As I was looking closely at the websites of six local churches, one question I considered was this: “What does this website convey about the culture of the church?” That’s a great question. Websites are definitely a way to communicate who you are—how you communicate that goes beyond just the content on the site. The graphics, photos, and style choices an organization makes should communicate something about who they are … who they really are.
I was examining the websites of six churches that I knew quite a lot about. I knew their pastors, their polity, and even some of the skeletons in their closets. I was in a unique position to know whether their website communicated who they were … or who they wanted outsiders to think they were.
First things first: I am not accusing anyone of being purposefully dishonest. Maybe whoever made their content and style decisions was an outlier in the church. Maybe they just did what they liked and no one in leadership had any say because they really didn’t care. There are many reasons the image promoted by the church’s website might be different than the culture of the church it was created to represent. But whatever the reason, it’s not a valid one.
The elements listed below are three areas that we should give special attention to when examining our church websites to accurately reflect who we are as a church.
Welcome or Pastor’s Message
Most churches have this somewhere on their site—the obligatory welcome message from the pastor. To be honest, it is a little bit of a pet peeve of mine that people welcome people to their website. I don’t know why, but I am working through it. How can the pastor’s welcome message be a misleading communication about the church?
There are usually a disproportionately high number of exclamation points in most of these little welcome paragraphs. Not only that, but the words “exciting,” “friendly” and “welcoming” are usually overused. Hyperbole flows like rushing water! However, when the guest arrives for worship on Sunday, the only excitement they see is on the people’s faces as they leave.
What’s a pastor to do? If the church is not everything that you would hope, write of your vision of how it should be. Write about why you love the church and your dreams for the church. Invite the visitor to find you when they visit and offer to connect personally with them. Be sure to under promise and over deliver.
The feel of a website can communicate even more than the text itself. Websites have style just like people have a certain style of dress; there are trends in web design just like there are trends in clothing. A few years ago, the trend was to pack as many text links on a page as possible. Now the trend is full-page photos with oversized graphics and very little text. However, even within those trends, the style you use says something about who you are.
Is your site bright and colorful or is it just a couple of colors? Are your images and graphics sharp and crisp or are they washed out or filtered? Is the font on your graphics a script or a standard typeface? Is your design simple or complex? High tech or vintage? Urban or rural? Backgrounds, buttons and menus—every design element says something about who you are as a church.
How do you stay honest here? Look at the style you use to communicate internally. Does it fit how you’re promoting externally from your website? Print the home page of your website. Does it seem out of place when compared to your Sunday bulletin? Try to remain consistent and you’ll be more likely to remain honest.
Member Photos and Stock Photos
Most websites use photos of people to show the activities of the church, when they are gathered at the church campus and scattered serving the community. But what if you don’t have those photos? What if you don’t have a great photographer? What if your people don’t want to have their pictures posted on the web? What if you just have to have a photo of a 60+ year-old woman holding the hand of a preteen girl while wearing a green sweater sitting in front of a stone fireplace facing east?! What is a webmaster to do?!
This is the problem the stock photo industry was created to fix. Stock photos are professionally shot photos of people, places and things involved in every imaginable activity, made available to purchase through searchable online databases. Whatever you need a picture of, it’s likely they have it—available with the click of a button. But is it honest?
Well, it depends. Are the people in the photo representative of the people that are in your church … or of the people you wish were in your church? That featured image on your homepage of a young, good looking family with smiling kids and perfect hair should communicate what people can expect to see on a typical Sunday in your church. Will they see any young families? What about that picture of people of different races and ethnicities? Will they see that too?
Stock photos can be a great help but should only be chosen because they clearly represent the church family the website is promoting. Choose carefully how you use them so that when guests see the people in your worship service, they don’t think twice.
A church’s website is a great medium for helping guests become familiar with the church before they even step foot in the building. However, we have a responsibility to make sure that the image we present is an honest image, consistent with what guests will experience when they come through our doors.