Communicating Congregational Values

By Lynne M. Baab
To be published online, Building Church Leaders, February 2008

I spent the better part of two years looking at congregational websites as I wrote my doctoral dissertation in the field of communication studies. One of the things I noticed was the strategic use of links by congregations to communicate their values.

Almost every church wants to express a warm welcome to potential visitors. Some use: “Welcome!” or “Christ Church extends a warm welcome” or “Join us for worship.”

Other church websites provide links specifically for newcomers: “New to Christ Church? Click here.” Or “Information for Visitors.” Sometimes the link for newcomers is placed on a menu, but often the link is set apart with large type or a graphic. Sometimes the page for visitors is structured in a question-and-answer format with questions about location of the church, what to wear, what to expect during a typical worship service, and so on. Sometimes the link takes the viewer to a letter from the minister expressing welcome and giving basic information about the church.

Which strategy is more welcoming—words of invitation or links for newcomers?

Most people in Christian leadership love words and believe in their power. But this can blind us to the power inherent in website structure—which is based on hyperlinks—to communicate values. The links used on a homepage of a church’s website communicate what matters to that congregation, without using the word “values” or “priorities.”

In many cases, the pages for newcomers linked from the homepage show careful consideration of the needs of newcomers and thoughtful anticipation of their questions and anxieties. This care and thoughtfulness, which begins with the link on the homepage, communicates a powerful welcome without necessarily using the word.

In the same way, some congregations talk about the significance of volunteering and learning together as ways to build community. Other congregations have clear links on their homepages to service opportunities, classes, and small groups. Some websites talk about care for the poor, while other websites provide links to volunteer opportunities in local or international communities in need. After looking at so many websites for two years, I am convinced that links are a vivid and effective way to communicate which activities matter to a church.

Links to denominational resources or events at other churches communicate that the congregation is connected to a broader Christian community. Links to community arts groups or civic organizations indicate that the congregation is embedded its neighborhood or town. Links to Mapquest or Paypal indicate that people in the congregation are comfortable with the internet. An absence of links to anything outside the congregation indicates that the congregation views itself as self-sufficient.

Some people may “read” these links differently and attribute different meanings or values to them. That’s one of the challenges with any form of non-verbal communication. A variety of meanings can be associated with the same object or action. Nevertheless, prominent links to specific ministries or events generally give priority to those activities. Links on menus generally don’t carry the same weight as links that stand alone on a homepage. The font size used on a link also conveys significance.

The presence or absence of links, as well as their placement, may happen almost randomly in the design of a website. If so, the values perceived by a viewer may or may not correspond with the congregation’s values.

Words certainly communicate values. On websites, other things communicate values as well. Links, photos, graphics, and overall layout contribute to the message of the website about the church it represents. All of these must be evaluated to see if together they are saying what the congregational leaders desire to communicate.

What is your church website communicating?