10 Common Pitfalls of Church Websites (and How to Fix Them)

August 5th, 2013

Because of my work on the Internet and spirituality (Digital Disciple) plus my identity as both a priest and a Millennial (yes, I’m one of those, even though I don’t take “selfies” with my iPhone), I have had the opportunity to do a bit of consulting regarding church websites. The more churches I visit virtually, the more I’ve noticed a pattern of the same mistakes being made on their sites. No church website is perfect, but the good ones really pop (mostly because there are a lot of—how shall we say—ones with vast potential for embracing better strategies).

With the vast majority of potential new churchgoers finding their places of worship via the Internet, the need for churches to offer a clean, smooth, accessible, and energetic web presence is more important than ever. Your church’s website is the front door to the church. It might be time to give it a fresh coat of red paint. With that in mind, here are ten of the pitfalls I’ve seen when visiting church websites (plus some ideas for fixing them).

1. Pictures of Buildings. Yes, many of our church buildings are beautiful feats of architecture that catch the light just so at sunset. But if the most prominent picture on the main page (i.e., the first page a visitor sees) is an image of the building, then we’ve got the narrative wrong. The church is the people, not the structure, so display pictures of people.

If you really want to show off your physical plant, then have a special section of the website dedicated to a “virtual tour” of the building. Even so, I would encourage you to select pictures for your tour that have people in them. Don’t show a picture of the empty building; take some pictures during worship or other activities and use those on your virtual tour. The more images you can include on your website that show happy, laughing, serving, loving people, the more inviting your church will be to newcomers.

2. The Dreaded Blank Calendar. It would be better for your church website not to have an online calendar than to have a calendar with next to nothing on it. I’ve seen so many online calendars that display just the monthly vestry meeting and the weekly AA group and nothing else. This says to a visitor that nothing happens at your church, even though there are surely plenty of other things that could go on the calendar.

Try to put something every day of the week. Not all the events have to be church-related directly (AA and yoga groups populate my church’s calendar), but the more you can show going on at the church, the more energy a visitor will see. I love Google calendar for ease of updating and sharing.* I can update the church calendar on the website from my phone on the go, which is pretty cool. I would highly recommend it (and it’s free).

3. Main Page that Talks about Last Year’s Christmas Schedule. This pitfall is akin to the last, but it’s more visible, which makes it much worse. So many churches do not update their main pages often enough. Once a week is a bare minimum in my opinion. But too often I see sites that have last year’s Christmas Eve service schedule or a notice about a winter storm cancellation plastered on the front page. Make sure the content of the front page cycles on a predictable schedule so those time specific things go away. If a visitor sees a Christmas schedule in July, that sends a bad signal. Note that the same goes for Facebook pages. It’s better not to have a Facebook page for your church than to have one that’s six months out of date.

4. This Page is Incomplete. This is the third and final pitfall of the updating kind, and it’s a bit sneakier than the last two. You have to dig past the main page to find it, but it’s there often enough. When developers create websites for churches, they lay out a design skeleton with all the pages they and the church decide to include. Then it’s up to the church to provide the content for such pages. It’s bad news when the website’s been around for five years and the Outreach page still says, “This page is incomplete.” The only advice I have here is this: complete it!

5. Unintuitive URL. A URL is another name for the address of your website. For example, my church’s URL is www.ststephenscohasset.org. For my money, this is the best way to address a church’s website: simply “church name, town” all in a row with no hyphens or underscores. The more extraneous characters you add to a URL the harder it is to remember and the easier it is to type incorrectly. The clean, intuitive “churchtown” model looks great on paper media and also helps newcomers find the physical church. Stay away from URLs that unnecessarily abbreviate the church or the town (ststevescoh.org); use a clever name that only insiders will understand (churchontherock.org); or (c) are actually a subdomain. This last one is really important. You want your church to be “stnametown.org,” not “geocities.com/stnametown.”

6. Tiled Picture Background. This is less of a problem with modern websites, but it still crops up enough to address it here, especially for websites that haven’t gotten a facelift since 1999. A tiled picture background uses a single image in the background of a page, but tiled like your bathroom floor. Because this was prominent a long time ago (well, a long time ago in Internet-time), it makes your website look ancient. It also makes the website hard to look at for any length of time. The fix: change the background to a solid color. Simple as that.

7. Unreadable Color Scheme. Every once in a while I’ll come across a website that has a red background underneath slightly less red text. This is bad on many levels. If a visitor can’t read or even see the words on your website something has gone horribly awry. White background underneath black text might not exactly be innovative, but it’s been around a long time for a reason. It works. And it works much better than white text above a dark background. Please avoid that at all costs unless you’re going for sci-fi church theme (which might be pretty cool, honestly).

8. Fully Justified Text. This is text that is flush to both the left and right margins. You might think this gives your site an air of sophistication, and on first glance it really does. But the plain and simple truth is that fully justified text is hard for our brains to read unless it has been carefully laid out by a text setter at a publishing house. Our brains really want the same amount of space to fall between words, and automatic justification doesn’t allow that. So stick with left justification (or, you know, justification by faith).

9. The Developer Update. So the web development company created your website, and they did a great job, but the only way to get new content on it is to email it to the developer and hope against hope that they see it and post it in a timely manner. This used to be the best option, but with the incredible flexibility of the blogging platform, the ability to have multiple content creators “in house” is the rule of the day. I use a free Wordpress.com theme for my church’s website, and I love it.* It doesn’t allow complete control over every aspect of the site’s inner workings, but what it lacks in control it more than makes up for with this simple fact: I am unable to break my church’s website with bad code. It can’t be done. The most I can do is accidentally bold something I didn’t mean to. (Well, I can do more than that, but you get my point.)

10. Difficult to Find Directions. We’ve come to our final pitfall (there are more, but 10 seemed like a nice number), and we’ve reached the one where the rubber meets the road. So the visitor likes what she sees on the site. A laughing group of intergenerational people smile back at her from a picture on the main page. The current service times are displayed; the calendar is full, the text is readable. Now she needs to find the physical church. If directions to the church (including an interactive map) are more than a single click from the main page, something’s wrong. Make those directions as visible and easy to navigate to as possible. And then you might just see her next Sunday.

* I am in no way affiliated with Google or Wordpress. I just really like them.

comments powered by Disqus