Find a site suited to your church

7 comments | Posted: 9 February 06 in General, by Tim Bednar

Two years ago McDonalds announced the demise of Super Size french fries and soft drinks. After designing church web sites for six years, I think it is about time that churches stopped Super Sizing their web sites. Why? For the same reason you should not eat extra large portions of fast food. It is good for you.

My goal in this article is to help leaders match their church with the best-performing web site because there is an exceptional site opportunity for every church. A well-suited web site is the first step toward a better experience, less cost and more impact.

Even if you you rely on the good will of a volunteer designer, web sites cost money, time and energy. A ill-suited web site quickly become a liability rather than an asset. Ill-suited sites are not maintained which initiates a cycle of decay resulting in cost:

Church leaders should think of their web sites as property rather than as a brochure. Even a small site has more value than a disposable, one-use, paper brochure. To avoid costs and build value, find a web site well-suited to your church, its culture and leadership.

The St. Francis: Five pages of simplicity

I named this type of web site The St. Francis for its simplicity. It delivers mainly text-based information by focusing on web standards and well-written copy.

To execute this kind of site, leaders should spend their budget (if any), time and energy on a copywriter and designer who can create simple, well-formed pages:

It is important to remember that most visitors will not enter your site through the Home page. So, every page should include the street address, link to Google Maps, Sunday service times, phone and fax numbers and a real email address (not a form—if you are worried about spam use a Gmail account).

Additionally, do not burry this information in the footer, but make it an essential part of the layout. Pages should be between 800 and 1400 pixels long and 750 to 1000 pixels wide, use larger font sizes and white space. When you view the source code, the main content of the page should be the first thing you read.

The St. Francis best suites your church if:

This may seem geeky. But start here. The St. Francis is designed for quality. It is easily maintained and optimized for search engines. It is the fastest way to build (or rebuild) equity in your web property.

The Elvis Costello: One-percent Flash

The Elvis Costello communicates the feeling of your church to its audience through motion and sound. Originally, I named it just The Elvis, but I did not want churches building overdosing on the excesses of Flash.

Jakob Nielsen famously said, “Flash is 99% bad.” We have clicked “Skip Intro”. I want Elvis style with Costello substance.

If you just can not abide simplicity of the St. Francis, then the Elvis Costello is for your church. It best suites your church if:

To succeed, you need a good Flash designer who will create a small, pointed Flash site that communicates the emotion of your church. You will also need access to quality to audio, sounds, video and images.

One way to implement the Elvis Costello is to create a new Flash site for each church season and provide your congregation with e-mail-based tools to share the new site to friends and family.

You will need this kind of planned promotion because search engines do not value Flash, so if you want traffic then you need to build it without relaying on organic search (a virtue of the St. Francis).

The Elvis Costello is designed to create a vibe. It needs attention from leadership for short periods of time, then can be left alone, but do not forsake it. An abandoned Elvis Costello is the biggest web liability you can own.

The Robin Hood: Wisdom of the laity

The Robin Hood takes control over content from the “leaders” and gives it to the “laity” enabled by a Content Management System (CMS). This decentralized way of maintaining content is summarized by the adage, “Many hands make light work.”

Basically, sites build with a CMS enable the owners of the content to directly create and edit content. Oversight is done after-the-fact if at all. The advantage is responsibility and workload are spread out; it also taps into the wisdom of lay staff and empowers to efficiently execute their responsibilities. For some church cultures, this is NOT a good fit.

To execute the Robin Hood resources need to be focused on choosing the best CMS, training people on how its use and creating guidelines for quality assurance.

All of the basic principles of the St. Francis apply to the Robin Hood, however, the CMS enables large, complex sites to be easily maintained. It best suites your church if:

The Robin Hood is designed to tap into the wisdom of the laity and manage complex sites. You can implement an CMS to manage a site without decentralizing control of the content. If this is a better fit with your church culture, start with a St. Francis and add a CMS to the backend.

The Holy Grail: The next Billy Graham will be geek

I am calling my final solution The Holy Grail because it describes an as yet undiscovered type of web site. There are many designers and developers experimenting, but I have not yet seen the Holy Grail: a web site or service that we could define as a “cyber-church”.

Holy Grail sites (or networks) are difficult because they leap over the wall gardens favored by churches, seminaries, publishers, Christian media and denominations. They are experimental and should be the aspiration of the church.

To succeed, you find designer or developer who needs to be nurtured in experimenting. For example, support Michael Boyink’s Stories About God experiment. I predict that the next Billy Graham will be a geek (no offense Mike). This is a start.

Live more simply on the web

All these types can be found in the wild in different forms and degrees of success. I would be ecstatic if 99 percent of churches built St. Francis sites and 1 percent searched for the Holy Grail. As a designer, I would love to work on more St. Francis sites if more churches were willing to live simply on the web.

Discuss This Topic

  1. 1 Robert Spangler

    Very helpful article Tim, thank you!

     
  2. 2 Mithrill

    Nice article. Very helpful way of pointing what a church site should be about.

    Thanks,

    Matt

     
  3. 3 Nate

    No offense, but I still felt ‘fuzzy’ on a few aspects after reading this article. I think this article barely scratches the surface on leading a church to create a successful site. Though you state it would be standards based, some of the things you are ‘advertising’ clearly are not standards based.

    Simply put, If I was reading this article for the first time, was a pastor of a church and needed help, I would still be left confused. There are many holes that just aren’t filled in to TRULY assist someone in creating a successful church website.

    The biggest trend I have seen with churches (and other sites) is lack of education. They simply dont understand the medium they are working with, which in turn creates chaotic sites, maintenance nightmares, and sites that dont degrade well. It is the blind leading the blind. Yes, its the web and ANYONE can be a publisher, but this leads to MANY problems when the publisher has no clue or has not taken the time to learn to do things right. WYSIWYG’s, CMS’s, Frameworks – as good as they are, they still give false hope to many churches because of lack of education – they simply dont know how to keep it alive, nor do they even understand the nature of the web (and the vast amounts of technologies).

    So, not to bash – I just felt that the article was a ‘feel’ good article, but no real meat to it.

    Peace,
    Nate

     
  4. 4 Benjamin

    This is a good article. I am looking forward to some more in-depth comments but this is a good outline on how to approach a new site.

    Thanks.

     
  5. 5 Tank

    I think it is a great article. There are a lot of gray areas inbetween the main types but it lands the church at a good starting point to asess their resources and land on or around of the three. One thing really not mentioned is cost. As a design firm that does some ministry work we often find that price is more of a factor than need.

    As to the holy grail… I think it is a on staff web designer :)

    -> Nate
    A properly developed CMS hands an easy updateble website over to someone that knows nothing about the web. As long as they can run Word or enter in a calendar date then the CMS should take care of the rest. The problem is that most CMS’ are developed by programers and end up being almost equal to inputing the data straight into the database itself or editing the HTML code. Of course getting a good CMS implemented costs money and that is a resourse most churches don’t have or more likely don’t have allocated.

     
  6. 6 Tim Bednar

    Nate—I’d be happy to clarify, but I’m not sure what you think needs more clarification?

     
  7. 7 Nate

    RE: Tank
    I agree completely that most programmers will build something that replicates the capabilities of HTML and the like. However, I have seen sites used for churches that have used Plone, Truewell templates, and even some Mambo sites – and they have found a way to make everything look bad. They want to customize EVERYTHING – which if thats the case, they need to get that built in the first place instead of hacking at things. Quite honestly, Truewell is one of the worst. I have seen SO many bad sites used through Truewell. I just think that most churches wanting a CMS want to have FULL control over everything (I know my church did). So, it goes beyond simple textboxes and dates for calendars – they want more. This is where it gets really ugly.

    RE: Tim
    I will try and put some of my thoughts together and email them – it may be easier than typing everything on here – plus, I would rather continue the conversation more with you to be more personal. I just think, as Tank said, there are some gray areas to the article.

    God Bless,
    Nate

     

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