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Archive for Communication

A Tale of Two Churches

I want to introduce you to two congregations – each of which has a website that doesn’t represent the congregation very well – and discuss the implications.

United Church of Ludlow

The first church is the United Church of Ludlow. Open their website here.

This website is an archetypal example of a site that functions as a mere billboard – and a rather poor one at that. The landing page is so big that little more than the church name is visible without scrolling. The background color is dull and a plain list of word-links connects the visitor to sub-pages, all of which are also static, and many of which have outdated – sometimes severely outdated – news and information. And because posts are not time-stamped, it’s impossible for an outsider to know whether a purported concert for June and July is slated for 2010, or is from a prior year. (It does have a music loop designed to make the site more interesting but, over time, the tune’s redundancy becomes irritating.)

As one clicks through the site, the feeling grows that this congregation is primarily concerned with its building and its history. That is, with the institution rather than with people, and with the past rather than the future. To be fair, the church did undertake a significant, multi-year restoration and historic preservation project that was a major time marker in the community’s history, however a website visitor, especially a younger visitor with children, wants to know primarily about the church’s current activities and vision for the future. These pages point in the opposite direction, in a way that usually indicates a fading church reveling in its past glory rather than implementing a vision for its future glory.

Unfortunately, this website does not reveal the actual character of the membership. A visit to the church shows that the core of the congregation is a vibrant and energetic group of white-collar, middle-class and upper middle-class couples, most of whom are young retired or semi-retired. They are engaged in the life and leadership of the local secular community and in a variety of local good works to help those less fortunate. They have a thirst for spiritual growth and knowledge, and an intelligent and informed approach to most subjects – religious and non-religious. They also have in common a love of local Vermont winter and summer sports, such as skiing and canoeing, which has built a sense of warm camaraderie that is unusual, in my experience, in small churches. And they are good-naturedly accepting of one another’s foibles and differences of opinion in matters of faith and politics – all quite rare and wonderful.

They have money, time, energy, a good spiritual focus, and a desire to do good deeds and be good people. A visitor to the church will feel the upbeat, fun, communal character of the membership, and is sure to be warmly welcomed by a number of genuinely interested lay people. In so many ways, it is an ideal worshipping community. Even young families and children will find themselves warmly and positively welcomed – and over time one gets the sense that a larger body of children would result in an enthusiastic children’s program. But none of that is evident from their website. In fact, the website betrays them by broadcasting a false image of an enervated, past-oriented, dowdy church. It would probably be better to not have a website than to have this one – which can turn people off who might otherwise make an exploratory visit.

Cavendish Baptist Church

The second church is Cavendish Baptist Church. Access its website here.

Notice the dramatic difference in how this website feels, compared to the United Church of Ludlow site. It has warmth and color, visitor-oriented text that explains what to expect if you visit (which assumes you will visit), and multiple embedded links to information about the church’s beliefs, history, and location. The entire page and menu can be seen without scrolling and the left-hand menu expresses hopefulness through titles like “children,” “projects” and “weddings/marriage.” They even anticipate your financial participation by openly discussing “giving.” These are forward-looking, vision-oriented elements that point to a congregation that’s actively engaged in building and growing into the future.

Navigating through the sub-menu pages continues to build a sense of the upbeat, visionary nature of this congregation. We even learn of the pastor’s interesting personal background and story, and a bit about his personal vision for ministry in this church and participation in the area. Most sub-pages offer further embedded links to additional nested pages, allowing site visitors to choose the level of information they want to gather about the congregation as they make up their minds whether to visit.

This website is so crisp, contemporary and professional that one expects to drive up to one of those modern mega-church-in-the-making buildings, so it’s a surprise to actually see the church. Cavendish Baptist is a classic old wood-framed, clapboard-sided New England building, in a state of deferred maintenance.

When I visited, I arrived 15 minutes early to find the doors still firmly locked. The parking lot remained empty until the last few minutes before worship, at which point it filled quickly with multi-generational families. The membership did not express any strong interest in visitors, and left immediately after the service. There was no traditional “social hour,” which would make it very hard for a new person to find a way to link with this congregation. The pastor is the only person who made a point of engaging me in conversation.

The church membership is solidly blue-collar, low to low-middle income, and very local. Clearly money is a struggle for the church and its members, and the pastor is the most web-savvy member of the community. A conversation with him uncovered the fact that he was the architect and author of the church’s website, and I left with a sense that the vision that governs the website is his vision for the church – one not evidently shared by his small-town, low-aspiration community.

Here again, the website does not represent the faith community.

The Webmaster as Authority Figure

The disjunction between each congregation and their online representation points to a crucial factor in website development and maintenance: in truth, the webmaster is all-powerful. In fact, there have been a few studies pointing to the unofficial authority expressed by church webmasters.

In the case of the Cavendish Baptist Church, the webmaster is the pastor, and the website represents the vision and aspirations of the congregation’s spiritual leader; not necessarily the vision and aspirations of the congregation. As such, it gives a false picture of the present reality; and quite possibly a false notion of what the congregation is destined to become. If a website is intended to market or preview the church for potential visitors, the Cavendish church site fails the honesty test.

The webmaster of the United Ludlow Church is a peripheral member of the congregation who seldom attends worship. His work involves a measure of web site maintenance for a secular entity and his offer to develop a church website as a sub-set of the other entity’s web presence appears to have been embraced by the church as an inexpensive and easy solution to the problem of how to establish an internet site with little inconvenience. Unfortunately, the result of this formalistic and hands-off approach is a website that reflects the webmaster’s limited participation, interest in, and understanding of the life of the congregation. This website, too, fails to provide an honest reflection of the congregation it is meant to introduce.

Misleading Consequences

In the case of Cavendish Baptist, the website promises too much; in the case of United Church, the website reveals too little. In each case, the webmaster controls the content of the church’s website and promotes a public face that does not reflect the actual life, interests and vision of the congregation. The perspective of one person from each congregation has become the de facto public image of the entire group. In both cases that perspective is dramatically different than the congregation’s actual communal life and culture.

I’ve reported before on studies that show the growing importance of church websites. They are the primary way one third of church seekers identify congregations they will visit, and that percentage will continue to grow. Unfortunately, mainline Protestant congregations do a particularly poor job of using websites to communicate their values and culture.

A good website requires time and interest. Without a commitment to making your church website a true reflection of your congregation’s life, values and vision, you might be better served by having no web presence. United Church of Ludlow’s website quite possibly turns potential visitors away before they have a chance to experience the community’s warmth and vitality. Because Cavendish Baptist’s website offers an overly rosy depiction of the congregation’s life, visitors may leave from a visit with a sense of dismay and the feeling that the congregation lacks integrity.

Helpful Resources

ChurchChange is powered by an off-the-shelf blog program. However, I’m a complete idiot when it comes to making even the easiest web programs work as they are supposed to do. That’s because, having been frustrated too often by the early, klutzy programs, I’ve developed a phobia which causes me to uncharacteristically lose my temper and curse a blue streak when I encounter any little website hiccough. That’s why my brother, Lowell, is an integral part of my online presence. He keeps me sane and holds my hand (often with a chuckle) when I’m about to go ballistic for no very good reason.

I’m sharing this embarrassing personal tidbit to make the trite but true point that if I can get a web presence up and working, anyone can. These days, there is no valid reason to have no website or a poor website – other than lack of interest. Website design programs have become very easy to use, and almost every congregation has a few people in it who are web-wise. (If not, your church is in a very bad state of health.) A website committee that includes a couple web-savvy people is the right place to start.

To explore do-it-yourself options and professional services for church website development, see the excellent November 2008 post by Lauren Hunter, proprietor of the ChurchTechToday blog, titled “What Kind of Church Website Do You Need?” Click here, and then on the embedded link to the full article.

And if you have a helpful resource or insight you’d like to share with others, please feel welcomed to share your experience through the Comments box.