Heal Your Church WebSite

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

Don’t confuse a church website with … um … marital bliss

“Don’t confuse web design with football either. Or sex. Or anything else.” says Vincent Flanders in his article on ‘Don’t Confuse Web Design With Dining.’ I’ll add to that: don’t confuse your church website with ‘real people from the congregation.’ Here’s why: people don’t want to marry a church website as much as they would rather date it.

During the day, I’m a product management director for a suite of online software services that is consumed by close to 500,000 people during the course of any given day. So while I may not be an expert in something heady, like say dispensational eschatology, I am placed in a position where I’m compelled to know how the web is utilized and consumed on a daily basis – by a similar demographic.

Which is why I say with as much brotherhood as possible in this faceless, emotionless electronic medium:

Frank I love ya, but I gotta disagree with ya on this one.

What am I talking about? Well I’m responding to a very thought-provoking and well-put comment by Frank Johnson, the head honcho, super strategist and all around nice guy at Strategic Digital Outreach. A website whose feed you need to add to your aggregator right now … that’s okay … I’ll wait.

Done? Good, let’s dig in. Here’s what Frank wrote that got me thinking while I was practicing for Petra on the Stairmaster 7000 PT Stepmill:

I do have one comment/question. Since the home page is the most important page on a site, do we really want to use that space to present the idea that the “total of our church” is made up of the sum of “dates, times, places, personalities and purposes”? Assuming that by “personalities” you mean staff members (I know that’s a big assumption because you may not mean that at all), is this really what the church is?I’d much rather use the home page to introduce real people from the congregation, use the website to facilitate face-to-face meetings between those people and interested visitors, and then deal with dates, times, places, personalities, purposes, etc. in the context of a new face-to-face relationship.

That’s not to say that information shouldn’t be included on a church website. I just don’t think those data points are the essence of the church.

First, Frank – THANK YOU – I love thoughtful comments like this. Keep them coming!

Second, err … umm … well yes, we did assume a bit much. Trust me, I’m not into pastor worship so when I say “personalities” I mean more than just the staff members. And perhaps it is that ambiguity created in my writing that lead to your suggestion that we put dates, times, places, etc … elsewhere than on the front page.

Which is why I can easily agree with Frank’s assertion that a church website should facilitate face-to-face relationships. With that point of purpose I entirely agree.

However, what I strongly I disagree with is the implication (and now I’m the one making the big assumption) that the web can be anything but what it is, a medium for conveying thoughts, ideas and information that is consumed more like fast food than fine dining. Or as Vincent Flanders writes in the aforementioned article:

“Many [non profit organization] web designers confuse the web world with the real world experience of dining vs eating. When you dine it’s all about setting the mood — good conversation, the ambiance of a fine restaurant, great wine, and enjoyable company. That’s fine for dining, but in the world of the web there’s no need to set a mood. It’s like eating at a fast-food restaurant where you’ve got to get calories in your body because you don’t have time to dine …”

Mr. Flanders isn’t the only expert to make this argument. One need only dive into Jakob Nielsen, the Pew Internet & American Life Project, and various other individuals and organizations who’ve spent lots of time and money clinically researching how the web is consumed. Each in their own way concluding that we’re a bunch of lazy beasts, a description offered by Nielsen who follows that web users want the “maximum benefit for minimum effort” when it comes to information foraging. Including, I might add based on my own web servant experiences, foraging for a new place to visit on Sunday morning.

And it is for these reasons that while I agree with Frank Johnson entirely on the “what” …. I have to with great respect, admiration and Christian love … disagree on the “how.”

Bottom line, and with apologies to Romans 10:14-15:

How will they know whose site they have not seen? And how will they see whose site they have not found? And how will they find a site unless it has search-centric content? And how will it have index enabled content if the front page is a Flash page? As it is written, “How consumable are the feeds of those who preach the good news!”

Oh and Frank, because you posted a great point that inspired a post – you get a free lunch if you’re ever in my neck of the woods!

Great discussions like this are more than worth it!


  1. Free lunch? Did someone say free lunch? Hmmmmm …. how can I get to Maryland from California for less than the price of lunch?

    Seriously Dean, I appreciate the response as well as the kind recommendation of SDO. After reading this post, I think we’re pretty much on the same page.

    Regarding your paraphrase of Romans 10:14-15, I agree completely. Minimal use of Flash, if at all. Lots of text.

    The search engine indexes represent some of the “highways” of today – “the master said to the slave, ‘Go out into the highways and along the hedges, and compel them to come in, ….'” Without content-heavy sites (textual content), we’re not feeding the search engines and we’re, in effect, not going out into the highways (at least not in the fullest measure that we can).

    We both made assumptions that, I think, turned out to be wrong. You’re right – I assumed “personalities” meant staff (largely because I rarely see a church website where anyone but staff is profiled). I also agree with you that the web doesn’t create ambiance. Primarily, a website conveys information.

    My question is whether the information which is included on most church websites is compelling enough to make unbelievers interested in the dates and times of our gatherings. I would say the answer to that is almost always “No.” That’s why I think profiles of personalities in the congregation are so valuable.

    We can provide the dates and times of our gatherings as much as we want, but if people don’t want to join us in our gatherings, they won’t be interested in the dates and times. As I’ve said lots of times before, no one cares about your service schedule because they don’t plan on attending. That’s a bit of hyperbole for the sake of making the point. Obviously, there are people who do care – believers visiting from out of town, believers who have just moved to an area, and people who are on the verge of becoming believers.

    But I would submit that the majority of unbelievers today simply aren’t interested. That’s where the compelling content comes in. I want to see church websites whose content is so compelling (and profiles of believers in the congregation, I think, represent the most compelling content available to us) that they will seek out the dates and times of services just so they can meet us.

    If the first impression that an unbeliever visiting our website gets is that this “organization” is all about services (dates, times, and places), leadership (even though I know now that’s not what you were saying), and purpose (mission statement), how is the church any different than the local service club? I would suggest that the difference is the life of the community of believers. And that’s what I want the unbeliever exposed to, even immersed in – the life of the Christian community (through eventual face-to-face relationship).

    So I often ask myself, “How can our websites compel the unbeliever to come in?” How can our websites interest the unbeliever so much that their original feeling (of not caring when and where our gatherings happen) be transformed so that they want to join us in our gatherings?

    I’m convinced that an approach where we include profiles of believers (with textual content primarily) on our websites deserves much more consideration than it typically gets. Well-thought-out textual profiles (and part of being well-thought-out is making sure they are well-indexed in the search engines with an emphasis on theme and geography) will enable us to “broadcast” compelling content into the “highways” of the search engines.

    Thanks again, Dean, for the good conversation!

  2. Frank, I think if it were possible to bend the Internet the way in which you speak – other interests and genre’s with ALOT of money to throw at such solutions would have shown us how by now.

    Instead, what do all the hot commodities have in common: text.

    From mobile phones, to blogs, to aggregators to search engines – text.

    Church websites too – text was the tool utilized by the early Church, from Paul to on forward.

    In a like manner, those making a life decision, from conversion to Christianity to determining which church to attend on Sunday are going to do so based upon the results of information foraging.

    This means putting the pertinent text up front without overwhelming an individual with the entirety of the church on the front page – but rather clear navigation into those areas that help them make decisions.

    Most adopters of the web understand that they may have to hit a front page to get to a sermon and/or information about children’s services – and aren’t going to be put off if there is a clear way to navigate to such.

    The web is what it is – I say work with it within the boundaries to achieve our conversion goals first.

    Then worry about how to bend it in ways it wasn’t designed.

  3. Dean – somehow I think we’re having a disconnect. Where did I say I don’t favor text? I’m a huge fan of text and annoy my friends and colleagues with my insistence that Flash is generally not a good thing and with my reminders that search engines don’t index images.

    I agree that we should put the pertinent text up front. I guess I just don’t think dates, times, mission statements, etc. are as pertinent as some do. Textual profiles of believers in the congregation are more pertinent and useful, in my humble opinion.


  4. Hi Frank, just a quick FYI because I’m buckets busy …

    … I never, EVER said one should post a mission statement on their frontpage.

    In fact, I’ve said more than once that is a deadly sin of church web design.

    We seriously need to get together for lunch (here in N.C. now) to get over this disconnect.

    Why? I see we agree more than we disagree, which is why I think we find ourselves in “violent agreement” with one another.

    Still, dates, times & places – needs to be up front for foragers. They convey the message of an active, furtive congregation.

  5. Gosh, this isn’t going the direction I had planned. Hope you know that this is all friendly for me.

    Yes, I think we agree more than we disagree too. Somehow, I’m being too quick to interpret what you say.

    Also, I’m not necessarily opposed to dates, times and places up front if that’s not the only thing (although I guess I could say that in the past, I’ve been more narrow-minded about dates, times, places).

    If the dates, times, places are the only thing on the front page, then I think we’ve limited our audience only to those people who are already seeking out a church. I want to have a broader audience and try to convince people who aren’t seeking out a church that there is a place for them among us.

    So how about dates, times, places for those who are already seeking out a church and just need quick access to the information and prominent links to profiles of believers within our congregation for unbelievers who aren’t seeking out a church?

    Let’s see. According to Google Maps, the western border of Maryland is a whopping 2,874 miles from my house (they estimate it will take me 1 day and 18 hours to drive there). The western border of North Carolina, on the other hand, is a paltry 2,763 miles from my house (1 day and 17 hours away). At least this is heading in the right direction and there’s hope of a lunch together!