The changing ways churches use websites

Since moving to Alaska 15 years ago, I’ve seen Anchorage’s faith community rapidly adopt digital media — especially in the past five to seven years. Some churches have been slow adopters, a frustration to those who stay current with technology. Others have rushed headlong into digital media trying to adopt everything in sight with no clear strategy for doing so. A few churches have meaningfully adopted digital media, adeptly providing clear benefits to members and visitors. This column today explores the growing importance of one type of such media — church websites — locally.

Church websites provide basic church information and are an important digital medium. A 2012 Duke University study found only 55.7 percent of U.S. congregations had websites. Today, it’s estimated that closer to 60 to 65 percent have websites. Even in Anchorage there are a number of churches without websites or with only a minimal presence via a mention on their national denominational websites. Churches without websites, nationally and locally, tend to be smaller, and fewer in members.

Three years ago, Grey Matter Research in a study of church website use revealed a number of key findings. They noted three types of visitors to church websites: those who attend that church, those who regularly attend services but at other congregations and those who do not attend services regularly in any congregation.

What church website visitors look for is revealing. Most frequently (43 percent) they look for times of services. Twenty-nine percent are looking for activities offered, such as youth groups, studies or events. Twenty-eight percent looked for maps or church location. Twenty-six percent watched streaming video, and 26 percent listened to streaming audio. Twenty-two percent were checking out the church’s beliefs, 18 percent were requesting prayer and 15 percent downloaded a podcast. The study authors noted that the most basic items looked for, time of worship and location or map, were missing in approximately half of the church websites checked in sample areas of Memphis, Tennessee and Grants Pass, Oregon. The same is true in Anchorage. I’ve written about it many times.

The study also noted that, in the previous 12 months, more than 17 million adults who do not regularly attend worship services visited the website of a church or other place of worship. In other words, if churches don’t do a great job on their websites, they won’t be found or visited — both a huge challenge and wonderful opportunity.

I’ve visited and written about St. Benedict’s Catholic Church several times. From the first time I looked at their website (www.stbenedictsak.com), it made sense. Commonly sought items are there, on their main website page: service times, location, youth ministry information, bulletin and homily podcasts are all there and constantly up-to-date. Also included are statements about what they believe. It’s clean, functional and certainly satisfies demand for the commonly searched information noted previously. It does not have all the bells and whistles some contemporary Christian churches add to make their websites look extremely modern.

Another church website providing much of what website visitors look for is Baxter Road Bible Church’s (www.baxterroad.org). It’s clean, high-energy and refreshing. Recently updated, it provides worship times, location, sermon replays and information about activities, all on the first page. Like St. Benedict’s, BRBC also allows members to contribute online. This rapidly growing church has used their website to provide much of the same information for years, but have changed the look and feel to enhance its utility.

Cornerstone Church (www.akcornerstone.org/) has maintained an excellent, current website for years. They are also one of the few churches that allow visitors to watch recent sermons. If a website doesn’t offer watching, a church might still provide a way to listen to a recent sermon. A growing number of Alaska churches now offer apps for the iPhone or Android platforms. Cornerstone’s app offers the ability to listen to sermons or download them. Some church apps only allow you to listen. Few church apps currently offer the ability to watch sermons. I’ll deal with the benefits of church apps in a future column in this series. Clearly, apps are a powerful tool, for much more than just listening to sermons.

If you are a prospective visitor looking for a church, I suggest looking for the following things on church websites. First, look for location and service times. Driving is time-consuming and costs money. Try to locate a congregation that might satisfy your needs in the immediate vicinity. If you do become involved in that church, you are more apt to enjoy a wide array of activities if you live closer to it. That first visit is also a lot closer so you’re more apt to go. Next, peruse their statement of beliefs, which should be located on their first page or one click away from it. Does it align what you are looking for? A virtual visit might be a good next step. You should be able to listen to or watch a recent sermon. Sermons are important as they occupy one-third to one-half of the time of an average church visit.

The churches and websites mentioned above illustrate a cross-section of churches in Anchorage that offer the information on which visitors can rely when seeking a church. There are many churches not offering enough quality information through their websites to allow potential guests an opportunity to assess them for a visit. No slight was intended by not mentioning other churches. I believe each of the mentioned churches do a great service by providing quality websites for potential guests, and for their members. The aforementioned study addressing members says, “Among online Americans who attend worship services once a month or more, 28 percent have visited their own congregation’s website in the last thirty days, 44 percent have done so in the past six months, 57 percent have done so in the past year, and a total of 68 percent have done so at some point while attending that place of worship.”

Happy churching!

Chris Thompson is a religion scholar who visits local churches and writes about his experiences and matters of faith on his blog, Church Visits.

The views expressed here are the writer’s own and are not necessarily endorsed by Alaska Dispatch News, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a piece for consideration, email commentary(at)alaskadispatch.com.

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