Starting as early as middle school, Josh Burns is a self-taught church communicator in the mold of Tim Schraeder. Throughout high school he volunteered with his church and in college he began attending Park Community Church (where Tim worked) and began volunteering there as well. The insights he gained at Park he took back to his home church and spent a summer internship there that propelled him into church communications.
That summer he actually met Tim at the Echo Conference in Dallas (yes, ironic that he traveled across the country to meet someone from his own church) and Tim planted the idea of Josh coming to work for Park. “At the time I thought he was crazy,” Josh recalls. Today Josh is the director of web and social media at Park.
What’s the one thing you wish you had known when you were getting started in church communication?
Josh Burns: When it comes down to it, church communication isn’t about the technology, methods or design. It is about relationships. When I started and even now, I still struggle with focusing on the way we’re communicating, or the means and methods by which we’re communicating, instead of focusing on the people with which we’re communicating. The goal of our communication should be to communicate our vision in such a way that it brings people into relationship with each other and ultimately into relationship with God. All of the technology and tools should only be the means by which we communicate, but if people are more focused on those things rather than the vision that we’re communicating then we’ve missed the mark. The tools should fall into the background, while the gospel is illuminated.
If a church is just starting to get serious about communication, where should they start?
Josh: Start by getting to know your people. Obviously you probably think you already know your people pretty well, but I mean really try to understand how the people in your context think and how they live their lives.
At Park as we were beginning a complete communication overhaul one of the things that jump-started our efforts was a church-wide survey that we conducted. This helped us really get a pulse on what people thought of us as a church from all sorts of perspectives (from the new visitor to the person who has been with us for years). When you begin to understand how people in your church think then you can begin to better understand how to communicate vision and ultimately the gospel.
What’s the biggest headache in church communication and how can newbies get over it (or get used to it)?
Josh: One of the biggest headaches is/always will be weeding through what gets priority in your communication. Every church has leaders who are passionate about their own individual ministry (men’s ministry, women’s ministry, youth ministry, children’s ministry, etc.). And I don’t blame them. It’s their job. The difficulty comes when, from a communications perspective, your church realizes that you can’t communicate everything with the same priority. When you begin to communicate everything with high priority then it all gets lost in the noise.
You have to learn to live in this tension of communicating everything, but in different ways at different times. Much of this comes by training your staff to accept the idea that every event they plan isn’t going to get an announcement from the stage. One of the best ways to go about this is by gaining support from your leadership and creating guidelines to help your staff gain a better understanding of your goals behind the guidelines.
What was your first great success as a church communicator? What made it work so well?
Josh: One of the first great successes we had was our annual summer baptism and barbecue picnic. One of the things that makes us as a church unique is that every summer we take one Sunday morning to do baptisms in Lake Michigan, a service, and then a church-wide barbecue. Every year we usually just call this our ‘Baptism & BBQ,’ but this year we wanted to take the opportunity to wrap more of our vision around this day. We are one church in many locations in the city of Chicago. At the time we had three campuses across the city. We realized this was one of the few days out of the year that we gather as an entire church together to celebrate what God is doing in our city. We wanted to brand it with something simple, but that still communicated this idea. We focused on the word “one.” We came up with ONE Park.
People really started to rally around this idea of ONE Park. We did a week-long blog series leading up to the day to explain the ‘why’ behind the title. We created a hashtag for people to tweet quotes from the service, and photos from the baptism and picnic. And we ended up having the largest turnout we had ever seen and it gave people another opportunity to really grasp our vision as a church.
What was your first great failure? What lessons did you learn?
Josh: In 2009 at my former church I was really excited to start their presence on Twitter. I had been using it for a couple years and was excited about seeing how a church could use it. For the first little while I spent quite a bit of time researching and creating the church’s Twitter presence. Then after a month I realized that there were maybe five people in the entire church of over a thousand that were on Twitter. And the city the church was located in didn’t have a large population on Twitter either. It wasn’t a complete waste of time though, as this was how I learned the lesson of contextualizing communication, and the idea that technology isn’t everything.
There’s a lot of pressure and expectations on a new communications person at a church. How do you handle the stress and pressure, especially for someone just learning the ropes?
Josh: Ice cream and The Office TV show. Haha. Just kidding (kinda).
I know it can seem intimidating, especially at first, and to be honest, there are days when I just have to leave my office and take a walk. The best way to prepare yourself for these pressures is to build relationships with your fellow staff members. These people can become some of your good friends, and at the end of the day you’re all striving towards the same goal of building the kingdom of God. Reminding yourself of that is crucial.
I also spend a lot of time writing and journaling. I think this is a good practice for anyone in general. Helps keep me sane.
You’ve been self taught and learned on the job. What are some of the best ways to learn?
Josh: Just do it. Seriously. Diving in headfirst is one of the best ways to get experience and to learn. Don’t worry about failing. You will fail. I guarantee it. And when you do, make sure you do three things: Look back on what you did and how you did it. Learn from your experience. And get up and keep going.
I understand that there may be contexts where you may need to build trust and credibility with your leadership, and there needs to be respect there, but at the end of the day they’re not going to know how important your ideas are until they see them in action. It takes time. It’s not going to happen overnight, but when you succeed, and you will succeed, build on that momentum and keep going! We have one of the best opportunities to communicate the gospel with what we’ve been given, so let’s go out and do it!