- The Washington Times - Sunday, September 7, 2008

STAIRWAY TO HEAVEN COLUMN:

I was thumbing through the pages of Cutting Edge, a magazine for church planters associated with the Association of Vineyard Churches, when I saw a piece about church Web sites.

“Everyone is going to go to your website before they come to your church,” the article said. “It is the lobby of your church now.”

That’s for sure. I moved last month to a neighborhood 20 miles from my old haunts, so I have been exploring new churches via their Internet presence.

My findings are that it’s bad out there.

I keep wanting to tell houses of worship, “Folks, make me want to visit you.” The first thing I want to know is the topic of this week’s sermon. I can find movie listings, school lunch menus and tomorrow’s weather on the Internet. Why can’t I find out who is preaching?

But no, churches often keep the identity of the preacher (not to mention next Sunday’s sermon topic) a tighter secret than their ATM pass codes. Apparently, this is so people will attend for the sake of the worship experience and not to follow a particular speaker.

That is sooooo 1970s. Back in the era when the charismatic renewal and the Jesus movement actually made church services exciting, the preaching was second nature compared to the fireworks at those multI-hour services.

But that was then. These days, decent Web sites are mandatory to attract visitors and communicate with members.

Cutting Edge says the following are “must-haves” - service times, map and driving directions, “about us,” contact information and sermon audios. For the latter, check out Seattle’s Mars Hill Church Web site (www.marshillchurch.org) along with its preaching schedule on the Bible’s X-rated Song of Solomon. I didn’t like the site’s black-and-brown color scheme, but did like the press clippings.

National Community Church (www. theaterchurch.com) site has much cooler colors, plus its famous “evotional” blog.

Churches should choose a good Web designer. Don’t be afraid to ask for work samples and references. This person is representing your congregation in a major way. Churchcommunicationspro.com, a church-building site, says a church webmaster is really a “webminister” who sees site building and maintenance as a “ministry to the Lord.”

Other advice is to use good photos of real members and the building. Keep the site updated (it’s depressing to see how many churches touch their sites only once a month). Use consistent fonts and colors, set up a podcast, use templates, links and existing technologies such as LibSyn, Google.

For synagogues during this time of year, have high holiday registration forms that can be downloaded. Also helpful is a Jewish calendar, such as the nice one on the Potomac Congregation B’nai Tzedek’s site (www.bnaitzedek.org).

As for mosques, the situation is pretty grim. I did a search for mosque Web sites in the District, Los Angeles. The best sites were in Detroit, where Muslims have lived for more than a century. Elsewhere, there were too many sites where the English was bad or the links did not work.

“Do not use blurry or poor-quality photos,” Cutting Edge says. “Don’t ever put the phrase ‘coming soon’ on your site. Say no to discussion forums. God gave us Facebook. Use it.”

Julia Duin’s Stairway to Heaven column runs Thursdays and Sundays. Contact her at [email protected] times.com.

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