People who use the Internet to "shop" for a church home will likely be turned off by a poorly produced church Web site, while a slick, interactive site could help draw new members in if a church invests the right resources, say the authors of a new study.

A group of students at Hartford Seminary surveyed individual church Web sites and compiled questionnaires. They found that churches that invest in up-to-date Web sites do a better job of catching the attention of would-be churchgoers.

"A poorly done Web site may be more of a detriment for a church than no Web site at all," said Scott Thuma, a professor at the Hartford Institute for Religion Research.

Thuma said the sample of 63 church Web sites was not scientifically representative of all church Web sites, but said the study highlights the growing importance of a church's presence on the World Wide Web.

Of the Web sites surveyed, Catholic parishes represented 26 percent, Southern Baptists nearly 16 percent and nondenominational congregations 13 percent. The remaining 45 percent were a mix of evangelical and mainline Protestant, Jewish and Muslim houses of worship.

Most of the churches surveyed -- 75.8 percent -- rely on Web-savvy members to create their Web sites. Nearly half of the Web sites were the idea of a lay member, while pastors pushed their churches onto the Internet 30 percent of the time.

Fifty-six percent of the Web sites were operational within two
months, and in half of the cases, a committee or task force helped set up the site. Just under half -- 43 percent -- said their sites were aimed at a public, non-church audience, while only 7 percent said their sites were geared toward their own congregations.

Thuma said the most important aspect of a parish Web site is that it be comprehensive, easy to use and interactive whenever possible. That is especially important for people who use the Internet to find a new church, and for young people, he said.

"Increasingly, your Web page may be the only glimpse people ever have of your congregation," he said. "At least spend as much time and money on your site as you would on your congregation's landscaping. Plant something on the World Wide Web that will attract, not detract, from your church's mission."

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