Test-Driving a Church
By: Kevin Duke
John and Mary Jones were pleased with what they had seen in the church. The building itself was pleasant, well kept, and in a nice area of town with plenty of parking. After viewing the inside of the church, they felt like it would be a house of worship in which they could be comfortable and edified. Even the church program was presented in a way that really resonated with them. The congregation was diverse. There was a nice mix of generations, yet a fair number of people about their age. The church offered a variety of activities and social events, as well as a range of ministry opportunities that excited them. They liked the sound of the minister's voice and the content of his sermons. New to the area, they really believed this might be their new church home.
Mary looked at John with a hopeful expression. She said, "Well, what do you think? Shall we go there this coming Sunday and see for ourselves?"
John moved the mouse and clicked on the Schedule page. "I think that would be a good idea," he said. "Look, they have 'Coffee and Conversation' starting at 9:30."
While the above scenario is fictional, it illustrates a practice that is increasingly common. It used to be believed that curb appeal - how the church front looked from the sidewalk - was a big factor in attracting new members. Today, the Internet is increasingly used by people who are shopping for a church home. With a wide range of churches to choose from and a common fear of getting stuck in an uncomfortable place, more and more people are using church Web sites to test-drive the church to see if it looks like a good fit for them.
Web pages are, more and more, the "New Front Door" for churches. Several polls show that more than 70% of Americans now use the Internet, which is unique among mass media in that it allows two-way communication. Web sites that are done well can provide a feeling of being in a real relationship.
Businesses caught on to that concept quickly, and churches followed. There are actually Internet-only churches. LifeChurch.TV, out of Oklahoma City , has used the Internet to branch out into 10 physical locations in addition to the Internet "campus."
But for this article, we will stick to the concept of a church's Web site helping to increase the number of live visitors and prospective new members.
The anonymity and easy access offered by the Internet is making it much easier to approach a new church for many people. Web viewers can maintain their distance from a church before they decide they want to visit in person and show up on a church's radar.
Randy Renbarger, of Perimeter Church in Duluth , Georgia , said, "People are leery nowadays. The world is a scary place unless you can filter it through a comfort zone, and the Internet is a comfort zone. You can get all of this information before you even cross the threshold."
Using the Internet before crossing the church threshold reduces prospects' fear (fear of offending someone if they choose another church or, worse, finding someone ringing their doorbell, pressuring them to return.) Further, people are investigating the church's doctrinal foundations, and they are seeking a comfortable cultural fit. Internet shopping can provide this key information, while avoiding uncomfortable pressures and wasted time.
What sorts of church Web sites work the best? It is easier to say what does not work.
In the early days of the Internet, many businesses posted what became known as brochure ware, or emulated a printed brochure on their Web site. This seemed a quick way to have a Web presence at minimal cost. Brochure ware generally was something posted online and rarely updated. The bad news was (and still is) that such sites totally miss the power of the Internet and project an image of an institution that is not dynamic and not working toward interacting with customers (or people in general). The relationship part of the Internet only works if the site acts like a living entity, interacting with the viewers and rewarding their interest and activity, the most fundamental level being the collection of contact e-mail addresses.
Response time is critical for a church Web site, just as it is for a business. If you have a contact address, that e-mail address has to be monitored and e-mails responded to on a regular basis. One rule for business sites is if the viewer cannot get a reply from a real person in 24 hours or less, it is better not to have a contact link. Auto-generated replies stating, "We have received your message and will get back to you" help, but the "getting back to" is a make-or-break point for what kind of impression the church will leave on the prospective visitor. (A good site will list church telephone numbers, office hours, etc., as well).
The point here is that if people are interested enough to engage with your church after test-driving your Web site, then it is imperative that the church responds with immediacy. Prayer requests are being made with e-mail more and more often, and such things certainly mandate a thoughtful and prompt response to the person in need of prayer.
Aside from the communication process, a church Web site needs to project an image of the church as a vital, dynamic organization with a lot to offer. Weekly schedules are another critical component:
* What is happening in the church the other six days of the week?
* What sort of volunteer efforts are currently underway?
* What scheduled events have had a change?
* What sort of news items have been added since last Sunday's church program?
* Are there schedule changes because of last night's snowfall?
Such things can be of considerable value to the current members of the congregation, as well as project a positive image to prospective members.
Web site blogs are becoming a more common component of Web sites as a tool for sharing ideas and information. However, Web sites are not limited to the printed word. Churches can create podcasts of sermons or workshop activities, giving prospective visitors a real view of the church's mission, message, and beliefs.
You might be saying to yourself, "Nice, but we don't have a full-time Web programmer to keep up with all this." That is a valid concern, with viable solutions offered by innovative church management software providers. While the actual construction of the site is still a place for professionals, today's software can make keeping the site regularly updated as easy for non-programmers. Some programs offer this capability while performing other powerful tasks for the church.
Depending on the size of your church and the amount of updating you will do, there are products in the church market that will make managing your Web site and other communications much easier and more successful.
Enterprise systems, or all-encompassing church management systems, handle your database and inter-office business (such as accounting) as well as offer Web authoring tools that put many of the keys to a successful Virtual Front Door right into your hands.
If you choose a Web-based system, meaning access is possible from any Internet connection, it will streamline the communication between the office staff, pastoral leadership, outside ministries, and other vital participants. If all of this information can be tracked centrally and securely, you're less likely to have something slip through the cracks. Interaction between church staff, congregation members, and prospective visitors can play a vital role in making people feel both engaged and welcomed by a church.
It is important to point out that almost all of the features and activities mentioned above are also of great value to existing members. Your efforts are not only outreach oriented. These things help keep the church an essential, healthy community with all the onsite activities that members seek, encouraging even greater participation.
There are an increasing number of "John and Mary Jones'" out there, looking to find a church home. Finding a comfortable fit is a two-way street. It is important to remember that people who are drawn to the style of a church as conveyed by a good (and honest) Web site are more likely to be a good fit for the church as well. An engaging Web presence can be the "New Front Door" to your church, turning casual Internet surfers into active, growing Christians who are a thriving part of your congregation.
As Memphis business consultant Dr. Charles Kenny puts it, "When prospective new members come to 'test-drive' your church, you want to make sure the door is open and the engine is running smoothly."
Kevin Duke is a writer and consultant and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
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