Church Websites 101: Don’t Start with the Web

Church Websites 101: Don’t Start with the Web

March 28, 2011 by

Church websites are woeful. We’re continually asked how churches can make their websites better. And I’m not talking about the cool churches with Twitter and video and a pastor’s blog. I’m talking about the churches with a “current” calendar from December 2008. The churches where a volunteer created the site and it shows. The sites that still have animated GIFs.

Assuming the church even has a website. Recent research shows that 22% of churches still don’t even have a website. It’s hard to tell what’s worse, a horribly out-dated online presence or none whatsoever.

So you think your church needs a website. Or a new site. Or a better site. Rock on. Welcome to Church Websites 101, a quick and dirty series about how to start or restart your church’s website. And we’re going for solid, realistic improvements here. We’re not breaking the bank and importing the latest and greatest technology. We’ll go from no site to something better or something cringe-worthy to something somewhat respectable. The goal here is not to compete with the big boys, but simply to get in the game and not make your web visitors laugh.

Don’t Start with the Web

But before you start assembling volunteer geeks and webheads, checking our WordPress and setting up your Twitter feed, stop. Before you dream of flash intros (don’t!), streaming video and RSS feeds, stop. Before you start clicking around the web to see how other churches are doing it, stop.

Just stop.

The first rule of websites is don’t start with the web.

Before you even think about the web you need to have a solid plan. Not just for the web, but for your church’s entire communication strategy.

“It’s hard to tell what’s worse, a horribly out-dated online presence or none whatsoever.”

Do you have a plan? Do you have a strategy for how your church communicates? Have you thought through how your fancy new website will fit into that plan? If not, stop. Just stop.

You can’t start constructing a building without a plan. Well, you can, but it doesn’t get very far. The results are ugly, expensive and dangerous. Same thing with communication. You can start communicating without a plan. You can spit out postcards and flood the web with tweets and the prettiest website you ever saw. But if you have no plan, it’s not going to get very far. You’re going to waste money, effort and time.

Start With a Plan

So before you start building that new website, start with a communications plan. Don’t even worry about your website yet. Worry about your overall communications plan. We’ll get to the web. But you need to take a step back and look at the big picture first. Otherwise in three years you’ll be shaking your head at your lame website and starting over again. Just like you did three years ago.

How does your church communicate? What do you communicate? Why do you communicate it? Who’s your audience? What’s the best way to reach that audience? What are your goals? How are you going to reach those goals? What’s your style? Who’s responsible for the communication? Who makes the final decisions? Is communication a priority?

These are big questions and they’ll take a lot of time, but if you don’t answer them then any work you do on a website is just a waste of time.

So before you dive into a redesign or commit to leaving the 22% club, step back and make a plan.

Here’s a great resource to help churches create a marketing plan. It might not be the fun, geeky web work you were hoping to do, but you need to start somewhere. And you need a solid foundation for that somewhere. Creating a communications plan will give you that foundation.

So don’t start with the web. Start with a plan.

More Church Websites 101:

Check out our the Church Websites 101 series:

Or get those resources and more in our ebook, Getting Started in Church Communication: Web Basics:

Web Basics: "Build a site your church can actually sustain."

Post By:

Kevin D. Hendricks

When Kevin isn't busy as the editor of Church Marketing Sucks, he runs his own writing and editing company, Monkey Outta Nowhere. Kevin has been blogging since 1998, runs the hyperlocal site West St. Paul Reader, and has published several books, including 137 Books in One Year: How to Fall in Love With Reading, The Stephanies and all of our church communication books.
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28 Responses to “Church Websites 101: Don’t Start with the Web”

  • Paul Steinbrueck
    March 28, 2011

    Kevin, I agree whole-heartedly! Good start to this series. I look forward to see where it leads.

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  • Simon Goodfellow
    March 28, 2011

    Most churches have an implied communications plan already which creates a bulletin. I would suggest instead trying to change the communication strategy for the church, which for many would be to big challenge, aim to communicate on the web what the church is already communicating.

    Starting with a communications plan is a sure fire way of not keeping it simple, simply start with what you have. Typically is will be vary difficult to get an more information on a regular basis than is already published in the bulletin – it is a good measure of people’s willingness to communicate.

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    • Kevin D. Hendricks
      March 28, 2011

      Simon, it’s not a matter of doing more than you already are. Coming up with a communications plan is all about figuring what you’re doing now, why you’re doing it and figuring out how a website can fit into that. Maybe simply taking what’s in your bulletin and putting it online is a bad idea–but you won’t know unless you have a communications plan.

      It’s simple because it’s the very basic thing you can do. But no, it’s not simple or easy to actually do it.

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  • Brad Brown
    March 28, 2011

    I couldn’t agree with this post more. To me, this seems so obvious, but very few people seem to see it.

    A few years ago, I was involved in a project to redo my own church’s website. I thought that I had the church leadership on board for doing a proper analysis of our needs and then using that information to design the site as a part of an overall communications strategy. I’m now in full time ministry as a Christian Entertainer, but I used to work as a Senior System’s analyst for fortune 500 companies, so I have the background and skills to walk them through the process. Anyway, I went away to be a camp speaker for a week, and when I came back, I was told “never mind about that analysis thing, we went ahead and built a site in the week you were away.” We ended up with a pretty typical church website. (And you know when it comes the church websites, the “typical” bar is set pretty low.)

    It was just disappointing to see the missed opportunity. Like many churches, mine will put months or even years of thought and planning into starting a new program, but a website, which has at least the theoretical possibility or impacting many more people, gets thrown together on a whim. I really don’t get it.

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  • Christine
    March 28, 2011

    Well, on one hand, I agree with you. This makes the most sense. On the other hand, I think that can be part of why the 22% exist, or why a lot of church websites are pretty dismal. It’s so difficult to get everyone on the same page, especially when you have legacy members of staff who miss the days before email. Telling people that building a website means an overhaul of the communications strategy means, in most cases, that it’ll get tabled indefinitely. I think starting with getting online, showing it’s possible to do it well, and using a system that is expandable at will is more realistic.

    I like to build in first and second level tiers to my rollout. As an example, I start with a widget for new newsletter subscriptions that just populate a spreadsheet and send the office staff an email–similar to the current system. Then I work with the staff to get them on board with an email blast program, and once they’re ready and have bought in, I switch the widget to the blast program widget. If I waited until the staff were on board with every aspect of the new communications strategy (or even approved of it), it would be another 5 years before anyone would be willing to try it.

    I guess I’m saying…I like your point, and I agree with it, but I am not convinced that it’s entirely realistic. It makes sense for a large organization that hires tech-savvy people, or a small organization that has only a handful of key stakeholders, but those medium, longstanding congregations with all ages, viewpoints, and such represented can be absolute mammoths to get moving.

    Hammering something out from the get-go is ideal, but I think could be so intimidating that it just reinforces the idea that “tech stuff is too hard.” And then you get an old congregation that is dying unnecessarily and doesn’t know why.

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    • Kevin D. Hendricks
      March 28, 2011

      Christine, coming up with a communication strategy doesn’t mean you have to hammer out every single detail and know exactly how everything is going to work. It means you nail down the basic questions. You don’t decide exactly how the e-mail newsletter is going to function, you decide whether or not an e-mail newsletter even fits in with what you’re trying to do.

      If you don’t have a strategy, what are you even building? How do you know how to make decisions?

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  • Debi DeBanto
    March 28, 2011

    Totally agree with your post. Communication should always start with a plan – what is your objective and how will measure effectiveness of any given method whether it be postcards, web changes, social media, etc…?

    We are just beginning to undertake what Kem Meyer calls “web liposuction.” To try to actually pull back and not try to answer every single question on the website. To not type out every ministry, meeting, event, etc… Easier said than done. That’s when the plan becomes critical. When we begin to focus on just a few objectives, the decision making process becomes a bit easier. By knowing what we’ve said yes to, it becomes clear what to say no to. We want to move toward dialogue, so each part of our new design will, hopefully, foster a connection.

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  • Chris D
    March 28, 2011

    Great post.

    Going through this very process right now with my church. I recently left my longtime job in the creative/marketing/production end of things to form my own company, and I had a good bit of experience “starting from scratch”. Or in this case, starting with a design from 2001.

    Some thoughts:

    – When I first met with the Pastor and 4 interested members of the congregations the first thing that I asked was “What do you want this to be? How do you see the church using it as a tool?”. It brought great discussion on – you guessed it — overall communication problems in the church. My advice was that there’s the technology out there to do whatever we want, but the more important thing is to have the plan and structure behind to support it.

    – We decided on a two phase implementation. First, we wanted to launch a basic, yet, functional and attractive site. I think our old website (done prior to me joining congregation two years ago) was an embarrassment to some of the members. It was typical FrontPage looking design and not updated in a few years. They were eager for it to go.

    So we launched after a month or so with a good framework and a clean and simple design and have been amazed at the initial response (and traffic). What putting site 1.0 up there did was demonstrate to people that “hey, we’re not just talking about this, here it is, and we’re sticking with it.” It’s made it easier for us to achieve the goals we set at the initial discussions because it gave a tangible and working site as opposed to something conceptual. When we talked to someone about how we could raise awareness of their particular mission, we had something to show them as an example. They’re responded in a beautiful way. Would they have done that if I had approached them and said “so, hey we’re gonna re-do the website and….”. Not sure.

    – Phase two was site2.0. Work on site 2.0 began immediately after initial launch. 1.0 let us put things up there with visual impact, but didn’t have the design components to accomplish our long term goals. 2.0 is set to launch soon, and while it has a significant amount of improved function, we kept the basics of the design similar enough that it’s not a striking feeling when you look at it. It still feels enough like 1.0 that you say “oh, they added that. how nice” as opposed to “what did they do?? I just got used to the first one”. We enhanced, we didn’t throw away and replace.

    So we did a bit of a mix. I’m happy with how we’re progressing. We’re probably at 20 percent of where’d I’d like to be, but we make progress every day.

    I believe in people taking ownership of things like this, and it seems every week someone has something new to contribute. I said my goal was to make this a site that was run by our church community — I’ll handle the back end work — but it will live or die by how much or little the congregation contributes. Most of my work is de-mystifying the tech end of it, which I love to do, and it’s amazing to see the response.

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  • Christine
    March 28, 2011

    “How does your church communicate? What do you communicate? Why do you communicate it? Who’s your audience? What’s the best way to reach that audience? What are your goals? How are you going to reach those goals? What’s your style? Who’s responsible for the communication? Who makes the final decisions? Is communication a priority?”

    Mike, I suppose I’m coming at it from the perspective of a committee-heavy church that is straddling the divide between the old and the new. The process of determining some of the answers to these big questions, like “What’s your style?” takes a long time, and by the time many of these questions are answered, the answers to the first questions have changed. It’s a bit like the Jacob’s ladder I played with as a kid. It also changes with who you talk to, and if you try to wait until everyone’s united, it’s going to be a lonnnng time. For example, I recently went to a meeting with our Children’s Ministry director about our new site, and she said, “I have a goal of an entirely paperless ministry. Let’s see how I can move toward that with the new site.” I walked out of her office to the office next door, and the Preschool Director said, “I don’t really want any registrations or forms to be on the web, I want it all hand-delivered or at least mailed in with a phone call to follow.” Those approaches couldn’t be more different, but I handled it by mentioning the ways I saw the website making ministry easier for each and that I’d be happy to help. I will let the website speak for itself as time moves on and as she is comfortable with it.

    I imagine each church has its own struggles, but one I’ve encountered often in my denomination is a strong bent toward long-standing staff who work together amidst serious disagreements, with shorter pastoral tenures, and committees that turn over every few years. The ideal, sure, is to have everyone agree on a church communications strategy, agree on worship styles, agree on target seeker audience, etc etc. I suppose I’m coming from the point of view that 80% agreement is good enough to move forward and prove to the remaining 20% that change is not frightening as much as it is enabling.

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  • Jermayn
    March 29, 2011

    For arguments sake….
    Do we even need a website anymore? Yes big companies …I mean… churches still have a purpose for them but for a church the size of 30-100? It is just a drain on their resources!

    I create, play and surf the web for a job, so I am not anti-websites/ technology but I think for a lot of churches. Facebook pages/ groups could be a better option for them.

    btw just for the record, my church website sucks (and is currently in redevelopment phase)!

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    • John B
      March 29, 2011

      I think Jermayn is right. For small congregations a web presence is still important, but the likelihood of them having the resources to produce an attractive site is slim. Far better to tap into easily generated sites like FB or a templated blog.

      The idea of having a communication plan is a good one, but like others have mentioned most churches just plow ahead without considering the bigger picture. I think this is a problem for church in more than the area of communication. For instance, someone may say, “We should have a mid-week children’s program.” Everyone knows other churches have had success with this so they establish the program without every considering if the program fits into the church’s overall ministry plan and vision. Until congregations start looking at a bigger picture these kinds of issues will continue to arise.

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      • brad
        April 7, 2011

        Bingo! You’ve nailed it, John. We live in a very left-brain, get-it-done kind of culture, and all too often the ‘why’s never get answered.

        Just because communication is one more aspect that highlights this problem doesn’t mean that we should abandon the vision-casting stage for it. Not by a long shot!

        From my perspective, communication is a key way to access this type of decision-making, vision-casting, big-picture stuff. If communication-oriented investigation is unveiling mismatches in strategy, or vision, or purpose, then communication gets the rep of being the troublemaker. But it didn’t cause the problems, it just illustrated that they’re there. And if you know that, then you have the opportunity to fix it.

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    • Curtis
      April 5, 2011

      My main problems with a church using Facebook as thier main web presence:

      1) Advertising

      2) You have to share personal information with a commercial site in order to participate in the church.

      Those two are deal breakers for me. I would never require either one of those on members of any congregation.

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  • Carolyn
    March 29, 2011

    Great post. I was just surfing trying to find information for starting a website for our church. We fit in the very, very small size. Usually only 20-25 in attendance. We call our ministry the “over-the-fence ministry” because a lot of our supporters live in other states or further than driving distance to us. Many come for awhile and then leave but want to stay in touch with what’s going on at our church. Our associate pastor has been wanting to start a very simple website for a long time to communicate with those who are away and to let those who don’t know about us who we are, what we teach, and spread the message of God’s love. I am looking forward to hearing more from you on this topic.

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  • Brandon Cox
    March 30, 2011

    a… MEN!!

    Everything a church does IS communications. And you’re spot on, Kevin. It all needs to mesh into one big, unified strategy. Good stuff!

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  • Sean
    March 31, 2011

    The church, even small ones, can save a great deal of money by using the web.
    I am no tree-hugger, but I stopped taking bulletins and share with my wife. So what if I don’t get a insert with the sermon notes and fill-in-the-blank? I can write/type those out on my iPad/iPhone during the sermon.
    Better yet, we are looking into offering the bulletin online (something I got my last church in another city to do). We had our friends do the same and the church started printing less and less. Sure there were bulletins for the older folks who like tradition and visitors. But being in a tech-savvy city allowed us to move toward electronic distribution.
    Schedules, lesson plans, flyers, etc — all this can be located on the website and even linked from a Tweet or Facebook Status Update or Comment.
    Just please please please – DO NOT use the “church website” companies – it might be an easy solution but typically boring—already used—and expensive. Heck Apple iWeb or some RapidWeaver or Sandvox based template creation tool is better than these groups.

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  • Andrew
    April 8, 2011

    Strategic planning is key.

    One example of successful strategic planning is a campaign that we did for a small church in Delaware. Understanding the audience (many people in the region who had been to church but had been turned off by the experience) and then using that information to develop a consistent billboard – website – print (postcards, bulletin shells) campaign led to a 266% increase in church attendance.

    That kind of thinking, which was mostly down to a forward-thinking pastor, transcends what ministry leaders want or prefer and moves into objective strategic execution that fulfills the great commission. A lack appreciation for this is at the core of all mediocre (or just plain awful) church communications.

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  • Thea
    April 10, 2011

    Great article! This is helping me greatly on my quest to create simple, easy-to-manage WordPress websites for churches. Thanks :-)

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  • Tim Bedanr
    April 12, 2011

    One of the features I’ve added to my WordPress theme is the ability to be mobile. When you discuss do not start with the web — I would add after you follow that advice — don’t start with the desktop start with your phone.

    If you are without a web site, note that in a year most of your traffic will be from a mobile device. Starting with mobile first I know is not what you want to hear — but I’d hate for you to build your first web site to realize that most of your audience is viewing it on a little screen.

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    • Kevin D. Hendricks
      April 13, 2011

      Good thoughts, Tim. But I’d say know your audience. In some major, tech-centric areas it might be true that a majority–or even sizable minority–will be viewing your site on a mobile device. But in other areas mobile isn’t even on the radar.

      Know your audience and decide from there what priority mobile should be.

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  • Michael Buckingham
    April 13, 2011

    I think it’s great to have a mobile version for those currently attending. But only nice to have for people looking for a church. Are they really looking on their phone? I suppose it really depends on your audience like Kevin mentioned.

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  • William
    September 28, 2011

    Thanks for a great reminder. 101 and back to basics is the most important yet frequently forgotten

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  • James | Web Designer
    March 16, 2013

    I agree about church websites. Too many websites are simple and out-dated, leaving the visitor wondering what they stumbled upon. Some focus solely on eye-popping websites only to disappoint in the services themselves.

    I believe a church should have a solid foundation in place before they even consider a website. Sure it helps people to know you exist, but do it right … and do it once.

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  • hope of glory bible church
    December 29, 2015

    is good

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  • Syretta
    March 20, 2016

    Don’t necessarily like website name, however, I thought that this was a needed article. Clearly stated advice and I thank you.

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