Web Makeover, Church Edition
By Keyton Kyles
While most churches in America have a web presence of some kind, many church websites simply aren’t appealing. Warrior School Ministries, an Assemblies of God church in Ruston, Louisiana, is one example. The layout for its site, warriorschool.org, is extremely simple, lacking distinct, eye-catching aspects. The site does not have a photo album, and the content is marginal at best. On the positive side, though, the site’s strengths are its banner and calendar.
A church member voluntarily programmed the Warrior School Ministry website and manages it for the church, but the time he has to spend on continuing development is limited. Paul Bradford, Warrior School Ministries’ pastor, has wanted a better website for years. “I want to make our website stand out,” he says. The site needs to be more dynamic to reach a new generation.
While the volunteer website programmer is limited by time, Bradford is limited by knowledge. “I don’t know a lot about websites or website design,” he says. “In fact, I don’t know anything.” He says the whole thing “boggles” his mind.
His lack of knowledge about websites and website design is not surprising—many pastors likely are in the same position. In an attempt to un-boggle the minds of pastors and administrative staff alike, we examined some template-based website providers and their service plans to see if they provide the answer.
Template vs. Custom
Template-based website providers use a content management system and pre-designed website page templates to allow customers to create and manage their own websites in minutes. The church simply signs up for a plan (usually done online), chooses one of the pre-designed templates, and then adds the necessary content. These services differ from custom-made websites in that the design options are pre-determined and loading the content involves no programming, so the cost is kept as low as possible.
The benefit of a template-based service is that a website can be attained at a fraction of what it will cost to hire someone to custom program a site. However, someone still needs to go through the design and content-loading steps to get the site up and running. The advantage of a custom-programmed site is that the church can decide exactly how it wants each page to look. Of course the disadvantage is price—some cost thousands of dollars, plus the monthly or annual hosting and maintenance fees.
With the help of Warrior School Ministries, we went to four different template website providers and set up a website with each. The four providers are:
* SpinSite (spinsite.com)
* Church Site Creator (churchsitecreator.com)
* ChurchSites (churchsites.com)
* ChurchWebsites (churchwebsites.com)
For each website, the registration process was simple, straightforward, and painless—we simply filled out a form with all of the usual questions. Registration for ChurchSites involves a call from a sales representative to get the process started. All others are done completely online.
We used the following criteria to evaluate each website package. As you investigate your website options, keep these in mind:
Template-based services charge monthly or annual fees for the use of their software, hosting the website, and providing a URL. Some also charge one-time setup fees. Make sure your church’s budget reflects the ongoing costs associated with the website.
* Template Designs.
Does the provider offer a wide variety of design templates? Will the template appeal to the audience you are trying to reach? Is the immediate reaction, “Wow! That’s cool!”? Does it make the page “pop” with expectation?
* Ease of Setup.
How easy is it to actually create the website? Do you need to be a computer genius to figure out what’s going on? If you know how to program in HTML, can you use that knowledge to edit the template? Does the website offer a how-to video guide to assist you with creating your site?
* Ease of Navigation.
Once the website has been setup and published to the viewing public, how easy is it for them to get around inside it? For example, can they easily find the pictures, calendar, schedule of events, or past sermons?
* Ongoing Maintenance and Content Updates.
How easy will it be to keep the website current? Can you upload pictures and videos? Can you easily add current news and events?
* Flexibility and Customization.
Can the providers’ template be customized, if you choose to do so? An important part of website design is meeting your audience’s needs, so flexibility with the templates will help you make sure the look reflects your church.
* Photo/Media Section.
The photo and media section must be appealing and easy to manage, since we know people relate well to visual images.
* Domain Name.
If the website provider ties your URL to its domain name, then will the name become cumbersome or confusing?
SpinSite offers three different plans: Starter ($4.95/month), Express ($12.95/month), and Platinum ($29.95/month). The plans differ in the number of web pages offered, the amount of storage space, the number of e-mail accounts included, technical support, and other areas. SpinSite is the only site of the four we used that offers a 60-day money-back guarantee. We signed up for the Platinum plan.
The template choices were not exciting. They generally looked dull and lacked any real “wow” factor. Page layouts were difficult to adjust, and the navigation was more difficult than it needed to be. After loading most of the church’s content on the site, it didn’t aesthetically appeal to us or to some of the members of Warrior School Ministries.
“There’s nothing user friendly for the regular Joe to easily add to the site,” says Marshal Pilgreen, one of the church’s current website administrators. Other problems:
* Borders must be manually adjusted to make text fit when adding a page;
* There was no diversity among the template design choices;
* The created website also was difficult to navigate.
There are positive aspects, too. One is the photo album editing feature, which allows five pictures to be added to the site at a time. Two of the other websites allowed only one picture at a time. Pilgreen says he liked that the album feature worked more like a slideshow compared to the approaches of some of the other websites.
Another appealing aspect is price, but be sure the features received are worth the money paid.
* 60-day money back guarantee.
* Upload five pictures at a time.
* Template designs not appealing.
* Problems with navigation.
Church Site Creator
Church Site Creator (full disclosure: Christianity Today International, publisher of Your Church magazine, has a marketing relationship with Church Site Creator) has four packages to choose from: Bronze ($19.95/month), Silver ($34.95/month), Gold ($69.95/month), and Platinum ($139.95/month). We chose the Silver package, which offers an unlimited number of web pages with the site. Church Site Creator offers a free, 30-day trial.
An appealing aspect of Church Site Creator is that it offers more than 400 template designs—an amazing number to choose from. Closer inspection revealed that about 80 percent of those 400 template designs are the same, just with different color schemes.
We found this provider’s website tool to be complicated—too much for the average person to quickly grasp. Most people would need to read their how-to manual in order to use the site effectively. We routinely used the help section. At one point we needed to contact customer support via e-mail, and we received a prompt reply from a representative with the answer to our question—that was impressive.
For those who are familiar with web design, the site allows the customization of some of the template designs. More than 20 pictures at one time can be uploaded to the photo album. People can easily log in or create a user account with the published site. The site also offers a “discussion topics” session—a great asset to any website.
Church Site Creator offers great features and many templates to choose from, but it requires some knowledge about website design. “It unquestionably looks like it will take more work to get it to look the way you want it to,” says Pilgreen.
Zach Kissinger, another website administrator for Warrior School Ministries, says the layout for the published site had too many issues. “The pictures were blurry; the calendar boxes were not the same size—it just seemed too confusing to get around,” he says.
* 30-day free trial.
* Some template customization is possible.
* Most templates vary only in color.
* Requires technical knowledge.
* Poor navigation.
ChurchSites offers a 14-day test drive of the site for no charge. To get the free trial, though, requires speaking with a sales representative first. ChurchSites offers six packages. Each package has a one-time setup fee ranging from $199 to $1,799 and an ongoing monthly fee ranging from $25 to $100, depending on the number of people who will have content manager privileges on the site. We tested the ChurchSites Template Standard Package.
Working with the representative was easy, and it took only a few minutes to get the initial church information into the website. After that, we could work directly with the website to add and change information.
Although only one picture at a time can be added, the photo system is easy to use and satisfactory. ChurchSites plans to add a mass-upload feature for pictures, possibly by the time this article publishes.
This site has every feature most churches would ever need, including the capability to host audio files, video files, music, and an assortment of other features. On the negative side, the calendar section does not look as appealing as others sites. Also, the setup fee, combined with the monthly fee, might price this option out of range for many small churches.
* Offers the most packages.
* Lots of features.
* More freedom to create a website for specific needs.
* Only uploads one picture at a time.
This site offers a 30-day, free trial period. ChurchWebsites offers four packages: Basic ($39.95/month), Advanced ($69.95/month), Premium ($99.95/month), and Premium Plus ($119.95/month). The free trial period involves the Premium Plus package.
Although ChurchWebsites does not offer a large selection of template designs, the ones offered are acceptable and probably can fit the style of most churches. Website administration and maintenance is easy, even for those not familiar with website design.
Kissinger of Warrior School Ministries says he especially appreciated two features. “The things that really stood out to me were the inclusion of a Bible search tool and the calendar,” he says. “Those were by far the most appealing when compared to the other sites.”
On the downside, the photo album feature does not allow multiple albums. Instead, users create a single page of pictures, and all pictures are automatically reduced to 400 pixels in size. Also, while some packages offered by other providers allow an unlimited number of web pages, ChurchWebsites allows a maximum of 10—and that is with the most expensive plan.
The prices for these packages are high, and careful analysis will be needed to judge if the investment will be worthwhile in the long run.
* Easy to navigate.
* Design templates are appealing.
* Bible-search tool is offered.
* Pictures resized to only 400 pixels.
* Does not categorize pictures in a photo album.
The Bottom Line
Every church needs to have a web presence of some kind. Simply being listed in the Yellow Pages is not enough. A template-based website service is one way to get your church on the Internet very quickly. If your church does not currently have a website, consider a low-cost service to provide a basic website. Just don’t expect eye-popping design, a user-friendly interface, or an easy-to-navigate site.
Alternatively, you could probably find a volunteer or pay someone a small amount of money to create a static web page with all your basic, non-changing information.
If you’re looking for a functional website—one you can work with and grow into—you’ll need to look at more expensive options such as Church Sites or ChurchWebsites. These two offer the features and functions that might make the monthly investment worthwhile.
We tested only a small sample of what is available in template-based websites. There are many similar services offered with different template designs and feature packages. Some providers offer a free website design in exchange for placing certain advertisements on your site, and others make money only from the hosting fee you pay.
The best way to know if a template-based website will work for you is to take advantage of trial periods and money-back guarantees to test several services. Put a few together, and have several church members check them out and give you honest feedback.
This article “Web Makeover, Church Edition” by Keyton Kyles is excerpted from Christianity Today Magazine, Sept/Oct 2008.