What is the objective of church communication? Of using story? What is the role of the church communicator? Last month I had the privilege of tackling these topics for a group of church communicators primarily from large churches in Southern California.
Often the larger the organization, the more dangerous the tendency to slip into pragmatism. All of us like to get things done, but it adds a layer of complexity when we seek to do this through others in a church setting. Over the years I’ve failed in this way in numerous ways, particularly when our church made a transition from being more traditional Sunday service oriented to becoming more based on people gathering throughout the week in missional communities across the city. My communication caused many to feel a burden of legalism because we often improperly communicated. Even in my role at MonkDev, where we are building web apps and online strategies for church that want to increase engagement such as small group participation or broaden exposure to attract new people, this tension is always there: How do you effectively communicate and get the results you want?
In the example of the transition to missional communities, the most powerful tool was when we had people share their testimony of changed life during the Sunday service. But even some of the testimonies weren’t done properly. What we found was stories are powerful, but they aren’t the solution. This is important because story has become the buzz word of the last five years. As I’ve traveled across the country meeting with church communicators, ‘story’ has often been the answer many have given as the most effective way to communicate ideas. As powerful as stories are, and no one can argue their effectiveness, they are just a tool. There are common mistakes with story.
- The most common downfall with using story is being clear on who the hero of the story is. The easy example is what we often hear in church, a story like David fighting Goliath and the message becomes “if our faith is strong enough, we can conquer the giants in our life.” The true hero of this story is Jesus, who when a cowering army (us) faced an ‘unconquerable’ foe we needed a champion to take our place and achieve the victory on our behalf. When we create a story, who is shown as the hero?
- The second challenge with story is what is the motivation for change? Often stories work on behavior (which tends to legalism) and don’t communicate to our identity/heart. Recently, at a “large church” in Southern California I attended a service where, after a video story that highlighted one’s person journey into serving, the person giving the announcements ‘jokingly’ implied if you were a good Christian that you’d attend a specific service event. He smiled and laughed and said, “not really.” But he then whispered to the crowd as if no one else would hear but you, to tell the person next to you “that they should really attend this event if they were a good Christian.” Joking aside, this is no different than much of the behavioral change our communication seeks.
Targeting behavior or feelings are a weak motivation that often leads to guilt-led attendance not ownership. As church communicators a lot of the job can be focused on pointing to the programs to encourage attendance because this is the measurement. This can lead to much of your work emphasizing behavioral changes that misses the point. In communication departments, my desire is for us to see ourselves as theologians or we run the risk of becoming pragmatic marketing departments. The good news is that we already are theologians. As believers we have been given a new identity in Christ and now know God and we are told if any is lacking wisdom we can ask God who will give us wisdom. God will grow your theological understanding to better shepherd and communicate with the people of your community. Ask questions such as:
- How does our theology shape our communication?
- How do we evaluate the motivation we are targeting in our communication?
- What type of people is our communication creating?
Church communication people can be identity reinforcers. In the Bible it talks a lot about people’s identities. Our behavior flows from our heart, from our new heart that was given to us as a new identity in Christ. What and how we communicate can create the wrong identity; for example we still need to battle the desire to call our buildings the “church.” This reinforces the wrong things, both at a behavior and identity level.
Praise God that we are new in Christ, that is if we are Christians, then we have a new, or rather, renewed identity based on who God is and not based on what we do, but on what Jesus did. Our focus is not on changing people; they have already been changed, renewed! Now they are maturing into the image of God in Christ they were created to be. Recall that Jesus had done no ministry, no preaching, no miracles or healing when his Father—our Father—loved him and affirmed his identity as his child. This is exactly how God sees us and speaks to us today if we are a Christian, if we have put our hope in Jesus and been renewed by his work at the cross.
As communicators, we need to stop encouraging people to do church and remind them who they are as the church. As a community that worked with Soma and adopted the four identities (Family, Servants, Missionaries, Disciples/Learners) we try to remind people how these flow from who they are and thus lead to behaviors (or rhythms) such as listen, celebrate, eat, bless, story-formed and recreate. Next time you are creating your communication plan remember, do people need to go to another church BBQ or “because we are a family of disciples on mission, we are getting together to celebrate for a time of eating and baptism.” I believe the more they see what you are doing tied to their identity, the more they will believe they are part of the priesthood of believers and live out of who they are in Christ.