Using Semiotics for a Better Church Web Site
Semiotics, simply defined, is the study of signs. The definition may sound simple, but the subject is not. Signs can be words, pictures, sounds, music and objects. Some signs have a universal meaning, but many differ according to one’s culture. An underlying concept of semiotics, then, is to understand the audience and how that audience interacts with signs.
During this semester I wrote an article, a press release and a FAQs page based on an association with a fictitious Lutheran congregation named Grateful for Grace Lutheran Church. Now I would like to consider how using semiotics might affect the design of a Web site for this organization.
Who is the audience?
Web site users are often interested in how easy it is to navigate a Web site and how fast they can gather information from it. Signs can be useful tools to accomplish that. When working with church Web sites, however, there is a balancing act that has to occur between the audience and the signs used.
One might initially assume the audience for a church Web site is the members of the church, but that is not the only audience to consider. In fact, one of the goals for a church is to increase membership and the Internet gives churches a useful venue for that. There are basically three types of audiences for a church Web site:
- congregation members
- Christians who are looking for a church
Those three audiences are very diverse. The signs that are meaningful to one group might not mean anything to another. It is therefore important for a church Web site designer to gear the site to non-Christians even though that group might be the smallest of all three who use the site. This is because one of the primary goals of ministry for a Christian church is to reach non-Christians. Those who are already Christians want to accommodate non-Christians.
Hard not to use Christian signs and symbols
Christians have their own language, icons, symbols, music, pictures, etc. Oftentimes Christians are unaware that there are those who are unfamiliar with the jargon. Here are some words that might not be familiar to new or non-Christians:
- Holy Spirit
If at all possible, church Web site designers should try to refrain from using these words.
Words are not the only thing that need to be scrutinized on church Web sites. As I was doing research for this paper, I looked at several sites. All of them use symbols, but I contend that many of the symbols are unfamiliar to non-Christians:
- The cross may be the most recognized Christian symbol, but could everyone tell you what it means?
- A dove appears on many sites, but would non-Christians know it is a symbol for the Holy Spirit? Would they know what the Holy Spirit is?
- A flame appears occasionally and also represents the Holy Spirit.
- An advent wreath is placed on Web sites, especially at this time of the year. Not all Christians, let alone non-Christians, know how it differs from a traditional wreath.
In addition, some church sites have music play when one accesses the site. Typically old traditional hymns are played on the organ while the site loads. Once again, this is familiar to Christians, but may exclude others.
What can be used?
Almost every church site I visited had a picture of a building on it. While that may be helpful when trying to locate the actual church, it is not helpful when used to represent the church. One of the first things learned in Sunday School is that the church is not the building, the church is the people. Pictures of people provide a much more universally recognized mark of the church.
Replacing Christian jargon with basic, easily understood descriptions is also a good idea. This strategy may be accommodating to many in the church who don’t want to admit they don’t understand the Christian terminology used.
Semiotics helps provide us with a way to think about what we don’t want to use on church Web sites, as well as what we should use. By doing so, the church can accomplish its goals while helping site visitors accomplish their goals in a timely and efficient manner.