‘The parish is the presence of the Church in a given territory, an environment for hearing God’s word, for growth in the Christian life, for dialogue, proclamation, charitable outreach, worship and celebration’. This statement from Evangelii Gaudium lays down a inspiringly clear definition for the purpose of a Catholic parish, which is the single most important place to start when approaching parish websites. For many parishes today, their website looks like a notice board; a stream of outdated information with a weekly newsletter upload. If we take a step back from this, analyse the nature of a parish, and look at how other organisations use their websites, we can see clearly that the purpose of the parish website is to be a hub which supports the mission of the Church outside of the building. In other words, a parish website has the potential to be invitational, to be inspiring, and to facilitate the deepening of a relationship with Christ.
An important note to make clear is that the parish website will never be a replacement for Sacramental worship, the epicentre of our faith. Therefore, everything I will talk about here is solely in support of a parish website facilitating personal growth, and invitation into a relationship with Christ alongside the Sacraments.
As a digital hub, a parish website is simply a tool. A tool to help parishioners grow outside of their Sunday obligation and invite onlookers into a joyful Christ-centred community. Are simple tools of utmost importance? Perhaps not, but let’s examine other tools we use before we deem a parish website a tertiary need.
A church hall, crypt, or other function room has commonly been a staple of parish community life. A space of hospitality set aside for a community to come together and grow in formation and friendship, and often exemplifies a middle ground where outsiders can enter without standing out like a sore thumb. For many parishes, their function hall is of substantial importance and without it, they wouldn’t be the community they are. These spaces are looked after by the community, fundraised for regularly, and invested in by the parish. This concept is similar to how I see the importance of a parish website. A parish is, of course, still a parish without a website. However, it’s lacking a tool which is significantly beneficial to community life, formation, and growth.
Jump to 2020, the year which has left many of us asking “without Sunday Mass attendance, what makes us Catholic?”. Overnight, the parish website became of even greater importance, a platform to gather the dispersed community, unite them in prayer, and inspire them with hope whilst separated from Sacraments. Priests and lay leaders all over the world contributed enormous effort to unite their communities, producing an abundance of incredible content, streaming an immeasurable number of Masses, and reaching billions of people. This sudden shift into digital ministry has allowed us to see just how alive our faith can be online when our churches are forced to close their doors. The question is, do parish websites have less importance when this pandemic is over? My position is that they do not, we have now raised the bar for digital ministry and it’s important that we keep it this way. Our parish websites should be inviting and beautiful, they should be maintained and kept clean, they should unite people together in prayer and raise them up if formation. In addition, our parishes should be alive and active on social media, the pulse of today’s generation, so that we gather together and invite others.
Today, 96% of the UK has access to the internet and statistics show us that the number of people searching for questions related to “God” has over tripled in recent months. Pope Francis calls the internet “the digital highway”, he describes it as “…a street teeming with people who are often hurting, men and women looking for salvation or hope”. If this is the case — and I believe it is — then we must make our home there, sharing the good news with the busy streets as did the Apostles.
Measuring success of the parish website is comparable to measuring success in the parish itself; it’s difficult. Just like you can’t quantify how much a parish is living out the Great Commission, you cannot quantify how effective a website is at facilitating growth. However, there are a number of ways you can evaluate your own parish website and its effectiveness.
When a parish website is made up of content which is relevant to its audience and the current time, this is a great thing. Authors of content for parish websites should be focusing on what’s important to the parish and where the focus of the parish priest lies. For some that might be formation and community, others might focus on outreach and evangelisation. This is a point that should always be challenged, every week you should be running content through criteria which lines up to your purpose, and if that content isn’t working, tweak the focus.
Diversifying content by introducing images, audio, and especially video is great for making the message more accessible. Only a handful of people want to read a twelve-hundred-word article (ironic in this context). If you’re able to minister to your physical congregation by standing up, what stops you from doing so to your digital congregation? Video content is the single most accessible media used today, and most people have access to a smartphone or tablet with a fantastic camera. If you are particularly against recording yourself or want a place to start, begin by sharing videos from around the web which people will find inspiring.
Cut content down, and cut it again. A parish website shouldn’t be an archive of out of date content and newsletters. Question the purpose of every piece of content and if it doesn’t line up with the purpose of your website, cut it. Use analytics to determine how many people are actually looking at the content versus how many people you think are looking at it.
Commonly today, we see parishes using a Facebook page or blog as a parish website, this is like a shop window packed with products but no shop behind it. A website is the home base that you invite people into and should be invested in as such. With today’s technology, there is no reason to be without a parish website.
Exposure is of great importance, particularly when you’re spending time and effort on content. If a parish website was a shop down an alley off the high street, social media and Google are the signs which point to the shop. Without clear signage, the only people to visit the website are either those who know it’s there, or those who come there by accident.
Everything that makes a parish website great may be incredibly effective or completely ineffective. You’ll never know unless you’re regularly monitoring the analytics of your website. Each week you should analyse and compare content you put out to see how it performs. Make small changes to see what affects the impression rate (number of visitors); this might be a change in title, change in narrative, the addition of images or video, etc.
One of the most important notes is that updating your website shouldn’t be something which you dread working on. It should be approached with the same careful consideration and joy of preaching a homily or preparing a confirmation course. This is the window which will allow you to minister to your digital parish, not filing tax returns. If it feels like the dreaded part of the week, there is possibly something wrong with the content you are uploading or the system you are using is too confusing. Either way, this is where I would recommend reaching out for some help and speaking to someone that can help.
What works well is, of course, dependant on the parish, however, there are a number of clear practices which drastically improve a site which you may have seen around.
Every now and then you will find a website where the authors understand the purpose of the site and have built around that. It’s clear because the messaging runs through all of their content and has a unity to it. The contrasting delivery is one which has a medley of content with different purposes.
The people of today are more visual than ever before, almost every website and post we engage with is visual. That’s why being visual by using images and video is no longer enough, we have to endeavour to be unique. When a parish invests (either time or money) in their media to improve it, it helps. For example, most people can agree that a video with clear audio and a well-lit room is more engaging than one without, regardless of the content.
Some of the best websites we have seen are very simple, however, they have a bank of great photos to use because they have one or two photoshoot Sundays each year. Creating a bank of good and new photos is a small yet huge step towards improving image, not only on the website but in publications too.
It’s important to use language which people understand. Some of the best sites we have seen are ones which use incredibly accessible language and avoid Catholic jargon that is seldom understood by everyday Catholics, let alone outsiders. Some words cannot be replaced, in which case it’s important to explain. A good practice is to ask a non-Christian to look over the content and tell you what it means without explaining anything. If they should understand it but they don’t, change it.
A website we found a while ago had the purpose of bringing people to the church and inviting them to know more about Christ. The navigational titles read “Church” and “Jesus”. Whilst this may not be fitting for most parishes, it’s a perfect example of creating a simple navigation where the visitor knows exactly what they’re clicking on.
The Catholic Church has always been known for incredible architecture, art, and media. When you find a website that is beautifully and distinctly Catholic, it separates it completely. It’s a common misconception that in order for our sites to look attractive and engaging they must look like something other than that of a Catholic church; that’s not true.
The Peter's House team would like to thank you for taking the time to read this and encourage you to get in touch if you have any questions, we are always happy to help where we can.