I have been at University United Methodist Church for just over six years and we are on our fourth website. For some people that might sound crazy. For others, that sounds just about right. The conventional wisdom seems to be that organizational and business websites need to be redesigned every 2 to 3 years. My educated guess is that churches, other than very large churches, do not redesign this often. The exception I have seen is with fairly recent new church starts. They are still nimble enough to change design much faster. Here are some of the reasons we decided to do yet another redesign.
1. Technology and styles change. What looked cool and worked well a couple of years ago may look totally dated and may not work right on some browsers now. I am noticing, as a write this, that WordPress has changed their interface. (Apparently in the last couple of days.) It is simpler and sleeker. A couple of years ago, we didn’t think much about what our website looked like on an iPad, or iPhone or Kindle Fire. I think if a church’s website looks dated it sends a message. The Gospel is timeless, we don’t want to look stuck in time. And if a church’s website doesn’t even work on a mobile device, some people won’t even look at it.
2. Things keep getting cheaper and easier. It wasn’t too long ago that you had a choice when building or redesigning a website. You could either do it yourself and have it look like you did it yourself or you could pay someone to build it and have a pretty big upfront investment. (Unless of course you had a web designer at your church or on your staff.) Now, if you are comfortable with technology or have access to someone who is, you can build a pretty decent website by yourself. We used Squarespace for our latest build. Squarespace uses pre-built templates that make the layout easy. The templates mean that there are some limitations to what you can do. However, I find when working with custom builders, unless you have unlimited funding, there are limitations as well. Doing it in-house also took quite a bit of labor. However, even when working with a web designer, much of the labor of collecting and inputting content can fall to staff and volunteers anyway.
In many cases, hosting is getting less expensive as well. Our move to Squarespace was a significant budget savings. That has freed up money for other technologies like live streaming.
3. Things change within the church. Again, the Gospel is timeless but how a particular church is living that out in its own context can change. It is good to look at your website and ask, “Does this look like who we are now?” Has the church adopted a new vision statement? Has a new worship service or programming emphasis been added? Has the church started using other technology like facebook, youtube or live streaming? Do these integrate well into the website or do they look like add-ons or are they not on the main site at all?
Things also change in the structure of how the church works. Some website are built around the structure of how the church is structured and managed. I am not really a fan of building websites this way but many are. At some point, you might look at your website and realize that not only does it not make sense to visitors, it doesn’t even make sense to staff. Or, perhaps the setup no longer works because the people who used to update it are no longer around.
4. We learn stuff. (I hope) When we live with a website for a while we learn stuff. One of the things that I learned living with our old website was that ministry areas really want a lot of control over their content… in theory. When we had the last one built, a critical value was the ability for every ministry area to control content while keeping the look and feel of the site the same across ministry areas. That took some work. The problem was, (this will be a big surprise to communications pros) not many ministry areas actually updated their content.
We also learned that simple really is better. To get a website to be attractive and functional for visitors, it needs to be clean and simple. Here is the hard part: in order for it to be clean and simple, you have to leave stuff off. Staff and lay leadership in ministry areas don’t like their stuff left off. So you have a choice, include everything and create a pretty complicated website, or make some people mad. I have learned dealing with some frustration from staff and leadership upfront is worth it in the end. I have also gotten better and helping people understand the goal of the website and helping them find better avenues for their own communication.
I would love to hear what you have learned along the way. I also welcome you to check out our latest website incarnation at www.theu.org