I decided to look at each of the several hundred webpages of Unitarian Universalist congregations and see what was out there. I've been saving links to the more acceptable ones -- grade C and above, let's say -- so that I can go back and highlight which churches really do a good job of encouraging inqury and supporting their members (at a number of different size levels) and which ones waste their effort and fail their own mission.
After all, the website is a tool for mission: it should be kept sharp and useful.
As many of you know, one of my complaints about mainstream (Unitarian Universalists are included here) churches is how easily they fall into poor standards of physical presentation. Put another way, there is an attitude implied in too many churches that if the spiritual is what's important, who shold really care if the order of worship is cockeyed and the bushes need to be trimmed. You can get the impression that the only churches that "get it" are overanxious sects (and who wants to be like that?) or the terminaly rich (and who's got that kind of money?)
A website should be one of the cheapest and most effective ways to project excellence to outsiders, but I've already seen must-avoid behavior. A short list.
- Using free hosting with advertizing. Looks cheap, takes a portion of your valuable space for advertizing other people's message. Hosting has gotten quite inexpensive: I run all of UniversalistChurch.net for $7.50 a month and haven't exhausted my host's services, and if your church is really that hard up for cash, they have services beginning at $5. (VerveHosting.com is my host. They're good.)
- Broken links. I'm looking up each congregational website from UUA.org. Lots of dead links. In some cases, there's a new site. In others, the domain has been lost or never activated. Others still are mysteries. Protect your links and domains. (I've learned this the hard way.)
- Intro (flash) pages. I've never understood the logic that goes I want people to see my site's content so I'll put up a useless but pretty barrier they have to get through first. (The Vineyard Church denomination website has degraded this way. Bad move.) The Unitarian Universalist versions I've seen so far use a large still image, but are otherwise no more helpful.
- Poor use of UUA resources. It is a mistake to give others control of your message. (See #1.) The first thing you see in many UUA congregational sites is a banner, with content piped through Boston, that links to the denominational site. Some are nice, but others reek of ego or unstated agenda. If you must use them, drop them below the fold (the bottom edge of your screen when you first load a page; think "below the fold of a first page of a newspaper.") Oh, and those antiquated black and white photo ads need to be banished. The good news is I can't find them any more at UUA.org.
- Drop the "UU Junk". MeanDean at healyourchurchwebsite.com has a campaign against Jesus Junk: the cheap visual and sound effects that plague sites, distract readers, and eat up bandwidth. He makes the case better than I would. Nothing will mark you faster as a novice. Flying doves, rotating flaming chalices, and dancing dots continue to afflict some UU congregational sites. Banish them.
That's enough finger-wagging for now. You might get the impression from the above that I hate any animated features. Not true: I like small, clever, and message-centered ones.
There's a site -- omlet.co.uk -- I've been reading a lot lately because it does so many things so well, and is quike a kick. I've shown others this site even though there isn't the slightest chance that they or I (or anyone I know) would ever, ever purchase the product sold there. ("The eglu is the world's most stylish and innovative chicken house and is the perfect way to keep chickens as pets.") But you can get some inspiration for good use of animated GIFs.