John Q's Web Reviews

August 29th, 2012

Like many folks considering trying out a new church, Ministry Matters' "secret church shopper," John Q. Visitor, often takes to the web to find service times, directions, and other information before making that first visit. What visitors find (or don't find) on your website could make the difference between giving you a try and clicking that Back button all the way back to Google.

Today's Churches

Say I've just moved to a new town and have been involved in Baptist churches for most of my life. I Google, "baptist church [town]." These are the first two results I get. Church A is a large, well-programmed, fairly-traditional church with an emphasis on evangelism. Church B appears to be more medium-sized, but still with active programs for all ages. How will I decide which to visit first?

Vital Info

Service times and location/directions are the most vital pieces of information on a church's website, and both churches had this vital information close at hand.

I found Church A's times and address in 4 seconds and didn't even have to navigate off the home page, as it appeared with just a mouseover of the large "times and directions" button (which, honestly, was a little less user-friendly than clicking the button to a new page would have been, since I didn't expect the mouseover and clicked it the first time, which refreshed the home page rather than taking me to a dedicated times and directions page, but it was definitely clear where to find the info). Church B had "SCHEDULE" as one of its main headings across the top, which made it clear where to go, even if the eye had to search a few seconds longer to spot the word among the other headings offered.

Both churches get points for making this info very accessible, and not allowing the design to get in the way of the content. Web designer Terrell Sanders emphasizes this point in his free ebook, Get UnEmbarrassed: 10 Secrets to Effective Church Websites. "You can spend a lot of time agonizing over width of the navigation bars or the darkness of the drop shadows, but most visitors are just looking for your service times and your address the first time they visit your site."

Church A had mastered this simplicity, keeping its backgrounds neutral so that images and key navigation elements (three large buttons on the home page for "times and directions," "upcoming events," and "first time guests") were unencumbered.

Learning More

Beyond the "when and where" vitals, a person's next clicks vary according to family needs, theological concerns, or other personal issues one considers when looking for a church. ("What do you offer for middle schoolers?" "Is there a young adult Sunday school class?" or "What does this church do to help people in need?" are just a few possibilities.)

As a parent of young children, info about child care during worship is important to me. Is there a nursery provided? On Church A's website, neither the "First Time Guest?" nor the children's ministry page included that information, though the impressive view of their children's facilities and info about other children's activities gave me reason to believe that they do provide full child care, but take such basic amenities for granted. People not steeped in church culture might not make that assumption though, so it would be helpful to mention it on the visitor information page. (I finally did see that info on the FAQs page.) On Church B's "Schedule" page, mention is made of "multiple nurseries" and a Mother's Room for nursing even above the listing of worship and Sunday school times. 

Dress code is another concern for some first time visitors. Though such info is often found on FAQ or "What to Expect" pages, neither of these churches mention style of dress. If a church does mention this, it is typically to point out a casual, "come as you are" environment, so one might assume a more dressy style in these churches. Whether a website mentions style of dress or not, this is one reason that photos or video of your worship services can be helpful. Images help a potential visitor know what to expect in terms of musical style, preaching, and overall aesthetic.

Perusing "About Us," "FAQ," and "What We Believe," pages on the two websites, I learned theological tidbits that might be valuable to me in making a decision of where to visit. (For example, Church B favors KJV, though does not consider itself "King James only.") There is no right or wrong when it comes to presenting your theological perspective on your website, since you want to present yourself honestly. That said, stick to the basics of your most central beliefs. Most potential visitors aren't concerned with the minutia of doctrine, and you wouldn't want to throw up a red flag unless it is a key part of your DNA as a church.

Overall Impressions

As I said above, design shouldn't get in the way of content, but that doesn't mean looks don't matter. Your website can tell people a lot about your church's personality without saying a word.

Is this a church that is "with it" and strives for excellence, or do you get the sense that at this church, you'd be stepping back in time—if not to the Protestant heyday of the 1950s, at least to the just-enough-out-of-date 1990s? Sanders makes a special point of saying there should be "NO CLIP ART" on your website. "You are telling the world you missed the memo when clip art went out of style 25 years ago," he says. The same goes for a wild array of fonts and colors.

Written copy can certainly have an impact on a potential visitor's decision to come or not come (especially if things seem very insider-focused or there are any doctrinal red flags), but in the case of these two churches, it is more an intangible impression that gives Church A the edge. The site's simple, clean design makes me feel that the church really cares about visitors, and the images and videos of their children's ministry made me gasp audible "wow"s. Church B, on the other hand, with its cartoony design and few images, feels a little outdated and run down. The words each church uses are comparable—possibly even better in Church B—but the feeling a person gets when researching a church online can make someone want to experience more in person.

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