To many pastors, explaining the unknown mysteries of God seems easier than understanding the mysteries of a successful church website.
How a Website Works
Despite what we have been told, websites are quite simple to understand at their most foundational level. A website is simply a collection of files grouped together and then linked to one another. Think of your church website as a binder full of papers about your church, a welcome packet, in fact. Here is the challenge: Someone wants that welcome packet at 3 AM on a Thursday. Will you drive right over to give it to them? Of course not, but your server will!
Websites can be a pricesless tool associated with the total ministry of your church.
This is called hosting a website. A website hosting company simply leaves the server turned on 24/7/365 so that when someone asks to see your website files (the equivalent of the welcome packet), the server sends those files to them.
This brings us to how people can find these files on the internet. They need only know your website’s domain name. A domain name is simply a shortcut to an address. Every server has an address, sort of like your home has an address--you live on a street with a number in a particular city and state. The postal code helps to narrow down the location. When we want to send you a letter, we need to know that address. If we don’t know the address, we can look your name up in a directory. Knowing your name helps us to find the address.
Wouldn’t it be great if every time someone sent you a letter, they simply wrote “Pastor Jody” on the envelope? This is what your domain name accomplishes. A server address can be a lot harder to remember than a street address, and there is no directory you can look it up in. However, people need not know the server address; they just need your domain name. It’s the equivalent of sending that letter to “Pastor Jody.”
That is all there is to any website ever created. A collection of files configured to show the information you want to convey. A server waiting patiently to send those files out to anyone asking for them. And a domain name so that it is easy for people to request the files. Everything else in this article will build on this foundation.
Before you ever begin thinking about the creation of a church website, the church needs to define the purpose for the website. Many churches build a website because they “need” a website. Let’s make something very clear: No church needs a website; however, a church website can be a priceless tool associated with the total ministry of your church. The purpose of your website is very important for its effectiveness. One thing to avoid is trying to make your site an evangelistic tool. It is much easier and more effective to make your site friendly and welcoming--like your church! One primary goal of every church website should be to get people to visit the physical church. Once people have arrived, let God’s people take care of the needs of the lost.
One primary goal of every church website should be to get people to visit the physical church.
Another note on the purpose of a website: A church website can and should be an integral part of the ministry of your church. Putting up a website without the total backing of the church board, ministry leaders, and church finances will guarantee its failure. A church website done right is just as important as a safe nursery or a good sound system. There is a mistaken assumption that websites should cost almost nothing and deliver miracles; this is simply not possible. However, with the right support, leadership, and prayer, a $200 website can be just as effective as a $10,000 website. (Read the pop-out on this page about “The Cost of Free.”)
From a technical perspective, there are many issues that can easily bog you down, especially if the advocate for your new church website has strong opinions as to what is the best technology. Without getting to deep into the pros and cons of each technology platform, let’s take a look at some of the best practices and others to avoid.
The first thing to avoid would be an all flash website. While these sites can be impressive and beautiful, they are also very costly to maintain, especially if the volunteer who built them becomes unavailable once they are up and running. Small flash components in a website can liven up a site without being costly.
Also, make sure your designer delivers a CMS (see pop-out on “Definitions”) with your completed website. A CMS makes everyday changes possible for yourself or someone else in your church, even if you have no knowledge of the coding language. Avoid designers who say they do everything by hand and hate CMSs. Such sites are costly over time and almost impossible to maintain by today’s standards even if the designer is always available to do the work.
A page for each ministry
Contact info on footer
Service times on every page
“What to expect” page
Listen for your prospective provider to use phrases like “we use open systems,” “you can host anywhere,” and “you own all designs and content.”
The design of your church website can be the most costly. Remember that a good designer is extremely valuable but also expensive. You can save money by using a pre-built template with slight modifications. However, if a unique design is important to you, just be prepared to pay a higher price for it. Your goal should be to have an attractive site, but do not show your designer a website like one of the Big 3 automakers and say you want something similar for $500, when one of those sites probably cost 100 to 1,000 times that amount to build.
As a side note, I am of the opinion that the vast majority of church websites look hideous; yet, in spite of this, people still find these sites and they still visit the churches. Design is important, but good content is even more important, so let’s turn next to content.
The content on your website includes text, images, videos, downloads, and whatever else you decide to place there. The most important part of the content on your site is the CMS. Some features you will want to ask your CMS provider about include easily modifying content yourself with a password, auto-expire content, and whether you can move the CMS to another host if desired. If you cannot get a “yes” to all of these questions, then search for another CMS provider.
An out-of-date website is like a filthy restaurant.
Additionally, make sure that content is easy to delete or that it will auto-expire (auto-delete) when an event is over. If your homepage is still advertising your 2008 Christmas pageant, you are unknowingly telling your potential visitors that you do not care about the little things. An out-of-date website is like a filthy restaurant. Would you want to visit?
Finally, there are a few things that every site should have, as well as a few extras you can grow into.
Finally, there are a few things that every site should have, as well as a few extras you can grow into as you have the time and budget. (See the pop-out on this page to review a list of “must-haves” and “grow-intos.”) Let’s look at the budget for your website.
The budget for your website should be decided by what you can afford. Use the information in this article to find a provider who will take care of your needs within your budget. It is important not to hide your budget from your provider, especially if the provider has extensive experience working with churches. This will help them to stay within your budget while planning what you will need for your website.
You can expect to pay anywhere from $5 to $90 to have your site hosted, depending on what is included, and can realistically expect to pay about $400 for setup and design. More extensive designs can make your site as costly as $2,000 initially, with some providers charging no startup fees at all (these usually have exorbitant monthly fees, however).
Social media links
Never go with a free host who puts advertisements on your site, especially if you do not have control over what the ads say. This can lead you into ethical dilemmas from which it may be hard to recover!
When choosing to move forward with a website, it is important to have the right partner available, one who will provide the support needed to make the website a success. Usually there are two ways to achieve this: the first is to have a volunteer do everything and take care of all costs; the second would be to hire a professional design and hosting company and call them with any changes. My position would be that both of these options are bad. Instead, you should look for a professional design and hosting company that will partner with you and your volunteers in an effort to make the site more effective and reduce costs.
Make sure they can show you designs that look different from one another. It doesn’t matter that the designs they show you are all church sites; just be sure they can present a variety of design styles. Also, make sure they are willing to modify their services in order to fit your budget. They should offer some kind of archived online training that is available when you need it. In addition, it is a great benefit if they provide initial training within a month after you sign up. This will help you get up and running quickly. Most companies also offer ongoing free email support and paid phone support.
Having your site built, hosted, and maintained by the same company is not the only way to build a website; however, it is usually the best way to add stability to your website long-term. As outlined above, just make sure you can move your CMS and website to another host if desired, that the provider you choose provides support (free and paid), and that they are the experts you and your volunteer can email or call when there are questions or problems. Most of all, your provider should be a partner in your ministry. (Read the pop-out, “The Cost of Free,” for more information.)
Server = a web server is a computer that sends website files to people who request them through the internet. Host = a hosting company is a company that runs web servers. They typically charge a monthly fee.
Domain Name = an easy-to-remember address that is used to tell others where to find your website.
CMS = Content Management System, a tool that lets you change your website without knowing computer coding.
Designer = a person or company who can construct a website to both look pleasing and make sense structurally.
Provider =typically a company that provides both design and hosting. Their hosting is generally more expensive, but they include more ongoing services then a standard host.
The Cost of Free
Many pastors, especially those in smaller churches, believe they can save money by allotting only the bare minimum for a website. The expense of a website can be quite reasonable if done correctly. It can also be a money pit, however, if done incorrectly. There are thousands of church websites that have been built by well-intentioned volunteers; unfortunately, the vast majority of these sites are severely lacking.
Using volunteers is the perfect solution.
A great website takes the input of experts in at least two fields of study to complete: a designer and a programmer. Using your volunteers is the perfect solution to save expenses. The best way to utilize your volunteers, however, is to hire a provider who will partner with them. This will allow your volunteers to do what they do best, while the provider does the rest. As mentioned in the article, if your provider also provides support and training, then the provider will always be there even if your volunteers are not.
With anything in life, you get what you pay for. So, budget.
With websites, as with anything in life, you get what you pay for. So, budget money for your website, utilize your volunteers to reduce costs, and plan for the day when your volunteers will no longer be available to help. For the small church, the easiest and cheapest way to do this is to hire the right provider.
Read Part 2 of this series - Web Development for Pastors 201: Maintenance