It’s easy to get overwhelmed in the cereal aisle.
The Cereal Aisle has become for me an object lesson in American consumerism and individualism. And the way those two ‘isms’ travel hand-in-hand through the world to (a) give us endless choices regarding every single thing, and (b) make us think that our very lives, or at least our core identities, depend on how well we make those choices.
It doesn’t have to be the cereal aisle. It could also be the car lot, the shoe department, the endless chatter of competing cell phone carriers, or the place where you choose to worship.
Yeah, I heard it.
For better or worse though, the matter of finding the “right” faith community has becoming a shopping trip, just like every other choice we make in putting our lives together. And while choosing a church is hopefully a more meaningful and lasting decision than picking a brand of shampoo, the many varietals of faith practice available to the average American these days makes the “choice” every bit as much a consumer exercise as strolling through the department store.
The idea of shopping around for a church would have sounded absurd to our grandparent’s generation. I mean, you go to church where your folks went, what’s the question? And if you move to another town, you stay loyal to the brand. You just find whatever branch of your family’s chosen denomination is in that town, and you show up and sign a pledge card. What’s hard about that?
These days, the range of size, worship style, theological belief and—increasingly—ideological position means a person might move through dozens of Sunday morning worship experiences before finding The One that is right for them. That’s dozens of parking lots to navigate, bulletins to decipher, bathrooms to find, coffee blends to sample, and pastors to interview. (And BELIEVE ME, some people seriously do want to interview the pastor, in the most literal sense.)
Anyway. It’s rough out there, I get it. It takes guts to venture into a new place for the first time, to meet new people, to make yourself vulnerable and to take a chance on spending an hour of your life in a worship service that, let’s face it, might just be terrible.
That’s why most folks do their church shopping online these days. Before they give away an hour of their lives and put themselves through the emotional obstacle course of being a guest in worship, they will first cruise the church website. They want to know as much as they can about the facility, the experience, and the childcare situation before they ever leave the house.
Can you blame them? Church can be weird.
This vast buffet of belief and practice is probably not the “religious freedom” our Founding Fathers had in mind. And yet, here we are. I suppose the shopping around situation is better than the blind, sometimes rote faith of previous generations. Still … when “shopping” for one’s faith community is the accepted cultural norm, it’s an interesting time to be on the “sales” end of things. Many church websites were initially designed with existing members in mind, featuring mostly ‘what’s happening this week’ kinds of information, insider language, and, you know, an update on so-and-so’s prayer request for their sister’s neighbor’s cousin’s cat.
As usual, the church is trying to answer a hundred questions nobody’s asking.
In preparation for my own church’s long-overdue digital overhaul, I’ve been asking real actual people, “What are the first three things you want to know when you visit a church’s website?” Y’all, people have some feelings about this. And some definitive answers. And while the responses were varied, nuanced and complicated, I’ve narrowed it down to the three big things people need to see on a first site visit. Forget deciding to come visit you for an hour—if they have to look too hard for these points of info, they won’t even stay on your website for 15 seconds. (Real-time, about how long it takes someone to decide whether to read on or click through. NO PRESSURE). The main three questions can be boiled down to:
When do I show up?
Why should I care?
Read on for more on each front …
1. Who are you? Let’s see real faces of real people on the front of your website. They should be clear, engaging, high-quality images, but savvy shoppers can smell a stock photo from a mile away. Just, don’t. Show images of your people engaged in worship and service; children’s activities; and provide information about staff and leadership in no more than two clicks. These images, along with whatever welcome and identity statement appears on your front page, should easily answer questions not just about “who” the church is, but “who” belongs here. Are LGBT people welcomed and included? Are women present in leadership? What are your age demographics? Etc.
2. When and where do I show up? Don’t make a dang Easter egg hunt out of listing worship times on the website. Since worship is the first point of contact for most new folks, put the times front and center. Ideally, alongside some info about the style and tone of service. Seriously, people want to know what to wear. You can say “come as you are” all you want, but first-timers ain’t buying it. They’ve been to far too many places that say that and don’t really mean it. Tell them enough about the service so that they can make a choice for themselves about what to wear, and walk in the first time feeling comfortable. In all things, empower with information. If parking might be tricky, include instructions about parking. Overshare on all things child-related. Nursery, Sunday school, check-in and check-out procedures, etc. The more comfortable people are with the semantics, the more likely they might actually show up in person. I know several churches have a ‘first-visit’ video on their website. This is a brilliant (and simple) way to literally walk people through the experience, from the parking lot to the coffee pot. So by the time they actually show up onsite, it won’t feel like their first visit at all.
3. Why should I care? This is the heart of the thing, isn’t it? Some statement or image, in some prominent spot on the landing page, should clearly state why the church exists and why a new person should bother sharing an hour of their time with you. This is where you offer a glimpse of your mission and purpose, and more importantly, a clear invitation for a visitor who might be looking for meaning, purpose and connection. Can you give them that? Say so.
This sounds like a lot for a first page to carry … But really, we can say so much with just a few intentional images and a few choice words. Especially if we invest heavily in the weight of those first impressions and stop trying to answer things nobody is asking. Skip the long ‘statement of belief’ pages and pages of history, endless acronyms and denominational code words. Once we stop trying to sell the thing nobody wants to buy, we will be in business.