By Sue Sprang
SYNOD – In today’s world, it is imperative that congregations use the web/social media to their advantage. With paper communication giving way to more electronic and technical sources at a sometimes head-spinning pace, and with each new generation of American relying more on the latter than its previous generation, the church – if it wants to grow, establish itself as mission-centered, and engage all generations – has no other choice.
“There is more than a 90 percent chance that a visitor to your congregation looked for you online first,” said Pastor David Sprang, Assistant to the Bishop and Director of Evangelical Mission for the North/West Lower Michigan Synod. “More than likely they found you via your church’s website. Facebook and other social media are good, but tend to be more internal.”
Chelsey Satterlee, Communications Director for the North/West Lower Michigan Synod, agrees with Sprang. Satterlee is a member of Generation Y (millennial) and, as a communications professional, makes it a point to stay on top of current trends in technological communication.
“Websites and social media are the most common way to get information and so it’s necessary for congregations to have a strong and engaging presence,” she said. “The majority of people in my generation and younger would search for congregations on the internet. For the most part, that would include googling and then visiting the congregation’s website to learn more about them. That means the website needs to be visitor friendly. It has to be easy to find contact information, directions, service times, and ministry information.”
Generations Y and Z take the adage “actions speak louder than words” to heart. If an entity (organization, committee, planning group, etc.) is doing a lot of talking, but there’s no action to back it up, these millennials and Z’s probably aren’t going to stay around. The same can be said if there are actions, but they don’t match the words.
“A lot of people in my generation are more interested in seeing what the congregation is doing in the community as it gives a better idea of the congregation’s culture, its values, and its social views,” said Satterlee. “In many cases, people want to see that if they come to a specific church they will be part of something that is bigger than worship in the church building.”
Loyalty to a specific Christian denomination is not a given in this day and age. Add to that, for many Y and Z folks, loyalty to a specific religion, let alone a denomination, isn’t necessarily in the cards. If the local Evangelical Lutheran Church in America congregation doesn’t speak to them, they will search elsewhere.
“While finding an ELCA congregation near them is sometimes enough to bring them in, if the congregation isn’t doing anything, they’re not going to want to stay,” said Satterlee. “It’s super important to have relevant and engaging information about your congregation’s programs and ministries on the website. It’s also a great place to work in pictures so that it’s really easy for visitors to see what the congregation is like.”
Even though Facebook and other social media can be a plus for the local congregation, Satterlee stressed that an interesting, informative, well-organized, and well-maintained website is a must in today’s world.
“Not all congregations have social media,” she said, “and if the website does a great job of showcasing the congregation’s programs and sense of community, and providing all of the needed information, then they might not need social media – although the latter can be a good way to show off community engagement and get a taste of what the congregation is really like, especially if there are a lot of pictures.”
Keeping the website updated and visitor-friendly is a must. Avoid acronyms or “insider” language. Put yourself in the place of someone who is doing the web search, keeping in mind any searches you yourself have done where the language is confusing or unhelpful.
ELCA is the most obvious example of an acronym. A few other examples would be VBS (Vacation Bible School), WELCA (Women of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America), LWR (Lutheran World Relief), GWOH (God’s Work. Our Hands.)
The key is to think elementarily while posting on your web, yet making it interesting and informative. Don’t assume that visitors to your site will dig for information that could be helpful or that could make or break their decision as to whether to give your church a try. It may seem very basic to you, but can be important for the visitor.
Satterlee shared her experience with perusing the web sites of our synod’s congregations.
“In reviewing websites last year, I found a lot of congregations aimed their website at current members and not visitors,” she said. “There were cases in which to get information about a program, it said to talk to a specific person, but there was no contact information – assuming people know who that is.”
“Since a congregation’s website is the main public facing place of information, it has to be aimed at people who are unfamiliar with the congregation and in many cases the ELCA,” Satterlee added. “It never hurts to have a section talking about what it means to be an ELCA Lutheran in addition to what the congregation is like.”
This all leads to including your congregation’s mission statement in a very visible place on your congregation’s website. Before you post it, though, this might be a good time for your congregation to review its mission and see if, indeed, the mission matches who you are.
“One note about the mission statement is to make sure it’s in plain English or is fully explained,” said Satterlee. “I’ve encountered some that sound very nice but in the end I was left asking what does that really mean? How does it relate to the congregation?”
“Your mission statement should reflect your congregation’s core values that guide and direct the congregation,” said Sprang. “It might be good to re-evaluate and rework your mission statement to reflect what the congregation’s true core values and mission are.”
Once you are certain that your congregation’s true values and beliefs are established, tell about your ministries and programs. They should be in sync. Honesty and transparency are highly valued by Generations Y and Z.
Meanwhile, make your website interesting, easy to find, and easy to navigate. Use graphics and photos.
Make the site informational, but not overdone. Wordiness can be an immediate turn off for many people, especially the younger generations. If the person or persons who does most of the posting for your site tends to be wordy, have them run their information, article, etc. across a few other people before posting. These two or three folks could help pull repetition and other nonessentials from the piece.
If needed, someone who can edit your postings for grammar, spelling, proper abbreviations, etc., can also be a plus. You can have good information, but if the presentation is sloppy – as unintentional as it may be – it can be a turn-off.
Include all pertinent information. This includes the church’s phone number, address, times of worship, etc. There should also be e-mail addresses – one for the church office and one for the pastor.
With pastoral ministry being a public office, a pastor is to be accessible to the community and to anyone in need of their listening ear, their advice, their words of encouragement or solace, and other scenarios. By virtue of their calling, they make their accessibility to members and non-members a priority.
A “contact form” (such as Outlook) isn’t always reliable. It also moves the pastor one step away from the people, even though that’s not the intention.
“In reviewing websites, I found a mix of contact forms and email addresses,” said Satterlee, “but oftentimes the contact form didn’t work — so it just felt pointless.
“Also, it makes it harder to contact the pastor directly as there’s no indication of who will receive the email. It doesn’t matter all of the time, but there are instances in which someone would want to contact a pastor and not the church office. I usually recommend having an e-mail address for both the pastor and the office available.”
“I’ve seen some websites that have a ‘what is a Lutheran section’ and then link to the ELCA and the synod websites,” she said. “It’s nice to have those links so that if someone is unfamiliar they can quickly and easily find more information.
“It might not be necessary to have links to all of the other ELCA/Synod programs, but if a congregation has a strong relationship with one of them, then it would be good. For example, if a congregation sends a lot of kids to Living Water Ministries summer camps then it might be good to have their website linked.”
Satterlee also suggests that if you have a calendar on your site, make sure it’s updated and available.
“I’ve encountered some calendars that could only be seen if you were a member of the church,” she said, “which is not a great way to engage visitors.”
An “in house” calendar signifies “no intruders wanted.”
Satterlee has tips to share in regard to other modes of getting out the word.
“I would say most everything [applied to websites] can be applied to Facebook and social media,” she said. “I’ve found social media can be a bit more casual and aimed at people in the congregation, as social media in general is more about engaging with a community. But it still needs to be professional and have the basic visitor information (contact, services times, link to the website), but it can be more informal.
“Since social media is more community focused, it’s a good place to share pictures from congregation events/programs, have more informal reminders about events, and see what the congregation is really like. I’ve definitely seen some congregation websites that say one thing and when I look at social media, it’s totally the opposite. So I guess there’s also a caution in that to make sure the website and social media match and are an accurate representation of the congregation.
“Also,” Satterlee added, “You might want to consider moving to sources such as Twitter or Instagram. In general, younger generations don’t use Facebook so means of communication like these can be helpful for congregations looking to engage a younger demographic.”