Guest commentary by Wayne Sankarlal
Much of the work that I do relates to small- and medium-sized churches. You know, the ones you don’t see on TV but that you do drive by – on the way to work or the grocery store. Or, that you drive to on a Sunday morning.
The ones where you’re greeted warmly when you enter – and if you return a second or third time, someone will remember your name and treat you like an old friend returning after a long time away. Those are the churches that I love to be in. They are the ones I love to work with and help them as they move their communications into the electronic age.
The first step of that journey nearly always starts with a desire for a new website. One that has a more modern look and feel and that will engage people, maybe even making them curious enough about “us” to venture in.
My first question is always: What will change in your church because there’s a new website?
That tends to shock folks a little.
You see, if nothing changes in the church operationally, then having a new website will only mean that money’s been spent that could have been used more beneficially elsewhere. Is that harsh? Yes, and it’s also true. Websites can either be agents of change or witnesses to decay. One thing they are not is passive.
It may seem strange to say that a website is not passive. It can seem that way, especially when many churches know they should have one but may not have the skills within the congregation to nurture and grow the site.
Having gotten over the initial shock, the next most common question that’s asked is: What sorts of things should change?
Here’s my practical (but admittedly not exhaustive) list:
- Content communication It’s not the actual content on the website that’s critical, it’s the responsibility and accountability that goes with making the changes. That’s a decision that has to be made early and communicated well. The person responsible should not be the same as the person that is accountable. To put it another way: The decision to post an item to your website should be made by someone other than the person tasked with posting the content. If they are one and the same, then that person is going to become overwhelmed with requests and won’t have a clear way to make or explain the decision.
- Visitor communication Websites can be used to collect contact information from visitors to a Sunday service or for a church event that’s open to the community (such as a Christmas concert). All it takes is simply inviting the visitor to fill in your church’s online contact form on a church tablet or computer. And when the information is in a form, there are no issues with misspellings of names or street addresses. This information can then be used to create a master email and contact list to keep in touch with these visitors.
- Congregant communication As any church administrator will tell you, congregants call in to be reminded when events are happening, or to find out the pastor’s office hours, or to ask about something they saw in the bulletin on Sunday. These are all situations that can take away from the productive time of your church administrator. In small- to medium-sized churches, the administrator’s job may not even be a full-time function. Your website can be used to answer questions like these. This requires a concerted effort by the church’s leadership (minister, elders and staff) to emphasize to congregants that the website contains all of their informational needs.
- Event communications When the church is holding a community or outreach event (say vacation Bible school or a fundraising function), the website should be considered a key piece of the communications effort. Your website can easily add online registration forms (through Google forms or another third-party form generator). However, the website coordinator needs to know about the event and what the paper registration form looks like so he or she can set up the electronic equivalent. If that doesn’t happen – or happens at the last minute –a key avenue to reach out and bring people into the church is cut off.
Looking back at this list, you’ll notice the word “communication” keeps coming up. And that’s the last point I’d like to make. Your website should be a part of a communications plan. The plan doesn’t have to be extensive on the first attempt. It can be a couple of paragraphs that state what the website is going to allow you to do better or for the first time. Once you have that established, go to the leaders of those ministries where the website will have an impact and ask them for their thoughts on how the website can help them. After a few of those conversations, you may end up with a 5- or 10-page plan. The great thing though is that it will be a plan for which everyone can see the benefits and they’ll all be supportive.
WAYNE SANKARLAL is the founder of IT4Worship where he advises and serves churches with the ultimate goal of making technology use comfortable, effective and stress-free. His blog Web, Tech & Worship is published each week. He lives in Pickering, Ontario, and contributes to the Presbyterian Record.