How to kill your church by misusing the internet (church websites, part 3)
As a friend of mine says sometimes, the church isn’t dying. We’re killing it. And too often we’re doing a pretty good job killing the church with our internet presence.
My first post on what every church website should have got a bit of traction, because quite a few people understand the importance of church websites in evangelism efforts — and how too often we miss the mark. In some ways, this post could be the mirror of the first one, which had positive “commandments” for church websites. Rather than sticking to the negative, opposite, of that first post, I’m expanding a bit to include internet interactions beyond websites. For the sake of emphasis, I do make a couple of points that are repeated from the first blog post in the series. Pardon the repetition, but I’m pretty worked up about a couple of these points.
As I’ve said in the other posts, I do hope you’ll add your voice to the conversation in the comments. I have plenty of opinions on church websites and such, but I wouldn’t call myself an expert. Mostly these posts are intended as gadflies to spur conversation and perhaps action.
How to kill your church by misusing the internet
Provide incorrect service times. One surefire way to get someone never to come to your church again is to have them arrive at 10:00 on the Sunday you decided to have a “combined service” at 9:00 but didn’t bother to update your website. This is a great way to ruin someone’s experience of your church. It’s so common that I mentioned it twice (maybe more) in the first post in this series. And, sadly, this is the easiest one to get right. Tell people when you have Sunday or other services. Tell them the correct time. If you don’t bother to update your website as service times change, then people will show up at the wrong time. It’s guaranteed to happen. It has happened to me when visiting churches. It’s ugly. Don’t do it. (And, by the way, it’s really not a good idea to muck around with service times in the first place.)
Lie. Tell people you are child-friendly when, in fact, your speciality is laser-beam death glares to struggling parents. You’ll never see those families again. Tell people you are a “growing and thriving church” when you haven’t baptized anyone unrelated to a current member in decades, and your Average Sunday Attendance chart looks like the graph of tire pressure after hitting a nail. Look, the truth is always the right answer here. You don’t have to say “we’d love to welcome you because otherwise our ASA will go down 4% this year,” but there are plenty of great things you can say about your church that are true. Say those things. Set honest expectations. Guests want to know you for you are, and I am quite sure you have plenty to offer.
Don’t respond to communication from guests. We’re straying outside the realm of websites here, but this is an important one. If someone emails you a question, you need to answer it in a timely fashion. “We just moved to town and we’re looking for a church. Do you have programs for children?” That’s an email you’ll get. If you don’t answer it, or answer it a month after it was sent, that family will be long gone. The same applies to your social media channels. If you have a Facebook page or a Twitter account, make sure someone is looking at those accounts every single day, 365 days a year. By maintaining a social media presence, you are implying that you’ll respond to what happens there.
And on a related note. Don’t be racist in your replies or lack thereof. Back in 2015, I blogged about a study of responses to emails sent to various denominations. Each email purported to be from someone looking for a church, and the name used in the return address was correlated to a particular race. So the names sounded white, Black, Latino/Hispanic, or Asian. The study tracked the response rate, and, what do you know, white-sounding names got a higher response than others from most churches. You can look at the data yourself. The Episcopal Church didn’t fare well here. We should be answering 100% of all emails and communication from seekers, regardless of race, because Jesus. That’s kind of the point of, you know. having a church.
To continue the digression. I found it deeply disturbing that the responses to my blog post ranged from “well, others are more racist than we are, so it’s not so bad” to “surely there’s a flaw in the study, because we’re the least racist church you’ll ever see.” Look, our beloved church has a serious racism and race problem. My blog post also points out demographics indicating that we are far more white than society. So when someone says, “Hey, Episcopalians, I noticed you are racist,” our response must always be “Lord, have mercy on us. How can we grow into the full stature of Christ and see him in all people?” End rant.
Use your social media to cajole people. I’ve seen church Facebook pages on which the posts read something like this. “No one signed up for coffee hour. If we don’t have someone for Sunday, there will be no coffee hour!” or “Who can volunteer to mow the lawn this week?” or “We still need you to return your pledge card, since we’re $50,000 short of funding our budget!” Who wants to like that page or go to that church? Passive aggressive Facebook messages are not the way to get someone to sign up for coffee hour. A better way to invite people to work on the grounds is, “Our grounds committee will be outside this Saturday to beautify our church. Come join us, make new friends, enjoy some scones, and savor God’s wondrous creation!” And stewardship isn’t about your budget, nor is Facebook likely to get that pledge card turned in. Social media are ideal for community-building, formation, and sharing good news (and Good News!). Use them for that purposes.
Make your church invisible on the internet. For at least ten years now, nearly everyone who comes to your church for the first time will have Googled it. For many of your guests, the only way they’ll even know your church exists is that you have a web presence of some kind. So if you don’t have a website, you don’t exist. Not bothering to have a website is pretty much the same thing as locking your doors on Sunday morning and providing keys only to members. You might as well close up now, because you’ve decided that you are a club and not an outpost of the kingdom of God, whose job is to proclaim Good News and to share God’s love. Jesus didn’t say, “Go ye therefore into all the world, but keep my church a secret.” Have a web presence! In the first post, I suggested some important things to have on your website, and in the second, I gave you some suggestions for where to start if you want an inexpensive website.
We Christians — Episcopalians and otherwise — have a precious gift to offer the world. We have hope. We have purpose. We have the love that changes everything. Keeping God’s love to ourselves is tragic for us, for our church, but mostly for those who do not know God. Keeping the transforming, abundant life of Jesus Christ to ourselves goes against every single thing he taught and showed. And in our world, if we are going to share the gifts we have been given, we need to find effective ways to do this online. St. Paul wrote about being all things to all people, and that means meeting people online.
Please do share your own stories of church-killing internet here in the comments, or, better yet, your stories of transformation because a church got it right.
Image from flickr user freakography.