4 Design Commandments for a Religion Website

The company I work for designs websites for many different types of small businesses and nonprofit groups such as houses of worship.  Is there any better use of a website than for spreading the teachings of love, peace, harmony and faith in a Supreme Being throughout the modern world? Probably, not. At least, not from the point of view of anyone, who believes that we all need some love in our heart and spirituality in our lives to govern our actions among those we share the world with.

There is an interesting YouTube parody of Starbucks marketing itself like a church at http://healyourchurchwebsite.com.  The video suggests that houses of worship need to think more like corporate marketers do, as they try and attract new worshippers to the fold.  Reaching out to others has been changed by the Internet. Most of us now view the world through a pair of digitally trained eyes.  Constant repetition of effective online messages, has groomed us to expect logically-placed calls to action on every website we visit.  In fact, we mentally grade website designs by their practical layout, easy navigation and rich content.

When we are not impressed with a particular website – any website – we leave it long before we ever complete a call to action.  We have little patience trying to figure out what a website owner needed to explain in a much more effective way, in the first place.  As a website visitor, it is not our job to do this. There are far too many competing websites that do a better job getting their information across to us.  We are more likely to follow through with them.

So what is expected from a religion website?  At very least, it must answer these basic four questions in order to find and hold its target audience:

1. Who are worshippers?

2. What do they believe?

3. Where and when do they meet?

4. Will outsiders be welcome there?

Who are the Worshippers?

Most religious websites feature a photo their house of worship – their building – as their home page attention-grabber.  Clergy and congregants are very proud of what they have built and expect that others will be equally impressed and moved to worship with them in the structure.

With all due respect, does a stone or wood frame building really stand for what a church, synagogue, temple or mosque is all about, spiritually?  Or, is it the clergy and worshippers, who make a place of worship divine?

When a place of worship is devastated by a natural disaster, the “flock” rarely misses a beat; meeting elsewhere until the time is right to return to the building of origin.  It matters little to them WHERE they meet.  It only seems to matter that they are gathered together and sharing their prayers with their Supreme Being.

The Rev. Heather McCance of the Church of St. Andrew, Scarborough and regional dean of Scarborough Deanery in the Diocese of Toronto, has written a thoughtful essay on God and Social Media. In her essay, she explains that “Websites, or at least the vast majority of church websites, are of the stuff of Web 1.0; we put information on the Internet, a person goes and finds it.”

What exactly does Rev. McCance believe people looking for a religion website should find?  People are simply looking to find God.

“We have learned to say that it is not that the church has a mission; it is that God has a mission, and invites the church to come alongside,” explains McCance.  

So, it is the worshippers, themselves, that make a house of worship what it is. It should the worshippers, who are prominently displayed on the homepage of a religion website.  Future congregants are most interested in seeing and identifying with the people they will meet, greet and celebrate their faith with.

What Do They Believe?

Rev. McCance clearly understands the role that God plays in Social Media, which includes websites.  She believes that “God is on Facebook. God tweets. God posts videos on YouTube. And God most surely uses whatever tools human beings come up with to reach out to this world with love and compassion, with a prophetic call to justice, with gospel.”  It is very comforting to know that God stands before the digital portal (Websites) welcoming all people to his many houses of worship.  Still, each religion website must immediately inform unique visitors what is the particular brand of faith being practiced by those behind a URL.  Is it a Christian denomination; some form of Judaism, Islam, Hindu, Buddhist or something else? Is it a good fit with the religious beliefs of the website visitor?

Where and when do they meet?

If God is throughout Social Media, as Rev. McCance purports, he must also be guiding us with our GPS units.  Still, we all need to take some level of responsibility to find our way to his presence.  We require a precise address as well as the date and time that others will also be arriving to meet him.  A well designed religion website will need to include this information.  The web designer must be aware that not everyone owns a GPS and may require written directions to the house of worship.

Will outsiders be welcome there?

We all know that God welcomes everyone to pray, but not all houses of worship have the same set of rules.  For example, non-Jews are always welcome to attend services in a synagogue, so long as they behave as proper guests. Proselytizing and “witnessing” to the congregation are not proper guest behavior.  Would anyone walk into a stranger’s home and criticize the decor? But, synagogues always welcome non-Jews who come to synagogue out of genuine curiosity, interest in the service or simply to join a friend in celebration of a Jewish event.

In Orthodox synagogues, there is a separate section where the women sit. This may be on an upper floor balcony, or in the back of the room, or on the side of the room, separated from the men’s section by a wall or curtain called a mechitzah. Men are not permitted to pray in the presence of women, because they are supposed to have their minds on their prayers, not on pretty girls.

It is important to inform all parties of any worship attendance rules they need to be aware of in the website.

What other Information is commonly found?

Most religion websites include some or all of the following features: a Photo Gallery to showcase its congregants, the particular house of worship, its prayer services and its location. There may also be the desire to present Online Store capabilities, especially if they are offering religious items for purchase.

Places of worship may also wish to engage visitors through a Guestbook, Blog, Newsletters, a Mailing List, a “share” button and – very often – a Make a Donation form.

It is very good that God is onboard with websites and Social Media, as Rev. McCance seems to believe.  Therefore, it is important to make him proud of its use attracting those who may wish to worship with others just like themselves.

Marc LeVine is Director of Social Media at RiaEnjolie, Inc, a web designer specializing in professional-looking and affordable websites for small businesses.  RiaEnjolie is also the developer of many innovative charitable programs that give back to the community.  Learn more by visiting RiaEnjolie’s Charity Programs Page on our Corporate Website at www.RiaEnjolie.com.

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