doesn’t hurt to have a link on the top level of your main menu as well as a graphic link to that same section. Make it stand out so that a site visitor will immediately notice it and be attracted to click on it. You’ve only got a few seconds to grab the attention of a web surfer…make it count.
So what do visitors want to know about your church? Here are some basic questions that should be answered for a newcomer:
- Where is your church located and how do I get there?
- What times are your services?
- What should I wear?
- What are the atmosphere and people like?
- Is there childcare available?
- What programs/activities/events do you offer that may interest me?
- What does your church believe?
- What is your church’s purpose?
- Who is your pastor?
- How can I contact someone at your church?
Now that you’ve got some ideas about what questions your content should answer, you need to focus on the actual language you’ll use. I’m not talking about deciding whether to communicate in English, Spanish, or French. Though if you’re not careful, you’re message will end up sounding like Greek to any visitor!
A common mistake among church websites is the use of “religious” or “churchy” language. I suspect that stems from incorrectly identifying the target audience as being existing church members. It’s an important point, so I think it bears stating explicitly here. Avoid using terms that a person who hasn’t attended church all their lives wouldn’t understand. Concepts such as “sanctification,” “atonement,” or “expository preaching” are not part of an unchurched persons’s vocabulary. Using “insider” language can make a visitor feel like an outsider. I’m not suggesting that you “dumb down” your message, but I am suggesting that you give some thought to using different words if possible. And if you absolutely need to use a term or phrase that you suspect may not resonate with a visitor, make sure to explain what it means using a footnote or some other method.
We’ve talked a lot about text information so far, but let’s face it: a picture is STILL worth a thousand words. Especially on the internet where people are scanning, not reading, and they are bombarded with multimedia. A website that is too text heavy will discourage visitors from hanging around for very long. Nobody is going to sit in front of their monitor and read pages of information about your church (the irony of that statement as I sit here typing pages of information for you to read is not lost on me!). So you need to communicate in other ways, namely through multimedia. You probably already understand that it’s important to use images on your website. But it’s very important to use the right kind of images at the right frequency. Too many images can also be a deterrent to site visitors. So let’s look at what types of images you should be placing on your website, and where.
First, don’t make the mistake of using a bunch of pictures of your church building. Not surprisingly, people relate to people, not buildings. It’s fine to use a picture of your church building on the location or directions page so that newcomers can recognize it when they arrive, but don’t send the message that your church is a building. One of the main goals of your website is to make your church feel inviting and welcoming to visitors. Images of friendly-looking, happy groups of people go a long way toward accomplishing that goal. Liberal use of such images is encouraged, especially on the home page where your site makes the first impression on visitors. Communicate through images that your church is about people and relationships.
It’s also helpful to both visitors and regular attenders to have an area of your site for viewing videos or listening to audio of sermons. This gives visitors an opportunity to get a taste of what they will experience when they attend your service on Sunday. You can also use your website to promote special events using promotional videos and images. Just one caveat that happens to be a pet peeve of mine – don’t set audio/video files to autoplay. That really turns me off, and will usually lead to me turning off that site. Let the viewer decide when they will click play so they don’t get any loud surprises. But don’t be afraid to cater to our modern, attention-challenged culture using video and images to communicate your message.
This principle applies to websites of any kind. If your visitors can’t EASILY find relevant information on your site, they won’t find it at all. It’s very important to have a consistent navigation system through which visitors can find any page on your site. The most common and effective navigation system in modern websites is the top drop-down menu. Your top menu should contain a link to every single page on your site, and that menu should remain exactly the same on every page. If it’s appropriate to have a context-sensitive menu, make it a secondary menu in another location of certain pages, such as along a sidebar. But your header area should include a top menu, and that header area should remain consistent from page to page.
When building your top menu navigation layout, consider logical groupings of content. Then start by creating the major categories, which will be at the “top level” of your drop-down menu. These will be visible horizontally across the header area. Then place sub-menu items under those categories in a logical fashion. You can see examples of this on this site above. It’s usually a good idea to nest sub-items no further than 3 levels deep.
You may also want to have another menu section on your site that highlights some of the most important or popular pages on your site. You might call it a quick links menu. That’s a good practice, but just make sure you don’t rely on that type of menu as the primary method of navigation. In other words, it should be redundant to links that are already in the top menu. And a quick links type menu doesn’t have to be just text links. It’s often very effective to use images or icons to visually represent these links and draw attention. But the main concept to keep in mind when designing a navigation system is consistency.
In case you scanned this article instead of fully reading it, here’s my message in a nutshell. Your church needs a website, but if you want it to be an effective outreach tool, you need to keep several principles in mind. There are other elements to good web design, but here are the few that are specific to churches.
- A great church website always begins with proper identification of your primary audience – people who don’t already attend your church.
- Your website content should be focused on what a potential visitor needs to know in order to feel comfortable and welcomed in attending your church.
- The language you use to convey that information should be very deliberately crafted to be relatable for an unchurched person.
- Use multimedia appropriately throughout your site, and focus on people.
- Design your main navigation system to be comprehensive and consistent.
Let those principles guide your design decisions and I feel confident that your church website will become an effective entry point for people into your church body.
If you have any questions or comments to share, please do so in the comments section below. I would love to generate some discussion around this subject and get your feedback. And, of course, if you would like professional help in designing your website, you can contact me.