As a member of Generation X, which is still considered relatively young for churchgoing folk, I have occasionally provided some consulting to churches on the development of their Websites, particularly poor, rural, and small congregations. Now, I am by no means an expert in Web design, programming, or online marketing; in fact, my technical skills are woefully out of date. I am sensitive, though, to the importance of having a Website that allows a congregation to put its best foot forward with a very discerning public. Regrettably, I have all too often seen churches undercut their best efforts at growth and vitality by producing a site that looks like it was last updated in 1999. Animated gifs are a no-no. Pages that are "under construction" or "coming soon!" are an abomination. Splash pages are sacrilegious to the sensibilities of current users. In fact, such features are likely to discourage a visitor from visiting either your Website or your church.
The most heinous sin, however, is a home page that bears as its visual centerpiece a picture of the parish's building. I find it odd that members of a church would think that a pic of an empty building would be a big draw for people who are looking for a new congregation. Since joining a church involves at its core forming intimate relationships and integrating into the life of a community, wouldn't it make more sense to showcase pictures of people interacting? When people are looking for a new church home, the questions they are asking themselves as they gaze upon a Website are: "Does this feel like a place where I will fit in? Are there people here like me? Is this a community where I will be nourished and supported?" Obviously, it's pretty hard to answer these questions with a picture of a vacant nave or sterile exterior.
The good news is that more and more folks are becoming wise to this, and are focusing on illustrating relationships, rather than facilities, and I have been fortunate to worship in congregations where this has been the emphasis. A successful Website is foremost about offering hospitality and telling people about who we are as a community, before they even arrive on our doorstep. This is not to say that buildings are not important, but it is more compelling for prospective visitors to witness what the building makes possible instead of existing for its own sake. We need to answer the critical question: Who are the people inside the building, and what happens there? This morning I ran across an article by Jamie Stup on Business2Community, which did not explicitly address church Websites, but was useful in reminding me that a church's Website is the first public experience of a congregation, and so it should be very intentionally designed to make a clear statement of identity and relationship. Stup observes quite insightfully that "whether you realize it or not, you experience a subconscious reaction to the site before you have even read one bit of content. You have a first impression based on the overall look and feel of the site," and this includes, he explains, not only pictures, but even layout, navigation and color.
With this in mind, I have always thought of church Websites as mechanisms for "outreach," rather than "inreach," since people who already belong to our churches are likely getting information on what's going on from other sources than the Website. People who do not yet belong, on the other hand, are going to experience in an instant by every detail of the Website whether they are going to be welcomed. If it's clearly set up for those who are already initiates, rather than people on the outside, then people will rightly assume that they are viewed as outsiders. A Website that articulates that we are going out of our way to reach people where they are and that we are trying to make it easy for them to learn about who we believe ourselves to be says that they are truly wanted. Hospitality even in a Web environment does not place the burden of effort on the other, but on us. It is hardly hospitable to state even implicitly that we expect the stranger to do all the work and to meet OUR expectations for belonging.
All of this reflecting about Websites reminded me of the story in the book of Genesis, chapter 18 about Abraham's hospitality to three strangers. The story opens with the statement that "the Lord appeared to Abraham by the oaks of Mamre, as he sat at the entrance of his tent in the heat of the day. He looked up and saw three men standing near him. When he saw them, he ran from the tent entrance to meet them, and bowed down to the ground" (Gen 18:1-2). Abraham does not know he is greeting God (or his messengers, as it is often read), but is simply observing the custom of the land that required extravagant hospitality to be offered to the stranger and the traveler. Abraham offers to bring water to wash their sore and dusty feet, invites them to rest under a neighboring tree, and then asks his wife, Sarah, to bake cakes, while he and his servant slaughter and prepare a calf for the meal. They fall over themselves to welcome and nourish the hot and exhausted strangers in a way that obligates us, I believe, to practice hospitality extravagantly on our Websites. The reward for Abraham's and Sarah's hospitality is a renewed relationship with God that results in the birth of a son to the barren Sarah and fulfillment of God's promise to Abraham that He will make him the father of many nations, including the Israelites.
The story of Abraham and Sarah at Mamre invites us to attend to every detail of Web-based hospitality that will make what we offer more about the needs of the visitor, rather than our own preferences, needs, and concerns. This focus might well involve minimizing "church speak" that only we as the current initiates will understand, cutting pictures of empty church buildings that we regard as the apex of architectural prowess but will be meaningless to the stranger, and offering navigation and information that will favor the outsider over the insider. It is not easy to shift from our understanding of the church Website as something that is "OURS" to an understanding of it as a gift that we offer to others. But how else are we going to convince people we do not yet know that the welcome they will receive when they meet us face-to-face will be worth the drive or subway ride or walk to our church?