Few Presbyterian churches are constructed without a front door.
The idea, of course, is to make it easy for people to find their way inside and hear the Good News.
But many churches are built without one, keynoter Carol Howard Merritt told the 660 people attending Synod of Lakes and Prairies’ Synod School this week at Buena Vista University.
Today’s front door is the church’s website.
“People won’t go to a restaurant or stay in a hotel without visiting their website,” she said this week. “You may think no one in your rural town cares if you have a [web presence] but they do. It’s that important,” she added with a smile. “Tell your session I said you have to have it.”
Websites can explain to visitors what to expect when they visit your church, she said.
“Think about walking somebody through your service who has never been to church before. Explain what the congregation has been doing. Even people in our own congregations often don’t know what we’re doing.”
From time to time, church leaders should also run their church name through a search engine to find out what people are saying about their house of worship. Merritt told the story of one negative review ― from a person who did not like the politics and practices of a church she served ― driving down the church’s online rating to one star.
The solution? Merritt contacted Facebook friends and asked them to explain why they loved and frequented the church. Their testimonials continue to bring visitors to the church.
Merritt asked those present to halt their criticism of people who spend large chunks of their day engaging in social media. It’s a little like a non-southerner criticizing the South.
“It is people bad-mouthing what is basically my way of life,” she said. “Just stop with the judging – I’m begging you. I hear all the time, what is it with these people? They have way too much time on their hands. If you criticize, you are cutting off an entire generation.”
In fact, she noted, the fastest-growing demographic among Facebook users is people 65 and older. “They’ve realized they can see their grandchildren there,” she said.
The best church websites are in “constant conversation” with people, she said, rotating sermons, calendar and newsletter items and other pieces of news people can use. Many churches use their website as a place where the “highly-nomadic generation” of 20- somethings and 30-somethings stay connected.
“It can take them a while to find a new church home,” Merritt said, considering young adults move, on average, every 2.7 years. “Just having a website is an incredible opportunity for your church to minister to a generation.”
At this point of her career in professional ministry, Merritt said she seeks a balance between the speed at which people can organize around their passion ― via the Internet ― and “sitting in meeting after meeting so that we can do the same thing this Sunday as we did last Sunday.”
“Having passion and excitement ― all of that is great for the 15 seconds that it happens, but without organization we can’t make needed change,” she said. “How can we begin to work together to take the passion and the immediacy of a movement that is often the fruit of the high-speed Internet world and begin to marry it with people who have been doing on-the-ground social justice work for decades?”
Mike Ferguson is a ruling elder at the United Presbyterian Church of Lone Tree (Iowa), a reporter for “The Muscatine Journal”― the newspaper where Mark Twain got his start ― editor of “Out and About, the enewsletter of the Presbytery of East Iowa, and a frequent contributor (especially this week) to Presbyterian News Service.