How inclusive is your church website?
Why does your church have a website? Chances are one of the reasons is because you want to help people who are not Christians find their church and then find God. That’s a great objective, but when an unbeliever visits your church’s website does it make them want to visit your church or run the other direction?
The world is cynical of churches due to long-held negative perceptions of “hellfire and brimstone” sermons, “Sunday” dress, lots of rules, money-hungry pastors, and according to the world, fanatical, intolerant members who are constantly judging them and who want to shove religion down their throats…while being hypocrites themselves. The plethora of televangelists with their emotional pleas for money hasn’t helped matters.
It’s also true that many adults can’t get past negative childhood experiences. I myself recall being just 12 years old when a mainstream denominational pastor cornered me (literally! I could not escape!) in his office and demanded that I be baptized. It was a terrifying, awkward experience that reduced me to tears. No wonder it’s hard to get adults through the church doors!
If churches are to extend God’s love to those who don’t yet know Him, they must work hard to overcome these stereotypes. They need to be, well, un-churchy. Please don’t misunderstand: I’m not advocating a watered-down message from a wishy-washy church, but rather the truth spoken in love with a healing dose of acceptance, understanding and forgiveness… especially as it applies to your website.
Online but out of reach
Whatever your approach, this is serious business and the consequences for non-believers are grave. We need to share the life-saving message of Jesus Christ! But who will share the message? How can we reach people in the first place and counteract negative stereotypes of church and Christians in general (Romans 10:14)?
One excellent starting point is your church website. Is it appealing and inclusive to unchurched visitors? Take this brief quiz to find out:
- Does my website use spiritual jargon that unchurched people rarely if ever use, like “fellowship,” “rejoice,” “congregation” and even “sin”?
- Does my website – and in particular the navigation menu — use acronyms and insider terms that only members of my church would know? (For example, let’s say you have a young adults ministry called “TNT.” Does your menu link say “TNT” with no explanation, or does it say “Young Adults” to get people to the right section, with an explanation of TNT, or “Tuesday Night Thing,” within that section?)
- Is the main focus of my website on the facilities rather than the people? (Look at your website photos if you’re not sure.)
- Is my website more concerned with programs or people? (Are you just promoting events or telling people how they can get connected and make a difference?)
- Does my website convey its members as real people who struggle with the same problems as the rest of the population, like divorce and alcoholism? (Yes, church members struggle, too. Learning to live under the lordship of Jesus is a process.)
- Does my website provide opportunities for people to talk back (message board, blog, etc.)?
- Does my website meet people where they are by being relevant and addressing today’s issues, or does it focus exclusively on activities within the church walls?
- Is my website friendly towards visitors by providing newcomer information quickly and easily? Is it easy to find clear directions to the facility, service times, ways to get connected, and an overview of the church?
- Does my website share the gospel of Jesus Christ in an understandable way? (Many do not share the gospel at all.)
- Is my website more about the pastor and church leadership than it is about the people who attend or who are welcome to attend?
- Does my website include stories of people at my church whose lives have been transformed by God?
- If a person with a very disturbing past visited my website, would he or she feel welcome in my church?
- Does my website offer resources or links to websites for people struggling with alcohol, divorce, or other major life problems?
- Is my website regularly updated so that there is always something new to offer?
- Does my site offer sections that are relevant to people of all ages and walks of life? Would a teen find any sections of it engaging?
- Am I making sure my church’s real-life experiences ring true by making sure website visitors feel welcome when they visit my church in person? (In other words, is your church as warm and friendly as your website says it is?)
- Is my website attractive? (More on this in a later blog article.)
I think you can draw your own conclusions from the above. And sure, there’s a balance. A church website should most definitely have sections that are relevant and useful to its members, and there’s nothing wrong with having information about church leaders or the physical building. The point is that many church websites can do a better job of making new, unchurched people feel comfortable and welcome.
Speaking in tongues
No, this isn’t going to be a discourse about spiritual gifts. Made you look! Instead I wanted to expand on my first quiz question (above) regarding the language your site uses to communicate with people. Ask yourself if it’s understandable and relevant to a non-believer. For example, compare “a great time of fellowship was had by all” with “we had a great time catching up with our friends.” Which one provides a better picture in your head? Here’s a list of Christian terms you may want to avoid unless you are explaining these terms as you go along.
Bringing in the sheaves. (Umm… what’s a sheave?)
Ha! I know that the singular of “sheaves” is “sheaf” and that it has something to do with harvesting something-or-other, but not everyone will be that (ahem) knowledgeable. That’s why we need to express things in a relevant, meaningful way. Our example is Jesus. What language did He use to reach people? Why parables, of course. “Consider the lilies of the field,” He said. I would imagine He was standing in a field of lilies at the time. “A farmer went out to sow.” That is something the people of Jesus’ day could identify with since, in order to eat, they had to plant seeds.
If Jesus told parables in today’s world, I expect that He might use references to computers, cars, and television because these are all things that surround us every day. That’s what we can be doing, too. It’s a matter of taking the religious-speak out of our sentences (Matthew 13:19). If you’re not sure how the language on your website is perceived by outsiders, ask an unbiased observer to look at it with fresh eyes and ask him or her to provide honest feedback. The OurChurch.Com forums are frequented by Christian webmasters who would be glad to offer a critique.
A popular song asks this thought-provoking question: “If we are the body, why aren’t His arms reaching?” I know many churches are reaching out, and souls are being saved daily. Still, the challenge remains: How will your church effectively use the power of the Internet to change the world and reach visitors who are looking for real life, real answers, and the real Jesus… and not just religion?