by Eric Anderson
A church's website is its manifestation in a widely traveled and increasingly busy world: the public Internet. For people unfamiliar with a congregation, it may be the first place they learn what a church is about. For some, it will be the entry into relationship; for others, it will be a place to reinforce their commitment.
Many considerations come into play when a congregation designs or re-designs its website. This essay covers just four of them: touchstone questions that must be asked and answered each time, whose answers will guide the manifold choices which spring from them. They are the critical three W's (and an H).
Church websites -- for that matter, all other websites -- exist for a purpose. They are not created arbitrarily or randomly. Defining that purpose is the critical first step to designing the site.
A helpful way to get at this question is to ask about the primary audience or audiences for the site. For churches, two common audiences are current members on the one hand, and potential members on the other. What audience drives the information that is presented first?
Even with an audience selected, the purpose still needs refining. "To bring in new members," for example, identifies the audience, but doesn't say what new members are being encouraged to do. What does it mean to participate in this particular congregation? What kind of expectations are there, and to what extent does discipleship extend into life beyond the church's walls?
The education of disciples of Jesus -- of members of Christ's Church -- can begin on the very first page of the website.
Very few church websites have a single purpose or single audience, and this will be reflected in the wide range of content they will eventually contain. Asking the question "Why?" helps to prioritize the presentation of the information. That which directly informs the main purposes takes precedence; that which informs a purpose with lesser priority will probably be more difficult to find.
Even with the emergence of "Web 2.0," with its explosion of interactive features, the World Wide Web remains primarily a one-way medium, with the vast majority of pages oriented toward providing information to an audience. The question at this point is what information needs to be provided to your audience to serve your purpose? What do they need to know, and what do they need to know first, second, and third?
Part of this question is about specific content that's needed. For prospective members, for example, there are some all-too-obvious yet all-too-often-omitted pieces of information that need to be very easy to find indeed: the church's address, phone number, and an easy way for people to contact its staff via email or the web. Parents with children may want to know about the educational program; many young people will be interested in spiritual resources, such as a meditation and prayer.
The next stage of this question will guide the navigational structure of the site. What constitutes top-level content, that's a single click away from the home page, and what constitutes second-level, and what constitutes the third level? Again, this does not reflect the importance of the information in and of itself, but its relevance to the primary site audience and its support to the site's main purpose.
A good example of differing purposes guiding differing designs is the contrast between the UCC's national website at www.ucc.org and the Connecticut Conference's site at www.ctucc.org. The national site is very much directed toward people who do not know much about the United Church of Christ and are seeking to learn more. It emphasizes the denomination's commitments and identity. "New to UCC?" is easily found and clicked; so is "Find a Church." Church leaders seeking resources, however, may have more difficulty, as the crowded menu "Church Stuff" contains nearly everything they may be seeking.
The Connecticut Conference site is much more oriented toward local church leaders and members. It highlights upcoming events and activities, and it's relatively easy to find staff contact information and posted resources. It's more difficult to learn about the Conference's theological orientation.
With a grasp of Why and What, it's time to begin actual design, but now it's time to identify the person or persons who will do the hard-and-fast work. Many, many church websites originated when a young person put one together; a fair number of those languished for some time after the original designer graduated and moved away from home.
Today, the tasks of site creation or design and of maintenance or updating can be separated. Some churches will hire or accept the volunteer services of a site creator, who will set the navigational structure, design the look and feel, and develop tools to edit the content. With many websites now being driven by Content Management Systems (CMS), in which page layout (and even navigation) are separated from content editing, a site designer is not needed for regular maintenance.
CMS systems such as Joomla or Drupal, or the blog-oriented (but very usable) Wordpress, can be relatively easily configured by a person with few "programming" skills. The question here, however, is the identification of the designer, and assessing what skills that person has, and who will be the maintainers, and what skills does that person have?
A further question is that of editorial authority. Who decides, on a day-to-day basis, what content goes on the website? Once upon a time, this was a question with very few options, because the necessary skill set for site editing determined that a single person would add all new content. CMS systems now allow for more than one person to edit the site, and even to set "territories," such that someone could edit the "Music" section but not the "Christian Education" section.
There are advantages and disadvantages both to a single-editor system and to a multiple-editor system; choosing one or the other, however, will determine the necessary resources of the site host.
Finally, there is the question of information flow. How does the information get from the person who has it to the person who must post it? Multiple editorship is a way to address this question, but it's not a complete answer. What procedures will church leaders use to make sure that their new content will be made available on the website?
Purpose and content will make technical demands. If one part of the purpose, for example, is to stimulate involvement by site visitors, it requires content that is interactive. Interactive content will probably require some technical skills to develop it (in Who), and it may also require that the site host have resources that support it. CMS systems require background databases that are available on most hosts today, but not all. And budgets impose their own limitations as well.
This tends to be the first question churches ask -- how do we find a website host? -- but it is, in fact, the last of the Big Four, because without the knowledge of purpose, content, and authorship, it is very easy to select a site host that will be unable to support the site's needs on the one hand, or will charge for unused services on the other.
Questions on this article? Write Eric Anderson, Minister of Communications and Technology, at firstname.lastname@example.org.