Beautiful Websites Will Save the World
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A dear classmate of mine wrote me today to ask for examples of good parish website design—the “best to examine for style, layout, information and the most welcoming to the non-Orthodox.” My reply was short on examples, but long on some fundamental design principles. I wondered if maybe I had not really answered the question my friend asked. In concluding, I realized why I think these principles are so important: I have seen too many bad parish websites. Getting a parish website right is not optional. It is a pastoral and evangelical necessity. Here is my reply to my friend (edited for style and content):
I recommend the website of St Athanasius parish in Kentucky as an excellent example of a site that is well-designed. It is beautiful, easy to use, functional, and practical. I highly recommend that you contact Fr Justin Patterson and their current webmaster.
I can also tell you that Orthodox Web Solutions provide an enormous number of parishes and other Orthodox institutions with web site solutions. Once you go to their website, you will see an extremely familiar design that is virtually copied and pasted all over the web. Since I see promotional quotes from Fr Jason Foster, you might want to contact him and see what he thinks of their service.
Good design on your site is hugely important for everyone and especially for non-Orthodox. It must be attractive and functional and look professional. Common actions (such as finding service times, emailing the priest or other contact personnel, finding directions) should be easy to do and basic information easy to find without a lot of extra thought.
Most importantly: The website must be current, and visitors must feel that the website is a reliable source of information.
- Necessary current information:
- Phone number
- A parish really needs a dedicated phone line. If the parish does not have a dedicated line, this needs to be the number of someone willing to serve as a contact.
- Email address or a working contact form
- This should go to the priest or a dedicated contact person. If there is a specific contact person, a method of contacting the priest (option in the contact form, a separate form, or the email address) also should be provided to reduce the potential for sensitive or confidential information to be sent to the wrong person. Anyone in a position as contact must be trustworthy in confidential matters.
- Schedule of services
- The weekly services that are always served plus a calendar of upcoming festal services, molebni, pannikhida, etc. This can be done easily by creating a calendar in Google Calendar, and including (embedding) it in a page on the website.
- Location of the parish
- Directions to the parish or its current meeting location
- These should be easy to follow. Include a link to the parish on Google Maps or Mapquest so that people can get directions or send it to their phone for GPS.
- Which church/archdiocese/eparchy/etc. the parish is part of and who your bishop is.
- This may sound obvious, or it may sound like too much information, but it is vital that Orthodox see at a glance which bishop and church/archdiocese has authority here. With all the posers (episcopi vagantes) around, many Orthodox instinctively know to look for the real thing.
- Not strictly necessary, but very good:
- Content that is regularly updated.
- E.g., a blog, weekly sermons, blurbs about upcoming events, etc. These should be datelined. This gives a potential visitor a warm fuzzy that the site is regularly tended and hasn’t been abandoned (i.e., is reliable). Only do this if you plan to update it regularly. If the latest blog update is from 2007, this gives me a cold prickly.
- Photos and good videos of the parish in action.
- Photos of liturgical services (especially the major feasts: passion week/Pascha; Holy Cross; Christmas; Theophany/Blessing of waters). This gives a potential visitor a sense of the vibrant life of the parish.
- Some helpful tips for first time (non-Orthodox and Orthodox) visitors.
- Many parishes use Kh. Frederica Mathewes-Green‘s “Twelve Things I Wish I’d Known”.
- A password protected area for parishioners.
- This can be nice for sharing things you do not necessarily want published to the entire world.
- A few don’ts:
- Don’t animate.
- Leave the animation for Tumblr and BuzzFeed. No animated GIFs, Flash or Java. (Most of these are, thankfully, out of fashion, so you probably won’t have a zealous webmaster hoping to use them.) One exception would be: Videos of homilies, parish events, etc. Use standard technologies for these, when possible, and not Flash (For example, load them to a parish channel on YouTube and then embed it on the parish website).
- Don’t use a lot of different fonts and font sizes.
- It is distracting and unprofessional. Keep it simple. (For some basic information on that, including a few technical tips for your webmaster, see “Twenty Do’s and Don’ts of Effective Web Typography”.)
- Don’t drown them in jargon.
- When you absolutely must use Orthodox-ese, provide a quick translation. For example, “This Friday, Sep 26, we will have a pannikhida (memorial service) for Nadia Soloviev’s mother.” This is good practice for any parish publication (bulletins, flyers, etc.).
Finally, a word on “welcoming to the non-Orthodox.” The most welcoming thing you can do for anyone who visits your parish will be to demonstrate that you care for them. For a visitor to your website, that care will be demonstrated by the website being informative and reliable. They are visiting your website, because they are either curious about your church or Orthodoxy or planning to visit. If they cannot find the information they need or if the information is out of date, this will be registered on some level as a disregard for them, since it is in fact a disregard for any visitor to your website. In our age, the website is the equivalent of last century’s phone book listing or classified ad. It will be, for many, the first experience of your parish, so it should be professional and demonstrate by its design and reliability that you care whether they come or not.
Thank you for thinking of me and asking. Forgive me if this was over the top in any way. This long reply comes from experience in creating and administering websites, as well as many years of frustration as a layman with abandoned or poorly maintained parish websites. Many priests simply have no idea how vital the usable, reliable website is for their parish’s evangelical outreach.
Have I forgotten anything? Did I overemphasize something? Do you have any parish websites to recommend? What are your thoughts? Add your suggestions below.
- These are special services based on the structure of the morning prayer service, matins. A moleben is a service of supplication to the Lord or to any saint. The pannikhida is a memorial service for the departed. ↩
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