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Choosing the best website hosting service for your church

By Gavin Richardson

Whether you made the plunge long ago or are delving in for the first time, picking a website-hosting service can be a nerve-wracking experience. We want to help you by explaining benefits and features.

Registrars versus resellers

As you consider purchasing a hosting package, often the provider will pick up your domain name for you. Sounds great, right? Not necessarily. If the service is considered a “reseller,” they actually buy your domain name on your behalf. If in the future, you wish to leave that service or change to your domain name, the process can be exhausting. Use an accredited “registrar” to purchase your domain names (find list here). Placing your domain names in an accredited registrar gives you ownership of your domain names and control over their functions.

Separating domain names from hosting might cost a few extra dollars. It may, however, be worth the money should you want to change hosting options over the life of your domain name and online church identity.

Plain-speak hosting definitions

Shared Hosting: A shared-hosting setup is the most economical solution. Along with other people, you purchase/lease space on a server. Imagine a server as a city block. You and others own property on that city block. Should you want to expand, you must buy more space or move. Your hosting company is in charge of much of the maintenance of your server system and applications, which is helpful. For most churches, a shared-hosting plan offers plenty functionality. Another name for shared hosting is virtual hosting.

Dedicated Hosting: Extending upon the shared hosting, in a dedicated-hosting option, you purchase/lease your own server. This is good if you believe your needs will extend beyond that of a regular or economic hosting package.

Space: You will see the advertisement of unlimited, 500 gigabytes or 150 gigabytes of space for hosting options. Consider this your online hard drive. You can put this much data online through your Web applications. Note: many hosting services will not allow you to use your Web server space as an actual online hard drive for storing vast amounts of data. It must be data used within and for the Web functions.

Bandwidth: If you want to stream worship services or if your church has the potential for serious traffic spikes, pay attention to the bandwidth available. If the server has limited bandwidth, the result could be outages, site crashes or charges for going over the package limit. Even if you have unlimited bandwidth, companies will allot a regular usage to your site and if there is a spike, you could still go down. If you know a spike is possible, it is good practice to alert their tech support ahead of time.

CGI, MySQL and Scripts: Almost every hosting service will offer scripts, databases and other functions to help build your site. A hosting package that offers single page sites would not usually do this. Note if you have a limit to the amount of scripts you can use for your website. Example, Wordpress or other CMS (content-management systems)-based sites run on a MySQL database. If you only have one MySQL database available, you could only build one Wordpress site/blog. It is possible to build more than one site on a database, but that usually is not available in turnkey applications.

Uptime/Downtime: Downtime is the percentage of time the service is down proportional to when it is up and running. Most services will boast 99 percent uptime. No service can claim 100 percent. Cheaper services might have more of a 95 percent uptime claim. Whenever your site is down, it is frustrating, so decide if you can live with the inconvenience of occasional downtime.

SSL: Should you wish to build a site that has secure pages for processing online giving or product purchases, you need access to SSL pages. You use Secure Sockets Layer to transmit private documentation. Most shared hosting services have this option available for an extra cost.

Email: Most services will give you more than enough email addresses and functions for church staff needs. With the POP3 account setup, you download email from your hosting server to an Outlook or Mail program. Hosting services often will give access to Web browser-based email programs to operate your email. If you want to plug into Google Business Apps to use your domain name-based email with the Gmail platform, you can set up MX Records (some numbers you copy and paste) to do that with most services.

Support: If you are a Web novice, focus on the support service. You could even do some test runs by submitting “tickets,” asking questions about how the service would meet your needs. Based on the response time and manner, you would get a good idea of the service’s reliability. It is tough to wait on support service for a day or two when your site or email is down. So consider this feature.

Bonus Features: You might never need many of the features that come with hosting services. Options include shopping cart software, blogging platforms, forums, log files, FTP users and more. Only if you know the hosting service offers a specific feature you want should you make a decision based on bonus features.

Where are some good places to look for hosting?

You’ll probably find more hosting companies than churches on the Web. Choosing one over another might be a matter of nuances. People often will give you the hosting option they use as a best solution. A list of hosting services is far from all encompassing. However, we will give a few options to review.

In the DIY Web-hosting category

In this category of hosting, you would build your site with general Web tools (Wordpress, site templates, etc). You need some know-how, or enough time to play around and figure things out.

  • HostGator has various pricing options, extra features and unlimited features, depending on your needs and the level of package.
  • Bluehost has various unlimited features offered in a base package. They also promote their hosting as easy to set up and support Wordpress option.
  • JustHost has probably the smallest price point for a good service. Like the other services, it offers turnkey applications to help build your website.
  • Midphase is similar to the others with turnkey applications and various unlimited features with the business package.

In the do-it-for-you category

These services will build your site for you and care for the design process with their templates. These hosting options are usually more expensive. One caution is to know in advance how you can export your data from your website should you want to move from this custom platform to somewhere else.

  • E-Zekiel offers templates and hosting for United Methodist Church websites, with various plans and upgrade options. By signing up with E-Zekiel through The United Methodist Church E-Zekiel website, UMC entities are also able to get a discount.
  • Worship Times, which offers website solutions based on Wordpress, is created by individuals who work in ministry settings.
  • Ekklesia 360 offers site designs and functions specifically geared for churches.
  • Clover, a service originally designed for ministries, offers custom designs that you can manage.
  • Wix has base pricing similar to the DIY hosting options. However, it will give flash-based templates from which to build. Caution: Flash does not show in iPhone/iPad browsers by default, so you will need to use their mobile site function.

Wherever you go with your hosting, know that every website is a work in progress. You can always upgrade, so begin with the small basics and add on as your church has growth needs.