When I talk, teach, and write about church websites, I say that the main purpose of the site is to help move people from website visitors to church visitors. I still think that is correct, but I think there is more to it than that.
Some people who visit your website may not be ready for that leap. For some, showing that your church is welcoming, friendly, and relevant may not be enough, especially if they have little or no experience with Christianity or the church.
Some churches attempt to bridge that gap by offering videos of sermons and worship. This is good, but those sermons and worship services are usually designed for people who are already Christians or are, at least, seriously considering a life with God.
But what about people who are just beginning to explore?
As United Methodists, we believe in prevenient grace, God’s constant urging within us that draws us closer to God. Because many of us found our way to the church before the days of the internet, it might not occur to us that people might begin their search online. Google alone processes 4,464,000,000 search queries a day. That is a lot of searching. While most of those searches may be for cat videos and spoilers for Game of Thrones, some of the may actually be people looking for God.
If someone was searching for God, and part of their search was online, and they happened to stumble across your church’s website, what would they find? If your church’s website is well-designed, they would certainly be able to find out when and where to join your church for Sunday worship. (If not, you should stop reading this and fix that.) But what if they are not ready for that?
We still live under the preconceived notion that everyone in our community knows a little something about God. We figure that they have been exposed to enough Jesus just by living around other Christians to make the leap and come to church. But, if you haven’t noticed, we don’t live in that world anymore. That searching person, more than ever, is likely to have had little exposure to the church and little familiarity with the teachings of Jesus. Even more, they may have a negative impression of the church and a passing understanding of Jesus that is far from what is in the Gospels. This person, instead of deciding to see us on Sunday, might just keep clicking.
The ancient scripture texts give us some guidance for this modern era. In 1 Peter 3:15, we read:
…but in your hearts sanctify Christ as Lord. Always be ready to make your defense to anyone who demands from you an accounting for the hope that is in you.
When I have preached on that text, I have talked about it in a more interpersonal sense. Most Christians are reluctant to engage in any sort of evangelism. Their hesitancy often revolves around a fear of being intrusive or offending their friend, family member, or co-worker. So, I pose the question, “But what if someone asks you?” There is the possibility that someone is searching. Maybe they don’t even know what for, but they see the joy and hope in you, and they ask you what it is about. I charge people to be ready for that.
In 2017, that explorer may take that question and that yearning to the web. If they stumble upon our church’s website, will they find “an accounting for the hope that is in you”?
On my list of church website essentials, I always list a “beliefs” page. Most good church websites now have that information. However, it is almost always written for someone who already knows a bit about Christianity. It often appears to be designed for someone who is already a Christian, shopping to determine whether or not your church fits into their theological framework. That is useful information for someone looking for a new church. But what about that person just beginning their search for God.
So here is the challenge:
- What can you add to your church’s website that would help this explorer?
- What does your website say to someone who “demands from you an accounting for the hope that is in you.”?
- How would you explain God, Jesus, the Holy Spirit, and the Church to someone online who is looking for hope?
I realize that these are deep questions that many of us are still wrestling with. I realize that we search for these answers throughout our lifetimes and we search for them within the community that is the church. But what can we do to help people get started?
I am searching as well. I am reviewing church websites that do this well. I hope to share some examples here on the blog. In the meantime, I would love to see what your church is doing to share the “hope that is in you.” Share your links in the comments.
Mr. Rice, thank you for the article! We were surprised that our church Facebook page gets any visits at all, and have just begun keeping a closer eye on it over the past year. Recently, I was added as an admin to the page. You bring up a good point about people who are new to discovering faith. Our community is in a rural area, but there are plenty of people here. We are trying to understand why people don’t come to church, though they are Christian? People are beginning to explore the online avenue for more and more of their lifestyle needs. It is not the traditional avenue to getting to church, but perhaps it’s the way we need to use in order to get the church to the people?
Yancey United Methodist Church