By Marlene Gasdia-Cochrane
Folks who are wondering what kind of faith is practiced at that little white church on the common or that gigantic cathedral with the colorful stained glass don’t tend to look up at the windows for answers. They look down - at their computer, tablet, and smart phone screens.
Anne Rudig, the Episcopal Church Director of Communication, is widely quoted as saying “If a church can’t be googled, it doesn’t exist. The easiest way for us to grow our Church is to make it easy for newcomers to find us online.”
But just having your church’s location and hours of worship isn’t enough. Potential visitors will be looking for a clear, compelling depiction of who you are and whether they will be welcomed. And doing that well requires more than finding a cool template or using the latest website platform.
For some churches in the Massachusetts Conference, it has meant hiring professionals.
"They are telling us they found us on the web and that they loved our site,” Smith said.
Each of these websites has a different look and feel, because Theory One did not simply adapt a church template for each. Instead, the small firm studied each church to find which individual stained glass story should be depicted on the website.
“Before we start a website project with a church, we have a lot of conversations up front about who they are, and how they want to present themselves. We also attend services, listen to the members, and comb through historical documentation to get a more complete picture of their identity as well as who they want to be,” said Alicia Pritt, Principal of Theory One Design. “We want to know their culture, their mission, their values, their strengths, where they aspire to be stronger, and what makes them unique.”
Pritt can rattle off what her team found at each church they worked with.
“Old South stood out in its enthusiasm and commitment to the urban community they are serving, and we wanted to make sure their website conveyed their palpable joy of providing hospitality to the neighborhood and beyond,” said Pritt. “Wellesley Village is blessed with a minister and congregation full of gifted writers and they have made their website a destination for an abundance of good spiritual content.”
“First Church in Cambridge can claim a legacy of early American history, venerable ministers, progressive ideology and 375 years of faithful service to the community,” she said. “Yet, we also wanted to show that the current congregation is also deeply committed to living lives of faith in the modern age marked by political involvement, radical hospitality and justice advocacy.”
“Our church has loved working with Theory One Design,” said Nancy S. Taylor, the Senior Minister of Old South Church in Boston. “We like to think our website is an electronic sermon: that it bespeaks God’s interest in earthly ministries of justice, mercy and beauty. This Web-sermon has amazing reach: across the entire globe. And, more locally, hardly anyone ventures into a church these days without first visiting the church’s website.”
Many churches have chosen the Theory One Design team because of their deep commitment to getting the church’s message right.
“We were delighted to work with Theory One,” said Smith. “They built a genuine relationship with us, listened carefully to our story, and delivered a site that vividly reflects who we are. We were especially grateful for so many ‘personal touches’ along the way, like weaving in the artwork of our own members, and using a color palate similar to what's in our sanctuary.”
“To anyone who is considering a website design or re-design, I suggest they look at our pages,” said Taylor. “We think the site is terrific: beautiful, full of photos, easy to navigate and deep with information. It also sends a strong message: we are vital, tuned-in and adept at using social media to give witness to the Good News . We are, after all, in the communications business.”
Pritt says it is vital for a church to crystalize an understanding of who they are and what message they are trying to convey before they begin a website project.
“We do our best work if a church has a strategic communications plan in place or if they invite us to help develop one,” said Pritt. “Having a good website is not a communications plan, but should be part of the church’s overall communication strategy. We want our church clients to consider the big picture before they try to spread the message via their website. Who are you trying to reach? Who’s trying to reach you? Always be true to yourself.”
Pritt’s team also helps churches re-align their expectations of what a website can do versus the resources available. They believe that a good website needs constant attention, with fresh content. They always incorporate a non-proprietary content management system, which is important as it allows the churches to keep the sites up without too much expertise. They also remind the church that their website is always available to the public, but it is not self-running, so it needs a good project manager.
“The project works best when the website is utilized as a core communications tool, and as such, it needs constant revitalization to convey the feeling that the church is alive and vibrant,” explained Pritt. In fact, Old South anticipates they will be redesigning their site every 2-3 years.
For churches engaging professional firms like Theory One, a website can be a significant investment. Old South used a memorial fund and First Church Cambridge made it an early part of their capital campaign. They believe it was well worth the investment and the effort.
The Theory One team members are grateful to do this work and found it surprising how their faith lives and professional lives have intersected. The group is small and they come from different faith backgrounds, each presently attending churches different than they ones they grew up in, but they all agree that a church website can be a form of ministry.
“We find it humbling to have been welcomed and received so extravagantly by all of the Massachusetts Conference churches we have worked with, and we fell in love with them immediately,” said Pritt. “To us, a website is a conversation. We love conversation and we fell in love with all the churches with whom we have had dialogues.”
Have you started the dialogue with your potential visitors yet?
Not ready to hire professional help for your site, but looking for resources?
- "Tips & Tools for a Robust Web Ministry" - a recording of a Super Saturday workshop with Jon Geldert, former communication chair at Old South Church in Boston and now part of the Theory One team;
- A link to the Church Communicators Wiki, which includes a free Wordpress template and instructions for using it to set up a church website.
- A subscription box to join a Google group of other church communicators around the Conference.
Also, considering signing up for a Nov. 16th communication event for lay and clergy leaders called "Find Your Voice and Start a Chorus." Geldert and other communication experts will lead a series of discussions on how churches can discern their stories and effectively communicate them.