Thursday, October 08, 2009

Read and Learn -- Web Sites and Visitors

I am pretty thoroughly churched. I have been a member of the same Presbyterian Church since I was baptized there as an infant -- and I'm no spring chicken. Usually when I am out of town I either don't go to church or I go somewhere on the spur of the moment and don't bother trying to scope it out in advance. For some reason this last weekend was different.

I knew I was going to be out of town on vacation. I told Google maps to search the area around my hotel for the word Presbyterian. I found a PCUSA church .2 miles from my hotel. I went to the web site -- pretty normal. I decided to go to Sunday service -- and then I started having questions.

I thought it might be interesting to post some of those questions here. The first question I had was what the church looked like. Since I was walking to it I wanted to make sure I would recognize it. There was not a single picture of the outside of the church on its website. There were some interior pictures, but not really of the church. There were pictures of events and people at events with a little of the church in the background. The sad thing is that this church is visually very impressive. Also, it is one of the few older churches I have been in that were renovated in the '50's without just screwing up the old stuff. I found a street level view on Google maps which showed me where I was going. In my opinion this chuch would be well served to discreetly put up pictures that do a little showing off.

Second, I checked the Sunday School class listing. Frankly, the class descriptions were written for people who already go there. Even as a long time member of an Adult Education Committee, I would have had a hard time deciding where I would be comfortable walking in.

The course descriptions were really irrelevant, however. This is a point that I am raising with my church's web mistress, by the way. If I had known exactly which class I wanted to attend, I couldn't have just shown up there. I couldn't have found it. They did include a room name for each course description -- but no map. Now, I challenge you to stand outside of a strange church and decide which door to enter to find Fellowship Hall or Pastor's Study. I realize a lot of people won't be comfortable putting a map on a web site. So, why not say something like, "Map showing location of classrooms available inside this door."

The Church's website very thoughtfully told me to expect a beautiful, traditional service at 10:45 -- and it was right. It also mentioned another service earlier that morning, but only by the name of the service. I haven't a clue what to expect if I showed up for that, and since I still don't have a clue, you can figure that nothing made me curious enough to want to find out.

Another problem that my Church shares is that the web site is static. The web site was built to last with few regular updates. Particularly for websites created in local software that have to be republished every time a change is made, this makes a lot of sense. In the days of web-hosted development software and collaberative web sites (think Joomla -- look it up), a static web site doesn't make as much sense anymore. During the service either the Pastor mentioned, or it was printed in the bulletin, that the Church has a Facebook page. Clearly, Facebook is going to be used to enable easy web activity. Except that you can't anonymously check out a Facebook page -- ok, you can; but not nearly as easily as you can scope out a web site.

Also, I got a very clear idea in my mind's eye from the church website and's congregational statistics that this was an aging (and possibly dying) congregation. I was surprised at the number of younger people. I was also surprised by the amount of activity in the church community. The image that the web site created didn't match the image I found when I arrived -- and the image I found was much more appealing.

Speaking of arriving, I got there early (in part because it didn't take me as long to get there as I thought). I was not the first person in the Sanctuary, but if I hadn't been a life-long Presbyterian I would not have found a bulletin. The ushers were not in position, and the bulletins were not in plain site.

I also found a reference on the web site to the fact that I was going to be there for World Communion Sunday. I also found a reference to a decision earlier this year that this Church would be celebrating Communion the first Sunday of each month. So, I knew from two sources that this would be a Communion Sunday. Nowhere on the web site (although it was announced by the Pastor) did it mention that the Communion table is open to all Baptized Christians. If I hadn't known that I might have chosen to go somewhere else for fear of not knowing the rules.

On the Sunday morning schedule on the web site it did mention "Fellowship" after the 10:45 service. I assumed that meant coffee and donuts, because I'm a Presbyterian. It actually meant coffee, punch, donuts and cookies. Coffee should always be made clear and cookies deserve to be advertised.

I must admit that being a life-long Presbyterian I was not surprised that no one sat down on my pew after I did, and although several people shook my hand and smiled at me during the Greeting/Passing of the peace -- whatever you call it; only one person introduced herself and showed any interest in who I was and why I was there. This was not a large Congregation. Everyone in that room knew I was visiting. Also, I went to the Fellowship Hall (which the Pastor very helpfully pointed out the door to during the service) for coffee after the service. I milled around a sparsely populated room for 15 or 20 minutes while drinking a cup of coffee. Not a single person said hello to me. That is not a criticism of this church by the way. I doubt the results would have been different at my church.

I hope that no one feels I am being unfairly critical of this particular Church. I have been careful not to name it or identify it in anyway, because I don't think that these criticisms are of this Church. I think that most PCUSA web sites have a lot of the same weaknesses. That is why Grace and I agreed to deviate from our usual topics to post this. We were hoping to start some discussion (or at least thought) about what our respective web sites say to the world and if that is the message we want to broadcast.



robert austell said...

I appreciate this post. Based on your comments, I'd even go so far as to say the church you visited is in the upper 10-25% of PCUSA churches in having their act together towards visitors. (!)

I'd strongly encourage you to send your post to the pastor... with all appropriate disclaimers that it isn't a complaint. I think your post is gracious and helpful, and I'd love to get a sympathetic visitor's input like this.

Robert Austell
Charlotte, NC

Sarah said...

As another lifelong Presbyterian who now routinely visits Pres. churches while on vacation when possible, I look up churches in the general area ahead of time to select ones to visit. I have been both put off and drawn in by their Web sites.

I also have been known to offer feedback to the church after my visit as to how I was treated and what things would be off-putting to many visitors--things that probably would never occur to them.

And several were so great that I would join those churches in an instant if I ever move to those areas!

B-W said...

I'm a big fan of making things easy for non-regulars (without dumbing down theology or liturgical practice! I just mean giving clear instructions). Your post reminds me that there's nothing like visiting a new congregation to highlight those things that we just take for granted and assume that people already know. Thanks for that.

I'm also of the opinion that very few churches properly update their web pages (let alone post sufficiently complete information on them).

Rebecca said...

I always find the approaching visitors issue difficult because honestly on the first visit to a church I would just as soon not have to talk to too many people about being a visitor. I am like this is stores too - I get anxious if the clerk is "too helpful" before I have approached them with a question. So I always wonder how to balance the needs of people who would like a more social greeting with those like myself who would be happier to just observe for their first few visits.

DennisS said...

Yes, PCUSA congregations aren't doing well in being visitor and web friendly.

Our congregation has a static website which is more of web presence so that those doing a search can find us. We are in a town of about 3000 in a very rural area.

The outside of the building is pictured. Times are listed, including the "Coffee Fellowship". A map and directions are offered, along with pictures from various events.

We don't offer a calendar, but we do offer an email address, as well as phone numbers for the church and the pastor.

The web presence is so that people can find us if they move to town and are specifically looking for us. Visitors generally return, and those that do say we are friendly--that we greeted them, offered to share more about the activities of the congregation, took them cookies, etc. Some appreciated the sermon, the nursery, the wheelchair accessibility, that there were people their age, etc.

There is so much more we could list on the website, but that has not been our focus.

I did a brief survey of other congregation websites in the area, and I see that we really need to get on the stick. We really need some newer web software so that we can update it easily. Any recommendations?

robert austell said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
robert austell said...

DennisS, while I'm sure you can quickly find 20 different opinions, I'd argue that static/traditional websites are ineffective and out of date.

I believe we successfully use a blog to present a church "web page" in a way that is a little more dynamic, is free (!), and is easy to update.

I set it up myself, and anyone (session committee chairs, staff, group leaders) can update with authorization - even by just sending an e-mail to the blog address.

Here's ours, with several parallel blogs (with same template) for separate program areas.