Web 101

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Take your ministry’s Web site to the
head of the class with this study guide.

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Bob and his family have just moved to your town, and they’re
looking for a new church. Since they don’t know anyone in town, how
will they find a church? They might once have consulted the phone
book, which would offer basic information such as phone number and
address. But in a world that’s ruled by technology, Bob’s family is
unlikely to find a compelling reason to visit your church by
flipping through pages. Two-thirds of online Americans have used
the Internet to search for religious information, according to a
2004 Pew Research poll. What that means is whether you like it or
not, if you haven’t put much — or any — effort into your
ministry’s Web site, you likely won’t be bringing Bob and his
family through your doors.

I’ve visited far too many Web sites that have  one static
page with a picture of their church and the service times as the
only information. What, exactly, does a picture of your building
tell me? Is your church a building, or is it the people? While I
applaud the fact that these churches at least have a Web site, that
doesn’t cut the mustard anymore.

A common misconception is that you’ve got to have 3,000+ members
and a 10-person tech team to pull off a great and compelling Web
presence, but that’s just not true. A great Web presence isn’t
about flash and cash; it’s about the right information presented in
the right way. Use this primer, full of basic — and a few advanced
— tips to get you on your way to creating a compelling Web
presence.

Back to Basics: Style

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Use these guidelines for a site that looks professional, inviting,
and informative.

• Keep it simple. If you only take one thing away
from this article, let it be this: Less is more. An opening page
with a dove erupting from a fountain and Jesus ascending into
heaven with the Hallelujah chorus playing in the
background may impress…well, someone. But the truth is every page
people have to “click through” to get to your Web site is just one
more opportunity for them to decide they can find what they’re
looking for somewhere else a lot easier.

Your home page should be simple and clear, with easy navigation on
the top or side of the page — somewhere high on the page so people
don’t have to scroll down to get pertinent information. Choose an
easy-to-read font such as Arial or Geneva, and consider making the
point size slightly larger than usual (don’t go below size 14).
Also, don’t use animated icons or any sort of pattern
behind your text; it’s unnecessary, distracting, annoying, and it
cheapens the look of your site.

Simple and boring are not the same thing. Make your children’s
ministry page interesting. I’ve seen children’s ministry sections
of Web sites that featured nothing but text. When I see that as a
parent, I’m wondering if those people know anything about
kids.

• Provide instant ministry access. Once people
find their way to your children’s ministry page, they should be
able to glean very quickly what your ministry’s all about — and
what their children’s experience will likely be. A church is the
people, so use pictures of people. Show kids having fun; show your
smiling adult leaders. It’s also a great idea to introduce
each of the members of your team with a picture and a
brief bio (no more than one or two sentences). Parents and
kids are more at ease when they can get an idea of who’s on your
team before they get there.

Along with the less-is-more approach, don’t put so much
information, pictures, and video on your Web site that it takes
forever to load. Thirty percent of Web surfers still have a dial-up
connection at home, and if your Web site takes too long to load,
they won’t wait.

Prestonwood Baptist Church does a lot right on their children’s
ministry page (www.prestonwood.org/biblefellowship/children).
They start with pictures of their ministry and also have pictures
of some of their staff. There’s a clear and concise explanation of
the ministry’s goals and aim-a sort of mission statement (a great
idea for each ministry in your church to have!). Along the
left-hand side are links to specific aspects of the ministry,
including security, age-specific pages, a leader’s page, and a page
just for kids. There’s nothing fancy or high-tech about the page;
it just conveys exactly what’s important.

• Check your language. Beware of using too much
Christian-centric language that may be unintelligible to guests.
Design your Web site for non-members and you won’t alienate anyone.
In fact, a “Thinking of visiting?” button in a prominent place can
be a great repository for the sort of information visitors are
looking for. 

Making the Grade: Content

What you say on your site is just as important as how it looks.
Use these filters to think through the key information you’ll
provide.

• Prioritize information. Visitors look for basic
information first, so include service times and age groupings and
where they meet.

For people looking for specific information, provide your office
number and a link to your email address in an easy-to-find place.
(Email yourself using that link to make sure it works!) Some
suggest that posting an email address on your Web site is an open
invitation for spam — and they’re right. But if you truly want to
reach people, you’ve got to wade through unpleasant stuff — that
goes for ministry in general, doesn’t it? And, you can always use a
spam blocker.

Also, give clear directions to your church. Many mapping sites are
free and let you link maps to your site. Use this feature and
double-check the directions once they’re linked.

• Tout your safety policy. Post security
guidelines prominently. You do have those, right? Because parents
want to know you care about their children’s security as much as
they do.

• Preview for perfection. Not everyone is gifted
in the area of spelling and grammar. That’s why even professionals
have numerous eyes preview everything to catch mistakes; Web sites
are no different. Get as many people as possible to look at
every page of your Web site to check for mistakes. Having
your home page say “Welcome to our Chruch!” won’t attract the kind
of attention you’re hoping for. Having others preview your site is
also a great opportunity to check all links and email addresses to
ensure they’re all working properly and going to the right
inbox.

Homework: The Details

An important — and fair — question to ask is, “Who’s going to
build this Web site?” Most of us don’t know HTML (that’s Web site
code language) from a hole in the ground, but there’s almost
certainly someone in your congregation who’s tech-savvy enough to
implement these suggestions. Many people in your church want to
volunteer, but may not feel comfortable teaching a class full of
6-year-olds. It could be that these people would absolutely love to
use their gifts in this “backstage” role.

Another option to consider is using a company that creates church
Web sites as its business. Vchurches.com, for instance,
charges a reasonable monthly fee and provides an easy template
where you plug in the information, and the template does the rest.
You can include calendars, forums, videos, polls, and more. Church
management software programs such as BuzzCentral (www.group.com/buzz) also
offer supported Web site software where you control content and
other features. These options are remarkably easy, and a timesaver
when you don’t have the tech-savvy person in your
congregation.

Extra Credit

So what can you do to stand out from the pack when people like Bob
and his family are surfing in search of a new church or parents are
looking to get more involved in their children’s faith development?
Use these ideas.

• Offer downloads. Make weekly handouts, parent
tips, church calendars, and more available as downloads. This gives
kids who miss a chance to catch up, and it gives visitors a good
idea of what kids in your ministry are learning, doing, and
planning. It’s easy to convert files — which are likely already on
your computer — into a downloadable PDF format. Again, this is a
task that someone with the least bit of technical knowledge in your
church can provide — or teach you to do yourself.

• Start a blog. Another great extra is a blog for
your kids — and their parents — to catch up on everything. Blogs,
which are basically online journals, are free and incredibly easy
to use. They feature templates that let you easily insert pictures,
make lists, and much more. A blog can become an information hub and
an easy way to communicate important information. The key here is
to update it regularly (at twice least weekly), as that will keep
people well-informed and coming back to visit the Web site. Web
experts say it’s important to “train” your Web visitors to return
by posting new information regularly. Trends show that over time,
visitors return as many times per day as new information is posted
per day. Go to www.blogger.com to learn
more.

• Have fun. Games are another way to engage kids
with your Web site. This is definitely on the advanced end of the
spectrum, but there just may be a Web Wizard in your congregation
who fiddles with creating easy Web-based games that he or she could
test on your Web site. It’s not a substitute for Bible learning,
but if parents see games on your Web site, they’ll know you’re
aware of what kids like, and they’ll also know they can send their
kids to your site for safe fun. Richland Hills Church of Christ has
a super-powered kids site (www.rhkids.com) that features
music, animation, and sound effects-and that’s just on the main
kids page! There are links for the various ages, a parents page,
and a page that’s just for Fun and Games.

• • •

Trust me when I say you can’t ignore the plugged-in world we live
in. Parents looking for a church want to know that their kids’
spiritual needs will be met in your ministry. A top-notch Web
presence demonstrates that your ministry is relevant to kids’ and
families’ lives. And if they aren’t convinced of that through your
Web site, they probably won’t risk an actual visit.

Scott Firestone IV is the associate editor of Group Magazine
and a Veggie Tales connoisseur, thanks to his 2-year-old son
Quint.

 

 

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