A Theology of Church Web Design

September 23, 2011 in MicroTheology, Theologia Ordinarius

It has been said that in our present digital age, church websites are the new steeples. The increasing availability of the internet and web-related tools offers churches the chance to not only advertise their existence but also to share their faith and strengthen their communities. While many helpful resources exist and much has been written on some of the practical mechanics of designing a good church website, little ink has been spilled on theological consideration for church web design.

1. Accessibility

If you could design a building for your church that would be difficult for poorer congregants to access and would be completely inaccessible to church members who drive Chevys, would you want to design such a building? Of course not, yet many churches do something similar by designing their website using Flash.

Five years ago, Flash-based websites were the cutting edge with integrated videos, fancy animations, and impressive page transitions. That is no longer the case, as web developers have begun to realize that a good website is not necessarily an impressive website, but a user-friendly and accessible website. The problems with Flash far outweigh the benefits, for example:

  • Websites built using Flash tend to be very data-heavy, requiring even users with fast internet connections to wait several seconds for the site to load. A 2006 study found that 75% of web users polled indicated that they would not return to a website if it took more than 4 seconds to load. More recent studies suggest that patience is waning, as 47% of respondents expected a website to load in less than 2 seconds, 40% will abandon a website if the load time goes over 3 seconds, and 52% indicated that load-speed was important to their loyalty to a site.
  • Poorer people tend to have older (slower) computers and slower internet connection speeds, which means that data-heavy websites will perform particularly poorly for them. People living in less densely populated areas and rural regions also tend to suffer from slower internet connections.
  • Flash does not work on the iPhone at all. As of August 31, 2011, 82.2 million Americans own smartphones and 27 percent of those smartphones are iPhones.* That means that 22 million Americans cannot access a Flash-based website from their primary internet connection, and this does not even include the millions of Americans who own iPads that cannot run Flash.
  • Apart from the 22 million American iPhones, there are another 60 million American smartphone users who have a slower internet experience than the one they would have on a PC and will therefore be frustrated by Flash websites, even though they technically work on their phones.

Of course, although Flash is a particularly illustrative example, many of the lessons that apply to Flash apply to other forms of web design as well. Any website, designed using any platform, can suffer from slow-loading and a clunky, frustrating user experience if it is not designed with accessibility as a goal.

James 2:1-7 warns the church against showing favoritism to the rich at the expense of the poor, and the warning against such favoritism should be remembered when designing an accessible church website.

2. Hospitality

While I would argue that a church’s website should be built primarily to serve the members of the congregation, there is no doubt that it should (and will) also serve as an introduction to potential visitors. Hospitality should be expressed everywhere within the church, but must begin on the church website. There are a few things that every visitor will want to know when considering your church, and you can show them that you care about them and have thought about their needs by making it as easy as possible for them to find that information.

Hospitality will usually involve creating a special “Visitor” section of the site that houses clearly named links to pages offering visitors:

  • A photo of the church building so that visitors will know when they are in the right place
  • The church building’s physical address
  • Driving directions
  • Service times
  • A way to contact someone from the church with questions
  • A brief explanation of what can be expected when visiting the church
  • A sense of just how dressed up church members normally are. While you want to make it clear that the church does not have a dress code, you do not do anyone a favor by promising that jeans and a T-shirt are normal when they will actually find themselves standing out in a sea of suits and dresses.
  • An explanation of the church’s denominational affiliation and Statement of Faith, for those who are interested.

While hospitality should be shown through the creation of such a Visitor section, it is important to keep in mind that the website should also be hospitable to church members and should not, therefore, be dominated by information for visitors. There are many ways in which the website could serve existing church members, including:

  • Providing audio podcasts and written transcripts of sermons can help members who were unable to attend a given Sunday service. Likewise, additional study guides can be made available to help supplement sermons and Sunday School lessons.
  • Keeping an updated calendar of events can serve church members by helping them to be aware of all upcoming opportunities to serve and be served.
  • Special sections of the site can be devoted to allowing church members to share prayer requests, to make needs known, and to offer to share their resources with one another.
  • Sign-up forms can enable members to easily enroll children in Vacation Bible School, volunteer for service ministries, or indicate what dish they will be bringing to the church potluck.

3. Ecclesiology

Hopefully, your congregation has made an effort to emphasize the priesthood of all believers and to encourage every member of the Body of Christ to use their gifts for the ministry of the church. Believe it or not, this emphasis should extend to your website.

In recent years, tools have been made available that allow multiple people to update and maintain a single website. The WordPress CMS (Content Management System), for example, allows you to give an unlimited number of users the ability to work on the site, and even allows you to grant each user a different level of authority so that theologically profound yet technologically incompetent church members could share their thoughts on the church blog but couldn’t accidentally shred the website’s code.

The benefits of giving website editing ability to multiple users include:

  • Spreading the workload of updating the website, so that the church secretary does not end up with yet another responsibility on his or her shoulders. (Exodus 18:13-27 encourages this sort of shared responsibility)
  • Having a regularly updated website
  • Living out the expressed principle of the priesthood of all believers.
  • Giving a sense of stewardship responsibility for the website to more members of the church, which can open the door to creativity and excitement in further developing the site to serve the church and local community.

4. Aesthetics

While it was argued above that accessibility is of key importance, this does not negate the importance of a strong visual design for a church website. Our God is a God of order, beauty, and creativity, who can be glorified through the use of artistic talents.

A well-designed site can glorify God through its beauty, but is also important because of the message it communicates. As Marshall McLuhan famously taught us, the medium is the message. While that was a hyperbolic overstatement, we cannot deny that the medium affects the message. The design of your website will have an impact on the content that you distribute through your website, especially regarding your church’s:

  • Competency – While we know that God’s glory can be made manifest through our weakness and insufficiency, such assurances are meant to point to God’s all-sufficiency and not to drive us to do poor work. While a well-designed and visually appealing website does not indicate whether or not your church is faithful to the ministry to which it has been called, a poorly-designed website can and does cast doubt on a church’s overall competency. People visiting a poorly-designed site can find themselves asking “if this church cannot achieve the fairly simple goal of having a nice website, how can I trust them with the complexities of rightly dividing Scripture or providing godly counsel?” Obviously, a bad design does not entail bad ministry, but nothing good is achieved by giving your visitors cause for even ill-founded doubts.
  • Relevancy – The Gospel is always relevant to all people everywhere at all times, but you cannot expect non-Christian web users or even immature believers to know that. Many people who have yet to experience the glory of God’s in-breaking Kingdom have the idea that churches have nothing relevant to offer. Poor web-design can reinforce such misunderstandings. If your church’s website is littered with animated GIFs, built using frames, automatically plays background music, or makes use of any other popular design techniques from the 90’s, you are basically telling visitors that your church has nothing relevant to offer.
  • Concern for real people – Humans in general and Americans in particular spend a great deal of their lives online and that must be taken into account by churches. An ugly, irrelevant website tells people that your church is not interested in reaching them in the realm of the web, where they are spending a large chunk of their time.
  • Ecclesiology – Yes, ecclesiology (the theology of the church) was already mentioned, but it deserves another look. Many otherwise-beautiful church websites have made the mistake of prominently featuring a photo of their building or of their pastor on the front page. Yes, you should include a photo of your building on the Driving Directions page to help people find it, and yes, it can be helpful for people to know what the people in the church’s leadership look like so they can recognize them when they see them. By featuring those photos on the home page of your website, however, you communicate to each person who views the site that your church is your pastor or is your building. You do not want be saying that.

5. Social Media and Web 2.0

Technologists have come to the conclusion that the internet today is not just bigger but also different from the internet of a decade ago. The web was once divided into two sections: the tools that allowed for interpersonal communication (e.g. e-mail, chat rooms, discussion boards, and instant messaging), and the tools that allowed individuals (people or organizations) to communicate to broad audiences (e.g. websites). Today, the internet has largely been transformed, as interpersonal interaction has become, in many ways, the primary content of the web. Websites, blog posts, and even news articles generally offer a comment section where readers can respond to the content. By responding, though, those readers actually augment the content. Facebook is one of the most-visited websites on the internet, and yet it is nothing more than platform that allows users to generate and share their own content with one another. The web has largely become an extension of conversation.

Because we, as Christians, recognize the giftedness of each Christian for ministry to the whole body of Christ, we should naturally encourage the participation of every church member in our websites. This can be done in several ways:

  • By allowing comments on your church’s blog, you give a primary platform to theologically mature church members but also allow the rest of the congregation to respond to their thoughts, which can lead to new insights.
  • By placing “Share” buttons on your website’s pages, you give church members the opportunity to share their congregational life with others via Facebook, Twitter, and their own blogs.
  • By integrating your church website with tools like Twitter and Facebook (particularly through a Facebook Page), you can provide ways for your church community to interact as a community in the virtual locations where they are already spending much of their time.
  • Rather than simply keeping an event calendar of upcoming church activities, using the Events section of your church’s Facebook Page allows church members to indicate whether or not they will be attending, to ask and answer questions, and to express their excitement. Most people will be more likely to attend the upcoming all-church barbecue when they can get their questions answered and see that people they know will also be attending.

6. Service to the Surrounding Community

There is no question that churches can reach their cities more effectively by serving and meeting the needs of their neighbors. While many churches admirably love their neighbors by visiting nursing homes, cleaning up litter in city parks, and distributing hot meals to the homeless, a church website also has the potential for serving the local community. This type of outreach is a recent development and surely has room for great creativity, but a few ideas for getting started might include (you can also find a more extensive article on these ideas at the Leaky Jar):

  • Providing a “New to the Area” Guide – We live in an increasingly mobile culture, one in which it is not uncommon for people to regularly move not only into new homes, but also into new cities, states, and nations. Such a geographical transition can be very difficult, but a church can help by providing a community guide for people who are new to the area. Such a guide might include descriptions of the city’s seasonal weather patterns; recommendations of great stores, restaurants, and parks; an introduction to local jargon and culture (e.g. if all of the stores shut down early on Fridays in Fall because of high school football, that should be noted); and, of course, an invitation to find community at your church.
  • Offering Information on Local Non-Church Resources – Often, those who are needy have no idea how to find help. While your church should be helping to meet the needs of your poor neighbors, you can also help them by providing a directory of local services so that they can more easily discover access to food stamps, low-income housing, and discounts for heating fuel.
  • Serving as a Local News Hub – Many small towns and even neighborhoods of larger cities suffer from the increasing globalization of media. That is, local residents can more easily hear about a protest in the nation’s capital than about the renovation of a local landmark or the loss of a local home to a fire. Making a section of your church’s website (or a separate website sponsored by your church) into a local news hub that aggregates local stories can help your neighbors to become more connected with one another.

Finally, the key thing to remember when considering the theology of your church’s website is that the website actually is theologically significant. Your website can and should be rooted in an understanding of what God has called your church to do for Him.