The point of my project is to study how to create effective church websites, so you would think a book called Church Website Design: A Step by Step Approach would be a fantastic resource for me to read and recommend. Sadly, that’s not the case. The self-published author, Timothy Fish, loses credibility when his own website is out of date and the book’s website doesn’t work. Also, the many typos in the book (Pg. 8: “Are thess websites similar to what a church might need?” Pg. 10: “always look fro ways to show off” Pg. 195: “take their place when the leave, quite or die”) are difficult for me to get past. Basically, I read this book so you don’t have to. Here’s my book review:
In Step 1: “Decide to Have a Website,” Fish begins by offering reasons why a church ought to have a website. Wisely, he acknowledges that “It is better for a church to not have a website than to have a website that is poorly maintained.” (Pg. 3) After looking at a lot of church websites this month, I think the worst church websites I’ve found are the ones that are outdated. Granted, if a church doesn’t have a website, it essentially doesn’t exist for the majority of people looking for a church, but if a church has an outdated website, it looks like it is run by incompetent leadership, which is definitely off-putting to potential visitors, as well as to members. Fish also addresses concerns about the cost of a website, arguing that a church can get a website for under a $100 annual budget.
Step 2: “Select a Ministry Team” discusses the need for a team of volunteers or staff to create and maintain a website for a church. This section is similar to Mark Stephenson’s discussion of the same topic in Web-Empowered Ministry (here’s my review), but less comprehensive. I’d recommend Stephenson’s section over Fish’s.
Step 3: “Determine the Content” talks about my primary topic for this project – what goes on an effective church website? Unfortunately, while some of Fish’s suggestions are good, some of them are terrible.
“What are people in your community doing if they are not interested in church? Are they farmers? Are they engineers? Do they hunt or go fishing? Do they do needle work? If you want these people to visit your site then give these people a reason. For example: you might provide information about where the fish are biting in your area. If the information is accurate then the fishermen are likely to start visiting your site just to get that information. While they are there you can tell them other things that you feel they really need to know.” (Pg. 17)
Suggestions like this lead to some church websites that look like pages full of random widgets, like the weather forecast. Fish’s advise is the exact opposite of Less Clutter. Less Noise. I’d definitely read Kem Meyer’s book before I’d read this book. Here’s my review of that book.
Step 4: “Design the Website” offers some process advice for creating a church website. There is also a discussion of copyright law as it applies to church sites. Much of Fish’s advice, such as laying out a site on paper first and designing for maintainability and usability, is good, so this chapter is still mostly relevant to today’s sites.
Step 5: “Learn the Tools of the Trade” attempts to introduce specific code-level technologies including XHTML, CSS, and even CGI scripting with Microsoft ASP. If you have absolutely no idea what you just read, and you really want to learn how to hand-code a website from a book where the examples are all about churches, this could be useful. However, if you don’t insist that your examples be about churches, there are many books available that cover how to code a website which are both much more detailed and much more comprehensible. If that’s really what you’re looking for, check out something like Learning Web Design. However, I would strongly argue that a church website should not be hand-coded. Instead, use a modern content management system (CMS) like WordPress. If you’re interested in an introduction to WordPress tailored to the needs of a church website, check out WordPress for Churches or a more general, but more comprehensive book like: WordPress: The Missing Manual. While I applaud Fish’s attempts to provide step by step details of how to create a church website, the reality is that his book is outdated and there are much simpler, more effective – yet still free – ways to accomplish the same goals now.
Step 6: “Find a Server” has some useful suggestions to consider, but it feels dated. Essentially, if you’re looking for a server, you get what you pay for. Free serving for a church is a bad idea, but you shouldn’t need to spend more than $80 per year. Don’t try to self host. Also, adding modern CMS changes what you’re looking for. I’d suggest something like GoDaddy.com, which is what this site is hosted on. (Affiliate Link) Alternatively, if you have a larger budget, look for companies that offer hosting and CMS programs intended specifically for churches.
Step 7: “Do Detailed Design” is one of the more useful chapters in the book. There are suggestions of how to design a basic layout for a good church website, which are still somewhat relevant, also somewhat superseded by the existence of content management systems and templates. There’s a lengthy discussion on choosing a color scheme, some pointless examples of using CSS with Fish’s example website, and a good discussion of the purpose and necessity of a design review.
Step 8: “Develop the Code” introduces using Microsoft Access and ASP scripting. Pages of code are included, and I suppose if you really wanted to learn to do ASP programming by studying example code you could, but again, you certainly don’t need to! There’s no need to use Access or ASP for a church website unless you already know it. If your goal is to learn Access or ASP, this isn’t the right book for you either.
Step 9: “Testing the Website” is a short chapter on the necessity of testing your church’s website. Essentially, you should do it (or preferably, someone else should do it). Testing is important. Moving on…
Step 10: “Deploy the Site” is rather misleadingly titled. There’s nothing at all here about actually deploying the site to a server. Instead, there’s a discussion of how to promote the site to your congregation. Make sure your church’s printed material mentions the site, perhaps mention it from the pulpit occasionally, put it on your church’s sign, put it on the bulletin, etc. There’s also a brief explanation of SEO (search engine optimization) without actually using the term. This section is still relevant, but for a church website should probably be deemphasized. Write for people, not search engines.
Step 11: “Stay the Course” might be the most needed chapter of the entire book. Fish talks about the need for ongoing maintenance, a topic I’m really passionate about at the moment. He suggests creating a defined schedule of when content needs to be updated and who’s responsible. This chapter also contains a couple of pages on setting goals for your church website, the meaning of the stats provided by your hosting company, and the need to train someone to take your place in your church’s web ministry.
Overall, this book represents a good effort for the time (it was self-published in 2007) but it’s outdated. While the methods described here will work, there are now ways to create an effective church website which are far simpler and will produce better looking, more functional results. Unfortunately, I can’t really recommend Church Website Design.