Interviews with Church Designers

Browsing the various CSS galleries is one way to gauge which industries place value on good design. I was surprised these past couple years to see a big surge in lavishly designed church websites. As a non-churchgoer, I wasn’t sure I understood why so many churches suddenly wanted a cutting-edge image for themselves. What especially caught my eye were the dark and grungy styles, something my childhood church (my only point of reference) would have never considered. I began wondering who made these decisions and how they served the church.

I decided to do some interviews with a handful of respected church designers and marketers. I’m not fond of design Q&As that consist of “what brushes do you use” or “who are your influences” so I tried to ask challenging questions. I got some very thoughtful responses and the more I read, I realized it was me who was out of the loop. Churches wanting to look cutting edge was part of a more complicated discussion.

So I drafted an article and pitched it to SitePoint. Their editor helped get everything in working order, but due to their forum policy of avoiding flamewar topics (religion, politics, etc), it was decided I should focus on design and not explicitly religion. This meant a lot of the responses got heavily cut.

The final product is “The Role of Design in Modern Church Marketing” and the feedback has been pretty good. But I didn’t want those original responses to get lost, so with everyone’s permission I’m reprinting them below, unedited.


The Role of Design

Q: What are the primary goals of churches who pay for high-end design and branding?

Nathan Smith (SonSpring): I think it would be an over generalization to say that all churches have the same primary goals, but I think one common motivation for high-end design is greater visibility. Churches with a true heart for ministry all want to spread the gospel message to as may people as possible, and they understand how using various mediums can help facilitate that. Then, there are others that keep an eye on what the larger churches are doing, and seek to imitate them simply to create the illusion that they share something in common. Still, the net result is that churches big and small are finally paying attention to quality design.

James Dalman (Church Communications Pro): Mainly the goal is to express themselves with authenticity and in a way that jives with the people they want to reach. There is usually a HUGE disconnect because many churches paint a picture of what they would like to be instead of who they really are (Perception vs. Reality). The other reason usually has to do with ego. They just want to look cool or better than the guy next door.

Matt Adams (Factor 1 Studios): Generally we find that most of our High end design clients are looking to not only compete with other churches, but also with main stream media. With so much marketing targeted at consumers today, churches continue to feel pressure to earn the attention of a potential church goer away from the likes of computer companies, auto dealers, the movies, and tv shows. These churches also want to be attractional to the unchurched. I’ll be honest and say some try and take it too far.

Chris Merritt (Pixel Light Creative): I think it’s rooted in the fact that churches are beginning to understand the importance of their web presence. Only a few years ago, a website was just a helpful afterthought for many churches. Now, the local church is beginning to grasp that the web is their best (and possibly only) shot at engaging many potential visitors. Investing in a good brand and web presence has now become a vital part of how a church presents itself to it’s community and the world.

Dustin Stearman (Church Plant Media): The modern Church strives to prove that the message Christ is relevant to our current culture. This pushes the church to stay cutting edge with music, design, teachings, etc. One main goal of the Church is to use current/effective design to draw people to the local church so they can hear about Christ. We work mainly with church plants who are just starting out, creating their identity. These churches use relevant, current design trends to portray an image of who they are as a community. To attract non-believers and believers alike, churches see great value in keeping their design top-notch.

Q: Design is often considered a form of problem-solving mixed with storytelling. How is this applied to church design?

Nathan Smith: The best part about doing design for the “big-C” church, is that the message is timeless, and is based upon firm foundations of the greatest story ever told. Therefore, the design aspect is not so much about advertising or making a pitch, as it is connecting with people at the core of their souls. The challenge is to faithfully convey the ancient truth of Christ, helping to contextualize the powerful notion of forgiveness, keeping the central theme the same while applying it to the context of today. It is also important not to embellish anything, for God’s redemption stands on its own merit.

James Dalman: We have the greatest story to tell and visual stimulation is an awesome way to help people remember stories. Jesus taught in parables because it works. Churches should not be any different.

Matt Adams: We find that most of our clients are trying to communicate how they are different. So many Americans have been burned by church, or turned off by church. Sometimes the reasons why someone no longer attends church is so minor, that often communicating to them how this church is different is the key theme.

Chris Merritt: Your definition is accurate, in my opinion. The problem churches face when it comes to their website is effectively and authentically communicating who they are to users. There’s a “story” to tell there, and I’m not talking about when the church was founded and who their senior pastor is. The story that needs to be told is how God is moving in their community. People want to know that God is active and that a congregation is earnestly engaging in the mission of God. Secondly, churches have to make their website useful to it’s members, rather than just a brochure. Sadly, this is a step many churches overlook. The web has made communication so much easier now, so it would be a huge mistake for a community to not take advantage of the usefulness of the web.

Dustin Stearman: We as web designers have a responsibility to create a unique design that is a good marriage of form and function. I think in the case of church design (and other venues), good design comes about with a little stronger focus on the “storytelling” aspect as I think it best brings balance to usability and creativity. It makes the designer more emotional and empathetic in the creative process. Too much focus on problem-solving lets the function create the foundation of the design. I think that most good church designers balance usability and creativity into every step of the design process.

Q: Excluding the examples above, what’s most often lacking in church design?

Nathan Smith: I think what’s most lacking, even in some more exemplary design, is a focus on the gospel. Not to single out any particular preacher, but many of them focus on a self-help approach to religion, rather than the personhood of Father, Son and Holy Spirit as the triune Living God. I think of it like this: If we are truly seeking the Lord, he will find us. For, it is not he that is lost, and we kid ourselves if we think that our post-modern approach of moral relativism is somehow more evolved than he who is the same: yesterday, today, forever. God is the very definition of a supreme constant, the very embodiment of infinity who once walked amongst us. That is the real, potent, unapologetic news that we need to hear and be reminded of: The Creator of all humbled himself before creation, to redeem it. I think good church design would focus not so much on programs and events, or social media, as if they have intrinsic value. These types of things are all frivolity, if not to serve the Master.

James Dalman: Professionalism, authenticity, knowledge, looking from the outside instead of within.

Matt Adams: Planning, and good content. A great design can only obtain the users attention for a few seconds. If the content is lame, out dated, or cumbersome, the user will move on. Also thinking through all the site flow, page layout, and structure is key to good user interaction. The sites that we do get the time and budget to really explore the users role, are some of our most successful sites.

Chris Merritt: Following up on my last answer, I think many churches fail to take advantage of the powerful utility of the web. Connecting people, organizing, and simply making information available can be of huge benefit to those who use it. On the actual design side, I think churches are too often satisfied copying the look and feel of other popular designs, rather than creating something original.

Dustin Stearman: Personally, I think the thing that is most lacking in church website design is a strong focus on function. I feel like too many designers focus too much on the form in attempts to pull off the style that the church is looking for and at times, overlook the functionality and usability of the site.

Another issue is too many churches rely on imitation and just want to follow the next trend that the top church leaders create. The Church should be pushing the envelope and leading the design trends.

Q: Are design choices made by internal church teams, external design firms, or is there collaboration between the two?

Nathan Smith: The best answer to that question is: It depends.

Some churches have the budget to keep a full-time design and web development staff working on-site. Others use outside firms or a team of distributed contractors on a per-project basis. Still others lack the wherewithal to create something custom, and opt to go with a template based approach. Along this spectrum are varying degrees of input and creative control.

If a church has a strong vision for outreach, then a lot of that kinetic energy comes from within, iron sharpening iron, so to speak. Whereas, outside design firms or contractors are sometimes brought in to help a church focus its energies into a unified approach, often adding guidance to ministries that perhaps have not traversed that project path before, or may be undergoing a site redesign to better fit a renewed ministerial direction.

I think that the level of collaboration can vary, and in the case of ministries such as LifeChurch.tv, can blur the lines between core team, contractors, and outside volunteers. Having visited LC recently, I have to say that I am quite impressed and inspired by their “open source” approach to ministry, building web apps that are free for anyone to use, and an eventual plan to include local and remote volunteers in the process. Part of that vision includes open.lifechurch.tv, making available many of their materials, for those churches who cannot afford agencies, or a dedicated creative staff.

James Dalman: If they do it right, by both. It is unfortunate that some churches think they know design but end up hurting themselves by not seeking the help of a professional branding firm or designer. You can’t use your cousin’s brother who is proficient in PrintShop Pro 2000 anymore.

Matt Adams: This actually depends on the size, marketing position, and age of the church. Often new young churches allow us to be fully creative. Larger, more established churches want us to take more input from their team. There are other times where we find large churches who are looking for a drastic change, and we get a lot of creative freedom still.

Chris Merritt: It depends on the project. I prefer to use my own small team (designer, developer, project manager) and only deal with one or two representative in the church. Small teams always make for good decision-making. Churches often make it a habit to form a committee for these sorts of things, but I always discourage it due to the my poor experiences working with large teams on web projects. Large teams often bog down the decision-making process and often hurt the creative potential of a design. In any case, it’s always best to let the designer be the designer and not let the rest of the team design over his/her shoulder.

Dustin Stearman: There is definitely collaboration. Most of our clients are just getting started with their branding. The initial decision on design preference always comes from the church planter. They have to evaluate the design style that best depicts who they are and speaks effectively to their community. Once they have this decision made, they seek the design firms expertise on how to best communicate that style. I often hear ‘you’re the expert; I know you will come up with something great’ on a regular basis. Our clients are great, as they have so many other things to focus on, so they are quite willing to give us freedom to do what they do best.

Q: If you’re designing for a church you’ve never seen or visited, and which has no existing branding, how do you create something representative of the spirit of the church?

Nathan Smith: For me, it is often about talking through with church staff who have been there for awhile, or who are newly hired and fired up about the approach the church is taking towards outreach. Both types of people can offer valuable input and help you as the designer gain a better understanding of the congregation. This includes factors such as: demographics, overall spiritual maturity, community concerns, and theological nuances. Some churches are known for being “seeker friendly” while others take more of an educational approach to their congregants.

I have done church design for congregations who believe in predestination, as well as those who believe that man inherently can either choose or reject God. It has been my experience that the former tend to focus on shepherding the home flock, first and foremost, through Bible studies, seminars, retreats, etc. So, a design for a church like that would want to feel cozy, giving established members a place to keep up on the latest happenings. The latter tend to be more evangelistic in nature, and can often be seen as more edgy, attempting to reach those who might not have a Christian background.

I am not saying either approach is better, simply that as a designer, you need to know who is the primary recipient of your design. I also invite the church I’m working with to pray through the process, especially if the work is remote, and I won’t be able to get an on-site feel for the atmosphere of their congregation. At the end of the day, it’s God who either breathes life into our endeavors, or not. Through it all, we need to be seeking to glorify him.

James Dalman: This is an in-depth and lengthy question. You have to spend time with the key people by phone or in person. You have to ask the right and the hard questions – a lot of them! People think you can just throw a design together on the cheap. Well, you can, but it ends up doing more damage than good. I have created a branding process that is deadly accurate but it took me 15 years to develop it. There’s just no magic pill that makes this process easy.

Matt Adam: Since 90% of our clients are actually out of state, we do rely on the church staff to communicate to us their style, culture and vibe. We have a series of questions to best direct these conversations, and a lot does depend on the church staff being effective communicators of their ideas. One of our biggest struggles is working with the church staff member who actually has no idea what they want, or the “I’ll know it when I see it” method, which leads to a lot of chaos.

Chris Merritt: It’s always important to try your best to visit the church campus. If that’s absolutely impossible, you’re at a significant disadvantage. Your best options are to have the church send whatever photos and print materials they can gather so you can at least get a glimpse of how they do things and what their “DNA” is. In any case, there are plenty of design directions you could take that are generic enough to get the job done without misrepresenting the spirit of the church. This obviously not ideal by any stretch, but it’s possible.

Dustin Stearman: Before we begin the design on a new project, I always setup a design call with the client where I will ask such questions as who they are as a church, what organizations they are affiliated with, their target audience, and what their local culture is like. I also ask for a list of adjectives that they would use to describe the design style they wish to have. While you will recieve the typical “clean, fresh, grungy’ answers, most times they will list some descriptive terms that combined with their requested color scheme will help define the style.

“Grunge” Christianity

Pastor John MacArthur published a popular article (“Grunge Christianity?“) condemning modern churches that trade sanctity and tradition for “cultural relevancy”. MacArthur and his supporters disagree with so-called pragmatists who seek bigger, younger, more worldly congregations.

Q: Does this running battle within the church ever affect web projects? Does the “pop culture” success of pastors like Mark Driscoll and magazines like Relevant influence the design approach?

Nathan Smith: I think that pop culture plays a large part in web projects. We are naive if we try to take an isolationist approach. God has called us as believers to be a city on a hill, not obscured from view in some cavern. Billy Graham has been quoted as saying that a good preacher reads two things daily: The Bible and the newspaper. We need to keep abreast of what is going on in the world around us, because we are all symbiotic citizens of the same planet.

It is funny you mention Mark Driscoll, because Mars Hill is probably one of the few edgy churches that adheres to the doctrine of predestination. They are edgy, which is perhaps a result of the environment in which they minister, urban Seattle. I believe such an approach is both valid and necessary, as is also the case with Relevant magazine, reaching people through multimedia and design.

It’s been said that God has no grandchildren. He wants a direct relationship with each person, so we as facilitators of that calling have to meet people through what they know, and if that is pop culture, then so be it.

That being said, there are of course situations in which a pop culture approach would be entirely inappropriate. Dealing with a more conservative and traditional mainline denominational church, for instance. You have to be cognizant of the local congregation, but also stay “on-brand” with the larger denomination, not coloring too far outside the lines.

I think of it like this: the Apostle Paul said he wanted to be adaptive, becoming “all things” to “all people” – and being a good designer is knowing how to do that, depending on audience.

James Dalman: Of course – there is always a struggle between looking or appearing Godly vs. relevancy to the culture. Thankfully, and at times, regretfully, yes.

Matt Adams: Every day I have clients who “want to be unique”. They follow that statement with: “Just like …..”. It’s terrible. So many young pastors want instant church plant success, and rely on stealing or borrowing from other pastors, or dropping as much pop / tech culture they can into their website and church. Just the other day I ran across a church site marketing wi-fi internet right in their church tag line.

Chris Merritt: I don’t usually run into problems with this subject, because it’s my job as a designer to effectively represent the church authentically. If the church is a traditional conservative church, then I’m probably not going to use an abundance of grunge brushes and ragged textures on their design because that’s not an accurate representation of that church’s “vibe”. Every once in a while I get a church who want’s to launch a “new image” and wants to use the website as a launching pad, and that’s fine. But even in that case, moderation is important. You don’t want to alienate those who are comfortable with the “old image”.

Dustin Stearman: This is definitely a touchy subject. While all Christian churches make up the overall Church (the unified body of believers in Christ), there are many ways of doing church. In every denomination or church style, there are churches that lead the pack and all other local churches look to for things they do that are successful in growing the church. Many of our clients come to us with specific churches in mind that they love how they do things or wish to have a style similar to theirs as they know it works and relates to their people.

Q: What are some specific design techniques for making a church website look more worldly or modern? When it comes to this style, do more conservative church staff members ever need convincing?

Nathan Smith: Assuming that you say “worldly” in this sense to mean organic and weathered, I think that use of photography, natural textures, and aged effects can help give a site an authentic, well-worn look and feel. As for making a site look modern, clean visual balance, adherence to a grid layout, and close attention to typography can go a long way toward a solid design, without having to resort to many graphical elements.

As for style, if the church staff needs a significant amount of convincing, you might be pushing the wrong approach. While we all want to try out new techniques and add design embellishments, we need to be sensitive to those who best know their ministries. That is not to say a particular approach is always wrong, but it might not be the best fit for a particular church. In some cases, I will fight for or against some design decisions, because I know that it is in the best interest of the client.

For instance, I worked with a large church awhile back that at the 11th hour, right before final hand-off, wanted to see their site with a brushed metal background. I obliged, showing them what it would look like, in a quick modification to the front-end code (adding images where needed). They asked me to send the updated templates along, so that they could implement them. I refused, insisting that I would rather refund a significant portion of their payment, rather than have my name attached to such a poor design decision. The site ended up launching without brushed metal. The staff member who had suggested it realized that he felt a bit insecure at opting for a minimalist approach, and thought throwing some cliched visual tweaks at the last minute might help with his buyer’s remorse. After it was all said and done, the design was featured in several galleries, and cited as one of the better church designs that year.

James Dalman: Beer commercials, book or speaking promotions, sexy church pics, or shock and awe techniques. When it comes to this style, do more conservative church staff members ever need convincing? Depends on their denomination, age, and background.

Matt Adams: I personally like to see when churches look past the overly trendy layouts, and look to clean fundamentals of design. Clean lines, proper grid layout, and basic design rules will take a website to that modern level if combined with the right trends in color and technological standards.

Chris Merritt: I’m never concerned with making a site look “worldly” or “modern”. I want to design something excellent and true to the church’s identity. If they have a grungy, modern culture, then I’ll design accordingly. The only thing I’ve ever had to convince my clients is that I’m the professional designer and I know what good design looks like. If they dislike my design, then I try to find out the root problem they have with it and often it’s unrelated to actual colors or elements.

Dustin Stearman: Well, we work mainly with church plants, so most of the time, we are working directly with the pastor, or the people founding the church. This makes the design process much easier as we don’t have to go through committees/boards that all share different views on how they think the design should look. These pastors know who they will be/are as a church and what they are looking for.

The design techniques/tools I use depend on the style that the church is looking for. With many churches, they are looking for this current “Starbucks” earthy, organic feel, in which I rely heavily on textures and brushes and rich earth tones to dictate the design. In most cases, the church uses cultural icons as their guidelines of a current design trend or style in order to attract and relate to their audience, so the designer’s responsibility is to embrace these trends and styles, and from it, create unique, envelope-pushing designs that set the new standards in form and function.

Q: Some churches cited have dark, edgy, asymmetrical designs, often with rough edges and scratchy textures. What is that signifying about the church? Does the church staff request that kind of imagery specifically? If so, what is the strategy?

Nathan Smith: I addressed my philosophy on design styles a bit already, but I think that some dinginess to a site design is okay. It can often lead to a sense of authenticity, because after all we are all flawed people, trying to seek the will of God to be made whole. Seeing a bit of that in a design is refreshing from time to time.

That said, it is difficult not to go overboard, and make the site feel as though it is the side of a freeway underpass, full of grime and graffiti. One should strive to be respectful in the approach to the design, facilitating the wishes of the church staff, but also help them realize the messages they are sending by choosing a particular design approach.

I would especially caution against a monkey-see, monkey-do attitude. What’s right for one church might not be the best thing for another, and it is your responsibility as a deigner to help them discern their motives. Are they wanting to innovate, or are they simply trying to break the mold, just like everyone else?

James Dalman: Whatever they feel it signifies to them for the most part. I don’t think there is anything usually “historical” behind it…just the idea that it looks cool or that they want to be like ________ church.

Matt Adams: The rough edged, torn paper, scratchy lines look started with bands. This look usually represented the feeling, passions, and rawness of that band. I believe churches want to show their heart, their community, their culture as much as they can. An inner city church, with a very “rough” audience, generally does not connect well with a clean, glossy, shiny site.

This is the highest requested look we have, and probably our specialty right now. I really enjoy the work we put into these projects. Sometimes we will age our own paper in the sun (Arizona is great for this), or tear up some cardboard, rust some nails / staples / paperclips, all to scan in for use on these projects. We will hand draw sketchy lines for the perfect ink pen consistency, crumple photos, and really have a good time on these projects. The hard part is when the church is just looking for the trend, and not looking to show their true culture. it really shows when it comes down to the final product and their input.

Chris Merritt: Churches may have websites designed like that because that’s the kind of vibe you get when you go there. I don’t see a problem with that vibe as long as the focus remains on Christ and the Gospel. I think the only strategy these churches have is meeting people where they are. Making people feel welcome and comfortable at church isn’t a problem as long at the center of it all is Christ and the good news.

Dustin Stearman: Usually, the client will request a design style that they feel will best relate to and engage their local culture. If a church asks for the dark/grungy feel, it will typically reflect their edgy worship style, the demographic they are looking to attract which are 20-30 somethings, and/or their artistic culture.

The Church as a Business

Forbes online has its own news category called “Christian Capitalism”, featuring stories like “Megachurches, Megabusinesses” and “Holy Real Estate“. Business Week also reports on the growth of church consulting:

Once established, some ambitious churches are making a big business out of spreading their expertise. Willow Creek Community Church in South Barrington, Ill., formed a consulting arm called Willow Creek Assn. It earned $17 million last year, partly by selling marketing and management advice to 10,500 member churches from 90 denominations.

“Our entrepreneurial impulse comes from the Biblical mandate to get the message out,” says Willow Creek founder Bill Hybels, who hired Stanford MBA Greg Hawkins, a former McKinsey & Co. consultant, to handle the church’s day-to-day management. Willow Creek’s methods have even been lauded in a Harvard Business School case study.

Church Marketing Sucks says:

Marketing is the process of promoting, selling and distributing goods or services. It’s a business concept, but something very similar happens in the church. As much as we bristle at comparing evangelism to a sales pitch, there are certain similarities.

Q: When designing church websites, do you encounter any conflicts with putting a public “business and marketing” face on a place of worship? Is this ever part of the discussion when collaborating with church staff?

Nathan Smith: Thankfully, I haven’t run into this sort of problem with any of the church sites I’ve worked on. My experience has been that of back-and-forth on how to balance the information architecture of a site, not over-emphasizing the many ministries available, at the expense of conveying the basic fundamentals. I think that when you’re working with a church that really has the best intentions for spreading the gospel at heart, these sort of details can often be discussed without skewing the underlying message.

Unrelated to that, I did once have a recruiter contact me from Joel Osteen Ministries. Having heard how Mr. Osteen tends not to take a stance for the name of Christ when in public interviews such as on Larry King Live, I knew this was not a man I wanted to work with. I respectfully declined the job offer. To me, it would be silly to go to work under false pretenses, using my God-given talents and abilities for someone else’s personal gain. As an example, at the time of this writing (10/24/08), the word “Jesus” is nowhere to be found on the home page of JoelOsteen.com (not visibly, nor in the code). I think a ministry that waters down (or embellishes upon) the gospel is not a ministry at all.

Matt Adams: This is a hard question, because I haven’t really thought of it in this light. I feel like I am helping churches communicate who they are to the community around them.

Chris Merritt: Not really. The only objective I have is to communicate a message and a story. Creating a “face” for the church is never productive.

Dustin Stearman: The church and the designer both have to careful that the project is not viewed as just another way to sell something. Sure, the church has a message to convey and they have an audience they’re trying to reach. So there will naturally be some marketing involved in the attempt to reach that audience. That being said, there is a fine line between coming across as just another organization trying to sell something vs. trying to reach people with the Gospel message using traditional marketing techniques.

Q: Presentation-wise, what’s the biggest difference between a corporate business site and a well-funded church website? What do business sites do that you, a church designer, would never do?

Nathan Smith: I would say the biggest difference is the approach taken to the content. With a corporate business site, it is all about the bottom-line. You seek to present the clients’ goods or services in the best possible light, helping convey why their particular brand can help solve some unique consumer or enterprise problem better than their competitors. It is all about subtle self-promotion, while also taking into account how the user will react to various visual and informational cues.

As a church designer, you should steer clear of this type of propoganda, not because it’s inherently bad, because effective marketing can be truthful. Rather, I would say steer clear of saying “Our church is *the* best church,” implicitly stating “Better than other churches,” because that type of phrasing is not needed. We’re all on the same team, so to speak, in over-arching sense of mainstream Christianity. The gospel sells itself. The responsibility of the designer is not to exhault anything to the point that it becomes a distraction to those whom Christ wants to draw unto him.

Matt Adams: I believe there is no major difference. We have many clients ranging from corporate, non-profit, retail, to churches. So we see each industry having a product or service to share.

Chris Merritt: So far, there haven’t been any significant differences for me. Businesses want to communicate a message and an identity just like churches do. The message is vastly different, but both utilize the same best practices in communicating that message.

Dustin Stearman: Church design is a perfect blend of form and function, as churches see both as being equally important. I think design for churches is much more of an emotional, artistic process and the designer tends to spend more time on the “form” side of the design. Church design many times reflects print design techniques more than a corporate site who is relying more on function than form.

We’re seeing that churches are using more and more advanced types of functionality, thus surpassing a lot of corporate sites in interactivity and design.

Q: Corporations often sell both products and “lifestyle”. How do church designers approach this? Are the edgier designs conveying “lifestyle” to attract new young members, or do they also cater to existing members?

Nathan Smith: Well, first of all, there’s a locigal falicy that existing members aren’t themselves also young people. Also, to a lesser extent, an edgy lifestyle can be lived by one who is older, but perhaps more young at heart. That said, I think that we should focus on selling a lifestyle of peculiarity. Just as salmon swim up-stream, so is our calling to be in, but not of, this world. Our message is counter-cultural. Dying to self is not a concept that is often embraced by the world. We need to cater to that, both in the context of young and old, but not get caught up in what is or isn’t considered cool or contemporary. After all, the world “contemporary” is just a way of saying “tomorrow’s traditional.”

Matt Adams: churches absolutely sell a lifestyle. The big question is how hard they sell it. I get concerned when i see churches really push hard ministries and campus amenities. So we try to be carful in the photos we select for use on a site. Great photography can go a long way, and I think a solid balance between happy people, and normal relaxed faces.

Chris Merritt: I suppose churches are trying to invite people to a “kingdom lifestyle”, rooted in the Gospel and becoming a part of what God is doing with a community of other believers, but I think that idea transcends demographics and marketing. People interested in faith often want to identify with a community that they can be a part of on their “faith journey”. No one design strategy applies here. As I said before, my design strategy is to accurately represent that particular church with a great design. Different people want different things in a church, so there needs to be a huge variety of church “styles” and therefore in website designs.

Dustin Stearman: I think a church design style is chosen to reach out to specific “lifestyles” in their local culture, and to show that the church relates to and understands the local culture. That they can feel comfortable and will be accepted for who they are when they visit their church. The style also caters to existing members, because that style has defined who they are as a community. The site must serve both the existing church-goers and potential church-goers.

Q: What sort of functionality (blogs, calendars, forums) has proven to be most useful to congregations?

Nathan Smith: I think that blogging is an amazing way for a pastor to share what is on his heart. While some churches, especially those run by denominational boards, often want to impose an editorial process, or some sort of oversight, as far as what is published. I would say that the pastor who is blogging should be one who is seasoned, and has an established rapport with his or her community.

It is also important to help the reader realize that the words spoken on the blog may or may not represent the stance of the congregation as a whole. With those disclaimers, I think it makes for an excellent window into the raw, unfiltered viewpoint of church leadership.

Likewise, forums are beneficial, for people to submit questions to the church staff, and also discuss amongst themselves. This can be in an intranet approach, where members of a church are granted access to the discussion, or an extranet approach, where anyone can join in. Either way, any worthwhile forum needs a few dedicated moderators, to help guide discussion, and keep spammers away.

Lastly, calendars are a great way for people to keep in touch with what’s going on at a church. I would suggest using a shared Google calendar amongst church staff, and then hooking it into your website via an API. Allowing people to subscribe to events in an RSS feed, or export it to a program like Outlook or iCal, is also very helpful.

Matt Adams: i have been a long time advocate of podcasting and online streaming media. Recently i haven been intrigued by the power of twitter, and its use as an SMS alert service. Im on the fence about blogs in the church. I see some pastors who use them effectively, and others that butcher them. Church calendars are only good if they are maintained well, and I feel they should also publish an RSS feed of events (for us younger tech geeks). I believe church forums should be deleted asap. In the past 4 years I have yet to see a healthy, well run church forum.

Chris Merritt: A well designed and executed calendar is always recommended, especially if event registration is integrated. Blogs and forums are more difficult to do well and it takes a very unique staff and/or community for them to work well. I’ve found the most useful functionality is often achieved by simply integrating with other hugely popular and useful websites and tools. Facebook, Flickr, Vimeo, and many other sites are already very popular so it just makes sense to “meet people where they are” in this sense and use tools that people already enjoy using.

Dustin Stearman: We have found that clients choose functionality that they know will be utilized and meet the needs of their church. For example, a blog won’t make sense if the pastor doesn’t have time to post. Some churches are built around creating a tight-nit community and focus heavily on discipleship, small groups, etc. For that type of church, they tend to gravitate toward forums, social networking tools, and other types of functionality that will allow their church attendees to connect with each other outside of the church walls.

Changing Demographics

Despite powerful marketing, studies show that the “proportion of Americans who reported no religious preference doubled from 7% to 14% in the 1990s”. In England, between 1979 and 2005, “half of all Christians stopped going to church on a Sunday.”

Q: Does the rise of church marketing imply an urgency to attract or reclaim church members? Design-wise, what aspects of church life do you portray (ex: fun events, missions, worldliness) to attract members?

Nathan Smith: I think it implies urgency, but in my opinion, this is an urgency that shouldn’t have been lost in the first place. Too many churches still follow the old paradigm, of assuming the purpose of outreach is to get people’s rears into pews on Sunday, and keep the offering plates full.

While any church of course needs to be financially sound to be effective, marketing cannot just be about numbers, or we are totally missing the point. I think that our designs have to portray more than just “food folks and fun,” because we as a Church are more than just a drive-through. We need to advertise a lifestyle of radical change. Such growth is not without growing pains, as God continually turns up the heat on our lives.

Like a good metalurgist, God is most happy when he can see his own reflection clearly in that which he creates. I think as long as we’re conveying such transformative power, the rest is just icing on the cake.

I’ve heard it said that God would rather we be holy than happy, but I think that’s wrong. I think God wants us to be holy, striving to be like him, because only in that can we find true joy and fulfillment. Now, that is something worth marketing!

Matt Adams: I think the rise of good church marketing is just as much an answer to other competing media as it is a strive to reach the un-churched. As far as what to portray, this somewhat depends on the church, and their style, geographical region, people and market.

Chris Merritt: In my mind, the life of a believer revolves around 3 things: deepening the soul, finding relationships, and joining the mission. If I can hit these areas with my designs and some good photography, then I think that creates a good foundation. The key to attracting people is being authentic. That means no stock photos. It also means writing web copy that’s less formal and more like a real person is talking to you.

Dustin Stearman: With certain styles of church, this is true. Many churches are focused heavily on drawing in the un-churched or those turned off by church at some point in their lives. The goal of these churches is to use a design that speaks to people, and attract them to their church, and eventually, the Gospel.

Q: The internet has been a blessing for religious organizations who share beliefs online. Equally, it’s helped atheist/humanist groups who have previously been uneasy about expressing their non-belief. Have you seen the former group ever reach out to the latter? Is recruiting agnostics or atheists ever part of the marketing?

Nathan Smith: I think our approach to ministry, even online, is still steeped in old paradigms. We use very liturgical language, such as resurrection, communion, discipleship, etc. To an outsider though, these sound like words used by the “in-club” or at the very least, we make our message unclear by using vocabulary not seen outside the church. While some might consider adapting such phrases to be a dilution, I think they can be just as compelling.

If I were new to Christianity, I would be intrigued by hero images, with catch phrases such as: “Want to know how to live forever?” – “Taste the greatest meal ever served.” – “Don’t wander alone, join our family.” One might not fully grasp all the theological nuances, but those types of invitational one-liners speak to our core needs: fear of death, seeking sustinence, and wanting a sense of belonging. If we spent less time judging others, who have not (yet) accepted the yoke of Christ, and more time showing them the joy of a Christian life, then maybe they wouldn’t be so vehemently opposed to us. I am reminded of a song: “If we are the body, why aren’t his arms reaching?”

Matt Adams: Being an outside business providing services to churches, i dont really have an answer to this based on past experiences.

Chris Merritt: My own church has a group that meets regularly that’s designed for people who are unfamiliar or critical of the Christian faith. I think that’s a great arena for what you’re talking about, and I think the same thing can be achieved on the web as long as there’s a good moderator in place to keep things respectful.

Dustin Stearman: We have seen a lot of churches target their designs towards doubters and skeptics; not necessarily atheists, but definitely people who don’t have a favorable view of the Church. If designed properly, a design can invoke an internal dialogue from within a person who knows that something is missing in their life, but they may not be sure what it is.

Big-Time Designs, Small-Time Values

John Cleese of Monty Python is outspoken about religious matters and a favorite among web geeks. Here’s a quote from a recent interview:

I think that the real religion is about the understanding that if we can only still our egos for a few seconds, we might have a chance of experiencing something that is divine in nature. But in order to do that, we have to slice away at our egos and try to get them down to a manageable size, and then still work some practiced light meditation. So real religion is about reducing our egos, whereas all the churches are interested in is egotistical activities, like getting as many members and raising as much money and becoming as important and high-profile and influential as possible. All of which are egotistical attitudes. So how can you have an egotistical organization trying to teach a non-egotistical ideal?

Q: With the surge in church marketing, rise of mega-churches and overall church influence on the political body, do you think the Cleese quote has relevance? How difficult is communicating an “ego-less” message while wrapping it in a slick, expensive design?

Nathan Smith: I think of it like this: If you stand in front of a mirror, and behind you is also a mirror, you see multiple reflections. On a theoretical level, your brain realizes that if you could see past yourself, you might catch a glimpse of infinity. Such it is, trying to understand the true vastness of God’s divine nature. Our own humanity gets in the way.

The former president of Asbury Theological Seminary, Jeff Greenway, was fond of saying: “There is no limit to what you can accomplish for God, if you don’t care who takes the credit.” My college ministry mentor once told me: “No one of us is so important for the Kingdom that we are irreplaceable.” This was both humbling and encouraging at the same time.

On the one hand, I shouldn’t get all puffed up with pride, thinking I am extra special. On the other, I should feel free to step out in boldness for God, because even if I falter in my exuberance, God’s plan is not completely derailed because of a few well-intentioned mistakes. “So how can you have an egotistical organization trying to teach a non-egotistical idea?” You can’t. We need to be willing to be humbled by the Lord, for we are all just dust, without his breath of life.

Matt Adams: I agree that this can be quite a pickle. I too struggle with it in life. Sure I want a nice car, and a nice house, but I always feel torn because so many have so much less than we do here in America. I think everything in moderation is key. Balance the technological advances with good content and a middle of the rode design. A church site with an over the top approach to displaying technology advancements and designs can quickly come across as egotistical to some.

Chris Merritt: I think a slick, expensive design doesn’t say anything about ego as long as the message that design communicates isn’t ego-centric. Design is about telling a story, as discussed before. If that story has an ego, then the quote is relevant. But if the story is centered on God rather than the church itself, then that story deserves to be told as best as possible with a great design.

Q: How often do churches reject the more commercial look, in favor of something visually quiet and modest?

Nathan Smith: I’m seeing less and less attempts at modesty in church web design as of late. Don’t get me wrong, it’s not all vain self-flattery, but I think churches are realizing it’s okay to spread their wings a bit. A bird is not showing off when it flies, simply proving to onlookers that it is possible to soar with the help of the wind. Still, there is a lot to be said for modesty. Our Lord could have presented himself as a triumphant king, but he chose to initally come as the son of a carpenter. There is more to our message than just glitz, and it would behoove us to remember that.

Matt Adams: not very often. I know of a few churches, like marshill.org, or one of our clients savannahcanvas.com who do shoot for quite, and minimalist. Even then, the quiet and modest is part of their marketing strategy and appeal.

Chris Merritt: I’ve never had a church client outright ask for something slick and commercial. Churches want their web presence to be warm and inviting.

Dustin Stearman: It depends on the culture of the local church. About 25% of our clients ask for a minimal design style that is simple in form and function. A lot of people are turned off by the slick, smiling faces that you’ve seen in the past. They want something that speaks to people where they are. Not something that looks like it was manufactured by perfect people.

Q: Have you seen any church marketing out there that you think missed the point, went too far, or contradicted any core Christian values

Nathan Smith: Every time I see a t-shirt that misappropriates a popular brand name, I think to myself: “Ugh, they just don’t get it.” You’re not “redeeming” a marketing approach by re-hashing something you saw on a bill-board, by putting a Christian spin on it. The world doesn’t need a Christian version of product XYZ, like a Christians-only Facebook, or some social marketing whiz-bang tool. We need Christians who can be amongst their fellow man, there to lean on, rather than off in some self-congratulatory walled-garden. We need to get back to the basics of the golden rule: “Love God. Love your neighbor as yourself.”

Matt Adams: All the time. I see small churches with the “keepin’ up with the jones’” attitude, trying to one up the church across town. This of course misses the point. Generally i see churches one-upping each other on who can push the envelope the most. Who can be too sexy or bold. Sure it starts small, but often leads to a church being on the news defending their biblical position. There has been a string of these stories this summer, usually relating to sermon topics on sex or money. While they be correct biblically, to people who are already anti-church or old school church, it looks pretty bad.

Chris Merritt: Too often to outline here!

Dustin Stearman: We’ve seen everything. There are some churches who will go too far in order to make a point. I believe their intentions are good, but the verbiage and imagery they use contradict core Christian values. They chalk it up to “being relevant” or “reaching their culture”, but they end up watering down the Gospel to a point that it’s barely recognizable.

  • http://vandelaydesign.com/blog/ Steven Snell

    Great questions, great answers. Thanks for posting this in it’s entirety Darren.

  • http://www.egracecreative.com Brandon Cox

    Church design is one of my own greatest passions. I’ve found this post extremely inspiring thus far, and have to bookmark it to read the whole thing later – thanks for offering this very thorough treatment of the subject. A lot of churches don’t understand the need for good design, if they understand the need for a web presence at all. I thank God for the guys you’ve interviewed and how they promote excellence in church web site design.

  • Darren

    @Steven: no problem, I hope people get something out of it. Also thanks for the Stumble.

    @Brandon: I’m definitely impressed with the design approach taken by these guys. They obviously care a lot about the subject matter and put serious consideration into their decisions. They took time to answer questions from someone outside the church community and gave very frank and fair responses. Can’t ask for better interview subjects than that.

  • http://www.internetevangelismday.com/church-site-design.php Tony Whittaker

    A very insightful set of questions and answers. Thanks. I’d like to add this to our Internet Evangelism Day advice for church websites on my link above.

    Best wishes

    Tony

  • http://various Terry Cunningham

    God save us from dull design

    Hi Darren,

    I’ve worked both sides of the fence – as a marketing-communications director for both large commercial and church-based organisations. I think the improvements largely reflect a generational change. Younger people are moving into positions that decide how information is presented. These are often (but not always) more ‘visual’ people. The information remains the same: “Jesus paid the penalty for our sin by death on a cross. He rose from death to inaugurate human eternity. He rules in heaven as he prepares a place for us. Choose Jesus, choose (real) life.” But there’s no reason why the presentation of these simple but significant facts have to be clothed in the drab language and garb of the past. Jesus wasn’t stodgy – so why should we be? I belong to a “contemporary” church that is experiencing rapid growth – even more reason to avoid older, ‘inaccessible’ ways. I’m a Christian. It was the best decision of my life. It’s potentially the best decision of your life (if you say ‘yes’ to the God’s offer). I didn’t suddenly become dull, and I don’t intend to become dull in the future either ;-)

    Terry
    terry.c@tpg.com.au

  • Darren

    @Terry: I definitely appreciate your more pragmatic approach. I know within academia there are plenty of similar attempts to make that experience more visual, more irreverent, more colorful, more contemporary, etc, for today’s audiences. Sometimes it works brilliantly, and sometimes the students think they’re being seriously patronized.

    Regardless, as you said I’m glad people aren’t settling for ‘stodgy’ as much anymore. Some of the most brilliant professors I ever had were ultimately ineffective because of the stodgy style they maintained because they thought it was the only respectable/dignified way to present information. Maybe the same is true (in some cases) of the older generation of preachers/theologians?

  • http://various Terry Cunningham

    “Some of the most brilliant professors I ever had were ultimately ineffective because of the stodgy style they maintained because they thought it was the only respectable/dignified way to present information. Maybe the same is true (in some cases) of the older generation of preachers/theologians?”

    I guess that’s the difference between trying (too hard?) to be “relevant”, and *really* being relevant. Facts remain facts, but style can be seriously ‘out of kilter’ when we lack authenticity. Trendy professors and preachers/theologians) can become sickeningly ‘cute’ if they are not *authentically* relevant. Ditto for design.

  • http://www.1stwebdesigner.com Dainis Graveris

    great idea for interview and actual interview is even better..than same fact! thanks for getting this to us!

  • http://kalebcoleman.com Kaleb

    This is a great article, I’ve actually been having discussions about this lately with websites and other media design for churches or religious related things like Rob Bell books or other emergent church media.
    I design media for my church, and I find the whole ‘grunge’ appeal tired, tacky, and cliche. As a whole though I find that a lot of churches are just looking for a modernized feel to appeal to today’s tastes. When I first started going to my church I saw a way for me to serve the church, but also improve their appeal through design, despite the fact that bad design just plain bugs me.
    I also live here in Seattle, and I actually like to keep an eye on Mars hill and their design work, but they are spot on about the surroundings here. Especially with Cornish college of arts and Art institute of seattle being so close.

    my churches website was recently redone by Corey Jamison at Ministry growers and looks fantastic:
    http://www.eastlakecc.com

    also great modern church websites here: http://churchbeauty.com/

    • Darren

      Thanks for the thoughts/links – the Eastlake site indeed looks great.

  • http://www.thisisaaronslife.com Aaron Irizarry

    Great read! Thanks for posting this!
    Shows another side of those with faith… a side most people miss due to stereotypes.

    ~ Aaron I

  • http://dirtybluemedia.com Chad

    What a great interview.

    I especially enjoyed Nathan Smith’s responses. I can tell the difference in theology for each interviewee just by their answers, so that was interesting.

    A Biblical worldview is extremely important, and I think Nathan has it with this quote.

    The challenge is to faithfully convey the ancient truth of Christ, helping to contextualize the powerful notion of forgiveness, keeping the central theme the same while applying it to the context of today. It is also important not to embellish anything, for God’s redemption stands on its own merit.

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  • http://realrelevance.wordpress.com Andy Darnell

    Great read, Darren. Not sure how long it took you to pull this together, but I grabbed a lot out of it.

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  • http://popularlogistics.com Jon Soroko

    @Darren: great post.

    when i started blogging – about two years ago – I kept beingamazed at how manygreat WP themes and plugins were by divinity students.

    and with a few i’ve had some correspondence -and clearly these are thoughtful people of great heart andintegrity.

    (Disclosure: I’m Jewish New Yorker – sp Ithink I’m very much an outsider in this conversation.).

    Because my blogging interests are about community-based disaster prep – and now ikn discussions about promoting interfaith issues – I think churches which use the web to coordinate social justice/action work are models for what I’m studying.

    And – the quality and diversity of design is amazing. (and there’s a very cool plugin in the WP directory for making sermons searchable. Haven’t used it, of course – but what a brilliant idea!)

    The Catholic writer James Carroll proposes thatCristians and Jews think of themselves as cousings – an idea which gives me great hope.

    But – -my apologies if I’ve intruded into the conversation.

    Jon

    • Darren

      No intrusion whatsoever. The interviews are definitely meant for discussion from all perspectives.

      That’s interesting that community disaster prep overlaps with interfaith issues, though it makes perfect sense. I agree that seeing churches connect with audiences in an inclusive way – esp when seeking social justice or helping needy people abroad – is pretty inspiring.

    • http://various Terry

      To Jon Soroko. I was interested that you raised the issue of Jewish and Christian interaction. My bible tells me that you belong to the ‘plant’ that I, as a Christ-follower, have been grafted onto. So there definitely is a link.

      - Terry C

      • http://popularlogistics.com jonathan soroko

        Terry -

        That’s a lovely thing to say. From our point of view – we don’t always hear nice things from all Christians. It wasn’t until I read Garry Wills (Papal Error, others) and James Carroll (Constantine’s Sword) that I realized that Jewish/Christian hostility wasn’t inevitable.

        And the core values – I don’t see them being inconsistent at all – treat people as you would be treated. Protect the weak. Kindness.

        The other stuff – Saturday vs. Sunday, head covering or not, what one eats – if you observe all of that – but not the core stuff – what does that amount to?

        J.

  • http://popularlogistics.com Jonathan Soroko

    in the United States – we’ve got some outstanding church-based disaster services – one of the coolest is Mennonite Disaster Services – and I’d shudder to think what our system would be like without the faith-based services.

    Also – any religious congregation which offers practical – or for that matter moral – support to its members when they’re in difficulty is essentially involved in disaster prevention.

    I’m currently working on a proposal to provide communications and other gear/supplies to faith-based groups.

    And anyone who has any interest in discussing it – I’m open to the discussion (although I’m at least a day or two behind on email at any given time).

    And interested in hearing about any congregatin which uses net-based – particularly WordPress-based – tools to manage things (membership lists, event plannning, etc.).

    Jon Soroko

  • http://www.thurible.net Kelvin Holdsworth

    Darren

    Thanks for making these interviews public. I work in a church culture where very few churches would think themselves able to afford a professional designer.

    I’d just like to thank you for making your own work public and allowing churches like my own congregation to get get a good foothold on the web.

    An adapted version of Mimbo is the backbone of our web presence. Its been very successful and I’d say most new members who come through the door have looked at it.

    Best regards and many thanks from St Mary’s Episcopal Cathedral, Glasgow, Scotland – http://www.thecathedral.org.uk

    • Darren

      Thanks Kelvin – great to hear that Mimbo helped make the St Mary’s site a success!

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  • http://www.briandidit.com Brian Simpson

    Wow. This is an excellent post! Thanks so much for taking the time to ask these questions. I am a worship pastor in a church part time but during the day I am a full time graphic web designer. I can relate to this article in so many ways. Here are a few of most recent church/faith related websites:

    http://www.iamsecond.com
    http://www.originsaustin.com
    http://www.citychurchorlando.com

    Thanks again Darren!

  • http://www.futuregringo.com james

    I’m studying up on Mimbo to for potential switchover and got distracted by this article.

    Very well done and enjoyed reading it!

  • Ashley

    http://www.lds.org/ldsorg/v/index.jsp?vgnextoid=e419fb40e21cef00VgnVCM1000001f5e340aRCRD

    The Mormon church has the best website…it doesn’t have to sell anything to anyone.

  • http://www.camnio.com Roy

    This has got to be one of the most extensive review of church website design I’ve ever seen. I’m glad there are people out there willing to discuss the ongoing changing nature of the church’s presence. I’ve been with CAMNIO Media, a church website builder and we wrestle with being “able” to tell the church’s story along with complementing that with functional design. The key word being functional. Content management has helped us on that end, but a lot of time churches are not exactly sure what they want. Unfortunately, companies will charge them more and more money for extra add-ons. If you know of someone who is tired of that and they want professional work but not the professional price, have them contact us at info@camnio.com. The website is not done until the client says it’s done and quality work is always reflected

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    Support for what.

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