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What Church Websites Communicate about Worship

Part 1 of 2

Q

Our church is redesigning its website and asked for our worship team’s help with including materials related to worship. What advice does RW have?

A

There is a lot of material online with advice about website design—about choosing fonts, shortening the length of written descriptions, using professional-quality photographs, cutting cheezy gimmicks, removing dated material, getting permission to use photos of children or any copyrighted materials, and developing a sustainable plan for regular website updates. I encourage you to search for it.

But church websites also require pastoral wisdom. What I will do here is supplement the standard design advice with several key pastoral and theological themes related to worship that should be considered.

Embrace Cultural Context and Express Multicultural Hospitality

Over the past several years, we have visited hundreds of church websites in our work at the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship. It is wonderful to celebrate the mosaic of cultural differences these sites feature across the spectrum of geographical and denominational contexts. One glance at the fonts, color palettes, and visual imagery from a sampling of church homepages reveals remarkable diversity.

I encourage RW readers to become an appreciator of all this. Try a series of searches for Reformed, Anglican, Missionary Baptist, Mennonite, Church of God in Christ, Methodist, Vineyard, Lutheran, Roman Catholic, and Orthodox churches. Add to that searches for Korean, Mexican, Indonesian, Armenian, Chinese, or Hungarian churches. A visit to a few sites each month can be a remarkable learning experience about the breadth of Christ’s body.

Your church’s site will become one visual testimony in the middle of this online mosaic. What look and feel will transparently represent you? Understanding the diversity of culturally formed visual languages helps us question graphic design approaches that try to make every church’s site conform to a predetermined model or visual vocabulary.

But don’t stop with expressing who you are. Ponder which imagery and texts will clearly communicate a welcome to others, including those from other cultural or denominational contexts or from no church at all. Some sites virtually shout, “We are looking for people just like us.” Others communicate: “We are grateful for who God has allowed us to be, and we can’t wait to see whom God will gather with us and how they will enrich, stretch, and teach us.” If it’s challenging to find subtle ways to say this through photos, then say it explicitly.

Strengthen and Deepen Content Related to Access, Hospitality, and Universal Design

Next, be detailed and clear as you communicate your commitment to access and hospitality. Make it very easy for viewers to see your church location, service times, as well as the locations of parking, restrooms, nurseries, and which doors people typically use to enter. When possible, include a map of your community and your building. If your church doesn’t want an elaborate website, or if you primarily use Facebook for online engagement, at least develop a single-page landing page with your location, service times, and phone number. Without this, you’ll be invisible or inaccessible to many people in your community.

Think about how your congregation provides opportunities for participation and ministry for persons across the spectrum of disability and ability. Make it easy for viewers to see if you have a hearing loop, signing, or access to large-print worship materials. Provide contact information and explicitly invite people to ask if there are accommodations you could provide to make your worship services more accessible.

When possible, communicate all of this visually with symbols of accessibility and photos of persons with abilities and disabilities. Updating a website can be an ideal time to assess how well you are doing at universal design. Website design is not just about expressing who you are. It’s also a strategic opportunity for growth.

Pay Attention to Explicit and Implicit Messages about Worship’s Meaning and Purpose

Often churches have a “what to expect” section geared to help guests by communicating how long services are, describing typical attire for worshipers, and information about the worship style. Here, well-intentioned efforts to make worship more accessible can backfire over time, communicating convictions about worship that end up undermining worship’s meaning and purpose.

For example, instead of saying “Our music is uplifting” (essentially ruling out lament, confession, and petition for the troubles of the world), try instead: “We long for our music to explore a wide range of prayers and emotions in ways that delight and stretch us in our prayer.”

I have noticed recently many church websites that announce how casual, laid-back, informal, and relaxed their worship is. I understand the impulse here to reduce barriers to participation and to reach out to people who find church off-putting. And I understand that often these words are designed also to communicate to the existing congregation to resist a worship culture that is uptight, stuffy, and stale. Yet I also notice how millennials (and many others) interpret words like “laid-back” or “relaxed” to mean that worship is merely optional, probably inconsequential, and likely not to engage in matters of ultimate significance.

How we can convey a deep desire to welcome seekers without undermining the deep purposes of Christian worship?

Maybe we need our websites to include messages like “We long to warmly welcome you into a place that will speak to your deepest longings,” or “We are grateful for how Jesus frees us from the loneliness and burden of being self-centered and leads us into life-giving practices of being God-centered and other-centered.”

Consider this model text from Granite Springs Church in Lincoln, California:

You’ll hear laughter in the atrium, and maybe see a few tears in the sanctuary. You’ll find a worship service that is generous in the use of the Psalms, God’s songbook, reverence for the sacraments, especially weekly communion, and a message of grace from God’s Word. You’ll see older folks sing newer songs, and younger people learning older hymns.

You’ll hear people recite the Apostles’ Creed from memory, as they have done since they were children, and you may hear people fall silent as they think deeply about whether this whole idea of church is for them.

But we hope what you see most clearly is the grace of Jesus Christ. This grace says, “You’re not good enough, so stop trying. You are mine, I forgive you, and I love you. Welcome home.”

I’d love to learn from other models you develop!

This is part one of two. Check out RW 130 for suggestions regarding online giving and the identification of church leaders.