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Is a digital presence for your church just a ‘nice to have’?

Is a digital presence for your church just a ‘nice to have’?

So, this was the tweet I ended up sending this morning:

 

This was a really unfortunate ‘start’ to a resumption of ‘adventures in church hunting’ in the new area that I’m in, having made excuses week after week. People forget how tiring it is looking for new churches – not being sure of exactly what it’s like, what kind of welcome you might get, how much pressure there’s going to be to ‘commit’, whether you’re going to find parking – and that’s if you’re already familiar with church. If you’re not familiar with church at all, then it’s even more terrifying, as who knows what is going on inside those buildings – sure it’s full of weird people, undertaking weird rituals!

  A Facebook friend concurred:

When I became a Christian in my bedroom, finding a church was a really tough action. Was going to go to "Open Door Church" and told God that if the door was closed then He didn't need me to go to church to be a Christian. Thankfully both their website & a notice at the building said it was term time so they met at a large school a few roads away... where I found people holding the door open! Great welcome, and brilliant 3 years there before I moved away.

What is the purpose of a church website?

I always remember the first conversations I ever had about creating a church website, which I was doing in Dreamweaver, back in probably 2001. We discussed that the most important thing was to think about who the site was aimed at – including the seekers (of a new church and of faith), as well as the church regulars. As one of my friends just commented on Facebook, many churches are like a club for those who attend, information on a website which says stuff like “see Geoff for details” makes no sense to those who are outside the church.

For the seekers, it was key that the site gives a good idea of what to expect in this particular church, so that on walking through the door, there is no unpleasant shock! As I’m now searching for a new church, I’m very much ‘digital first’ in my approach – and I started by asking Facebook connections for recommendations! It’s much easier to follow a link, or scan the web, than it is to walk around every street in the area looking for churches – and if there’s no web presence, I assume there’s no particular desire to reach out to anyone new!

Providing a Cohesive and Welcoming Message Online and Offline

Church websites are not something new, and Sara Batts completed a very interesting PhD on the subject in 2013, when the challenge was becoming encouraging a wider digital presence. On a more anecdotal level, I visited Australia in 2007, and following Christians in the Media, I ended up at Village Church in Annandale, Sydney. As I wobbled on the door, unsure if I wanted to go in somewhere new – again – I was given a wonderful welcome, offered drink, asked if I wanted to sit with someone, then introduced to others. I was then taken to the pub afterwards, and invited for dinner with someone that week – all in the knowledge that I was only in Sydney for that week! The digital and the physical formed a cohesive whole.

Back in 2013 I wrote:

For many churchgoing is no longer the ‘cultural norm’. People don’t actively ignore the church: they don’t even think about it. Matthew 5:13-16 calls us to be salt and light in the world, and for thousands in the ‘digital age’, that world includes social networks such Twitter, Facebook, YouTube and Pinterest. With literally billions in the digital spaces, the online social spaces presented by churches need to be appealing, welcoming, and not look like they are just an afterthought: they are now effectively the ‘front door’ to your church for digital users, and you ignore those spaces at your peril. Growing Churches in the Digital Age

If you’re Anglican, then the CofE produces a very useful tool called a church near you, although it’s the responsibility of the churches featured to keep their entry up to date, and to take the opportunity to link to their own webpages.

Advice for Your Church Digital Presence

So, onto the question of church webpages, along with the rest of your digital presence. As always, look for a cohesive message across all your material, whether it’s the church paper newsletter, the website, from the pulpit, or on the Facebook page. Here’s a few tips:  

  • Take time with the church leadership and PCC to devise a (written) strategy for church communications.
  • Ensure that a number of people can access the website, and various social media platforms, to log in, and to edit it.
  • Give a sense of the real tone/flavor of the church, with visuals if possible.
  • Make good use of the ‘About’ pages, and take the opportunity to introduce ‘the team’.
  • If your church has tourist or historical value, make the most of that as a feature, and indicate what you’re doing in the community where possible
  • Keep all communications material as up to date as feasible – preferably making it clear what’s going on week by week.
  • Use websites platforms that are easy to update, such as WordPress or Joomla.  Another suggestion via Facebook: “I find that adding a Facebook page or Twitter feed to the main page is a good way to link through - updating them is easy from my mobile whereas website requires work at laptop!”
  • Something that’s a change ‘just one week’ maybe the only chance you have to reach out to a new visitor.
  • Make sure the website address (URL), and any social media links, are on all noticeboards and noticesheets.
  • Make sure your website works on a mobile device  - if the services menu is halfway down a non-scrolling screen people won’t know when to come.
  • Make it easy for people to find the directions for their way there – it’s easy to embed Google maps.
  • Provide contact details – preferably a phone number and an email, then say "we aim/hope/usually reply within X days" doubling whatever you currently estimate X to be.
  • Ensure any news in church notices are online and vice versa, where appropriate, limiting the assumptions that people know who “Sue” is.
  • If you’re a large church, consider providing podcasts or videocasts from sermons, maybe even a livestream.
  • If your church has members that are keen, consider opportunities to involve them formally, through blogposts, etc.

You’ll see here that we’re not just talking about a website – look for other opportunities to use digital, including the obvious Facebook and Twitter, but also keep an eye out for what other digital platforms are making the news. There are all kinds of possibilities, and this week there has been a flurry as the latest online enthusiasm hit – Pokemon – which I’ve blogged about – that also includes a few tips for churches!

Encouraging digital participation

Essentially, look to encourage participation with the digital environment, whether through hashtags for your church (or the wider world), the discussion of possibilities and issues raised by a digital age through sermon series, and in boosting the sharing of church-related content. Many people aren’t searching for church, but they are engaging with their friends – friends who are living genuinely interesting lives – for whom faith is a core lived and shared part of those lives. We live in a world where we need to be attractional in a world that thinks the church is irrelevant. We can’t push messages at people, and don’t expect everyone to fall at your feet, or speak positively just because you’ve got involved!

Making it manageable

One note is that it can be difficult as often the church communications falls to on the vicar, who is already over-burdened and working 6-days-a-week, or it is undertaken by an enthusiast, who if they leave, everything falls apart. This happens because communications, especially digital communications, are not seen as central to the church, but simply the cherry on the top, the nice to have. For 2016, that’s not really good enough. Communicating with the world is a core part of our mission, so we need to be online, and we need to be up-to-date as possible, ensuring that what is provided is possible to maintain and update – and doesn’t put even more expectations on the vicar to be available 24/7.

 

 

That church I tweeted about - I’ll try again, because I want to visit it, but a note on the website, a notice on Facebook and/or Twitter (which makes it easy to do last minute changes), and even a paper notice on the door would really have made a difference today.

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