By Laurie Haller, Special Contributor…
It’s Friday night, I’m on vacation, and I’m trying to decide where to attend church on Sunday morning. I ask Siri on my iPhone, “Find Grace United Methodist Church, Any City, U.S.A.” Before I can even blink, I’m on the website and know that Grace UMC has worship services at 8:00, 9:15 and 10:45 a.m.
Then I click the “I’m New” button where I read a welcome from Pastor Mike Adams and have my most important questions answered before I choose to walk through the door for the first time: “Who are you guys? What’s really important to you? When do you get together? Is there anything for my kids? How do I find you guys? How do I get ahold of you?”
I’m feeling comfortable about what to expect when I arrive, a map is right there on the home page, I like what I read about the church’s ministries, and I already feel connected with the pastor. I’m sold. I’m heading to Grace UMC on Sunday morning.
Every congregation in the United Methodist Church has a new front door. It’s the Internet. People don’t use the Yellow Pages to find a church anymore, nor do they glance at the church ads in Saturday’s newspaper. They’re not going to drive around town looking for the most attractive church building, either. Potential guests to your church will most likely Google for churches in their community and check out their websites. If your website is ugly, outdated, neglected or amateurish, discerning church shoppers will likely pass you by before ever setting foot in the real door of your church.
I remain convinced that personal invitation is the best way of attracting new people to your church, whether that invitation is to worship, join a small group, or participate in an outreach project. But even the friends, family members, co-workers and neighbors whom you invite will likely also check out your church’s website.
John Warnock, the technology advisor for the Grand Rapids District of the West Michigan Conference, where I serve, recently did a study of the websites of all 69 district churches. According to John, church websites serve three functions. They provide information for members, such as what the hours are for the blood drive, what the Scripture and sermon title is for Sunday, and how to sign up for a Lenten small group. Websites also connect members who are not able to attend church. Shut-ins, those recovering from surgery and members living out of state can read or listen to sermons and keep up to date on church happenings.
The third and arguably most important function of a church website is to be a portal for people who are looking for a church home and/or are seeking to become disciples of Jesus Christ. After all, that’s our mission as United Methodists, isn’t it? John analyzed each of our district websites from the perspective of seven questions that visitors ask: “Where is the church? When do you worship? How can I get there? What do I do when I get there? What do I do with my kids? What is your worship style? What is your message?”
Believing that guest-friendly websites make information easy to access, John then created a spreadsheet by using these criteria:
• Does the church have a website?
• Do they have a Facebook presence that is evident on the web page?
• Do they have a Twitter presence that is evident on the web page?
• On what page does the church appear when “(city), Michigan churches” is Googled?
• Do they have a photo of the church on the home page, or is it just a click away?
• Do they have a “Welcome” or “I’m New” link for a visitor’s page?
• Is the home page information current and maintained properly?
• Are there written directions or a map on the home page, or is it just a click away?
• Is the worship service/style described on the home page, or is it just a click away?
• Do they offer sermons, podcasts or videos?
• Do they have an email address?
Each church received one point for a “yes” to every question, except for the Google search criterion, where five points were awarded to churches whose websites were listed on page one of the Google search for their city or town. Churches listed on the second page received four points and so on. No points were awarded for churches not appearing on the first five Google search pages.
And the results
What did we learn about the churches’ websites from this informal survey?
• Out of a possible 16 points, two churches had 12 points. Not surprisingly, they were the two largest churches in the district.
• The next four churches had 10 points and were not necessarily ones we would have expected, except that three of the four were new church starts in the last 15 years.
• 25 of the 69 churches had no website that John could find.
• Two churches have a Twitter presence.
• 16 churches have a church photo on the home page or a click away.
• Nine churches have a Facebook presence.
• Nine churches have a visitor button or link.
• 11 churches have directions on the home page or a click away.
• Eight churches have either a sermon schedule, video of worship, or a description of worship on the home page or a click away.
• 10 churches offer sermons, texts, videos or podcasts.
• All but three churches have email.
• Only 12 websites have up-to-date information on the home page (one home page announced that “the Father and Son Banquet will be held on April 20, 2009”).
What are we to make of this information? If the Internet is the new front door of the church, John’s informal survey shows that the door is either locked, stuck, forgotten or we’ve barricaded it.
All clergy and lay leaders must ask these questions:
• How important is our website to the health and vitality of our church?
• What do we want to communicate to those who access our church website?
• If we want young families to be comfortable in our church, should we not devote a section of the website to infant and children’s ministries?
• Are we willing to invest as many resources in preparing guests to enter the virtual front door of the church as we do in welcoming guests when they enter the actual front door?
• Can we identify youth or other tech people to create simple, clear, and inviting websites, even for the smallest churches? It’s a great way to involve youth in the life of the church.
• Can we design our website so that the church secretary can update and maintain it?
• Can we create district pools of tech volunteers who can build websites for smaller churches without built-in expertise?
• If we are proud of our church, and our website is a tool for evangelism, why don’t we invite others to check out both front doors?
I arrive at Grace UMC a few minutes late on Sunday morning. The front door is opened by a cheerful greeter, and I am given a bulletin by a gracious usher. I settle in for a wonderful, transformative worship experience, just as the website led me to believe.
The Rev. Haller is pastor of the Grand Rapids Aldersgate and Plainfield United Methodist churches of the West Michigan Conference, and is a member of the Worship Arts Editorial Committee. Reprinted with permission from the author and from Dave Wiltse, editor of Worship Arts, where this article first appeared.