Building a Church Website

Step One: Scope

Introduction

As our congregation is in the very early stages of a planned rebuilding of our church website, I decided it may be of use to others to attempt to document the process. Of course, each congregation is unique and has her own unique challenges and opportunities, so this series will attempt to be as generic as possible. I will also endeavor to avoid being overly technical as we proceed.

Everything must begin somewhere, so we will begin discussing the scope of your church website.

Scope Defined

In a nutshell, deciding on the scope of the congregational website is answering the questions of:

  • Who is this site built for?
  • What do you want this site to accomplish?

At first, such questions might seem somewhat simplistic or obvious: (What do you mean, “Who is this for?” Why, everybody of course!) While it is very ambitious to seek to create something that will benefit everybody and do everything, such a plan is unrealistic. God already has that covered with the Bible!

Realistically answering these questions in finite, concrete terms will save a lot of headaches down the road. By placing boundaries on the original plan, one avoids the problem of “scope creep”.1 There might be new, good ideas that come up in the design process, but those ideas might best be held for a later version of your site. Answer what you need to accomplish now.

With this in mind, most all possible “features” in a church website fall into three categories. These categories will vary by each congregation’s individual needs and resources:

Determining Scope

1. Things we need

This sounds just like you would expect it to sound, except these are actual needs. Discerning between “wants” and “needs” can be a difficult exercise, and will again vary by circumstance. Some possible examples of needs might be:

  • Vital stats (congregation name, address, etc.)
  • Times of services
  • Means of contact (phone number, email address, etc.)

Note that a website is primarily a means of sharing information. When doing so it is important to follow the “less is more” philosophy. What information more than anything else do you want your site visitors to know?

This list will be largely driven by the limitations of your scope. If your purpose for a church website is primarily evangelistic in scope (for example: a new planted congregation or a specific outreach) is it necessary to include a detailed description of every particular class being offered?

Or if your purpose for a church website is to provide a resource mostly for your members is it necessary to give detailed directions or an interior map of your church building for the people who already know how to get there and get around?

Both of these examples may very well be neccessary (I am not denying that); the question is whether it is a “need” or a “want”. Be sure to meet the needs first! The wants can then come later (or can be placed on a “back burner” for a later upgrade).

2. Things we want

Having listed the things we need, much of what is left (with important exceptions [see below]). The key idea here is the opposite of the previous section: these are the things we want but do not necessarily need. Another way of approaching this is to consider anything placed in this category as not “mission critical”. If a particular feature in this list cannot be completed in time for the planned “launch” of the website, it can wait.

It should go without saying that nothing in this section should be so important as to make the purpose of the website impossible to fulfill!

In terms of information, this can include many things which are “nice” to know, but will not cause harm if people are not immediately aware of them. For example:

  • Names and duties of church leadership
  • History of the local congregation
  • General events calendar (possibly vs. special events)
  • Vanity shots of the building and facilities
  • Visitor counter (circa 1997!)

All things being equal, most everything should fall within these two categories. However, not everything is always equal, and there is one other category to consider.

3. Things we want, but…

In terms of not being appropriate certain things should be obvious:

  • Anything which disrespects or dishonors God
  • Anything morally questionable, profane, or immodest
  • Any false teaching

These things never have their place in the body of Christ so should never have their place on the church website. It is a duty of those directly involved and of the church leadership to ensure that no such content ever even comes close to the website.

However, this category deals more with things which many may not be aware are inappropriate for various reasons (some of them legal).

It is a common request by members of a congregation when asked their input on features to have many of the membership resources they already use placed upon the website to make them even more accessible. These are resources such as:

  • Church directories
  • Weekly church bulletins
  • Prayer request lists
  • Travelers lists
  • Contribution and other financial reports

Such things are common resources when one is a part of the body of Christ. The leap toward providing such resources on a website is not a large one. However, it forgets a key reality of how the Internet works: it is very public.

Personal Information

As a possible side effect of determining a specific scope is forgetting that while the website is built for a specific purpose, its audience is not limited to the one it was purposed for. This means that even if the scope of your church website is to primarily serve the needs of the members (with member resources), its access will not be limited to those members (without specific design choices [see below]).

If this does not seem serious, consider the following scenarios:

  1. The Jones’ make it known to the congregation that they will be traveling throughout the country for the next three weeks. Prayers are coveted for their safety and their plans are placed on a prayer or travelers list. Not only does the congregation know about the Jones’ absence from their house for three weeks…so does the entire city (and beyond). While not exactly the same as placing a “vacant” sign on the front door, the effect is similar as there exist criminals that search for this very thing!2

  2. Mrs. Michaels is a widow in poor health. She is soon to be undergoing surgery and makes that need known in a prayer list that is posted. As she recovers she starts receiving letters or phone calls of sympathy from someone she does not know. In time it is discovered she has attracted the attention of someone that is inappropriate and unwanted. Though likely harmless, this connection happened due to the anonymity of the internet and the open door created by having personal information posted online.

The reality is that the use and dissemination of people’s personal information must be handled seriously. Entities both private and public are charged with protecting such data under the penalty of law, and while many might be unaware, it is likely your congregation has a similar obligation! How would you react to your bank giving out your address or phone number to anyone who asked without question? How would you react if your favorite supermarket placed that information online?

This does not mean that member-specific features cannot be added or never should be used. This means that if you are going to have personal information available, that information must be protected from the public Internet.

Photographs

It is important to specifically note the problem of photographs on the open Internet. This generally fits under the umbrella of “personal information” but will be addressed more specifically here because of even greater possible dangers.

Unless you are heavily sheltered from the world, you should be fully aware that the Internet has many sinful and wicked elements. These elements attract people who make many depraved and sinful choices. This is a sad reality of our fallen world.

It is in a sense ways “near” such venues that one is venturing when they place information on the Internet, by necessity rather than intention. Because of this, those who visit the site may not always have positive intentions when doing so.

The danger exists when, with all innocence and without malice, photographs are posted of church events, youth group activities, Bible camp, Bible bowls, potlucks, or any other group activity, especially any including minor children.

The inclusion of publically accessible photographs of minor children is a horrible, dangerous, and possibly financially costly idea because:

  • You do not know who is accessing your site
  • You do not know how those images might be used
  • It is illegal to do so without a specific legal release

This can be a painful idea to consider because the intention of such postings is to promote family, fellowship, and fun - things which are very effective for promoting what the body of Christ is all about and encouraging others to become Christians. There are ways to accomplish this, but must be handled with great care!3

A solution

Raising these concerns is meant primarily to make sure that people remain safe, and also to keep the scope of the website project within reasonable bounds. However, a solution to the challenges presented with having people’s personal information and photographs is to create a “members only” area on the church website.

Please note this is easier said than done, and will lead to a LOT of “scope creep”. It requires added technology, planning, and expertise on both the front and back ends of the site itself. It also requires the creation of user accounts with passwords to remember for any member wishing to use it. It is this “firewall” of separation from the public sphere that makes this an acceptable solution.

Conclusion

As you can see, there is a lot of thought that should go into what you want your church website to be long before you have coded one piece of it. However, determining the scope of your church website is a very important step. It forces you to ask what you need, what you want, and what might not be the best features to include.

Once you have a defined and set scope in mind, set it in stone! (Okay, maybe not quite in stone. But be very careful to modify the scope much). This will be your guide to your first version of your church website. One great thing about technology, is its always evolving. There will be plenty of opportunities to add more features and refine the ones you choose down the road!

In the next article, we will consider some key design choices underlying your church website project.


  1. “Scope creep” is a term taken from the world of computer programming where extra, unplanned for features are “piled on” to a project after its original plan is finished. This can effectively bog down and destroy a project which never budgeted, or planned for “extras”. [return]
  2. Some might take exception with this example as being overly cynical. They might answer, “My community is not like that”. That may be true, but the internet goes to every community! [return]
  3. At this point some might raise the challenge that “unsavory types” are not going to “find” our church website. It is just not that big! The problem is there exist online tools for the specific purpose of searching for photographs without directly accessing site like yours! [return]
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