The Essential Website

You may have heard the adage, ‘Programmers are tools that convert pizza and coffee into code’. This oft repeated phrase captures the imagination with its humour and apparent truth. It also captures the sentiment of many management types and those outside the developer community. So you could be forgiven for believing that, when the developers of St Barnabas Broadway (some of whom are Open Box Technology employees) were invited for dinner and drinks to discuss the Barneys website, we joined in like lemmings.

However, this sentiment is incorrect. Programmers and developers are not subservient tools that will do the bidding of the puppeteers, we require a good reason to spend time writing code. This is why companies like Google have grandiose mission statements such as “to organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful” and motto’s of “don’t be evil”. Without something to believe in, a big vision for something new and better, we do the pizza and coffee part of our adage without any code to show for it.

So why were we on board? Why did we take time out of our busy lives to work on a better website for Barneys? What grandiose mission statement did we sign up for?

The answer? A great website creates and drives real human to human interactions. In a church context, this means more people hearing about God, more people coming to church, more people meeting up with the staff and more people involved in church activities.

This is why we developers think having a great website is not just a good thing, but an important or even an essential thing. And I think churches should feel the same way.

How is this result possible? The internet is a non-personal medium right? Don’t people hide behind their keyboards leading a totally separate life on the internet than they do in real life? I want to give 3 reasons why this is possible; why a website is actually a medium that generates personal and real relationships with the exact audience the church wants to engage.

1. A website is an interface

An interface is the point at which two things interact. These two different things could be humans and a computer program (using a keyboard and mouse) or it could be between two different groups of people (the accounting department and the sales department).

A website functions as an interface between the organisation and others. These ‘others’ could really be anyone, but is usually members of the organisation or people interested in the organisation. For a church, this means the congregation as well as newcomers or people interested in God. I would hope that for most if not all churches, these groups are high on the list of people the church wants to engage and interact with.

We have all experienced a situation where an interface is broken. Whether it be a broken keyboard, or when the head of your department doesn’t talk with the head of the other department you have dealings with. It is extremely frustrating and heavily impacts the experience you have. In fact it will often ruin your day.

This is the same when the church website doesn’t function properly as an interface. A broken website will not only be ineffective, it will actually turn away the very people we want to engage.

Further, a church website is often the interface that matters most, as it is usually the first experience a user has with the church. Most people these days will visit the church website before they actually attend church. This is why we spent a long time defining problems for the Barneys website and why we worked on ease of navigation.

2. A website is a communication tool

A website is an effective way to communicate. Blog posts or articles can address issues and challenge people, events pages can grab attention and excite attendees, and social media integration can allow wider distribution and allow people to see what you have to say.

However, there are many challenges to effective communication on a website. Content that is appropriate and engaging is hard to produce. The temptation to provide too much or irrelevant information is hard to overcome. Navigating through the content needs to be easy and flow well, otherwise the message is lost. When we get communication wrong we risk sending the wrong message, or not sending any message at all.

How to do content and communication well is beyond the scope of this article, so to investigate further a good place to start is the Communicate Jesus website. Communicating well means engaging users with an important message and providing options to take action. For a church, this means communicating the love of God and providing a means to encounter it. For Barneys, this desire to communicate well is why we spent time ensuring the website told visual stories, conformed to our style guide, and is why we spend time refining and testing content and action points.

3. A website answers questions

Here is the rub. Combining points 1 and 2 leads to the realisation that a website must answer questions. If we focus too much on one point and not the other, this point gets a little messy.

If a website ‘gives answers’, we are focussing on the communication part more than the interface part. We actually start answering questions people are not asking, and this breaks the interface part of the website. No-one wants to be told that the church weekend away is coming up when we really want to know where the church is located.

If a website focusses too much on the interface side, we lose sight of the fact that there are questions that need answering. The website may be really cool and work flawlessly, but if it does not drive people to action it does not serve its purpose. Seeing lots of great photos of a weekend away and not thinking about whether to join in next time doesn’t help anybody.

This was why we examined our Google Analytics from the previous website in order to accurately answer the questions users were coming to our website with. What we came up with was not quite what we were expecting, and shaped what the website does today. We found that the questions were predominantly along the lines of ‘Where/when do you meet?’ and ‘Are you weird?’.

This makes sense right? People use the internet to find out things. I type questions into Google, and it gives me relevant answers. This fact presents a huge opportunity for churches which I think we have failed to capitalise on. In 2014, the most googled ‘Who is…?’ search in Australia was ‘Who is Jesus?’. If churches are not answering that question, who is?

The end result

So where does this leave us? Barneys now has a great website that answers questions people are asking and communicates effectively the message of the Gospel in a way that is easy to use. They have a website that drives people to action. Users questions have been answered, and they have a next step to take.

Andrew Judd (assistant minister at Barneys) can tell you about the people he has met at church who have come along because they Googled ‘Church Sydney’. These people asked a question of the internet that resulted in them coming to church. Winner.

The Barneys website makes it easy for the congregation (or even outsiders) to sign up to weekends away, where they experience the community of believers. Winner.

The Barneys website drives attention and involvement with ministries such as Growth Groups, the Barneys Soccer Club, or the Love Your Neighbour team. Winner.

This end result of real interaction between humans where people see and hear about God is why the computer geeks of Barneys ate pizza, drank coffee and coded a great website. And it is why you should too.