Back when I started Luthernet, I found several churches using Thrivent Financial's Lutheransonline as their websites. These were generally simple sites, but some of the churches put a lot of work into making the simple sites seem fairly substantial. It does make you wonder, though, whether or not it's a good idea to use a "free" service for your website. Let's talk about free services and what they mean to your website.
You can get hosting for free. Usually it means running your site as a subdomain. Examples of this would be Weebly or WordPress. Lutheransonline would also qualify, as I believe that service was free. The problem with free is that it may not last forever, and by forever, I'm not talking about eternity. Forever online is probably a few years. I created an online resume using Linkedin's Resume Builder in 2015. In February of 2016, it was gone. No word as to why, just a redirect of where it once was. I don't know what the landscape is like for free hosting, but I can tell you one thing: those services won't keep going if they're not making money somewhere. And if they're not making money, they'll close tomorrow. Sure, the content is yours if you can get to it. My resumes (I'd created four) were just gone. I found a Google cache of one of them, but it was no longer formatted, so it was pretty useless as a cool way to show off my resume.
The other problem with hosting with a free company is that if times get lean, the hosting will no longer be free. You've heard the rumors about Facebook going to a paid format someday or seen newspapers try to charge to let people read the online content. Everyone wants to make money off subscriptions rather than ads, Luthernet included. When I charge $10 a month for hosting, it's so that I can keep the sites updated and help clients with issues. If I put an ad on the sites, I'd probably make $.25 a month per site, and that's not really enough to justify helping anyone with anything. I'd have to have thousands of sites under management for a free system to generate enough ad money for me, but I'd also have to have an exit strategy for when the ad money isn't good enough to pay my employees, and it would be to start charging or shut down. Lutheransonline probably didn't want to get into the paid hosting game, so it made sense to end its free service. At least folks were given plenty of notice to find alternatives.
Free site building tools are also wonderful for some churches, but you can be assured that the same concerns over potential income make those services a bit difficult to count on. If my free tool is not being used by enough people who generate ad money or buy the premium service, I probably won't continue to pay developers to keep it up-to-date. Then your website suffers because it's not getting all the new upgrades you'd need to keep it from falling behind. Google Sites, for example, has barely had any updates or improvements over the years.
I use a lot of add-ons that are free or cheap on my websites. If these add-ons are free, they often won't be available for the newest version of the script (WordPress or Joomla). I learned my lesson when I was building my wife's first church website, adding dozens of free components and all kinds of functionality that mostly disappeared. I now try to limit my websites to the best I can do with the original installation, and then only add tools that are necessary for the site, hopefully ones that can be replaced if needed. A lot of the free add-ons work like other items in the free world, too, so you get limited functionality until you pay for the upgrade. It's a nice way to test them, anyhow.
Free means risky when it comes to online websites. I'm sure people who built up their empires using AOL, Prodigy Sites, Angelfire, or Myspace figured they had it pretty sweet. Free use of awesome resources. Just keep those folks in mind when you gravitate towards a free service online. Keep backups of what you write, even if you're paying for a service. When Lutheransonline left the market, the suggested new host was Finalweb, which normally charges $40 a month. That's a pretty big increase from $0, but I'm sure some churches did not know their options. The other problem is that the new site is just as tied into proprietary software as before, so instead of free to be stuck, now those churches are paying $40 a month to be stuck.
With Luthernet, if you don't like our hosting, you can take your database and files with you. We get paid to build a website and we get paid separately for hosting it, but the content and design are all yours, and there are hundreds of hosting companies that can host what we create. Ask the other church website builders if that's how they see it. The truth is that our business model does not exist elsewhere in web design because others have not figured out how to complete months of work in a few days while still caring about each client. Take advantage of the fact that God has blessed me with superior web design skills AND honesty.