Season 1 Episode 17: Create a beautiful, responsive church website for free

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The problem with web pages

Here’s the problem, in a nutshell:

  • Web pages need to work well on mobile devices
  • A great web page is attractively laid out and full of relevant information
  • So we need more information, on a smaller screen, that looks wonderful on any device

WordPress has many great benefits, but it doesn’t have features to lay out a page well. Page builders have filled that gap, and I am a fan of a plugin that sounds like a superhero: Elementor.

The free Elementor Page Builder

You can find more information about Elementor on the WordPress plugin repository, and on this website. If you install and activate the Elementor plugin in its free version, you get lots of clever tools: tools to help lay out a web page and visual elements that have become familiar across the web, as talented designers have created websites and web pages that solve this problem well. As importantly, you get a “drag and drop” interface, so it’s easy to create and edit pages.

Examples of useful tools (they’re called widgets) include:

  • Sections, dividers and spacers to lay out your web page
  • Text areas, image boxes, buttons and ready-made icons to make a page useful and engaging
  • “Menu anchors,” creating internal links within a page, essential for information-rich pages
  • Accordions, tabs and toggles that allow users to see just the information they need

In my view, Elementor makes WordPress a friendlier place altogether. If you want to give it a try, then go to your dashboard, and from the Plugins menu select Add New and search for Elementor.

As homework, I suggested why not try and create a single page using Elementor that has lots of information that would be useful for a couple looking to get married at your church.

Bonus Content

There’s one thing I didn’t mention on this episode of the podcast. It’s significant for my recommendations.

The WordPress team has been working for some time now on this same problem. There’s a plugin called Gutenberg that was probably installed automatically for you, and even if it wasn’t, at some point it will be. And Gutenberg does essentially the same job as Elementor and other page builder plugins. In fact, the team is planning to retire the present editor and make Gutenberg the standard WordPress editor. Which is huge.

So why didn’t I mention this? Indirectly, I did. I said that if, one day, you want to take pages made with Elementor and recreate them another way, there may be some work to do, just like changing themes often involves work.

Right now, nobody knows how this will play out, but similar changes to the WordPress core have usually taken a year or even several years to pan out fully. So for most of us, we should make the best decision for today and then respond.

Right now, Gutenberg is heading for the start post. It had a rough start, but it’s getting better and better, and every theme and plugin maker who is committed to WordPress is looking at how to adapt. As of today, Gutenberg covers the basics for laying out a responsive web page, but it’s limited in terms of tools to make that page attractive and functional. Elementor offers much more, and makes your life much easier.

So we know there’s some work ahead. But that’s true anyway. When the day comes, I’ll hope to be able to help you respond. And I’ll make two predictions. First, Elementor will find a way to keep its users happy, even if that means that the Elementor page editor disappears and Elementor’s stock of clever widgets become extensions to Gutenberg. Second, because there are so many WordPress users who will be affected, one of the amazing, public-spirited WordPress developers out there will create plugins to migrate pages automatically.

But even if I’m wrong, WordPress has committed to providing today’s editing experience as a plugin after Gutenberg becomes the standard, so it should always be possible to keep the pages you create today alive, and when you decide, to recreate each page in the new editor.

If you want to take a look at Gutenberg, here’s a preview.

Season 1 Episode 16: Organising posts with Categories and Tags

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Categories are like box files you use to group documents together.

Tags are like index tags that you stick to documents so you can quickly find every document that’s relevant to a topic you care about.

Most WordPress posts will have one category (the default category is usually “Uncategorized”), and perhaps a number of Tags. There’s no hard-and fast rule to say what’s a category and what’s a tag, but in general, categories should be few and adding a new category is rare, while as your site adds more and more posts, you may often want to highlight new topics and help people find everything that’s relevant.

Some people think websites are like brochures. Perhaps that can be true in a sense of the pages of a website. But a website grows in breadth and depth as new content is added. Many posts should be social, so interesting to visitors they’ll want to share. And so posts should generally stay the same over time. The growing collection of posts is what makes your site engaging, relevant and fresh.

But how do you use posts within pages (or other posts)? I recommend adding the List Category Posts plugin. The idea is simple: display relevant, timely and interesting posts, based on criteria including categories and tags.

Once you have found, added and activated the plugin, you have a new shortcode available to use:

[catlist]

Remember, a WordPress shortcode is like a shoutout to a plugin, asking it to do its magic, right there inside another page or post. I have the plugin installed. So here’s an example, using a few parameters.

[catlist name="Episode" orderby=date order=asc numberposts=3]

I use the category “Episode” for shownotes connected to podcast episodes. Embedding this command means, “List Category Posts, please list the three oldest episodes.” Let’s see what happens:

That just gives (linked) episode titles. But it might be useful to preview the actual posts. Let’s try it!

[catlist name="Episode" orderby=date order=asc numberposts=3 excerpt=full]
  • Episode 1: Season 1 Introduction
    Here I’m setting out my stall for Season 1. In a few weeks I’ll take you (small) step by (small) step through creating a website that you’ll be happy with and that other people can find. You’ll sometimes need to come to this website to get quick access to information or additional resources. And you ...
  • Episode 2: Why go online?
    Reasons to go online may include: It’s trendy (it’s not) It would be great to have our Christmas events online (a website’s for life, not just for Christmas) We can forget about the printed sheet (who remembers to check a website every day?) …What’s yours? Reasons not to go online may include: It’s scary (you need to get out more) I don’t know how (it’s time ...
  • Episode 3: How to prove your charitable status and get free stuff
    Show Notes for Season 1, Episode 3 You can search the Charity Commission registered charity list here Her Majesty’s Revenue & Customs (HMRC) has a helpline for charities. Ring 0300 123 1073 8am-3pm, and if it’s a Gift Aid query, it’s number 4 on the first automated menu. Next episode

In the episode, I use a couple of examples. First, the category News is probably relevant to most churches, and it’s great for the home page (and other pages too perhaps) to include news stories. Second, suppose you start a Coffee Club. Perhaps you have information posts with the Info category. Add the Coffee-Club tag to relevant Info posts, then on the Coffee Club page you can link in all that content, which saves duplication and having to remember all the ages and posts to update when something changes.

List Category Posts is a powerful plugin, but I can’t ever remember all its parameters. Fortunately it has a really useful reference guide.

 

Changing the home page of your church website

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Shownotes

The homepage is an important starting place for visitors. It needs to tell them

  1. That this is the website they’re looking for
  2. That it’s current, not out-of-date
  3. How to find out more information

We’re going to change the home page from the default (a list of posts, great for a blog) to a welcome message and a calendar.

We already have a fantastic interactive calendar page, courtesy of the tool we installed before. But we can put calendars anywhere we like, thanks to shortcodes. The simplest shortcode for the All-In-One Events Calendar is this:

[ai1ec]

So to change the home page, we’ll create a new page that will become the homepage, use the Customizer to tell WordPress we don’t want the post list on the home page, and have a new page that lists posts (which we’ll link on the menu).

The calendar has too many options to memorise them all. So use this page to help you get just what you want.

Watch this helper video to go through the whole process step-by-step:

Headings (this is a Heading 2)

We’ve also discussed using headings well. Headings are helpful to visitors, and they’re helpful to search engines that guide people to the best web page. Every WordPress post has a title, and that will become “Heading 1.” So if there are sections in a post, they should each have a title that’s a “Heading 2,” and any subheadings in a section will be “Heading 3,” and so on. Most common word processing software will support “Styles,” but a lot of people are in the habit of modifying fonts to do the same job (perhaps using bold type and a bigger size to indicate a heading). That’s a bad idea online! It means that the look and feel becomes inconsistent, and it’s not clear to search engines how to direct visitors. So just adopt a good habit and stick to it!

Season 1 Episode 14: Adding an interactive church service and event calendar

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Shownotes

Most church websites will need a great calendar. To make that job easy, we need a great WordPress Plugin, and the one I recommend is Timely’s All In One Events Calendar. This is a freemium plugin. The basic functionality is free and should be all most churches need, or you can pay to enable extra features. Install the plugin via the Dashboard, activate it and start adding events, such as regular or occasional church services.

The plugin creates an interactive page you can add to your menu. It’s clever: for people who use electronic calendars, they’ll be able to add an event to their calendar with just a click, or send a link to someone who might be interested.

As with many plugins, there’s a way to add calendars to your posts and pages. The main WordPress way to do this involves a shortcode. All In One Events Calendar shortcodes look like this:

[ai1ec]
or [ai1ec tag_name="Ideal for children"]

(We’ll start using this later on. For now, just be aware that we can use calendars and add event details to posts and pages in creative ways.)

This video takes you through each step.

https://youtu.be/WvRYvac8lNo

Season 1 Episode 13: Starting to build out your free church website

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Shownotes

Quick settings

There are some important settings to change early on:

  • Set the Language to English (UK)
  • Set the time zone appropriately (in my case London)
  • If you like, choose Sunday as the first day of the week
  • Set the date format
  • Set “Permalinks” (the usual way that web addresses are chosen) to Post Name

Then, to make sure that our free WordPress website takes advantage of secure connections, a capability we set up in the free web hosting, we’ll find, install and activate the Really Simple SSL plugin, and ask it to force every web page to use security automatically, so visitors don’t keep seeing warning messages.

This video takes you through each step.

Adding Posts

Posts are individual entries such as news, events etc that build up over time.

Posts need a title. You edit a post, choose their link text (or use the default, which is usually based on the title), and usually, you’ll want to set a Featured Image for a post. They’ll usually be real photos from your church and community. For now, I like to use the image search at Bing.com, finding images labelled as being in the public domain. Then your chosen theme will use that image to create an attractive view of your post that incorporates the image.

You can preview a post, save a draft to protect your work and then publish it to the web. By default, your home page will gradually fill out with posts, the most recent first. We’ll change the home page, but come back to this very useful feature.

Adding Pages

Working with pages is very similar to working with posts. One important difference is that, generally, you update pages by editing them, whereas old posts tend to be left unchanged. A good example of a page is “About,” which most websites have and visitors expect. Usually the About page has key information gathered together, and there may be links to go deeper. If the information changes, it would be confusing to keep lots of versions, so you’ll edit the page.

Pages can also have a Featured Image, and your chosen Theme will use this in a consistent way, so that the website always feels well-designed.

Pages are usually accessed via a menu or by direct links, for instance from another page. Menus are created and edited via the Customizer, which allows you to see the effect of changes as you make them. So we’ll start by making a menu with Home and About, so people can find our new page easily.

While we’re in the customizer, we’ll remove the “widgets” our theme gave us by default, and that are helpful for a blog but don’t fit our need at the moment. Widgets are really useful, and we’ll come back to them soon!

Season 1 Episode 12: Planning your new church website

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Shownotes for Season 1, Episode 12

Finding Role-Model Websites

The Premier Digital Awards (formerly Christian New Media Awards) include a “small church website” category. So use their shortlists to help you plan your website.

For 2018 the shortlist hasn’t yet been announced. In previous years:

 

2017 (“Most Engaging Small Church Site”)

Regeneration Church (Winner)
Coulby Newham Baptist Church (Runner-Up)
Christ Church Willaston
Emmanuel Medway Church
Minny Street Congregational Church

2016 (“Most Engaging Small Church Website”)

2015 (“Most Engaging Small Church Website”)

2013 (“Most Engaging Small Church Website”)

2012 (“Best Small Church Website”)

What to look for

  • What’s on the home page?
    • What’s there to engage new visitors?
    • How are the regular congregation supported?
  • How easy is it to find essential information?
  • What’s the style and tone?
    • Who is the site written for?
    • Is it consistent?
  • Is the information current?
    • What’s the evidence that the site is regularly updated?
  • What is the main “call to action” on each page?
  • How is photography used through the site?

Your homework

Find your top three (or at least one!) website in each of these categories:

  1. Just the best! (Even if it seems unachievable.) Look for the “wow” factor.
  2. A church with a similar “feel” to yours
  3. A church with a very different “feel” but connected to a (current or future) initiative of your own

Then decide what are the key topics to highlight on your website, on the home page and on separate pages that are easy to spot.

Season 1 Episode 11 – Learn how a WordPress website fits together

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Shownotes for Season 1, Episode 11

Think of a website being a bit like a journal full of varied and interesting stuff. In the world of WordPress:

  • post is like one nugget of information, perhaps a film review you’ve written
  • page is like a page in a journal – it could contain more or less anything (including a collection of posts, for example)
  • theme is like a new journal – perhaps it’s very plain and simple, or it could have lots of different styles of pages designed for different purposes
  • Plugins are extra features for the journal – gummed corners to hold a photo, or index tabs to find important information quickly

WordPress underpins websites that look and feel very different. Lots of people have created a huge variety of themes and plugins. We’re not going deeper into that world this time, because I want you to play with your website, particularly adding posts, editing or adding pages, and changing the theme. If it breaks, Episode 10 tells you how to remove it and start again. So don’t think of this as work, and don’t try and craft your church website. Just have a go, and get the feel of WordPress. Soon we’ll do more structured learning together, but for now, dive in and enjoy!

Episode 10: Where at last your website will arrive

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Show Notes for Season 1, Episode 10

This one has a number of steps. We’re going to press on through until we have a website!

To log in to your free web hosting package from TSO, look for an email with the subject line, “Hosting account live (setup information within).” That will help you log in to your “Cloud Control Panel.” (Or hop back to Episode 5 if you haven’t claimed your free hosting.)

If you registered your new domain with TSO, it should already be using TSO nameservers. Otherwise, log in to the service where you registered your domain name, edit the nameservers (or choose Custom Nameservers) and set Nameserver 1 to ns1.tsohost.co.uk, Nameserver 2 to ns2.tsohost.co.uk, and Nameserver 3 to ns3.tsohost.co.uk. (If you only have two entries, that’s fine, and entries after three should be blank.

Next comes making secure connections to your domain possible, and installing the WordPress software that will power your website. In this helper video you’ll see me complete these important setup tasks, step-by-step. More details below.

The help page from TSO for adding your domain to your hosting package is here. Your Cloud Hosting Control Panel should be available at control.gridhost.co.uk (check the email mentioned above).

Under the Manage Website option, to enable safe, encrypted communication with your website you need Let’s Encrypt.

Then you’ll want to Install Applications. The application you need to install is WordPress, which should be the first on the list.

For now, I’d like to encourage you to experiment, without worrying if you will break your website. In fact, I’m expecting you to break it. And if (when!) that happens, just go back to Install Applications, and click the Uninstall button. That will lose all your work, so uninstall / reinstall isn’t something we’ll be aiming to do later on. But for now, it’s safe to play around. So enjoy this new experience! And welcome to the web!

 

 

How to accept card and contactless donations and payments in church

Card reader
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Stop grumbling that visitors to church aren’t generous any more. Give them better ways to donate! Here’s how:

  1. Get In-Church WiFi (if your phone doesn’t get a mobile data signal)
  2. Get a contactless payment device and connect to your phone or tablet via an app
  3. Collect donations

Full instructions follow below!

Step one: Get In-Church WiFi (if your phone doesn’t get a mobile data signal)

If you have good mobile data coverage inside your church building, then you don’t need WiFi. And some churches already have a phone or broadband line and have (or can get very cheaply) an internet connection and WiFi. If that’s you, hooray! You can skip this step.

If not, here’s how to Internet enable most church buildings without major investment.

First, check your mobile network coverage here. You don’t need a brilliant connection. You certainly don’t need 4G coverage. But if there’s no coverage, my cunning plan won’t work for you. Sorry.

Next, you need a mobile device that will connect to the mobile network and create the WiFi network. You can get started quickly with a product that PC World sells: for £45 you get a small device that can be placed pretty much anywhere there’s some mobile signal, and that gives a WiFi connection. You also get an allowance of 3GB of data which is valid for up to three months (that’s a lot for this purpose, just don’t expect to start watching Youtube videos). When that time’s up, you can either top up the card (the standard plan is a penny per megabyte, which is pricey for some purposes, but card processing isn’t very data hungry), or you can buy a new mobile data SIM preloaded with another 3GB for 3 months for £16, or far better value is 24GB for 24 months for £60 (which works out at £2.50 per month).

The device has a battery and a charging port. So you could leave it charging and locked away between services, and make it part of the routine for a service or event to put it in the best place. If you have convenient electrical sockets, you can pop it somewhere out of sight but plugged in so it’s always available. (If you’re concerned about how it’s used, you can configure it to connect just to specific devices, and not give out the WiFi password.)

Or you could save money by using an old smartphone instead, as long as it supports “hotspot” functionality, and is unlocked or locked to the Three network. Just be aware that phones are usually heavier and less battery-efficient than the special devices.

Why am I focussing on Three? Mainly because of the pre-pay deal, which gives total peace-of-mind, and that (for this purpose) is far better value than any contract deal I’ve come across. So kudos to Three.

Now you have WiFi in your church (hallelujah!), you’re ready to…

Step 2: Get a contactless payment device

There are a few out there, and I’m recommending SumUp. What you’ll get (for £15 via that link) is an attractive little square box with a keypad and a small display (it looks like a fat calculator). The only other fee is 1.69% deducted from each payment.

The box is rechargeable, but it’s not standalone. It needs to connect to the SumUp app, running on a smartphone or tablet, via a bluetooth connection. And payment cards can be read via chip-and-pin or with a contactless payment (if someone has enabled contactless payment by tapping their phone, that should work too). The ordering process includes providing details of your organisation and bank account, and the whole process is simple.

Now, you’ve probably seen contactless donation terminals at landmark buildings, cathedrals and the like, and they are pretty much tap and go, with a default donation that can be edited. At the moment, I’m not aware of a provider who offers that level of simplicity without additional expenditure. So for each donation, the person operating the system will have to set up the amount etc, though this can be made simple by setting up specific amounts as “products.”

So I won’t pretend that this approach is as simple or as fast as putting cash in a bowl, say. But with a little creativity, this may unlock a new source of income. And it may help you get past that common problem with cash, that people’s brains often seem to tell them, in church, that the right amount to hand over and feel generous is the amount of their pocket money they would have put in the plate in 1975, which is probably a third of the what they’ll pay without thinking for a quick coffee!

A final note. If you are part of the Church of England or the Church in Wales, Parish Buying have negotiated a smaller fee per transaction than you will be offered directly. Log in to your account (or set one up – it’s free) to check the details. Other churches can check with 2Buy2 whether they have special terms available.

And of course, you now have all you need to take card donations and payments at other events away from the church. Think of the possibilities! And you can even take payments by phone, though the “card holder not present fees” are higher than the face-to-face flat rate.

Conclusion

The total cost to get up and running and try out card and contactless payments could be as low as £15 if you don’t need mobile internet or £60 if you do. And if the immediate benefit for many churches is responding to the reality that people are less and less likely to carry cash apart from small change, there are opportunities for everything from service refreshments, to pop-up church cafés, ticketed events paid by phone or at the door, to church fetes and fund-raisers, to… well, I leave it to your imagination.

This may not be for everyone, but taking card and contactless payments is now so affordable that it’s in the reach of even small churches.

If you have experiences to share, or other options to recommend, please add your comment below. Your input helps us help churches to be more and more effective in the digital world.

And don’t forget to sign up for our free email newsletter and listen or subscribe to the Church Free Web Podcast.

Episode 9: Registering your domain name

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Show Notes for Season 1, Episode 9

First, if you absolutely, totally can’t spend a few pounds on your own domain, I am genuinely willing to help you out with a free subdomain to attach to your free web hosting so that you could press on. Just ask, “Is this the right long-term choice?” If it is, put a comment in the shownotes and I’ll get right on it!

My checklist for a good church domain name (which will become your home address online) is:

  • Short
  • Memorable
  • Easy (try and avoid tricky spellings)
  • Specific (which usually means your name should probably include where you are)

In the .uk top level domain, the leading choices are .co.uk, .org.uk or just .uk, and these are probably also your lowest cost options. .uk on its own was a relatively recent addition, (e.g. thischurch.uk) in 2014, and many .uk names are reserved until June 2019 in case, say, sttiggywinkles.org.uk would like to move to the shorter name sttiggywinkles.uk

There are lots of websites offering domain registration. In Episode 7 I recommended two choices from those I price-checked. TSO Host (which is the provider of the free web hosting we’re using and recommending in this season) has very fair pricing and it is a little simpler to keep web site hosting and domain registration together. And Tortilla Hosting came out as the lowest cost option for the examples we price checked.

If there’s an “orphan” website out there (maybe someone once created a website and it’s still there but out of date), it’s worth trying to tidy up that loose end, but should you wait to press ahead with your new website? I doubt it. You may never resolve the situation. Or if you do, both domain names can be connected to the same website while you decide which name you prefer.

Your homework is simple: register the domain you’re going to use! Then we can take a giant leap forward next time.

  1. wix.com is a brilliant service, but I don’t see their free plan as a good choice for churches
  2. weebly.com (love that name!) is a great way to make a beautiful website quickly, and their free plan isn’t feature-rich but it covers most of the basics
  3. wordpress.com uses WordPress technology to power a managed service, and free users don’t feel like second class citizens: compared to most rivals, the free plan has a decent array of features, but if you use the free WordPress software on your own hosting package, there’s much more you can achieve without spending a penny

What if you do have (or plan to acquire) a domain name?

  • Wix, Weebly and WordPress.com all require you to have a paid plan if you want to use your own domain name (though the entry level WordPress.com plan includes free domain name registration)
  • For Church of England churches, you can have a free A Church Near You directory entry, and they plan to offer a free option to connect your own domain, however “it is a starting point not a complete solution” (from “Parish Websites” Diocese of London)
  • Add a domain name to your free hosting package and you’re good to go with registering a domain name

And I mentioned a couple of low cost options, up to £50 per year, within the WordPress “universe”

  1. The entry level wordpress.com paid plan removes advertising, includes a domain name, and has a strong basic feature set
  2. (Disclosure: I’m connected!) ThisChurch.uk is a non-profit service built on WordPress technology that includes practical help getting your website up and running, and bundles in lots of premium extra features used by large churches

From this point on, I’m going to assume you’re “in”! We’re going to register a domain (or if you really, really can’t afford that, get in touch via the comments below and I’ll help organise a free subdomain for you) and press on with making our free website!