As distasteful as it is to me, the facts are that, in 21st-century United States, there are many aspects of “doing church” that have business-like elements to it. There are parts of that I don’t like. Sometimes, for instance, I don’t like electricity, or having to worry about water heaters, or having lyrics on a screen, or even accompaniment. Not that I think any of those things are wrong; I certainly don’t. But I do wish at times that we could just cut the fluff, forego the cosmetics, and worship the Lord, pray together, hear from God’s Word, and go home edified. But unless we’re intentionally taking a primitive approach to our corporate assemblies, that simply is not going to be a reality for American Christians in 2022. The raw facts are that if you have a building, a payroll, and an electricity bill, you’re going to have to have some legal and “business” things in place.
One pseudo-dynamic of that is the age-old reality of visibility: if they don’t know you exist, they can’t visit you.
On the one hand, it is necessarily a factual dynamic of human existence regardless of endeavor, era, or place a person lives. It doesn’t matter if you’re offering a good or a service, or if you’re trying to do work that you are sincerely convinced is ultimately and finally spiritual and eternal (like planting or growing a church). If your endeavor is ultimately for people (as opposed to a private exercise purely for self-enjoyment), the reality stands: if people don’t know it exists, you won’t have buyers, or visitors, or members, or whatever.
The apostle Paul himself recognized this fact, which is why his evangelistic efforts were spent not merely in the major cities of the ancient Mediterranean world, but in the temples, the synagogues, and in the public squares. He took advantage of the opportunities that were available to him to make his message as “visible” to as many people as possible.
On the other hand, I say “psuedo” not because of anything that is actually false, but because the game has changed in the modern world even if it has happened in a way that we do not like or that was not expected 40 years ago. In Paul’s day in the ancient Roman world, the public square was literally the public square—or some other centralized social meeting place. But in a technological age, the public square is now the internet. Meeting halls, pubs, squares, forums, temples, synagogues—those are not where 21st-century Americans are going to find resources and exchange ideas.
Like it or not, they’re going online. And if a church is not online—just like if a business is not online—by default, in most cases, it is going to be functionally non-existent.
I have a pastor friend who I got to spend some time with recently, and at the end of our time together, he emailed me a link to his church’s website and asked if I would be willing to take a look at it and give him some thoughts. I did, and since my thoughts really have to do with questions and issues that are directly relevant to thousands and maybe millions of churches in the U.S. and across the western, developed world, I thought it would be a good idea to share those thoughts here.
Without further deliberation, here are four questions that a church should think about when they’re considering a new website design or redesign.
It is a fact of human existence regardless of endeavor, era, or place that if people don’t know you exist, you won’t have buyers, or visitors, or members, or whatever.
1. Does our church even need a website?
It’s a legitimate question. Just like not every business needs a website, not every church is going to need one.
I have a friend back on the California Central Coast who’s owned a flooring business near San Luis Obispo for almost 50 years, and I don’t believe he’s ever spent a dime on business cards. While he does have a website, it’s clearly very old, I doubt it gets any meaningful traffic (I would be surprised if it gets 100 visitors per month), and it certainly isn’t any kind of important lead generator for his business. Knowing him and his business like I do, I don’t think he has any plans to change course anytime soon. And yet, his business has been incredibly successful for a long time, and he drives a Jaguar and has a Bentley in his garage.
In other words, he doesn’t need a website. Or business cards.
It’s a legitimate question, because not every church is going to need a website.
In the same exact way, just as not all businesses need websites, not all churches need websites. My friend’s flooring business is a great example of that. Now, he has certainly had to make some form investment—whatever the form of that investment might be—in order to establish some visibility. There is no question about that. He’s had clients because people know he exists. If no one knew he existed, he wouldn’t have clients. There was a time when people did not know he existed, and there was a time later on when fewer people knew that than who know it today. And that’s only come about as a result of doing the things that are necessary to being visible.
And yet, whatever his investment in visibility may have looked like, it has never looked like having a website in any meaningful sense.
So, does the church even need a website? Some churches do because they simply would not have sufficient visibility any other way. But not all do, so it’s a legitimate question to consider.
2. What purpose does the website ultimately need to serve?
Assuming your church does need a website, this is the most basic, most important question that needs to be answered. Why does the website need to exist? What does it need to do? Who is it ultimately for? How does it ultimately need to help the church and support its work?
Most churches—just like most businesses—have a website because “that’s what a church (or a business) is supposed to do.” However, the reality is that, unless a church’s website is intentionally serving some definite purpose, it’s very likely not going to do anything at all.
So, we ask the question again: What does the website need to do? What is its role in helping the church fulfill its purpose for existence?
Does the website need to rank highly in internet searches so that people can find it online? Not all churches need to be found online, even churches who do actually need a website. Does the website need to be a tool for communication with the church, or as a ministry resource for the edification of your own people? It is important to think about why the church needs a website and what it really needs the website to do.
3. What does the main message need to be?
Several years ago, I was working on a site for a church back on the coast whose pastor was a graduate of The Master’s Seminary. During the initial strategy phase of the project, I asked him this question: What does the main message need to be? His answer, sadly, was what I suspect is the answer that most pastors would give. He said, “It needs to say that we’re a welcoming church.”
I say that his answer was ‘sad’ not because it’s not important to be a welcoming church. In fact, I suspect that a person would be hard pressed to find any church anywhere of any stripe that does not at least give theoretical assent to the importance of being welcoming—but that is precisely part of the reason why ‘We’re a welcoming church’ is so deficient as a primary message. It’s so generic, so ubiquitous—and so expected—that it is essentially meaningless. It’s like, I ask you how you want your coffee, and your answer to me is, “In a cup.”
So, to gently challenge the pastor on his answer, I simply asked him what he cares most about and what his core convictions were. And he said, “The preaching of God’s Word, of course.” “That,” I said, “is what the main message needs to be on the website.”
The fundamental rule of communications—”communications” being the field of branding, marketing, design, promotion, etc.—is singularity and clarity of message. In other words, you get a split second, maybe three seconds, to say the one thing you want observers to know, and it needs to be said in a way that is clear (i.e., effortlessly intelligible) and compelling (i.e., it appeals to people and draws them in). In other words, the most important thing you want people to know needs to be immediately and effortlessly clear to users.
But if what’s most important is either not obvious or if it’s irrelevant to me, then I’m not going to stick around to investigate. I’m going to move on to the next thing that both makes sense and that appeals to me.
If what’s most important is either not obvious or if it’s irrelevant to me, I’m not going to stick around to investigate.
I am a Christian, and I personally am concerned that any church I attend is a faithful church, committed to God’s Word, and prioritizes the accurate preaching of the Scriptures. So if I go to a church’s website, and all I can see is that it’s a church but nothing else is obvious—I don’t know what kind of church it is, or what they really care about, or what their core convictions are, or how they’re different from any other church out there—if none of that is immediately obvious—and the website is poorly designed on top of that—I am going to be very unlikely to do any further investigating. I’m simply going to close out my browser window, and keep looking for a church that says something that I care about.
The main thing—the most important thing you want people to know—needs to be front, center, and immediately clear. Again, take my own church’s website as an example. What we care most about is obvious: the simple, straightforward, no-frills preaching of God’s Word, verse by verse, book by book, week in and week out. And the really exciting thing is that people who care about that are the ones who respond. Sometimes they’re “seekers” in a biblical sense—people here in our community in whose hearts God is working, and they are developing a sense of need for substance and truth—and sometimes they’re people with a ‘seeker-church’ background who have been disappointed for years by the irrelevance of “relevant” preaching that doesn’t take the majesty, sufficiency, and authority of God’s Word seriously.
But wherever they come from—and they are coming!; our little church has more than quadrupled in less than three years and we’re looking for a new facility because we’re quickly outgrowing our current one—wherever they come from, they come because they’re looking for substance, and substance is what we clearly say that we’re about.
4. What do users of our website need to do?
What’s the main “call-to-action”? In an ideal world, what would every single user of this website do before leaving our website. That is the question, and it naturally follows the main thing, the main message.
Take, again, the example of the Firm Foundation website. Our core conviction is that the faithful, accurate, regular preaching of God’s authoritative Word is the local church’s supreme God-given priority, so that is the main message on our website, and the main call-to-action naturally follows: ‘You should listen to sermons.’ So, the main call-to-action throughout the website—typically in the form of a great big red button that says “LISTEN TO SERMONS”—is ‘listen to sermons.’
This same dynamic holds true for every organization, whether it’s a business, a nonprofit, or a church; if we were an online store, for example, we’d want people to make a purchase; if we were a doctor’s office, we might want people to make an appointment; iff we were a charity, we’d probably want people to donate; etc., etc.
Effective websites start by having a clear answer to this question: In an ideal world, what would every single visitor to our website do before they leave our website?
5. Does our church’s website need a sermon library?
This may seem like a no-brainer in most cases, but it really is something that needs to be consciously addressed. It’s not always obvious to pastors or church leaders that sermons should be available on the church website.
For instance, Sinclair Ferguson is one of my favorite pastors to listen to. He’s faithful, pastoral, instructive, encouraging, and challenging. And within our circles (at least my circles; that is, theologically-conservative, reformed, New Testament Christianity), he’s one of the most well-known Bible teachers in the world. And yet, his former church’s website does not have a native sermon library, and in fact they could get away with not having a sermon library at all. They use a third-party platform, SermonAudio.com, to host their sermons, and they have an archives page through SermonAudio that is fully capable of handling all of their sermon-library needs. A church could very easily take this route and not have an on-site sermon library at all.
However, we would say that if the preaching of God’s Word is a core aspect of the life of your church, your website really should have a sermon library. And, we would add, that if one of your church’s website’s main goals is to be a resource hub for ministering to your own people as well as for reaching others (as my own church’s website is), then I would recommend keeping the sermon library on the church website and not on an external platform.
If you’re going to do it, it’s worth doing right.
Without question there are thousands, maybe hundreds of thousands of churches all across the country who are laboring to be faithful. They believe in the absolutely sufficiency of the Word of God. They believe in the priority of God’s Word faithfully and accurately preached. They believe in the purity of the church, and in laboring to see the Lord’s people growing in grace, and they take Christian truth and biblical living seriously.
They have exactly what people all around them are looking for, some of whom don’t even know it. But those people have no idea those churches exist. And in all likelihood, unless they happen to drive by their building (or see the sandwich board sign they put out in front of the school auditorium on Sundays), they never will.
I became a believer when I stumbled across R.C. Sproul’s radio ministry on my way to work one day. I had no idea who he was, but I was so blown away by the substance of the things that he would talk about, and I remember thinking to myself, ‘This guy makes every thought I’ve ever had sound like a lie.’ And in the Lord’s mercy I was brought from death to life through him, and I grew like a weed over the next several years by consuming all the R.C. Sproul I could get my hands on.
And here’s the kicker: I found R.C. Sproul on the radio because he invested in visibility. He made the necessary investment so that knuckleheads like me could stumble across his radio ministry and find myself at the foot of the Cross.
I found R.C. Sproul on the radio because he invested in visibility so that knuckleheads like me could stumble across his radio ministry and find myself at the foot of the Cross.
Growing the church is not a business endeavor, and it’s not all about numbers, not by any stretch. But, because of the way that God has providentially designed his world—someone has to sow and water if there’s going to be a crop—growing a church does to some degree depend on the basic human dynamic of the reality that people can’t visit your church if they don’t know it exists.
But if you’re going to invest in visibility, make sure you’re asking the right questions and factoring in the right things beforehand.