Jonathan, 28, believes Web sites functions like a “front page” for organizations. He notes that his generation surfs the Internet continuously, both during the work day and during leisure hours, and that they would almost never visit a church or other organization without first checking out its Web site. Whether or not Jonathan can speak for an entire generation, organizational Web sites are certainly proliferating. More congregations are establishing Web sites and more congregational leaders are realizing how helpful, even strategic, Web sites can be.
Reaching All Audiences
Congregational Web sites have three audiences, two of them primary and one of them less prominent. One audience is congregation members. Often they come to the Web site for information. What time is that missionary speaking tonight, and where? They also visit the Web site to download the sermon in audio, video, or written form. Keeping the Web site updated with factual information and recent sermons is key for this audience.
A second audience is potential visitors. Is the time of the worship service posted on the homepage? Is there a link to directions to the church? Is basic information about the congregation presented—both verbally and visually—so that a visitor would have some sense of this congregation’s priorities? Are there links to information specifically for newcomers, or general information about the church that newcomers would value?
A third audience congregational Web sites might consider addressing is people from other congregations who are looking for resources. Perhaps someone visits a congregation on vacation, enjoys the sermon, and comes back to the congregation’s Web site each week to read or listen to the pastor’s sermon. Or perhaps a children’s ministry leader is looking for new ideas, so scans other churches’ Web sites to see how they are serving children. A worldwide network of connections is facilitated by the existence of congregational Web sites, a fascinating new manifestation of the body of Christ and of Jewish solidarity.
The Rise of the Visual
Communication scholars have noted a significant shift in communication patterns in recent decades. The written word is giving way to images. Web sites are an assemblage of words and images, and most experts on Web sites affirm that viewers tend to notice the visual aspects first.
Most of the Web site producers I interviewed affirmed that the pastors and leaders of their congregations are largely word-oriented. I suspect this is true of rabbis and leaders of synagogues as well. My interviewees told me that their pastors and other congregational leaders generate announcements of events and descriptions of the church that are usually designed for newsletters, brochures, and printed bulletins. Web designers edit these texts, usually shortening them significantly, and pair them with photos and other images to create a pleasing whole.
Note the disconnect here. Congregational leaders are charged with leading the congregation and communicating its vision, yet the aspect of the Web site that carries the greatest impact—the visual components, such as photos and graphics, as well as the overall visual structure—is usually determined by one person, the Web designer. This person is usually a member of the congregation who volunteers to create the site, a paid employee, or a paid independent contractor. In very few cases is it a leader of the congregation.
Many congregational Web sites are quite effective and interesting, but are they communicating the values of the congregation in ways that mesh with the vision for the congregation established intentionally by its leaders? Unless leaders of congregations take their Web sites seriously, these sites will continue to be the work of one person, or a very small number of people, who may or may not be closely connected to the leaders and their vision.
Help from “Critical Friends”
When the Internet started to become a significant force in society about a decade ago, religious leaders were divided in their opinions about this new technology. Some were extremely negative, viewing the Internet as a dehumanizing force, a threat to community and communication. Others saw it as a place of opportunity for religious organizations, a place where proclamation and explanation could take place and a place where community and connections could be nurtured.
One of the premier researchers on online religious community, Heidi Campbell, argues for a middle ground. She uses the term “critical
friends”1 to describe what she would like to see: religious leaders who affirm the opportunities provided by the Internet while also being cautious and careful about the possible negative repercussions.
In my study of congregational Web sites, I found that this critical friend role was often absent in congregations. Many Web site producers work quite independently because of lack of interest by congregational leaders. Critical friends among the congregation’s leaders would bring an additional set of eyes and an understanding of the congregation’s priorities, enabling Web sites to represent congregations as accurately as possible.
In addition, critical friends are urgently needed in congregations to minimize the growing tendency toward a consumerist model of faith and congregational life. Because Web sites use visual communication in ways similar to those of the advertising industry, congregational leaders need to think carefully about how their Web sites tap into consumerist practices.
The Web site producers I interviewed were uniformly positive about the opportunity afforded by the medium. Most of them saw no potential conflicts in wholesale adoption of secular marketing strategies to promote their congregation and to describe its uniqueness. Critical friends, with an awareness of the risks inherent in the consumer model and perhaps with theological training, need to be in dialogue with Web site producers as choices are made regarding Web site content.
Web sites provide amazing opportunities for congregations to reach out and to provide information and resources for members. Careful and effective use of congregational Web sites will involve attention to the visual as well as the verbal and will reflect the congregation’s values in photos, graphics, art, and links. Web site producers will not work in isolation but with the help of critical friends among the congregation’s leaders, who will help them make decisions about this strategic communication tool.
Excerpted from “Our New Front Door: How Congregational Web Sites Communicate Church Vision” from the Spring 2008 issue of Congregations magazine. Lynne M. Baab’s book Reaching out in a Networked World: Expressing Your Congregation’s Heart and Soul will be published this fall.
1 Heidi Campbell, “Approaches to Religious Research in Computer-mediated Communication,” in J. Mitchell & S. Marriage, eds., Mediating Religion: Conversations in Media, Culture and Religion (New York: T & T Clark, 2003), 216.
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