Heal Your Church WebSite


Teaching, rebuking, correcting & training in righteous web design.

Web Sites Are Easy

Piece ‘o cake, really.

Yeah – I know. You wouldn’t think so, the way MeanDean carries on here. With all his ranting and raving and “healing” of church websites gone bad, you might think that building a “good” church website (or any website, for that matter) is next to impossible, achievable only by Slashdot reading PDA-carrying geek who keeps a Wi-Fi enabled laptop on the bed stand for those middle-of-the-night dream-blogging episodes.

Phooey, I say. Building a website that would pass even the “Mean” test is easy.

Well….

Yes, qualifier time. Building a “good” website from a technical and presentation perspective — with a pleasing color palette, validated and accessible css-driven code, logical and well-organized navigation, proper copyright notice and privacy policy, along with any number of features like RSS feeds and daily Bible verses is easy. Even enabling the site to be frequently updated by technophobes by building it on a content management system is easy. Cheap, even.

These aspects of building a good website are easy because they’re challenges common to all websites, so those of us interested in building good church websites get a free ride on the backs of all the commercial developers out there. Commercial enterprise produces tools like color choosers, CSS-based layout generators, navigation generators and privacy policy models. If you get stuck trying to work with some of these tools, there are countless help resources on the web – mailing lists, discussion forums, or blogs where technical issues are discussed and solved.

But, the minute you move past the technical challenges and begin to ask questions like “What should this website say?” or “What should this website *do* for the church?”, or “How will we know if the site is successful?” or “what will we put there for members vs. non members?” you are guaranteed to get blank stares, drooping jaws, and schedule delays.

Content. What is it about content? Mention the importance of having good content during the site construction process, and you’ll get immediate agreement, heads nodding, everyone knows “content is king” on the web. Bill Gates did, back in 1996. Gerry McGovern has made a career out of web content – writing articles and books, and speaking to conferences and corporate customers about web content. Your site-team will probably have content ideas galore – the possibilities are always endless and brainstorming is fun.

So why is it then, when it comes time to post some content to the freshly-developed church web site so often church web-builders are left to “bulletin-diving” or “repurposing” content from existing newsletters or brochures? Why is the website so often updated reactively (if at all)?

Gerry McGovern, in his article Websites: easy to start, hard to manage” says

“One of the biggest problems websites face is that they lack proper planning in the design and development phase. Generally, the design of the website tends to overreach, in that what is built requires more staff to professionally manage than are available.”

I’m not convinced it’s a planning problem. I’ve been involved on site projects where the planning was quite detailed, formulating content needs from audience research, then tweaking needs by factoring in the business or organizational goals and staff skill set and availability. But plans are just that – plans – and they’re rarely executed word for word. Sometimes both the plan and the site collect the same dust.

So where is the disconnect?

I think the main issue behind poor websites — church or business — is that the people responsible for the site don’t understand that the true power of the web is storytelling.

Eh? Storytelling you ask? Shall we gather our laptops around a campfire now? Hear me out…

Curt Cloninger writes in his AListApart article,A Case for Web Storytelling”:

“Is the web a global network of connected computers? No, that’s the Internet. Is the web hyper text transfer protocol? Well, technically. But if the web is to be understood as a communications medium (the only useful way to understand it), then it must be more than computers talking to each other. Otherwise, mere data exchange would succeed. But the web is not a global network of connected computers. The web is a global network of connected people. And story-telling is still the most effective way to emotionally impact people.”

Cliff Allen echoes the same idea in his ClickZ article Tell a Story to Engage Your Audience”:

“There are many ways to organize product information to communicate with an audience. Facts are typically grouped by such things as how a product is used, what it’s priced at, or what is known about a particular audience. However, corporate web sites have overlooked a technique that people have used for thousands of years to convey information: storytelling.”

He goes on to say:

“It’s a little surprising that most corporate web sites don’t take advantage of this technique to capture attention and lead prospects to make a purchase or inquiry. Most corporate web sites present product information as a snapshot – saying here are all the reasons why you’ll like our product. They don’t recognize that the decision to buy is a process: A prospect becomes a customer by recognizing a problem, learning about solutions, researching products, and, finally, making the decision to purchase product A instead of product B.”

So here’s the core frustration of what’s starting to become a personal rant (sorry Dean, you did ask for something I was “passionate about”..;)). In one corner, we have the church website. No, let’s not call it a website. Let’s call it a “Story Container”. A searchable, accessible, readable, always-available, hyperlinked, cross-referenced story container. In the other corner, the Church has the best story. Indeed – The Greatest Story Ever Told. And countless related personal stories – stories of great faith, triumph over addictions, persistence through illness, gain from loss, and undeserved grace.

But we go on… presenting our churches like products – telling people why they’ll like our church (Relevant! Great Music! Fresh Coffee!) but so rarely simply telling the stories of what our church, our faith, and our God has meant to us, and the true change seen in our lives because of it. What is it going to take to wake the modern church to the power of connecting the two, and filling our websites with our own stories? Sadly, all too often our church websites could be the topic of this Shoe comic.

It’s those stories that members need to tell and visitors need to hear. Those stories are going to move people closer to God. And if our church websites aren’t moving people closer to God then we’re wasting our time.

C’mon. Tell me a story of when God was good to you. Oh..before you start…I’ll bet there are other people that would like to hear it too. Can I put it somewhere where they will find it when they need to?

17 Comments

  1. GREAT POST (yes the caps are intentional)
    The idea of putting up “real” stories is fantastic in its simplicity. Has me already thinking of how to do this on my church’s website.
    Thanks Dean!

    btw – still interested in meeting for coffee at Caribou someday

  2. Dean, thanks for letting these fabulous guest author’s contribute!

    Mike, thanks for perhaps the best perspective I’ve been given on church websites ever. God bless.

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  4. I should go on vacation more often … Mike … your article is GREAT!

    Thank you soooo much.

  5. Mike, thanks for the reminder and the refreshment! I appreciate your focus on content, and though we’ve disagreed over how this is accomplished, I like your suggestions on this entry.

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  7. The problem with our church website is that I’m not the best story teller! Our pastor tells great “stories”, but getting the contribution on a regular basis is why we resort to bulletin diving and newletter repurposing.

    So I think that the disconnect is also a lack of commitment. Everyone likes the IDEA of a great website, but no one wants to commit their resources to making the content needed for the webmaster to post.

    The “(Relevant! Great Music! Fresh Coffee!)” line is also true, but it seems to be a lack of “how to market” to a post modern world that the church is lacking. We all love a great story, but in the web planning sessions when we think about what we want to say, we think about ourselves, rather than what an audience wants/needs to hear.
    This is very common. Every business owner and client I’ve ever dealt with has done this to one degree or another, I do it myself. You need to lead them to a path of “walking a mile the the other guys shoes”, to understand “how” to say to the “audience” what they want to communicate.
    Pastors usually “get it” for their sermons, but all other communications defalt to the self centered style of info disbursment.

  8. “The problem with our church website is that I’m not the best story teller! Our pastor tells great “stories”, but getting the contribution on a regular basis is why we resort to bulletin diving and newletter repurposing.”

    You know…I was commenting to MeanDean offline that this article stopped too soon…;) The next question should be, as Russ so rightly points out, is “how do we get those stories on the web?”

    My answer – and this is where the disagreement between Kristen and I has been in the past – is….

    Let people tell their own stories. And no one else.

    Nothing is going to ring truer than a story coming from the person who experienced it.

    Sounds simple….and there’s plenty of technology out there to allow people to do this. The bigger obstacle is going to be one of site control, permissions and “what-ifs”. What if someone says something bad. What if other people think this one person is “speaking for the whole church”, what if….what if…what if…

    What if we realize that collectively, based on the current state of the average church website, we have nothing to lose?

    Get rid of the “Webmaster” model – if it’s the classic “one person who posts stuff” version. Has that worked – really worked – yet?

    I know – it’s a tough concept,and might be organizationally impossible. I’ve been there too. I’ve been asked to allow the website to be used to send spam, and when I refused, was asked who I thought the site “belonged to”. I said “the church”, meaning – as I’ve been taught since I was a kid – all the people who come, volunteer their time, donate their money, etc. What I was told was that the site “needs to serve the church”, and in this case “the church” meant the church staff and the internal agendas, planning, “vision”. etc.

    So I’ll be the first one to admit my views are probably a bit rebellious and a tad reactionary to events of this past year….but really. Go look at a bunch of church websites.

    Would we really be risking that much to try something else?

  9. I haven’t really been around blogs that much but would it be prsumtuous to think that the first blogs were successful for this exact reason? that they told stories? certainly blogs now aren’t necessarily like good journals that are private. Private journals seem to be written in such a format that people don’t expect you to be reading what you are reading (if you are reading ;) ), Blogs however expect someone to be reading, and address needs of the reader.

    Certainly some of the stories I have written in private journals aren’t like what I would write for a blog… maybe websites have become too polished? even stories that are on the web already?

  10. Mike, love your comments! The two “churches” you describe I call “The Church” (big “C”) and “the church” (little “c”). ….well sort of anyway.

    I for one don’t think your views are reactionary, but rather you finally have eyes wide open rather than shut.

    The Church (Bride of Christ, Body of believers, etc,) is alive and well today, but churches are still needing help. Our present society is moving to a new style of church needs and the old existing church cultures / structures / offices / solutions need to change as well or the Church may be in trouble in this country.

    One of my pastor’s favorite scriptures for how churches should function in the Church is Eph 4:11-12:

    “It was he who gave some to be apostles, some to be prophets, some to be evangelists, and some to be pastors and teachers, 12to prepare God’s people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up”

    Ephesians 4:11-12

    Specifically the last part vs 12 he like to point out that the job of the pastor is to prepare us for works of service to build up the whole Church, and the local church as well as those around us in reverse order.

    I agree completely! Probably too much so for most pastors!

    I have a background of small churches in my history and that meant that we did not have “office staff” or full time pastors. If the church body did not do it, it did not happen.

    Many our churches today have people we hire on staff to do the functions of the Church allowing us to concentrate on our lives out side of church. We have come to expect this and even rely on it to the point that “helping out at church” is seen by most as a low priority, when scripture tells us otherwise.

    Clergy have dealt with this for years and developed a history of taking care of everything themselves to the point of not feeling comfortable if “others” outside their control are messing with something that affects their “career” or job. They have a hard time letting go even though the alternative is usually burnout!

    In my case, even though our pastor says Eph 4:12 he act mostly from a positon of needing control. Not that he’s not good at his job, just the opposite, but he lacks the time, expertise, and other resources to do what a website requires to be functional much less successful. This need for control extends to every area of the church and leads to his completly being overrun with things that need to be done. He’s constantly putting out fires! And that model extends into the culture at the office of the church. Everything needs to run by him first before it functions. (Just a little exageration here, but there’s a certain amount of truth to this for everything the church does.)

    So to answer your question I see that model you proposed working already at small churches on a small scale, but when staff becomes involved the stakes are usually to high for most professional clergy to “give over the reins”, because their jobs are on the line. If something goes bad, the buck stops at their door. Pastors have been ousted for much less (which is another topic that bugs me no end! When will we ever learn…Luke 6:41).

  11. wow did I write all that, must have hit a passion of mine.

  12. Mike:

    Great article! The only thing I would add is that I think it’s important to make sure that when people tell their stories, they don’t simply give traditional testimonies (which today’s world would increasingly ignore). If they tell stories about their life experiences and interests and then go on to tell how their faith in Christ integrates with those experiences and interests, it will be a much more effective story than simple testimonies.

    If anyone is interested, more of my thoughts on these issues can be found here: http://www.strategicdigitaloutreach.com/documents/churchwebsites.pdf.

    Frank

  13. Mike, great article. If I understand you correctly, you are advocating something like a church version of the new web site Browse Happy. The site promotes alternative web browsers by telling the real life stories of folks who have switched. If they can get that excited about something that makes their web experience happier, how much more should we talk about our experience with Jesus Christ that brings fullness of joy?

    Many evangelism training programs lead Christians to write compelling testimonies . Everyone has a story to tell, but sometimes they need some help in how to effectively communicate it. Churches that use these tools should be able to port the written testimonies to their online presence without much difficulty. Just an idea.

  14. Frank –

    Dead on. No “testimonies”. Even as a person who has attended church most of my life, I hear that word and I’ve already mentally started rebuilding Jeeps in my head…:) I can’t imagine suffering through most of what I’ve heard as someone new to church.

    I think testimonies try too hard. Too lofty, Too grandiose, Too epic.

    I want stories. Good stories that make you reach for another cup of coffee. Stories that make you laugh ’till your sides hurt and you’re afraid the shop owner is going to kick you out. Stories that make your significant other nudge you and ask for your hankie.

    And they don’t have to be big stories. They can be just little glimpses. Small moments.

    A few months ago, I was driving to an business appointment. It was a 4-lane highway, and in the right lane was a large tanker truck – one of those impeccably polished stainless steel ones where you can see the reflection of your car in it as you come up on it.

    Across the back of the truck was painted, in large letters, G R A C E.

    I thought – wow. A tanker full of Grace. Imagine what that would be like – to have God pour a tanker full of Grace into my life. I had thise momentary vision of sideswiping it – just to see if I could break a hose loose or something.

    But then that voice came into my head:

    “You see a tanker. To me that’s a thimble, and you’ve had enough thimbles to fill a bucket with already today”.

    And I couldn’t argue. And it wasn’t even lunch time yet. ;)

    A “small moment”…now imagine having a church website where a couple dozen people logged a small moment once a week.

    How many glimpses of God would we get?

    How much more would we move people closer to God?

    Don -’zactly!

    Now add blog-style commenting so the stories can be discussion starters…discussions can be the kernels of relationships…and relationships will lead to community…

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  17. One of my favorite sayings, (misquoted or not) is “It is impossible to argue with a changed life.”

    I’ve just been tasked to do a complete overhaul of our church’s website. One of the things I want to do is put many of the video “testimonies” that we shot for our capital fundraising campaign. We videotaped about 40 people telling stories of God’s faithfulness and how He had changed their life. We only used five or six on the DVD we produced as a part of the fundraising materials. I want to use all of the the videos in a section called “True stories”.