7 don’ts of Church websites

1. Don’t use stock photography

I start with this one as I truly believe it can make or break a site. Imagery is important, no scratch that, authentic imagery is important. Anything that helps give a user insight into your church is important. The church website is a window into a churches life, its people, its activities. For visitors to your website, seeing real people, doing real things evokes a feeling of trust and transparency. It shows there is nothing to hide and the church is quite happy for everyone to see them warts n’ all. This also helps connect a digital world with the physical world – when someone, who has visited your website, then visits the church and sees the same people from the website, this can help relax people and help them feel a bit more comfortable. Spend money on a photographer or find someone who has an interest and an eye for it.

The alternative is stock photography. Now don’t get me wrong I have used my fair share for churches who don’t have many other options, but if you are going to use it, use it sparingly. Stay away from the boring, samey, stereotypical imagery that will not engage users, especially on the homepage.

2. Don’t use ‘christianese’

The danger of being in a church and moving in christian circles is that over time you adopt the terms and phrases that make you sound like a theology ninja, some kind of religious big-shot. That’s all well and good when you want to impress your minister but ‘christianese’ has no place on your website. At all!

Its not about dumbing down, its about simplifying things so its user friendly. How many people actually know the five points of calvinism? Oh you’re an evangelical anglican church that believes in pedo baptism! Good for you! No one in the real world knows what that means. Break it down, even words like ‘sin’ have lost its meaning today. Why not get someone outside the church to proof read it and point out all the things they don’t understand, it will surprise you.

By all means have a statement of faith, but reserve a page further into your site, that can be found by those interested, for the more in depth theological statements.

3. Don’t have random bible verses with no context

In churches up and down the country good biblical, contextual preaching happens. Taking bible verses out of context, or even worse, making them say what you want is a big no no. We are taught good handling of the scriptures requires reading and studying in context. Why then do so many churches, as a default, feel the need to just slap a bible verse on their website. No explanation, no background, no exposition. Leaving it to the site user to understand what it means and why you’ve placed it there.

There is absolutely a place for scripture on websites, but give it a link to a page that opens up the verse, don’t stick it in as a footnote on your site, its criminal. Most visitors will be new to the church perhaps Christianity!

4. Don’t ignore the church website design

Whilst your websites primary concern is its content, mention must be made of the design of your church website. The tendency is to use every colour under the sun, the brighter the better! Leaving a site totally unbalanced and the end user with sore eyes and unsure where they are supposed to be looking.

Ideally your church has a brand, use it to inform your church website design (what do you mean you don’t have a church brand?!!). With this as a guide you can plan out how the site will look, what to bring focus to and what doesn’t need to be so in your face. A nice church website design will have pleasing touches like hover changes on links, info areas in some form of container or with a heading, to build some information hierarchy.

Chances are, if it looks like a mess, the user is less likely to engage. If it looks amateurish that will be the lasting impression you will be giving off about the church.

Similarly for fonts, the brand should lead the usage of fonts, what to use for headers, for links and main text. Don’t use every available font, don’t have crazy sizes. There should be some standardised type design for the site, which breeds familiarity. This is a good thing.

5. Don’t create information overload

Closely tied to font usage is the content of the site itself. I’ve seen many church websites that cram their home page full of text, presuming the best way to inform is to cram it down the users throats. Unfortunately all this achieves is an assault on the users eyes, as they can’t work out what to look at and where they should be looking first. More often then not this leads to users switching off and glazing over.

White space is good. It allows information to breathe, it allows the users gaze to be drawn to pieces of information. They won’t read through reams of text, online visitors consume information in chunks. Make it readable and guess what – people will read it.

6. Don’t be contactless

I am always surprised how many times I have heard people have filled in a contact form to never hear from that organisation in return. Contact forms are useful, it means you don’t need to display an email which encourages spam. Contact forms aren’t evil, but if these forms aren’t being piped through to someones email, the user will never get an answer.

Because of this, there is a default position that a contact form is managed by some kind of automated robot that only has three or four stock responses. I have seen real value in highlighting on your contact form who it will go to and how long it will take for the church to respond.

7. Don’t rely on ‘the tech guy’

Whenever I build a church website, I supply a manual of how to do everything on the website. I encourage the church to have two or three trained up on how to use it. It is a dangerous game to only have one person looking after the website. Yes there should be someone in heading it up, especially in a small church but there is no excuse not to get somebody else involved who knows how to do the every day jobs. They aren’t difficult tasks and with a manual in front of you it’s hard to go wrong, indeed after doing it once or twice you won’t need a how to guide anymore.

Also, if others are involved, they can come up with ideas on how to improve the site in the future. Perhaps new features or improvements of existing functionality.