Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Don't Judge a Church by its Website

Since leaving California for Aberdeen my interest in and passion for church ministry has continued to grow. Feeling the distance from my home, I've spent some time looking around the church web sites of several churches, my own and many of the others I know of through friends who go there or work there, mostly churches in Santa Cruz county, but several in the San Francisco Bay area. I've made and continue to make several observations about these web sites I'd like to share in a new series I'm calling "Don't Judge a Church by its Website".

Before I start, however, I feel the need to establish that I don't mean to be overly critical here, but I also don't think my job as a theologian is necessarily to congratulate the church for how well its doing all the time but to challenge it in light of the gospel of Jesus Christ.

That being said, I'll start with a positive: for most churches I know, their website is probably the worst thing about them. That really is a positive. It means that what is actually going on among the people as they fellowship and learn together through the Holy Spirit is most likely far more biblical, healthy, and Christian than their websites might lead one to believe. So many church web sites, especially those of churches in Santa Cruz and other coastal towns, are so desperate to appear relevant, hip, and life changing that I have a difficult time taking them seriously. I'll talk more about this under specific topics as this series progresses, but at this point I want to re-emphasize that I think the shallow spirituality exhibited on so many of these web sites is not fully indicative of the level of understanding, commitment, fellowship, and practical living of the Christian faith at most of the churches these web sites represent. This comes from much experience at my own church, which I think has an amazing vitality and commitment to the gospel despite its blind spots, which are serious and fairly openly exposed on its web site, but also from interaction with several pastors and friends in other churches. As this series progresses I will take aim and challenge the way these churches represent themselves (without naming any names of course) on their web sites, and I do believe these representations tell us something at least about the thinking, strategy, and values of these churches, but ultimately it is the Spirit that is giving life to our Christian communities, not our thinking, strategies, or values. Therefore, we ought to have a freedom to challenge the thinking, strategies and values thrown up on these web sites without fearing that we are in any way impugning the spiritual vitality, Christian commitment or orthodoxy of the churches.

These thoughts are works in progress so please feel free to offer your own input.


  1. I agree with your comment, but as one who has responsibility for developing a website, I would be interested in hearing what you would do to design a website that has theological integrity that conveys a sense of the richness of what the Holy Spirit may be doing in and though a local body of believers. What would that look like? What would you emphasize? How would you communicate the message, particularly to people who may be spiritually immature? Aren’t you forced to deal with sound bites, images, videos, particularly if you are trying to capture someone’s attention?

  2. Hi Curt. Good question.

    My basic belief about church web sites is that they should make no attempt to convey the richness of what Holy Spirit is doing in that church. It should refrain from broadcasting the church's cultural self-understanding (especially with adjectives like "relevant", "authentic", "life-changing", or even "practical"). It should serve as an information point for times and places of the service and other ministries, plus give some kind of doctrinal statement, history, denominational affiliation if any, contact information, and a personal welcome from the pastor (that's off the top of my head). As far as aesthetic, what pictures are used and how they are used isn't really the issue I'm concerned with, though visual decisions about a church's web site do communicate some important things - I'm just not sure how to discuss them. What I'm really concerned about is representing a congregation with the use of such lame adjectives as those mentioned above as an attempt to capture attention - such uses of web sites is usually an indication that its church is falling into the trap of defining itself primarily in terms of its cultural distinctives rather than by the gospel that brings it together and gives it its identity and mission.

    A more specific thought to illustrate. I think its great when a church's web site says something like "All are welcome!" or "Please join us!" or something welcoming like that. However, I think descriptions like "Nowhereville First Baptist is a welcoming community of authentic faith and relevant teaching where you're life will be changed" put up on the main page of the site with a nice smiling person behind it or a sunset are ill advised attempts to represents a living community with a static slogan that aims more at marketing than genuinely helpful description. Should church's be marketing themselves like this?

  3. Well if I had any fears that you would become a hermit-like scholar hiding away in the library they are dispelled! I've only looked at a couple of websites, mainly to get email addresses or directions, but I can see that it must be an involved discussion on how to present a church's offering (peace with God and reconciliation) through that medium and still make it relevant to the membership. I think I agree with you that a website, or poster, or bulletin (now called "programs") is probably not the place. It seems to me that the evangelical church is in a phase where it is bending over backwards to avoid being seen as the stereotype "church" of movies and TV-cold judgemental etc. The main danger that I see is becoming indistinguishable from any other entertainment venue. People should come into a church (or it's website) because they are looking for something different than they can find elsewhere.
    I have similar feelings about the relaxed "campus" atmosphere where people are sitting around drinking coffee during the service. Why are they there?
    We certainly have to be "seeker" and as Paul says, all things to all people to win some, but I get concerned that people can come into the church experience and feel good but never connect with the main power line and have an encounter with God.
    From what I have read, there are some pretty agressive marketing efforts out there and it's hard to imagine Jesus working that way, if He was walking around today.