Creating parish web-sites

The Church of St. Barnabas, Dulwich, LondonIntroduction

Because I run the web-sites for two parish churches here in England, I am occasionally asked for advice about how to create one. I hope that you may find these suggestions helpful.

Hosting

It is unlikely that your church will have a computer with a permanent connection to the Internet. So you will need "web-space" on a computer that is permanently connected. The company you already use to connect to the Internet may well provide free web-space (e.g. AOL, Virgin Net). This is a good way to start.

However, the free web-space may not have a "wide" connection to the Internet, so your pages could take a long time for your visitors to download. Also, the address of your website is likely to be long and complicated (e.g. the address of the St. Peter's website used to be http://www.cix.co.uk/~leuty/stpeters). And if the company which "hosts" your website ever goes bust, then you will lose the address.

The "paying" alternative is to rent commercial web-space and have your own "domain name". The St. Peter's site is now hosted by Netcom which costs us 349+VAT per annum, but includes 30Mb of web-space, a large number of mailboxes, and our domain name. The address of the site is now simply http://www.stpetersnottingham.org and if Netcom should ever be unable to host our site for us we can transfer the name to a new provider.

Content

Think about who your audience will be, and what you want to say to them. There are three potential audiences:

  • Existing (and previous) church members
  • Visitors who live locally
  • Visitors who live a long way away

For existing (and previous) members you may want to post details of special services, meetings, and news items. For visitors you will want to say something about your church and its life. You may hope to encourage local people to worship with you, and distant visitors to visit you in person one day. What is your style of worship? What is the history of the building? What sort of music do you have? What is your attitude to current controversial issues such as women priests, or remarriage of the divorced? Would your church be a welcoming place for members from stigmatised minority groups?

Be prudent about what you put on the Internet. Mrs Bloggs may not want the world to know that she is recovering well after her hysterectomy. Do not put up people's home addresses or telephone numbers. Existing church members should already have access to this information, visitors can make enquiries at the church office.

Design

The main principle I use is KISS (keep it simple, stupid!)

No Java, thank you

Not everyone has the latest hardware or software, so don't use fancy effects that take an age to download, work slowly on old computers, and won't show up on older browsers. Don't worry about "Java applets" "Active X controls" and the like. You really don't need them to produce interesting and good-looking web sites.

No frames either, thank you

Avoid frames - many people don't like them (including me). Frames are often used badly on amateur sites, they make it difficult to navigate around the site without using the mouse, and visitors cannot bookmark interesting pages to return to later.

Tables

Tables, on the other hand, are very useful for giving structure to your pages. Almost all browsers now in use will be able to cope with them.

Some people may only have small screens (just 640 pixels wide) and 256 colours. WebTV is popular in America and may become so here in the UK, and the WebTV browser is only 544 pixels wide. I suggest that you place all your text within a table of 600 pixels width. That way you know how the site will look, even on huge screens. Otherwise, if someone looks at your page on a large screen (say, 1280 pixels wide) your lines of text will be far too long to read comfortably and the pictures will start overlapping each other.

Navigation

Think about how visitors will navigate your site. If the site is fairly small you may just have one home page and up to a dozen other pages. Make sure there are links to all the pages on the home page, and that every page has a link back to the home page.

Layout

Don't create very long pages where visitors have to press the PageDown key many times to reach the bottom. Few of them will be interested enough to to this. Squeeze all your interesting facts into a "home page" that can be seen with only one press of the PageDown key. It is better to have information split over several small pages that in one long page.

Photographs take a long time to download, so keep them small and relevant, especially on the "home" page. Few visitors will sit still for two minutes while a huge photograph gradually appears.

Do not play music at your visitors uninvited, by specifying a "background sound". This will take a long time to download, and the visitor may not want to hear it.

Writing, maintaining and uploading

You will need website-writing software like FrontPage 2000 or Page Mill. I use FrontPage but it took me a little while to get to grips with it. Page Mill was highly recommended in a comparative review by PC Magazine and scored highly in their "usability" tests.

HTML is not that difficult to learn. It relies on a series of "tags" which tell the browser how to display the pages. For example, <p> defines the start of a paragraph and </p> the end of the paragraph. Text written between <b> and </b> will be displayed in bold type. When you surf the Internet, look for design features that you would like to use in your site, and then look at the HTML code "behind" the page. (Using Internet Explorer you can do this by choosing "Source" from the "View" menu.) But remember that it is bad manners (or worse) to copy an entire site design without asking permission from the author.

Further information

Have a look at http://www.anglican.org/domain/index.html for further advice.

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