In one month, I'll be taking my daughter to college. She’s headed into an early start program, approximately 1,800 miles and three states away from me, away from her church family. She’s my youngest of four and my only girl. I’m not looking forward to this, but I am trying to be supportive (sometimes I succeed). My nerves would be greatly helped if she can find a church in her new town.
I remember when I was in college, back in the dark ages (i.e. pre-internet), I had difficulty finding a church. I tried the trusty yellow pages and had some interesting experiences. I ended up going to four services in four years—not a great track record. I would like a better experience for my daughter. I would also like her to have a Christ-centered support network when she’s so far from home.
Older, and hopefully wiser, I turn to my new trusty friend, the internet, ready to find some viable candidates for her to check out. What I found, however, is that our church websites are less than friendly to “outsiders”. Our websites are customized to meet the needs of our congregants. Our sites show that we all “love God and love others”; that we all profess to be “welcoming and friendly”. We all have the flashy banners and scrolling ribbons listing our Vacation Bible School and Wednesday Night Programs. Some of us even have recordings of our services online. At face value they look fabulous, unless you’re searching for a church from a distance like we are.
The “visitor” sections of our websites seem to be an afterthought. They still list our Holy Week schedules. Our directions are pretty much “East of North Street near the Mall”. Trust me, if you aren’t familiar with a city, this doesn’t help. Many sites don’t list the average Sunday worship size. This would help me identify a small or large church. And those sermons posted? They’re mostly the “traditional” service. I didn’t find any “contemporary” services to listen and review.
Finally, our sites are full of “church speak” that is, programs and titles only “insiders” would understand. REALM is on Monday; Cornerstone is on hiatus for the summer; catch the latest in “the Call”; “New Creation” is on a mission trip. Without some form of footnote or tag, I have no idea what any of these are. And no one has anything listed for Young Adults/College and Career. We all go straight from boldly advertising our Youth/High School ministry to listing our Adult ministries. Further clicking reveals these adult ministries are typically segregated by Men and Women and typically meet during the day. Really?? What 19-year-old wants to study Thessalonians with what sounds like a room full of grey haired women? I’m only being slightly facetious here since I have plenty of grey hair. But that’s what it sounds like to me, the “visitor”.
“Baptizing More Than We Bury” is a two-pronged approach. We absolutely need to “go out and make disciples”, but we also need to be attractive for those “actively seeking”. Yes, my daughter is a believer, but chances are she’ll have three roommates who aren’t. How can she “invite” when she can’t find a place that looks attractive enough to want to visit?
I am determined to help my daughter find a church. I know people I can ask for guidance, but what about those out there who don’t? Those people who are new to a town or area? Who get tired of clicking, clicking, clicking and not finding any helpful information? I challenge us all to take a few moments to look at our websites, our Facebook pages, and whatever else we use to shine the light of our Savior. Are our websites up to date? Do we have a process for keeping it this way? Are our sites meaningful for both visitors and congregants? Would a visitor understand who we are and what we offer? Do we have understandable directions? Can someone easily find our contact information, send us an e-mail and get a response? Or is it buried three clicks deep?
We are in a bold and exciting Missional time. Let’s use every opportunity and tool available to reflect these values to the world in an inviting way.
Terri McNabb is an elder at Trinity United Presbyterian of Modesto, CA and the Chair of Ministry Partnership Teams (MPT) for the Presbytery of Northern California & Nevada. Terri is a single mother of four kids.