Hartford Institute Logo
Hartford Institute Site Map Hartford Seminary

Hartford Seminary
The Web

Designing Church Web Sites 

Note: This information is based on previous research and is no longer being updated to reflect current trends or ideas for church web design. 3/1/07

This section contains our thoughts on the development of a congregation’s web site. It is not specifically about creating web pages or using html, although we have included links to other sites for that information.

After looking at web sites on church web page design, we felt that more needed to be said about the process by which a congregation makes decisions regarding the content and character of its web site.

bulletBeginning the process - A congregational project
bulletDetermining the type of web presence
bulletPlanning the site's identity
bulletCreating the content
bulletConstructing the site
bulletHosting your site
bulletAdvertising your address
...Prepare your meta text
...What are meta texts?
...How does meta text get read?
...What good are meta and ALT tags?
...Submitting your site
...Getting ranked at the top
...Other ways of getting found
bulletMaintaining your presence
bulletOther guides for congregations

Other Resources:

A Pastor's Guide to Digital Outreach
An Article by Andrea Bailey for Outreach Magazine, January/February 2007

Mosque Website Review and Evaluation Criteria

The Hartford Institute Webmaster Survey

Hartford Institute's Reviews of congregational web sites


Beginning the process - A congregational project

The web site of a congregation can be the most public portrayal of itself that it can have. Potentially, millions of people could enter into your virtual sanctuary, meet your members, sample your ministries and learn what your congregation believes.

This self-presentation should be a product of the entire congregation.

  • The content must be as prayerfully and spiritually discerned as the creation of a congregation's statement of faith.
  • The effort must be shared by as many members as planning your worship service or newsletter is.
  • The task must be as reasoned and serious as that of calling the next minister.

Like each of these tasks, planning what your congregation's web site will look like and contain should be a group effort in several ways.

  • The entire membership should be informed of the effort, invited into the process, and asked what they want in a site.
  • Members with internet access can be encouraged to visit the web sites of other churches to get ideas and see what they like and don't like.
  • A method of collecting suggestions, ideas, and feedback from all the membership should be set up.
  • A web design committee of both knowledgeable and interested members should be created.

We are convinced that the more your congregation’s web site reflects the unique body of believers that is your church the better your site will be able to inform and attract members and guests alike. Because of this we maintain that designing a congregational site is as much a self-exploration as it is a technical process. Simple design or minor flaws are forgivable if the site shows the congregation for who it is, its strengths and flaws while graciously inviting others into that community of faith.

Remember your site exists to enhance the community and fellowship among the members. It is also there for the stranger to explore and experience your congregation’s ministries and beliefs. But the web site, like anything a faith community does, is mostly there for the glory of God.

Determining the type of web presence

The initial task your congregational web planning team has before them is to assess the parameters of the site.

  • What is the audience? Will the site be for outsiders? Will it focus inward and offer interactive features for members?
  • What is the scope? Is it a glorified brochure or bulletin or is it an engaging, multimedia advertisement for the church?
  • What is the aim? Do you want it to bring the unchurched in? Educate and inform your members? Or be a resource for pastors, the seeker, or other churches around the world?
  • What will you emphasize? Will the site focus solely on the worship, or on a major ministry, or on the youth? What is it about your church that sets it apart from other in the local community? What features are you most proud of?
  • Who will produce it? Will you try to design it from within the talent of the congregation, hire outside help, or use one of the many established host sites complete with design template where you just plug in your information on a form?

Who is responsible? Where will the content come from? Will you just put the newsletter directly into HTML? Will the pastor’s sermons be content? Will the text for pages be written fresh and new each week or month? Whose email goes on the site and who will answer the email inquiries? And who makes sure everything gets done?

Planning the site's identity

Once you have arrived at a general consensus about the type of presence you want the congregational site to have, it is time to begin answering more explicit design issues.

  • What look and mood will the site convey?
  • What components should be in the site?
  • How will the navigation of the site work?

Here are some Web Design guides that can help you answer these questions:up


Creating the content

Now that you have begun to assemble your sites' identity, next comes the daunting task of describing your congregation to others.  

There are several key points in creating the content for your visitors:

1)  Will your site address both members and non-members? You may be able to tackle this question by providing a small section of the web site to members which will specifically address the questions that members that members ask.

2)  Since you are likely to have non-member visitors, try to refrain from using extensive "religiouesque" language. Remember that the terminology you may use in your congregation may not be universal so visitors may need an explanation of the meaning of  "discipleship ministry."

3)  Be sure that you content follows the same pattern as your navigation.  Additionally, make sure navigational titles and page titles are one in the same so as to not confuse newcomers.  For example, if your navigation offers a link to "ministries" make sure the page that comes up reads "ministries," not "opportunities to get involved."  Those terms may not be one in the same for everyone.

4)  Write clearly so that those reading your content can make a visual picture of your congregation.  This allows for both members and non-members to feel as if they are part of the congregations events even outside the physical building.

5)  Finally, try to link your content to other portions of your site that are relevant.  For example, if you offer a pastor's greeting, try to link the applicable words in his speech to other portions of your site such as "we are host to couples ministries, singles ministries, and a food pantry" with each of those links pointing to the correct page that contains more information.

Most importantly, keep in mind that the visitors, members or not, will be reading your content on a computer monitor which is not the same as being able to lay down a brochure and come back to it later.  Be sure that your site is not too content heavy leaving your guests to feel overwhelmed by the amount of reading available.  Also, a certain amount of white space is desirable to allow readers to focus on the text provided rather than be distracted by other text surrounding pertinent information.

For more information on style and writing guides, you may with to visit the following links:


Constructing the site

Once you have decided how your site will function and what it will offer, now comes the task of creating the site. Due to the nature of the web, there are countless options that fit a variety of needs and budgets.  (read more...


Hosting your site

Once you have decided how to construct your site and have begun the process, it’s a good idea to begin to search for a server to host your site. Think of a server as a powerful computer which will store your web site files in a place where anyone can access them. If you decide to go with a free pre-set web template you will automatically be hosted by that location so this information will not be applicable.

Quite often, you can find a site that will not only host your congregations web site, but will also link you to the necessary resource to purchasing a domain name. Be sure to put as much thought into purchasing a domain name as you do when you are designing the site. Think about what people will remember and what makes sense for your congregation. Be careful using abbreviations since your idea of an abbreviation may differ from someone else’s. It is often easier to purchase a domain name right from the location that will host your site but it is not a requirement. Don’t worry if you already reserved a domain name in a hurry, you can always communicate with your site host to let them know what name you have purchased.

Again, give careful consideration to the size of your congregation, your budget, and your needs when evaluating web site hosts. If your church vision is for rapid growth, then a host that can only provide 10 megabytes of space and 1 email address might not be the best option for you. You always have the freedom to upgrade or change things at a later date but putting as much time into the thought and planning now can help you to avoid more work and greater inconsistencies later.

Here are some sites that offer religious web hosting:

Ark Webs

True Path.com
Christian Web Host 

Advertising your address

Now that your web site is designed and ready to go, what will you do with it? Hide it under a bushel? NO! Once your web site is posted, you have to find ways to let its light shine. Just because you built it does not mean folks will flock to your pages. There is nothing more depressing than a site with a counter registering 14 visits in the past 2 years. But there are ways to avoid this. First, don’t put a hit counter on your page! Second, advertise your site.

Purchase a domain name (your web address – like www.firstchurchlittleton.org) that is descriptive of your congregation and easy to remember. Post, print and plaster this web address everywhere. Every piece of the church’s printed material should have the address. Newspaper and yellow page ads should feature it prominently.

It goes without saying but is seldom a guarantee, make sure your clergy and your laity know the site is there. I have asked countless members of congregations if they had a web site only to get a blank stare.

Ask your denomination or network to post a link from their web site. Inquire at the town hall, chamber of commerce, tourist bureau, etc. if they will link to the church’s site. Submit the site to other religious sites, especially those with similar mission foci.

Prepare your meta text

The most important component of advertising your web site is to have an accurate and descriptive title, description, and keywords embedded in the HTML of the web page – its meta text. Search engines are not "intelligent" but rather are mechanical in their analysis of a page or site. The programs "spiders" or "robots" (how they are usually referred to) are sent out to catalog your site - basically count word frequency, read the title, description, metatags or keywords, and examine a few other things, like the title, heading text, hyperlinks, text, and how high up on a page certain words are or how often certain words occur.

What are meta texts?

These phrases are embedded in the HTML code on each page of the site. To look at the HTML that creates the web pages you see in your browser, Click on the "View" menu on the browser bar, choose "source" and it should open a page that has gibberish all over it and starts with <html> <head>
You should see the meta text – if you have any - looking something like this:

Meta title – Title of the site (and subsequent pages) <TITLE>Hartford Institute for Religion Research</TITLE>

Meta name – Description
<META NAME="Description" CONTENT="The Institute's work is guided by a disciplined understanding of the interrelationship between the inner life and resources of American religious institutions and the possibilities and limits placed on those institutions by the social and cultural context into which God has called them.">

Meta tags – Keywords
<META NAME="Keywords" CONTENT="religion, sociology of religion, organizations, research, congregational resources, bookshelf, learning communities, press resources, denominations, judicatories, congregations, megachurches, megachurch, new religious movements, parachurch groups, women and religion, church growth, church decline, religion and the family, religion and the web, theological education, pentecostalism, homosexuality and religion, church inventory, statistics, designing church sites, hartford seminary">


How does meta text get read?

A "spider" or "web crawler" visits the URL and captures/saves portions of your page and may follow hyperlinks deeper into your site or follow a link to another site. You can’t guarantee a spider that visits your site will go beyond the home page. In any case it is wisest to have quite a few links to your inner pages from your home page. Plus spiders read and record both text and hyperlink text. Be aware that if your home page has only images -- image links have little text for spiders to record – unless you use ALT tags to identify your images and you should!

Load down your home page with metatags and hyperlinks if possible. For instance, examine the Hartford Institute home page. We have all the navigation links on the left, additional links at the top, text links at the bottom, several ALT tags on our images, and descriptive links in the body of the page totaling roughly 70 links into the site from this one page.

What good are meta and ALT tags?

The more accurate these tags are, the better job a search engine does of categorizing your site. It is equally important that the metatags be descriptive and yet commonly used search terms.  Here are a few sites that provide helpful information:


www.wordtracker.com/trial/ up- This site provides a free trial of a database that stores commonly used search terms. This will allow you to better understand what visitors are searching for when you select your metatags. 

Search Engine Guide Wordtracker - Top 500 search terms minus sexual terms  

You should try to have your home or index page tags reflect the entire site in the metatags. Then tailor each set of tags in subsequent pages to reflect exactly what is on each internal page. Sometimes this is just a matter of re-sorting the tags from the front page. Consider making the first 5-6 tags on our inner pages reflect the page accurately and then the other 15-20 are identical to the front page.  It is especially important if you have pages within the site that are quite unique from the rest. Our section on "charitable choice" is unlike the rest of our site in some ways but is heavily traveled because it is a hot topic at present, so we were careful to make the metatags fit the content of that page. 

There are a number of web sites (especially the submission service sites) that will help you generate the HTML code that defines these titles, names and tags. All you have to do is go to the site and answer questions and the site will generate the correct HTML tags. These sites can help:



It is also important to title all your pages and file names accurately and with descriptive phrases. This helps:

  • with search engines,
  • with returning to bookmarks or favorites, and
  • by giving the visitor clues where he or she is in your site.

Submitting your site

Once you have the pages containing the title, description and keywords, you are ready to submit your page to the search engines. There are many ways to do this – and most of them are free. There is no consensus on how many engines to submit your site to – some say only the top ones and other say as many as possible.

  • You could travel to the top search engines like Alta Vista, Lycos, or Google or metasearch engines or a directory such as Yahoo and About and submit your URL manually – they all have "add a site" or "recommend a site" features. Usually it takes a month or two for the spider to get to visit your site. Of course this will not guarantee that you will be ranked first in the search engine, or that you will stay in the top twenty (the choice locations), especially if the search term is a very popular word, like religion or youth or faith.
  • You can also use one of the free services such as www.submit-it.com or www.ineedhits.com/add-it/free/ to submit to numerous sites at once.
  • Another way is to pay those and other submission companies to give your submission some priority such as near the top of a list, or ensure the spiders travel throughout your whole site – cost ranges from $50-$500 or more. www.webposition.com


Getting ranked at the top

As mentioned above, using good meta text in the title, image and links tags, thinking about your key words, and having these metatags reflect the content of the page all help in your ranking. Also helpful in a high ranking is the number of links into and out of your page. Some engines favor sites with many links pointing at them. They want to have the main pages of a site, like the home page, in their search file rather than minor pages deep in a site.  There are other tricks that folks use to get ranked in the top 20 but many are not legitimate and should be discouraged. 


Other ways of getting found

  • Name of your site- Nearly all of our sites have clear, easy to guess names hartfordinstitute.org louisville-institute.org, alban.org, practicingourfaith.org - research shows that many people try these name links often before going to the search engines.
  • Directories- Submit your site to directories of links that fit your content.
  • Reciprocal links- Trade links with other sites that are similar to yours. Most sites are happy to do this even if they are competing for hits and traffic with you. Hint: have a short, accurate description of your site written for other sites to use as an annotation to your link – or offer them a graphic, your logo, etc. if that is more appropriate.
  • Using your address on everything- Make sure you print your web address on every piece of literature, letter, business card, ad, that you produce.
  • ETC – Print ads, post cards, spam email, newsgroup postings, Banner ads, pay for clicks programs, and affiliate programs.


Maintaining your presence 

Once you have established your web site, you must maintain your presence by keeping your site fresh with content and free of errors. We offer several thoughts to keep in mind to be sure that your site stays useful on a daily basis:

  • Update event calendars regularly - Your visitors, whether first time or frequent, will be interested in knowing about your congregation's activities. Out of date information gives the impression that providing activity information is a low priority. If weekly calendar updates seem overwhelming, consider creating a monthly event calendar so you need to update less frequently.
  • Check the status of the site often - It is a good idea to visit your site at least once a week in the most frequently used browsers - Internet Explorer, Netscape Navigator and AOL’s browser to check for errors. Always check the site after you make changes or additions. Regular periodic checks are necessary since your site might experience a problem, and if so you will want to know it as soon as possible. You might consider asking a group of volunteer teen web surfers to spend a few minutes visiting the site in different browsers each week. They can notify you of any problems they encounter.up
  • Respond quickly to email requests - Whether the request is for more information or a correct link, a quick response to visitors shows that you are not trying to hide behind the "web wall." Just as you would greet visitors to your service, follow up any email to the site with a quick thank you, even if you need to hold off on actually fulfilling the request. You may want to consider having web site emails routed to an address that you know will be checked regularly. Don’t leave your virtual visitors waiting at your door.
  • Add new information continually - One thing that keeps visitors coming back is knowing that they will find new information each visit. This new content might be links to web sites that are useful for your members, your pastor’s sermon text, or articles of interest. For example, you may want to bring the recent release of survey information from the Faith Communities Today project to your congregation’s attention, or provide them with links to your town’s informational sites, or the best web sites that offer parenting tips.

If your site serves as an information directory for your web users, they will be more likely to come to your site first rather than go it alone on the web and conduct their own searches. This encourages a sense of community and trust in your web users, with your or the church leadership acting as editors and screeners of web content. The web can be scary and overwhelming for some persons; but you can help put them at ease by giving them what they need to know in one trusted location.

  • Encourage feedback - An easy way to maintain and develop your site is to encourage visitor feedback. You should always ask for suggestions and provide an email address, guest book or feedback form to facilitate the sharing of these suggestions. Listening to your users helps you to create new information that those travel your site really want.
  • Resubmit your site to search engines - Although you may have submitted your site to several search engines, consider looking for new search engines or collections of links that may be newly created. You might try paying for search engine submission. Resubmit every six months, especially if you have added new pages, changed page locations, or if you revised the content considerably.


Other Web Site Construction Guides for Congregations 

Web Site Development for Religious Organizations

How to make a church Web page  
by the Presbyterian Church, USA

Putting your church on the web  
by the Disciples of Christ Church

Creating Church Web Pages  
information provided by the General Board of Global Ministries of the United Methodist Church.

Web Site Development for Religious Organizations
A site offering extensive information on planning, publishing, and maintenance of organizational web sites.


The Hartford Institute Webmaster Survey

Summary of a Survey of Church Webmasters 
Students from Hartford’s Seminary Fall 2000 course on Religion and the Internet surveyed webmasters from 63 U.S. congregational web sites.  These sites represented Muslim, Jewish, Catholic, and both conservative and liberal Protestantism congregations. Although the sample was small, there are many interesting findings from this glimpse into the process of creating and maintaining a congregational web site.


Reviews of congregational web sites

Read our reviews of select congregational web sites.  This section analyzes congregational web sites and points out positive aspects while offering some suggestions that may improve the quality of that site.





Hartford Seminary
77 Sherman Street
Hartford, CT 06105
© 2000 - 2006 Hartford Seminary, Hartford Institute for Religion Research