Building Modern Church Websites, Part 5: Thinking About Themes

Now that the basic settings for your website have been configured, it’s time to think about the look and feel of the website.

Before You Start

Before even starting to think about how the site should look, it’s a good idea to decide on the basic features of the website. Do you want to have a slideshow on the front page? Are you going to run poles? How many pages are you expecting to have? A basic idea about questions like this will help you decide on exactly what kind of website theme you want. Until you have at least a general idea of what needs to appear on the front page, you can’t decide on how it should look.

Choosing a Theme

In WordPress, a Theme is the part of the software that controls the look of the website WordPress creates. Themes can change everything from the fonts and colours, to the number of columns, to the images and icons. Picking a good looking theme goes a long way towards both making your website look good, and preventing it from looking like every other WordPress site on the planet.

At the time of writing, there are over 1500 themes available, directly from the WordPress theme directory. Those are just themes that people have made available for free download from WordPress. It doesn’t even scratch the surface of what is available on other, specialty sites. There are even sites that specialize in making themes for Churches! At first glance, all of this choice might seem like a blessing. The problem is: how do you choose?

Questions to Consider

  • How many columns does the theme offer? You want to make sure that you have enough space for all of the things you need to display on the front page, and yet ensure that the page won’t be busy and overcrowded.
  • What is the colour scheme? Does it match your church logos, and other banners that you may want to display? Does it look good on older computer screens? Will it make life difficult for those members of your church who are colour blind?
  • What browsers does the theme support? Not all themes will work in all the different web browsers on the market. Some only work in Firefox and Safari, but not Internet Explorer. Some work in only recent browsers, that older computers can’t run. You may find it surprising how many of the people who want to use your church website are running 14 year old computers, and can’t run the latest web browsers.
  • What fonts does the theme use? Are they easy to read? Is the text large enough for older readers, or those with low vision?
  • How will the theme look on small screens? What about mobile phones?
  • Is the layout easy to understand? Confusing visitors is the best way to make sure they will never come back.
  • Does the theme follow any web standards? A theme that follows standards is likely to work in more browsers, be ranked better in search engines, and work better for those who are blind, or have physical disabilities.

Making A Choice

No matter how hard and long you look, no theme will get a perfect score on every question. Unless you know enough HTML, CSS, JavaScript, and PHP to design your own theme, you’ll have to settle with some imperfections, and work around them as best you can.

Using what you know about the members of your church, try and rank the above questions in order from most to least important. If your church is full of early adopters, you probably don’t care if the theme won’t work on old software. On the other hand, mobile support might be absolutely vital. But if your church is mostly composed of non-technical people, they might only have 10 year old computers, and no mobile phones at all.

Once you’ve got the questions ranked, go through the themes available from WordPress, and try and find one that has all of the features most important to you. Then, think about how you can work around any flaws in the theme. Can your logos and banners be redone to fit the theme? Can you offer training to your members on a layout that they may at first find confusing? Can you settle for fewer columns than you initially thought?

Once you’ve decided

Once you’ve made your choice, getting the theme on your website is easy. From the dashboard, click Appearance. Then click Install Themes, and search for the theme you decided on. Once you’ve found and installed your theme, it will show up in the list of installed themes. In order to apply it to your website, you can click Activate next to your new theme.

You can switch website themes at any time, without losing any of your work, just by installing another theme and activating it. If you have several themes that you think might work for you, it’s a good idea to install all of them, and try them out, to see how they’ll look in practice.

The theme I eventually decided on for Good Shepherd was RedLine 2.0.0. However, this theme does not work well on older browsers, and some extra work needs to be done to get it working on mobile phones. Just because it was right for my church doesn’t mean it’s right for yours.

Next Time

Next time, it will be time to look at the theme settings, and layout of your default widgets. Unfortunately, the last two weeks have featured a constant stream of…interesting…server and software problems on my end, that prevented WordPress from even publishing site updates for a while. I have some of them under control, and remain baffled by others. The next update will happen next week, or when I get everything running smoothly.

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