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New websites help churches look outward

By Martha Holmen

A project is underway to help churches proclaim the Gospel through a medium that is becoming an increasingly dominant form of communication: the Internet.

The Parish Website Project began about two years ago as a conversation between Stuart Mann, director of Communications for the diocese, and the Rev. David Giffen, incumbent at Church of the Transfiguration, Toronto, about how to help parishes become more open and inviting online.

The social media and website team at St. Martin, Bay Ridges
The social media and website team at St. Martin, Bay Ridges in Pickering. Photo by Michael Hudson

“Websites, social media and digital communications in the 21st century are incredible tools at our disposal, for both proclaiming the Gospel and seeking to build the Kingdom of God,” says Mr. Giffen.

Over the course of six months, parishes work with a professional web designer to create a new custom-built website and receive advice to help them establish a presence on social media. A professional photographer also visits each church to take high-quality photos for the new website.

The project is funded by an Our Faith-Our Hope grant of $57,700 to build websites for 18 parishes. Each participating parish also contributes $500.

The first group of parishes began the process in October 2014, with the goal of launching new websites the following Easter. So far All Saints, Whitby; St. Philip on-the-Hill, Unionville; St. Martin, Bay Ridges; St. George on Yonge; Christ Church, Bolton; and St. Martin in-the-Fields have launched new sites, with several more on the way.

The websites are all built on WordPress, an easy-to-use platform for those with limited technical knowledge.

“It was a great gift,” says the Rev. Stephen Vail, incumbent at All Saints, Whitby. “We don’t bat an eyelash about spending money on bricks and mortar. Spend some money on your website to get the best product you can.”

An inviting website is increasingly important in a time when a church’s curb appeal, once epitomized by a red door meant to attract passersby, has moved online. “People judge us based on our website. It’s a front door, it’s an entry,” says the Rev. Dr. Alison Falby, incumbent at St. Martin, Bay Ridges.

Six months after launching its new website, Dr. Falby says St. Martin’s is seeing success. “We have had people come to us based on our website. Even if it’s someone looking for a place to have their wedding, that’s something,” she says.

While many parishes assume their websites are visited primarily by their own members, the project team asks them to think more deliberately about who they are trying to reach. “It really helped us focus on who we were hoping to attract and how to reach different audiences, particularly newcomers,” says Dr. Falby.

Churches are encouraged to see their websites as one tool among many they can use to communicate, such as in-service announcements, bulletin boards, newsletters, email lists and social media.

All Saints, Whitby is taking that idea seriously. “We have a communications committee now,” says Mr. Vail. “The project has helped us to be less self-focused and to take the question of our target audience and apply it to other communication tools.”

The Parish Website Project is currently helping its third group of parishes create and launch new websites. Once the Our Faith-Our Hope grant money has been spent, the project team will evaluate its success and consider applying for a second grant.

“The goal is that every parish we work with would end up with a website that would be the front door for seekers,” says Mr. Giffen. “I hope that one by one, this will help parishes prioritize proclaiming the Gospel in new and different ways.”

For more information about the Parish Website Project, contact Canon Stuart Mann.