Effective Church Websites

Larry Witzel Evangelism Practices, Marketing Practices

Turning Your Church Website into a Powerful Evangelistic Tool

A couple of months ago, my daughter and I visited a college in Tennessee. She’s a high school junior and worship leader at our church, so we like to get out and visit other churches whenever we can and experience other church cultures. On this trip we were there all weekend, so we decided I would pick the church to attend on Sabbath morning, then she would pick a church to visit on Sunday morning, too. I wanted to experience worship at a regional church, while Zoey wanted to go someplace with a good contemporary worship band.

What’s the first thing we each did? A Google search, of course. And as we were searching online, I had this aha moment.

We’ve had a church home for many years, and I haven’t gone searching for a church to visit in a really long time. I had one shot to find the right church, to find the experience I wanted, and the primary means I had to find it was Google searches, leading to church websites.

As I looked at various church websites, I found that very few of them were actually communicating with me as a potential guest. I needed to know the basics:

  • Time of service
  • Location
  • We were still in a Covid-19 wave, so I wanted to know the masking policy

But I also needed more than that. I was looking for a specific type of worship experience, and I had one shot. So I wanted to see a photo of the worship service. I also wanted to know how to dress to fit in with the culture of the church, so I wanted to see people in the congregation in addition to the worship team.

In the end, on Sabbath we visited the Orchard Park Adventist Church in Chattanooga. Now, I’m comfortable in church, but I have to admit, it’s intimidating walking through the doors of a new church for the first time. So getting to know that church a little better through their website helped me be a little more confident walking through those doors.

Same thing for my daughter. Both churches we visited clearly communicated the church culture through the design, content and visuals of the website. Again, we had one chance to find the church experience we sought, and that website was the primary way we got to know churches in the area.

Today we’re talking about church websites, but before I get into the tactics of an effective church website, let’s talk strategy for a moment.

Uncertainty Reduction Theory

To understand what needs to go into an effective outreach website, let’s explore the psychology of church guests. In our last webinar, we talked about how God created humans with the innate need to belong to community, and one fundamental reason people come to a church event, whether it’s a worship service, a Bible study, or a community event, is because they are seeking to fulfill this fundamental need to belong. We are social creatures, and although church of course has a theological component, with a vertical relationship with God, church is fundamentally a social experience, featuring horizontal relationships between humans.

But humans are uncomfortable with uncertainty. When people think about walking through the doors of a strange church, filled with people they don’t know, this can cause anxiety. Today social anxiety is one of the chronic mental health challenges of this age, so we need to do whatever we can to lower the anxiety of our guests. The framework I want to suggest is called Uncertainty Reduction Theory.

Part of this anxiety is the uncertainty of how a social interaction will play out. A guest might wonder, if I don’t wear a tie will people treat me differently? Or what if I do wear a tie, but no one else is? Will people be talking in King James English, or using strange vocabulary I won’t understand? Will I be criticized because my clothes smell like cigarette smoke? Will I get cornered by someone trying to “save” me?
In a social setting, people are constantly assessing the environment and predicting how a conversation will flow, because uncertainty is uncomfortable.

Uncertainty Reduction Theory tells us there are several things people do to reduce uncertainty (Brashers 2007). When you meet someone for the first time, there is a cultural ritual we go through, and a big reason for that ritual is to reduce uncertainty. When I shake someone’s hand, look them in the eye and say, “Nice to meet you,” I’m reducing their uncertainty about how our interaction is going to go.

Okay, so what’s this got to do with church websites? Online research is another strategy people use to reduce uncertainty. The primary purpose of your website is to reduce your guest’s uncertainty. The pictures on the website should show people in the church environment, allowing the guest to pick up visual clues about the culture. What are they wearing? How are they interacting? The language on the site should reflect the culture of the church. If you’re a conservative church that uses the King James Version in your service, your website should reflect that. If you’re a church with a contemporary worship service, have a picture of the worship band to show the culture. The website should be authentic to the experience guests will have.

Let’s be clear: your church website IS communicating to guests. It says something about who you are and what you’re about. A lot of church websites are simply saying, we only care about our members, because the site is filled with bulletin announcements and insider speak. Or it doesn’t have anything specific about that local church, just a little something about Seventh-day Adventists in general. What does that communicate to guests who visit your website? Does it make them feel valued? Does it do anything to reduce their uncertainty?

The primary purpose of your website is to reduce your guest’s uncertainty. They should get a feel from your website of what they can expect to experience when they walk through the doors of your church.

What Goes into an Effective Church Website

Okay, enough theory. Let’s talk about what goes into an effective church website. Whenever you are creating a communication piece you want to think about who the audience is. Neil Gordon wrote, “Effective communication preferences the recipient over the sender,” so think about who your recipient is for your church website and what they need.

There are 3 primary audiences for your website: guests, members, and leaders. All 3 groups have unique needs, and they also share some needs, too.

Guests

Let’s talk about guests first. Guests are looking for answers to some basic questions:

  • When do you meet?
  • Where do you meet?
  • How should I dress?
  • What can I expect when I get there?
  • How can I reach someone if I have a question?

For guests, your primary objective is reducing uncertainty. Communicate who you are, to help them decide if your church might be a good fit for their spiritual needs. Then give them a feel for what they can expect, to help lower the anxiety of walking through the doors of a strange place.

I believe church is meant for those who are not yet part of it, so your website should speak to them first.

Members

Now let’s talk about members. Most member questions have to do with upcoming events and activities.

  • What was that thing coming up?
  • When is that thing?
  • Where is it happening?

Some other questions they might have include:

  • What are some ministries that I can get involved in?
  • Who do I contact to get involved?
  • Can I give tithes and offerings online?
  • Can I submit prayer requests or praises online?

Leaders

The last audience is your group of leaders at the church. The primary question leaders ask is about logistics and scheduling:

  • Who is doing what this weekend?
  • What was the decision we made about that thing?
  • How are we doing financially?

For several years, my church’s website had a private login area with documents: board minutes, financial statements, the latest nominating committee report, the church directory. As a leader I found that incredibly helpful.

A church website can speak to all 3 audiences, but you have to be really careful about how you do it. Take a look at our demo website that I think balances this pretty well. Please note, this is not a real church, only a demonstration of how we believe an effective church website is structured: Prairie.church

Prairie.church Example

Some things to notice on this website’s homepage:

  • Right at the top, it speaks to guests, with a prominent link to a page specifically for guests.
  • There are lots of pictures that showcase the people and culture of the church.
  • There are several ways someone can respond immediately, with links to submit prayer requests, praises, and kudos.
  • For members, the schedule is prominently before the top section.
  • A complete list of recurring weekly events is found at the bottom of every page, along with a map showing where the church is.

On the page for guests, there are several things to note:

  • The primary purpose of this page is to reduce uncertainty for guests, so it goes into great detail about what to expect on a Sabbath morning.
  • If your website is going to be evangelistic, you have to assume guests have no background with Adventist culture. So on this page some key phrases are explained, such as “Happy Sabbath,” “Sabbath School,” and “Sabbath School Quarterly.” This is intentional, so the guest is prepared to encounter terms when they visit.
  • More photos reveal the culture of the church.

Roles in Building a Website

Let’s talk briefly about what’s required to actually create a website. This is true for any website at all, and it’s also true for church websites. There are four different roles that each must contribute to constructing an effective website. The first website I built was 27 years ago, for La Sierra University, and I’ve worked on literally hundreds of websites since then. What I’ve found is that for a website to have maximum effectiveness, all four of these roles must contribute to the end product:

  1. Vision. Someone needs to articulate what the website is trying to accomplish and passionately drive the vision forward.
  2. Technical skill. Someone needs to be able to handle setting up a hosting service and building the technical framework of the site.
  3. Communication skill. Someone needs to be able to write the copy on the website in a way that communicates to your audience.
  4. User experience, or design. This has to do with site navigation, buttons, and the photos and design elements that are used.

Most people can contribute to at least one role, sometimes two. There are a few really gifted people in the world that are capable of filling all four of these roles. HOWEVER, each role uses a different part of the brain, and transitioning between each role has a pretty high switching cost. Because of this, one person CANNOT fill all four of these roles concurrently. It’s just not possible. Believe me, I’ve tried. The only way it works is to spread it out over several days or weeks, working on one role at a time, then giving recovery space before working on a different role.

But really, the best websites are created by a team whose members each fill just one of these roles. That’s how we do it here at SermonView when we work on websites.

Using Google Ads to Get Seen

Okay, so you’ve got a relevant, up-to-date website that speaks to guests. That’s nice, but how do potential visitors find that website? Of course, they’ll find you on Google.

There are two ways your website can appear in a Google results list. One is what’s called an organic listing, and the other is paid advertising.

Organic Listings

Google builds its database of web pages by going out onto the internet and looking at every page it can find. Once a page is in its database, it checks back every few months to look for any changes. If a website has frequent changes, like a news site, it will check every few hours, or even every few minutes. But for a typical church website, Google updates it every few months.

The system looks at the content of each page and puts it in its database. Then, using a proprietary algorithm, it decides which websites to display for any given search, and decides in what order to show them. It considers your location, other websites you’ve visited, and your recent searches to try to ascertain what you’re actually looking for, then it gives you a list of websites that it thinks will be most relevant to you. It’s pretty amazing technology, because it happens really fast.

There are things as a website owner that you can do to make your website more friendly to search engines. This is called search engine optimization, or SEO. There are companies you can hire to help you optimize your website, using keywords, meta tags, and a bunch of other tricks. But it can take years for SEO work to make a difference, and even then it’s fragile. We’ve had websites with a #1 or #2 rank for a specific search suddenly drop to page 3 or 4 when Google updates its algorithm, which it does frequently.

If you can do it, great, but it takes considerable effort and ongoing attention to be successful. There are companies you can hire to handle SEO for you, but we’re seeing low-end SEO services costing $250 per month, $3,000 per year, and going up to $3,000 per month and beyond. They are expensive and none of them will guarantee results.

When we build a website here at SermonView, we think about SEO and make sure the content is SEO-friendly. But we don’t do active, ongoing search engine optimization ourselves, and we don’t recommend you put effort into it. The payoff just isn’t worth it for a church website.

Paid Advertising

So if SEO isn’t consistently effective, what can you do? That’s where Google advertising comes in. With Google Ads, you can bid for placement at the top of a particular search. You decide which keywords and phrases should trigger your ad, you can restrict it geographically, and you have full control over what that ad says. And because the searches related to your church are fairly specific and infrequent, this can be a really cost-effective way to get seen.

Some keywords you should advertise on include things like:

  • Your church name
  • Adventist church in your city name
  • Adventist church near me
  • Church near me
  • Sabbath church near me
  • Sabbath school near me
  • Bible study near me

You should also have articles on your website about some specific Bible topics, then purchase advertising for relevant keywords that direct to these pages. For example:

  • Sabbath
  • What happens when you die
  • Second coming
  • Bible prophecy
  • End time events
  • Healthy living
  • Body the temple of God

You can also purchase advertising on Google maps, so when someone searches on maps your listing comes up first. This is important, because 1 out of 8 Google searches are directly in Google Maps.

Now, if you were to hire a Google ad agency, you would pay similar rates as SEO. The cost starts at $300-500 per month just for the management fee and goes up from there, plus the actual Google advertising costs. But we’ve been able to get that cost much lower, which I’ll talk about in a minute.

Laura’s Story

So does advertising make a difference? Let me tell you about my friend Laura. She grew up Seventh-day Adventist but had gotten disconnected from church moving around as a young adult. She moved here to Vancouver, Washington, and shortly after that move decided to connect with a spiritual community. She searched “Bible study near me” on Google.

My church was running ads, and we showed up in Laura’s search results. The crazy thing was, she wasn’t even looking specifically for an Adventist church, she just wanted a Bible study. But there we were in the results, so she clicked through to our website. One thing led to another, and today she is fully engaged in the life of our church, serving on the Sabbath morning tech team and participating in a weekly Bible study group. I saw her just last Sabbath, launching a new young adult ministry with some of our other young church leaders.

Does a church website make a difference? Yes. Does advertising that website make a difference? Yes.

Laura found her church on Google.

Last month, over 100,000 people searched on Google for the phrase, “churches near me.” And over 50% of church attendees say that a church’s website is important in picking that church for a visit. Your website is the online welcome mat for the community, and it needs to speak to your guests.

SermonView’s Service

I know updating your church website is a big undertaking, on top of dealing with Google advertising and keeping the website up to date. Creating a website requires those 4 roles we talked about: vision, tech skill, communication, and user interface skills. It’s time and talent that most churches just don’t have. Hiring even a part-time person to handle this will cost you $15 to $20 thousand per year, and so will hiring an online agency to do it.

So let me tell you what SermonView will do for you.

Google Ads

First, we’ll create a localized Google ad campaign that covers the basic searches related to your church: variations of your church name, church near me, those types of searches. We’ll also make sure you’re placed correctly on Google maps and get that location information up to date, then include maps in the ad campaign. On top of that, we’ll cover some additional keywords, like Sabbath, what happens when you die, Bible prophecy and end time events, with these pointing to specific pages on your website with content related to the topics.

If you were to outsource this, the management fee alone would start at $3,600 per year, and could be as much as $10,000 per year. I know small businesses that spend over $1,000 a month, $12,000 per year, on Google advertising. This is all covered in our solution.

Website

But advertising only gets people to your website, and we’d like you to have a strong, guest-friendly website. So we’ll also build you a new website that’s focused on helping your guests reduce their uncertainty. Remember those 4 roles we talked about for building a website? We’ll guide you in discovering your vision for the website, help you with the communication role, then completely cover the technical skills and user interface. We’ll give your website a fresh new look that’s mobile-friendly. Plus, we’ll include features specifically for members and leaders, too.

If you were to hire a website company to create this type of site, it would run you $5,000 or more, and it would require you to help them understand the unique needs and vocabulary of a Seventh-day Adventist church. But we work with Adventist churches every day, and we’ll build this website for you as part of our program.

Hosting

Plus, because of our partnership with Adventist Church Connect, you’ll save money on website hosting. Quality, high-uptime hosting will cost you $500/yr or more, but the North American Division covers this cost for all Adventist Church Connect websites. Because our solution is built on ACC, your church doesn’t have to pay for any hosting costs.

Content management

With ACC, you’ll have access to make updates to your website anytime you want. But we’ve heard from a lot of churches that they don’t want to have to deal with this. So we’ll take care of content management for you. If you have a change you want to be made on the site, just let us know and we’ll do it for you. Send us your weekly bulletin, and we’ll put it on the website each week. Content management is included in our program.

Email management

On top of that, we’ll manage your email, too. We’ll set up your website domain to work for email, so you can have email addresses like pastor@oasislive.org, or secretary@oasislive.org. We’ll set up G Suite for Nonprofits for your church and manage your email system on your behalf. Need to add an email address for someone? Just let us know and we’ll take care of it for you.

Hiring a company to handle your email management could cost $3,000 or more per year, but we include it with our solution.

If you hired an employee part-time to do all this, it’s going to cost your church $15,000 – $20,000 per year, and even more if they’re proficient at it. You’ll have to manage them and direct their time usage, which can be a distraction for you.

Working with web agencies to handle this, you would pay $14,500 minimum for the first year, plus at least $9,500 per year after that. Besides this, you’ll have to manage the contractors and help them understand the unique needs of a Seventh-day Adventist church.

With SermonView’s Complete Plus Church Solution, we’ll handle all of it for less than the cost of hiring basic SEO services: $2,495 for the first year, then $1,995 each year after that. In addition, we’re focused on Adventist churches, so you don’t need to explain what Sabbath means, or why you want “Bible prophecy” as a keyword.

You’ll get Google advertising for your church name and churches near me, you’ll get advertising on Google maps, plus you’ll get additional keywords pointing to specific pages on your website. You’ll get a brand new, beautiful website focused on your guests, designed to reduce their uncertainty and draw them through your church doors. You’ll get free hosting through our partnership with Adventist Church Connect. Plus, we’ll handle content management for you, so you just send us the changes and we’ll handle it. And we’ll also manage your email system, so you can use the same domain for email as the church website.

All that for $2,495 for the first year, then $1,995 each year after that.

It’s a great program that we’re excited to be able to offer your church, and I hope you’re able to take advantage of it. To sign up, or to request more information from one of our campaign managers, visit EvangelismWebsites.com. Or you can call us at 800-525-5791.

I have a heart for the local church, and I’ve worked on hundreds of websites over the years, including many church websites. I’m just so excited that our crew has been able to put together this comprehensive solution for your local church that covers everything you need. Visit EvangelismWebsites.com, or call us at 800-525-5791.

Wrap up

That’s our webinar for today! The SermonView crew would love to help you turn your church website into an evangelistic engine that helps propel your mission forward. If you’d like to talk with someone about our church website services, please contact us, and someone from our team will reach out to you soon.

References

Brashers, D. E. (2007). A theory of communication and uncertainty management. Explaining communication: Contemporary theories and exemplars, 201-218.