Heal Your Church WebSite

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

How DO You Serve Two Masters?

To partially quote Matthew 6:24:

“No one can serve two masters. Either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other.”

The Good Book was talking about God and money, of course, but it could have been talking about Web site visitors. You see, church Web sites have an interesting challenge in front of them: they have to search two audiences equally well.

Here are 5 aspects to serving these two masters:

First, we have the Visitors. These are the people that found your URL next to your listing in the phone book (you have it there, right?), on the side of your bus as it drives around town (it’s there too, right?), or perhaps just through searching the Web (Google’s local search will play a big part in this). These folks are perhaps looking for a church home, and have come to your site as part of their search.

On the other side, we have the Members. These are people who already belong to the church and are active in various activities and groups. (The word “Member” here doesn’t imply any formal church member — just that they attend regularly and are somewhat involved in the operations and activities of the church.)

These two groups have vastly differing needs and expectations for your Web site.

1. Visitors want brochureware. (What’s brochureware?) They need quick, relatively superficial information about the church. How do I get there? What time are the services? What denomination does the church represent? Who are the people that I’ll be seeing up front on Sunday morning? If I decide to make this my church home, what types of activities could I become involved with?

In a lot of ways, you sell your church to Visitors in the same way that a company sells its product — by carefully asking the question, “what information would I be looking for if I was in the same position” Just like a company doesn’t display its help ticketing system or knowledge base on their front page, neither should your church print meeting minutes or the upcoming budget details on yours.

It’s not hard to satisfy Visitors. Brochureware has generally been easy. But the complication arises when you take the Members into account. What does this group need from your Web site? Sales-ish brochureware? Nope…

2. Members want an intranet. Ah yes, an intranet — usually the province of corporations. But churches are sometimes quite the same thing. You have a group of people, united in the same cause, who work at tasks to further that cause. To this end, the Member needs a lot of information quickly, without unnecessary hand-holding.

For instance:

  • They need schedules. They don’t need superficial information about the events and ministries available — they need to know when the preschool playground cleanup project will begin on Saturday morning, how they should be dressed for it, and what side dish they need to bring for the potluck afterwards.
  • They need contact information. They know that Pastor Bob went to seminary in Cleveland and did his dissertation on the Gospels, but right now they just need every phone number and email address at which they might be able to contact him because Mary’s cousin was in a serious car accident and the family needs someone to lean on.
  • They need news. They spend five months a year in Arizona so they don’t know that the furnace went on the fritz and there’s a goodwill offering to get it fixed.
  • They need records. The new sanctuary project is on schedule, but they like to review the Building Committee meeting minutes anyway because they were in contracting for 20 years and they can spot a construction problem ten miles away.

The problem with throwing all this information at every Visitor who walks through the virtual door is that you run the risk of alienating them. I keep thinking of the undersea current which the Surfer Dude sea turtle rode in Finding Nemo — a huge current of non-stop, straight-to-the-point information that assumes a lot of background knowledge can make the Visitor seem like there’s no way to “jump into the flow.” Your church can come off looking very clique-ish if you’re not careful.

So, given that these two audiences are so different, how do you meet both their needs with the same Web site? It’s a tricky question, but here are some ideas:

3. Balance it carefully
This is what usually happens — not by plan, but by lack of one, really. However, if you’re careful, you can have discrete links on each page that allow the Member to get the information they want without alienating the Visitor.

For instance, at the bottom of a page describing the local MOPS chapter, you could have a link with something like “If you’re interested in MOPS, visit our Events Calendar for a list of upcoming meetings.” The trick to this is taking time to acknowledge that there are two different groups and keep both sets of needs in mind as your develop and expand the site.

Visitors get the home page, but Members bookmark a “hidden” home page
Well, not “hidden,” but not the default domain home page either. The index.html page that comes up for “www.mychurch.com” can be for the Visitors, full of all sorts of brochure-ish information about the church.

However, Members know — via a slug on the home page, through the grapevine, through a mailing list, etc. — that they should bookmark “www.mychurch.com/news.html” or because that’s where the meat of the site really is.

4. Use an alternate means of Member communication
Leave your entire Web site for the Visitors, and use another Net-based means to communicate with the Members. A listserv can go a long way, and it works well because you usually have email addresses for your core members. If you have some Net saavy folks, perhaps issue the core news via RSS.

Obviously, there are some limitations here. For instance, how are you going to get contact information on demand from a list-serv? There are ways, but none of them are obvious or elegant.

(Drawbacks or not, this model gets used a lot in today’s churches. Like the venerable “meeting after the meeting,” a lot of the real communication in churches happens via mailing list over any other method.)

5. Have two Web sites
Drastic, sure, but it can work well in a lot of situations. Hosting accounts are cheap, and this lets you use a brochureware system on your Visitor site (“www.mychurch.com”) and a more focused site for the Members (“intranet.mychurch.com”).

An added benefit of this is that your Members can even use a dedicated community/intranet system rather than a standard Web site. Intranets.com or CommunityZero would serve your core members exceptionally well, with their built-in calendars, file libraries, and news systems.

A drawback: if you have to pay by the user, this can get painful. However, there are any number of self-hosting, open-source solutions (PostNuke, for instance) that would do the same thing with some hacking. For you Microsoft fans, SharePoint works very well out-of-the-box, and you can get a lot of that functionality with a copy of FrontPage.

So, there you have some thoughts about how to handle the unique needs of a church Web site. Even just acknowledging the problem and keeping it in the front of your head while developing the site can make a world of difference.


  1. Hardly a unique problem to churches.

    Consider a big technical company for example. They need to cater to:
    Different roles – junior technical (doing), senior technical (designing), business person (deciding), end user (using)
    Different company sizes and types, who have very different needs: home/soho, small business, medium business, large business, government, education, etc.
    Possibly different verticals, who want specialist information (finance, manufacturing, etc)
    Partner channels – all of whom can be sliced the same as above, but want their own specialised resller information. And if you have multiple channels, add another facet.
    So, you have all that, then you have all those roles in different stages of the sales cycle – awareness, assement, purchase, deployment, support, etc.

    Slice and dice all of them and you have approaching an infinite number of scenarios.

    Dealing with 2? Sounds kinda easy.

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  3. Hey Deane –

    Good subject. Definitely an area I’ve struggled with in the past.

    DO visitors want brochureware?

    I struggle with that. Especially as the “internet generation” slowly become the audience looking at your site from a “non-member” perspective. While certainly the basic “who what where when how” info should still be there, I don’t think an internet savvy audience is going to give your brochure content a more than a cursory glance.

    IMHO, before this audience invests the time to come visit you, they’re going to check you out as fully as possible online first. They’re going to want to hear how the “members” are communicated to, and how they communicate with each other.

    It’s really the “Cluetran Manifesto” applied to churches – let me hear the authentic conversation of this body, and I’ll decide it it’s for me. Brochureware is rarely an authentic reflection of the real conversation.

    By communicating differently to visitors and members, you run the risk of a virtual “bait and switch” — someone coming to your church because the brochureware really spoke to them, only to find that it doesn’t reflect the true character and personality of the church.

    I also wonder about “hiding” those member conversations, as I’ve known a small number of people who’ve connected with a church at a more task oriented level (running a sound board, for example, because they were a professional in that area) first, establishing a relationship at that level than then grew to eventually lead them to conversion.

    The dividing line, or lack of one, between visitor and member content is also going to depend on the culture of a given church and it’s staff. At one point I had developed a number of group blogs for use by volunteer groups at RP — but these were shot down by an “old skool” admin pastor who just couldn’t bear the thought of someone “from the outside” being able to read the conversation between a bunch of audio guys. His view was even that it would be “inappropriate” for you to walk by a room where the audio team was meeting and overhear a bit of their conversation….certainly with that kind of mindset the public website isn’t going to have much on it.

    But I wonder…what’s it say to a non-member when they find out that there’s “hidden” stuff going on? Will the result be more of a “church clique” impression than if it was all public?

  4. There are some things which we bury, but not necessarily because we don’t want anyone to “know our business”. Pictures of anyone under 13, the member directory – this stuff we put in a password protected directory. We don’t label it “members only” – we call the section “members and friends”. A phone call to me gets you access. The link bar which appears at the top of each page is static, and serves as our “brochure” for visitors.

  5. Some good solutions are above in the comments, just thought I’d throw in mine:

    I had to solve this problem for a website I did last year. The members of the organization needed all the news, email address, phone numbers, etc., but none of the members wanted this information shared with the general public (or the All Knowing Google). So, I made a main page and then a /news/ site that is linked from the main page. However, it is password protected with a generic account/password that we change once a year. The account info is emailed and told to everyone in the group pretty frequently.

  6. Good post, Dean. I continue to debate the balance in my mind.

    I know that I don’t like the idea of having two completely separate sites (ie, saddleback.com and saddlebackfamily.com). I agree with Boyink, people want to get their hands on as much as possible, or at least know that if they have to, they can.

    But I do like the brochureware info presented on saddleback.com and would link to it with a large graphic image ad on the homepage (which is what we’ve done), and should make it a utility link or small side image link on all the secondary pages.

    To make the content customized for members, I think the best solution is a personalized, username/password My Yahoo! type section, ie my.church.com. The idea is that this will be the active members’ portal/connection to the church. It should include personalized info (stories, pictures) for their ministries, small groups, events that pertain to them, and anything else (ie, church announcements, classifieds, news they choose, daily devotional, etc) that will make them bookmark/homepage it and check it at least on a weekly basis.

    FellowshipChurch.com and Saddlebackfamily.com do it, though I think not to it’s full potential. Why don’t other churches do it? Because it costs money to develop it, and most churches can’t afford it, at least not to the customization it should have.

    Well, I think it’s coming. At least it should be. Yeah, I’m pretty sure it’s coming.

  7. Funny, I was just about to mention the dual Saddleback sites as a good example of how to handle this issue. Saddleback.com has all the basics for the potential visitor, presented in a way that won’t overwhelm. Want more? There are multiple links on saddleback.com to the saddlebackfamily.com site, where you can find much more detail. It’s still not the full-fledged intranet, but it’s a much fuller exploration of what’s going on at Saddleback. And it’s not hidden.

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    In Him