Churches need websites if they want to be welcoming to potential visitors, says Lynne Baab, a lecturer in pastoral theology at the University of Otago in Dunedin, New Zealand and author of Reaching Out in a Networked World: Expressing Your Congregation’s Heart and Soul. Baab conducted extensive research on church websites while earning a Ph.D. in communications and recently shared her insights during an Alban Institute webinar. Here are just a few of the questions she addressed in a follow-up question-and-answer session.

Know Your Audience

Q. If the number one audience for congregational websites is visitors, should the homepage be designed for them?
A. Congregational websites have two main audiences: visitors and members. Both are important and both have needs that can and should be addressed on the homepage. Some of the needs of these two groups are not so very different. For example, in mid-sized to large congregations, both visitors and members need to know whom to contact to participate in specific activities or get involved in church programs, so links to that information will serve both groups. That said, the homepage should definitely contain some information specifically for visitors—or prominent links to such information.

How Many Links?

Q. How many links ought to be on a homepage?
A. The range of links used on actual congregational websites is huge. To some extent, the appropriate number of links depends on the size of the website. For a small website (one with ten or fewer Web pages), a link on the homepage to every Web page is appropriate, but for a bigger website you’ll need to have links on the homepage that take you to other pages providing additional information—as well as more links. I think a homepage should have a menu of some kind with perhaps six to twenty links, depending on the size of the website. Plus there should be a few additional links on the homepage that stand alone—links that relate to the congregation’s highest priorities.

Make Some Links Prominent

Q. I struggle with keeping the homepage active but not overcrowded. What is the second best place for important information?
A. The next best place to post important information is on pages that are linked from the homepage by a prominent link (in other words, not a link that appears only on a menu). This link should be made to stand out in some way, such as through the use of underlining or a larger font, or perhaps by using a photo or other graphic as the link.

Choose Photos Wisely

Q. Is stock photo use OK?
A. One of the purposes of congregational websites is to give site visitors a glimpse into the real life of the congregation. This can be done through testimonies, stories, reports of activities, mission statements (if they actually reflect the uniqueness of the congregation), statements of purpose, etc. But more than any other way, the congregation’s real life is presented through photos. I think using stock photos robs the viewer of seeing what the congregation is really like.

Make It Visual

Q. Many pastors are effective at using words to communicate ideas and values in their sermons and newsletters. But how must we use words differently on a website to be effective?
A. I’ve seen some congregational websites that feature two or three word-filled pages. A few of those kinds of pages can be appropriate and interesting, but in general the verbal text on websites needs to be shorter than the text in other kinds of congregational publications. Homepages, particularly, need to viewed as visual objects, and the whole page needs to be carefully constructed without long verbal descriptions. The verbal text on homepages, and most other Web pages as well, needs to be concise and very carefully chosen.

Avoid a Pushy Tone

Q. I’m still not clear why you’re against imperative verbs. They’re a staple of effective communication. They really don’t seem at odds with Christian culture to me.
A. I’m not against imperative verbs as long as they are not overused. Let me point out two things about them. First, imperative verbs are common in advertisements. Many Christians are concerned that the Christian faith has become one more consumer item. For people who desire to have a website that does not evoke the advertising medium, limiting the number of imperative verbs would be one way to work toward their goal. Second, I have observed a wide variation in the way churches use imperative verbs on websites, and the difference seems to relate to the philosophy that guides their websites. Some churches seem to want to offer a window into their congregation, while others seem to want to urge website viewers to take certain actions (join us for worship, come to this seminar, bring your kids to our mid-week program, give money, grow your faith, go on a mission trip, etc.). A caution: too many imperative verbs can sound pushy, and visitors may be scared away, fearing the church would try to dictate to them rather than guide them gently. There’s nothing wrong with “Join us on Saturday for a seminar on household debt” unless every other announcement on that page begins with an imperative verb. In that case, perhaps you could say, “Saturday seminar on household debt. All are welcome.”

Keep It Accurate

Q. You said it’s not a priority to regularly update/change the website. How much of an issue or turnoff is it if the information on the site isn’t accurate?
A. I believe websites are a key communication tool for our time and that every church should have one if at all possible. The best thing, of course, is for a site to be updated on a weekly basis with sermons, calendar entries, and other information. Putting website maintenance in a congregation’s budget seems like a wise use of money to me. However, if the church doesn’t have the resources to update a site regularly, then a basic website can be created with some visual and verbal information about the church that is not time-specific (perhaps location, a mission statement, some history, and an indication of the central priorities of the church—communicated in both words and photos). It’s vitally important that the website not contain inaccurate information. So, if the site is not going to be updated very often, the homepage could say, “For worship times, call this phone number” (if the church’s answering machine or voice mail message states the worship times). Or, “For worship times and information about this week’s schedule, e-mail this address.” If you opt for this latter approach, be sure to list an e-mail address that is checked frequently.