The New Front Door of the Church

“Siri: can you please find a phone number for Don Reis?”  It was last fall, I was at a meeting out of state, and I needed to contact Don about a matter related to our Africa University Ubuntu Gathering Center project.  I had received an iPhone 4S the week before and was becoming acquainted with my new best friend, Siri.  Don’s number was not programmed in my phone, but within 10 seconds Siri gave me his cell phone number. 

It’s a new world, and I have to admit it’s kind of fun.  I am not a techie and have always used technology as a tool for ministry rather than for personal enjoyment.  I don’t play games or watch movies, play Scrabble with people around the world, or see how many apps I can download.  But I do use Gas Buddy to find the cheapest gas, go to the West Michigan Conference app, read my Facebook News Feed, check in for flights with my Delta app, and quiz Siri when I am bored. 

“Siri, will you marry me?”  “We hardly know each other,” she usually replies.   I’ll never be able to keep up with the latest technology, but I am continually learning new ways to get the information I need.  I have found Siri to be especially helpful.  Siri is a virtual personal-assistant application for my iPhone.  Siri is able to recognize conversational speech and responds by giving me a weather report, scheduling meetings, emailing colleagues, setting my alarm, giving directions, and even finding Thai restaurants!   

It’s Friday night, and I’m deciding where to attend church on Sunday morning.  I ask Siri, “Find Wesley Park United Methodist Church, Grand Rapids.”  Before I can even blink, I’m on the website and know that Wesley Park has worship services at 8:00, 9:15 and 10:45 a.m.  Then I click the “I’m New” button where I read a welcome from Pastor Dean Prentiss and have my most important questions answered before I choose to walk through the door for the first time.  “Who are you guys?” What’s Really Important to You?  When Do You Get Together?  Is There Anything for My Kids?  How Do I Find You Guys?  How Do I Get Ahold of You?”

I’m feeling comfortable about what to expect when I arrive, a map is right there on the home page, I like what I read about the church’s ministries, and I already feel connected with the pastor.  I’m sold.  I’m heading to Wesley Park on Sunday morning.

Every congregation in The United Methodist Church has a new front door.  It’s the Internet.  People don’t use the yellow pages to find a church anymore, nor do they glance at the church ads in a print version of Saturday’s newspaper.  They’re not going to drive around town looking for the most attractive church building, either.  Potential guests to your church will most likely google for churches in their community and check out their websites.  If your web site is ugly, outdated, neglected, or amateurish, discerning church shoppers will likely pass you by before ever setting foot in the real door of your church. 

I remain convinced that personal invitation is the best way of attracting new people to your church, whether that invitation is to worship, join a small group, or participate in an outreach project.  But even the friends, family members, co-workers, and neighbors that you invite will likely also check out your church’s website.

Siri is my new best friend.  She seems to know everything – except how the General Conference vote on restructuring general agencies will go, which district churches will pay 100% of their ministry shares (apportionments) this year, or what new appointments will be announced this week.  My new second best friend, however, is John Warnock, who is our Communications and Technology person for the Grand Rapids District. 

John recently did a study of the websites of all 69 churches in the Grand Rapids District.  Church websites serve 3 functions.  They provide information for members, such as what the hours are for the blood drive, what the scripture and sermon title is for Sunday, and how to sign up for a Lenten small group.  Websites also connect members who are not able to attend church.  Shut-ins, those recovering from surgery, and members living out of state can read or listen to sermons and keep up to date on church happenings.  

The third and arguably most important function of a church website is to be a portal for people who are looking for a church home and/or are seeking to become disciples of Jesus Christ.  After all, that’s our mission as United Methodists, isn’t it?  John analyzed each of our district websites from the perspective of 7 questions that visitors ask: “Where is the church?  When do you worship?  How can I get there?  What do I do when I get there?  What do I do with my kids?  What is your worship style?  What is your message?”  Believing that guest-friendly web sites make information easy to access, John then created a spreadsheet by using these criteria:

  1. Does the church have a web site? 
  2. Do they have a Facebook presence that is evident on the web page?
  3. Do they have a Twitter presence that is evident on the web page?
  4. On what page does the church appear when “(city) Michigan churches” is googled?
  5. Do they have a photo of the church on the home page, or is it just a click away?
  6. Do they have a “Welcome” or “I’m New” link for a visitor’s page?   
  7. Is the home page information current and maintained properly?
  8. Are there written directions or a map on the home page, or is it just a click away?
  9. Is the worship service/style described on the home page, or is it just a click away?
  10. Do they offer sermons, podcasts, or videos?
  11. Do they have an email address?

Each church received one point for a “yes” to every question, except for the google search criterion, where 5 points were awarded to churches whose web sites were listed on page 1 of the google search for their city or town.  Churches listed on the 2nd page received 4 points and so on.  No points were awarded for churches not appearing on the first 5 google search pages.

What did we learn from this informal survey? 

  • Out of a possible 16 points, 2 churches had 12 points.  Not surprisingly, they were the 2 largest churches in the district.
  • The next 4 churches had 10 points and were not necessarily the ones we would have expected, except that 3 of the 4 were new church starts within the last 15 years. 
  • 25 of the 69 churches had no web site that John could find.
  • 2 churches have a twitter presence on their website.
  • 16 churches have a church photo on the home page or a click away.
  • 9 churches have a Facebook presence on their web site.
  • 9 websites have a visitor button or link.
  • 11 churches have directions on the home page or a click away.
  • 8 churches have either a sermon schedule, video of worship, or a description of worship on the home page or a click away.
  • 10 churches offer sermons texts, videos, or podcasts. 
  • All but 3 churches have email.
  • Only 12 web sites have current and up to date information on the home page  (one home page announced that “the Father and Son Banquet will be held on April 20, 2009”)

What are we to make of this information?  According to John, if the Internet is the new front door of the church, his informal survey shows that the door is either locked, stuck, or forgotten, or we’ve barricaded it. 

All clergy and lay leaders must ask these questions:

  • How important is our web site to the health and vitality of our church? 
  • What do we want to communicate to those who access our church web site?
  • Are we willing to invest as many resources in preparing guests to enter the virtual front door of the church as we do in welcoming guests when they enter the actual front door?
  • Can we identify youth or other tech people to create simple, clear, and inviting web sites, even for the smallest churches?  It’s a great way to involve youth in the life of the church.
  • Can we design our web site so that the church secretary can update and maintain it? 
  • Can we create district pools of tech volunteers who can build web sites for smaller churches that don’t have any built-in expertise? 
  • If we are proud of our church, and our web site is a tool for evangelism, why don’t we invite others to check out both front doors?

Siri can get me into the new front door of Wesley Park UMC via their web site.  What Siri can’t do is get me to the front door of the sanctuary on time.  It’s Sunday morning, the snow is coming down hard, and I don’t allow enough time for drivers crawling along at 10 miles an hour, so I arrive at the front door 5 minutes late.  However, the door is opened by a cheerful greeter, and I am given a large-print bulletin (the regular size bulletins are already gone) by a gracious usher.  I settle in for a wonderful, transformative worship experience just as the web site led me to believe. 

Blessing,
Laurie

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