Since the inaugural rollout of the Find-A-Church online directory of United Methodist churches, it's been a perennial favorite destination for those searching for a church home or a congregation to visit when out of town.
In 2023, the new Find-A-Church goes a step further. Thanks to expanded search capabilities and a fresh, streamlined user experience, the site is markedly improved in its ability to help visitors find a congregation that aligns with their wants and needs.
"The site was originally designed to show you the nearest church. We wanted it to show the user the church that would be right for them and their family -- not just the one geographically nearer, but one that would be a better match," said the Rev. Joe Iovino, Director of Member Communications. "For example, you might be looking for a church with a robust youth ministry."
United Methodist Communications (UMCom) created Find-A-Church in 2000 to make it simple as ABC for those looking for a United Methodist church to locate ones nearby. Users could generate a list -- and later, a map -- of choices with just a few clicks.
As technology advancements made improvements possible, churches could update and personalize listings to share schedules, activities, ministries, photos, welcoming messages, event listings, web links, driving directions and more. For thousands of small churches with no website, Find-A-Church doubled as a no-cost website. Larger churches found their visibility increased twofold due to the site’s high search ranking on Google.
Consistently the most visited feature of UMC.org, the denominational website, it draws an average of a thousand pageviews per day.
In the past couple of years, UMCom has been engaged in reimagining innovative new ways to sharpen the use of technology and live more fully in the digital space. Taking Find-A-Church to the next level was deemed a priority.
"There were a lot of opportunities that weren't being maximized," said Steven Adair, Director of Local Church Services. "Other search engines for churches offered a more modern approach and additional ways to filter results than our existing site provided. Local church profiles on Find-A-Church rank significantly high in Google search results, so that was already a strength of our platform. We needed to capitalize on making it a more user-friendly and information-forward platform."
"One of the biggest new features is the opportunity for a user to answer questions, and then Find-A-Church matches their needs and desires with the church that fits," said Iovino. "You can respond and say these things are important to me, this is how far I want to drive to church, this is the language I need to be spoken, these are the ministries that matter to me and those answers will help filter the results."
Shelia Mayfield, Director of Global Communication Technology - Development, recalls that Find-A-Church had just recently been launched when she first joined the agency. Conceiving and executing ways to raise the bar for Find-A-Church has been a team effort over the years and she’s played a fundamental role.
“We’ve got quite a few new things that we’re featuring on Find-A-Church. One that I’m excited about is the ability to include a video from the pastor or leadership of the church as part of the church profile,” said Mayfield. “A church just has to upload a video to their YouTube channel and include that as a link under the social media section.”
Other enhancements have been made to the social media section, including adding TikTok, Reddit and Twitch.
“Since the pandemic, social media has been a way to stay connected with congregants even more so, and now we have a quick and easy way to see the social media channels so they can follow what is going on in their faith communities,” said Mayfield. “For people who are worshipping remotely, we have a clear way to share the link for live streaming.”
Further improvements include the addition of new search filters, including worship style and accessibility services. Geolocation has been enhanced so that users who have chosen to share their location on their device will see churches nearby even without adding information to the filter. The mobile view is now more user-friendly.
Churches outside the U.S. have been added as mapping of those churches is completed and information becomes available. Now with the new Find-A-Church, they are much easier to find by simply typing in a country or township.
“We’re very close to finishing the Philippines and the Democratic Republic of Congo. We hope that by next year we will have preliminary mapping of everywhere,” said Ashley Gish, Director of Strategy, Global Communications Technology. “Since the changes have been made, the tool has gotten immensely better, especially for showing our churches globally. Before there were some barriers to making it easier to see those churches at scale, and now there’s a greater ability to search for a wider area and the city information is more accurate.”
With the new upgrades in place, it’s now up to local churches to update their listings. Otherwise, that information won’t be shown on their profiles.
“The main goal is to connect someone to a church and to make it as easy as possible for them to quickly get a glimpse of what that church is all about,” said Adair. “We encourage churches to update their profiles to showcase features that might be relevant to users’ needs.”
Updating a profile is easy with step-by-step video tutorials that walk you through the process.
“This is a process because it's up to the churches. They have to recognize the need and say, ‘Oh, this needs an update,’” said Deeann Bogle, Senior Specialist, Ask The UMC. “If I was working at a church and I needed to do this, I would 100% love these tutorials. They're really quick -- each one is about a minute and a half and it just takes you right through. I think they are super helpful to someone who's not familiar.”
*Diane Degnan is a freelance public relations professional in Nashville, Tenn.
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