Jonathan, 28, believes Web sites function 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.

Jonathan is my son, and his viewpoint influenced me when I chose a dissertation topic for my recent Ph.D. in communication. I studied Web sites produced by congregations and interviewed people who create and maintain Web sites for congregations. After spending almost two years focused on congregational Web sites, I’ve learned some things that may be useful to congregational leaders as they create—or continue to develop—their own sites.

Making Connections

In some ways, Web sites are like colorful magazines, with words, photos, and graphics communicating a message. However, Web sites have one characteristic that is new to this medium: links from one Web page to another. Viewers navigate their way through Web sites based on their own interests, and they may move to another Web site because a link takes them there.

In the same way that photos can communicate values in a nonverbal way, links on Web sites communicate a great deal about the congregation. What aspects of the congregation’s life are so significant that they get a prominent link on the homepage, a link with bold print or perhaps a graphic? What activities get links on lists, menus, or navigation bars? Which outside organizations does this congregation value highly enough that a link is provided on the homepage? Are newcomers valued enough that a prominent link is provided with information just for them? Are potential questions valued enough that there is a link to frequently asked questions?

In the research I did for my dissertation, megachurches, which are obviously successful at drawing in new people, were noteworthy for the kinds of links on their homepages. Many of them had prominent links for newcomers on these pages. All the megachurch sites had numerous links to pages letting people know how they could get involved in small groups, classes, mission trips, and service opportunities both inside and outside the congregation. They also provided links to information about their programs for children and youth

Other congregations had prominent statements on their homepages that expressed an inclusive welcome, but the megachurches were more likely than smaller churches to act out that welcome by providing links for newcomers and links to a variety of ways to get involved. In a similar way, some congregations talked about justice for the poor, but others had links to opportunities to serve the poor, perhaps at a homeless shelter or a Habitat for Humanity house. Links to information about activities speak strongly of congregational values, and they also enable people to become connected.

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?

My husband and I recently made a major move. In the months before the move, I looked at the Web sites of congregations near our future home. I wanted to know what the congregations value and what they’re doing. Some of the potential visitors who look at your congregation’s Web site are like my husband and me, committed to finding a congregation. Other potential visitors have been wounded or alienated by their past involvement in their church or synagogue and are looking at congregational Web sites in a much more tentative fashion: Does the site convey that spiritual seekers are welcome? That questions are valued? That people don’t have to be perfect to attend?

Many church Web sites fail to meet the needs of one of their core audiences, either members or potential visitors. A careful examination of the Web site to determine whether it offers information for these two audiences can be helpful in assessing the site’s effectiveness.

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. This can be observed in advertisements, magazines, newspapers, and almost every other form of communication. Web sites are an assemblage of words and images, and most experts on Web sites affirm that the visual components have a more immediate impact on viewers than do the verbal components. In other words, viewers tend to notice the visual aspects first.

The visual aspects of Web sites that have immediate impact are twofold: A site’s photos and graphics draw the viewer’s attention. In addition, viewers immediately take in the overall arrangement of each Web page—the way the text looks and the way the words, graphics, and photos are positioned on the page. Only secondarily do Web viewers absorb the content of the words on the page.

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.

The Right Image

During a recent conversation with an expert in church communication, I asked him what he considered to be the significant mistakes congregations make in their communication. He said the single biggest mistake is to communicate that the church is identified with the building.

Many congregational Web sites feature a photo of the building at the top of the homepage. Often that photo of the building is the only photo on the homepage. If a congregation wants to communicate that its values are closely connected to its building, then a photo of the building is perfectly appropriate. However, most leaders of congregations would not talk about their buildings first when they discuss their values.

Many congregations use text on their homepages that communicates a strong welcome, such as a statement that all are welcome to attend the congregation and join in its activities. What kinds of photos or graphics best accompany those kinds of statements? Many congregations use photos of people to communicate welcome.

Scholars who study photographs of people note that photos of a person’s upper body or head communicate more intimacy than photos that include the whole body. They also note that people in photos who are looking at the viewer communicate an invitation or demand. This contrasts with photos of people looking away from the camera; these photos communicate an offer, with less demand placed on the viewer. Based on this research, the most invitational—or demanding—photos are those that include the head or upper body, with the person or people in the photographs looking directly at the viewer. The advertising profession has been using photos like this for years.

In all the Web sites I pored over, I found that photos of people felt more invitational than photos of buildings. Photos of people seemed to be more in harmony with statements of welcome. But there were limits. Some Web sites had numerous photos of people looking into the camera, and after a while those sites felt a bit overwhelming and even pushy, as if too much was being demanded of me. Photos of people involved in congregational activities, not looking into the camera, gave me a window into the congregation’s life without demanding anything of me.

This issue of demand versus offer in photos is worthy of discussion. What do you want your Web site to communicate? That all are welcome? That you strongly urge people to attend? Photos contribute to this message.

One Web site designer I interviewed talked about the decision not to use any photos of people on the Web site, a decision he made in consultation with one of the pastors. This pastor and Web designer believe that photos of people are simply too proscriptive. Neither do they use photos of the church building. Instead, they use photos they believe are evocative of meaning, such as a bridge going off into the distance, symbolizing their congregation as a bridge between humans and God. Another Web site producer talked about her desire to use photos that communicate that this congregation is a place of grace and redemption. Her congregation’s site was noteworthy for the serene pictures of nature she had chosen in her effort to visually represent grace and redemption.

With the rise in interest in visual arts, more congregations are using art on their Web sites. Sometimes the art has been created by congregation members, and sometimes paintings or photos of sculptures from famous artists of the past are used.

Many congregational leaders are skilled with words. In order for text be effective on Web sites, it usually needs to be shortened, something that is fairly easy to learn to do. Learning to become visually literate is more challenging, but it is essential for our time.

Including Other Voices?

When I began my study of congregational Web sites, I had no idea of the wide variety of things congregations are doing on their sites. Some congregations use their sites to enable people to sign up for activities. Some enable online giving. Some have member-only pages, where members can log in and view directories of members, notes of board meetings, or enter into post-sermon discussions. Some have photo galleries where members can post photos from congregational activities. One Web site I viewed had more than 11,000 photos of a variety of congregational activities.

Blogs—originally called Web logs—by pastors, rabbis, and other religious leaders are becoming more common. A blog can be used like a diary, recording responses to specific events or issues on particular dates. A blog can also be more like a weekly or monthly newsletter column by a pastor or rabbi. They can be set up to allow responses by readers or not.

The possibility of responses by Web site visitors is a significant emerging issue. Web site technology is becoming easier and less expensive to use, enabling a variety of kinds of responses. Some Web sites have online polls on the homepage, where Web site visitors can register their opinions about a topic. These polls generally have multiple-choice answers, so the range of answers is limited. Other congregations enable Web site visitors to respond in an open-ended way.

Some congregations are experimenting with online forums, where people can respond to each other. Blogs can also be structured to post people’s comments automatically without any editing by the blog writer. This raises questions of appropriate content for congregational Web sites. Will people post comments that are destructive to the congregation or individual members? How important is the free voicing of opinions on a congregational Web site? Do comments need to go through some sort of editing process before being posted? Congregational leaders need to make decisions about these issues.

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”<sup>1</sup> 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 o
f 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.

The Internet is becoming increasingly significant as a means of communication, particularly among the younger generations. As of late 2007, more than 70 percent of the people in North America used the Internet. One study showed that 16- to 24-year-olds spend more time online than watching television. If we are serious about welcoming younger generations into our communities of faith, we need to pay careful attention to our congregation’s presence on the Internet. With the Yellow Pages increasingly moving online, it makes sense to have a well-thought-out Internet presence. And if we are serious about wise use of resources, we can’t ignore the many ways a well-designed Web site can serve a congregation.

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NOTE
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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What’s Out There: A Sampling of Diverse Congregational Web Sites

Congregational Web sites come in a variety of styles. For a sampling of this diversity, take a look at these sites:

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Questions for Reflection

  1. Who creates your church’s Web site? What are the advantages and disadvantages of the way you currently do it?
  2. Does the visual communication on your congregation’s Web site mesh with the verbal communication? Do both accurately represent the values of the congregation?
  3. Look at your congregation’s Web site through the eyes of a newcomer to see if all your immediate questions would be answered. Look at your site through the eyes of a member seeking sermon downloads or information about events.
  4. How “slick” and professional do you want your Web site to be? Do you want to modify secular advertising and marketing techniques in some way to reflect your values?

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