Sharing Our Stories
How did you find your church?
Perhaps, you trace your attendance at worship in a particular denomination to childhood. Maybe you came to your congregations later in life – you might have been searching for something new; perhaps you were leaving something that had gotten too old, or something you couldn’t agree with. Whatever the reason, many of us know what it means to search for a new church. Without a reference point, it can be intimidating.
While visiting a church during a worship service is an excellent way to form first impressions, the reality is many of us get our first taste of a church through new media – websites, directories, Facebook, and such. Before I came to my present congregation, I did my homework. I wanted to know who I would meet, what the “rules” for participation were, and some of those particular details a “novice” might be afraid to ask: am I allowed to take communion; when do I stand, sit, or kneel; what is expected of me?
And where does someone find this information? Many times, the starting point is a church’s website.
Websites designed with first impressions in mind succeed in creating a welcoming space before visitors set foot in our sanctuaries. While lists and links are necessary, these spaces should not be a recitation of bullet points or pages of lengthy prose. Online viewers are looking for quick impressions, and they need to find inviting spaces that make them feel as welcome as they might be in the sanctuary or coffee hour.
At Trinity Episcopal Church in Kirksville, Missouri, we have found that we can create this welcoming virtual space through the telling of stories, creating space for conversation and sharing, and projecting a sense of humor and fun. Identifying specific ministries and those involved in them becomes a jumping-off point for virtual exchange.
Our website features stories that convey to the reader the character of our parishioners. For example, Kerrin Smith’s story relates the spiritual uplift she experienced as she prepared bread for communion – a task others have taken up after reading her story. Elsewhere, visitors learn of Maria Evans’ “Ministry of Denim” – her philosophical statement about why she dresses casually for church to communicate to all visitors that they should feel free to come as they are to Christ’s table. Other parts of the site convey our collective stories, whether accounts of food ministry, including our “Fill the F-150 Drive” for the local food bank, stories of our architectural history as a historic building, or representations of important events in our church life. The Parish Profile, one of the longer documents to be found on the site, is important for someone wanting to really dive deeply into our self-reflection and self-identity, but it is not the focal point of our identity on the web.
Likewise, our use of social media is strategic. Where much of what one now finds on Facebook or Twitter may feel random, our Facebook feed chronicles the life of Trinity, focusing on major events, reporting what is to come, but also presenting a virtual family album of important occasions in the life of the community. Photos become crucial in this task, since they help visitors associate names with faces and to nonverbally assess the warmth of the congregation. While comments are not enabled on our website, our Facebook presence allows for limited – typically positive – dialogue about church events. Targeted use of Facebook advertising, employed at the times of year when seekers are most likely to be in need of a place to worship, works to invite people to this space to familiarize themselves with the personalities that make up our church family.
Most recently, as we have sought to raise funds in support of a building accessibility project, we have employed humorous videos to reflect our humanity, our personality, and our striving for openness. While the initial object of this project was to raise money, the benefits have been far greater. Offered in two versions on YouTube and Vimeo, the video “Wade in the Water” depicts a man sitting in the sanctuary, watching a normal service. It becomes quickly obvious that he needs to use the lavatory, as he becomes visibly agitated as the choir sings “Wade in the Water,” the Vicar sprinkles the crowd with holy water, and other water-themed events unfold in the service. Stressed to the breaking point, the man finally scrambles from his pew, at which time the viewer learns he is in a leg cast and on crutches. We follow the man as he tries to navigate Trinity’s narrow staircase to get to the church’s only bathroom – a bathroom that is not accessible to people with disabilities. When he finally reaches the door to the bathroom (in one version) he discovers it is already occupied: There’s a woman inside, trying to fix her makeup before coffee hour. Finally achieving relief, viewers are then taken to a brief tour of the facility and a summary of the project. The video pushes the envelope – deliberately – to show external audiences that the membership is not afraid to make fun of itself, and to have fun, in the goal of supporting a good cause.
Creating – and maintaining – a website with visitors in mind can open doors to new membership from among those who seek to “church shop” based on “gut impressions.” At Trinity we continue to learn from experiments in telling our story digitally. To view our work, or to get ideas for your own sites, visit us on the web at http://trinitykirksville.org or visit us on Facebook at http://www.facebook.com/trinitykirksville.
How welcoming is your congregation’s website to visitors or people seeking a new church home? One way to measure this is to invite a trusted friend or co-worker unfamiliar with your congregation to take a look with an eye for learning more about the church and as if they were considering visiting during a worship service. Ask them to pay attention to their experience:
- Was it easy to find the information they were looking for?
- What did they appreciate most about the website?
- Was the navigation system helpful or frustrating?
- Was the material presented in terms that were familiar to them?
- What is their overall impression of the church after spending time on the website?
- On a scale of 1 to 10, how would they rate the site on being welcoming/helpful to a first time visitor?
Consider establishing a small task force, including the people with responsibility for the website, to develop an action plan for making your website more responsive to ‘the people we don’t know yet.’
- “Are We There Yet?” by Richelle Thompson, ECF Vital Practices blog post, February 1, 2012
- “Are You Talking to Me?” by Nancy Davidge, ECF Vital Practices blog post, August 31, 2012
- “I’m New Here” by Miguel Angel Escobar, ECF Vital Practices blog post, May 29, 2012
Some welcoming websites that have caught our attention at ECFVP:
- All Saints Episcopal Church, Carmel, California
- Episcopal Church of the Redeemer, Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania
- Grace Episcopal Church, Bainbridge Island, Washington
- Grace-St. Luke’s Episcopal Church, Memphis, Tennessee
- Trinity Episcopal Church, Kirksville, Missouri
- Pixar’s’ 22 Rules of Storytelling Visualized
- Sharing Your Story resources, Melodie Woerman, Episcopal Diocese of Kansas
- “Using New Media to Tell a Story” by Jeremiah Sierra, ECF Vital Practices blog post, April 1, 2013
- “Wade in the Water”, video