This past weekend, our leadership team held a strategic planning retreat in Southern Iowa. Activities like this always generate a lot of good ideas and help show an organization where some of the weak links exist. One area that receive a lot of focus was communications.
To summarize the issue, the consensus is there is a general lack of communication with our church congregation. In almost every area, from weekly services, to our small group ministry, to service projects within our church and in our community, the common thread was a request for more information.
Why Do Churches Struggle with Communications?
Given this is a key area of interest for me, and one I’ve wrestled with for many years as a church communications director and pastor, I’ve reflected a lot on this the last couple of days. Here are my general thoughts regarding communication within a church or non-profit organization:
- We live in an era of too much information. This is true across the board. Never before has the exchange of information been as easy and personal as it is today. With social media, email, the web, video, texting, etc., we have tools today that would simply amaze the communications leaders of a generation ago. Moreover, each of these media are free or low cost. The problem is, with so much information, people are overwhelmed. Rather than water the plant with a sprinkler, we use fire hoses, and cause folks to put up walls of protection.
- We are becoming skilled at filtering information. A natural result of too much information is the simple reality that most of us today are skilled at filtering the constant stream of information to only see and respond to items of interest. Everything from twitter to email to how we watch television and listen to music is filtered. We setup favorite lists for our cable or satellite channels to only see the channels that interest us. We create lists within twitter to filter our twitter stream based on keywords or hashtags. Even email providers like Google automatically filter our email into categories that Google thinks are important to us. Bottom line, unless a message falls within our defined areas of interest, it will get filed into a category that is out of sight, out of mind.
- We run the risk of spamming our church family. If we play the game of trying to “over communicate” in this day of too much information, we run the risk of crossing the line between appropriate communication and spam. Clearly, any communication professional today would encourage you to communicate multiple times using a variety of media. The danger with this kind of effort is that we can frustrate people and cause them to simply filter messages they find irritating. What, then, have you accomplished? If our church hits the send button multiple times a week with church-wide emails, I know from experience that people will simply stop reading those emails. Again, it all has to do with interest. If I do not have children, yet I receive messages from the church asking for nursery workers, letting me know about a youth event this weekend, informing me of the key points in the kids lesson from last weekend, I will see these as meaningless and either ignore future messages from the church or setup a filter to move all messages from the church straight to my Archive folder.
How Do We Improve Communication Within A Church?
- Recognize that the most effective communications, regardless of media, focuses on areas of interest. The shotgun approach is the least effective. Work to identify areas of interest within your church and target your communications to those interested in the specific topic of your communications.
- Protect the gateway to church-wide communications channels. This requires discipline and focus. Don’t allow everyone and anyone to hand the pastor announcements to be given from the pulpit on weekends. Pastors, don’t accept random announcements from your congregation. Make sure you spend as much time planning your weekend announcements as you do every other part of your service. You wouldn’t allow someone to hand your worship leader a song request right before the service with the expectation it will become part of the service, so don’t allow folks to hand you “important” announcements to be made from the pulpit. If you use a church database system, make sure a limited number of people can send church-wide emails. Make sure a limited number of people can post to your Facebook page.
- Seek ways to engage people in conversations rather than simply communicate with one-way messages. Email is a one-way message. Social media can become a conversation. This requires someone who will pay attention to your church’s Facebook wall and Twitter stream and respond to conversations as they begin to happen. People who post to social media expect a quick response. Find ways to engage them in these conversations and ways to use these conversations to help communicate the important messages within your church.
- Focus your church-wide communications using effective design principles. When using mass media for church-wide communications (worship folder, mass email, etc.) make sure to use headlines and graphic elements to help steer people towards areas of interest. Think, for example, of a daily newspaper that has sections to convey areas of interest. They provide a local news section, an opinion page, the sports section, the business section, etc. If my area of interest is sports, I will turn immediately to the sports section where I will find all of the stories that relate to my interest. No paper would simply toss all of their stories into one broad section and expect people to read with interest. Imagine the confusion if you had a story on the latest NFL games next to a story on Asian stock markets next to a story on new fashion trends emerging from Paris and Milan. Yet, unfortunately, that is how most church worship folders are assembled. Each story is placed in the worship folder as it is received, with some thought given to how important the story is, but no thought given to areas of interest.
- Seek to tell stories rather than just communicate information. We are much more interested in hearing how God is working in the lives of others in a given area of interest rather than simply hearing more information. Stories touch our emotions and help us know others and appreciate how God is working in their life. Within the church, use stories to your advantage as a way to communicate key information in a manner that is more engaging.
Follow the Example of Model Churches
As with most areas of influence within a church, larger churches can afford to hire skilled, specialized staff, while smaller churches must rely on generalists. One way small churches can learn to improve their communications is by observing and modeling some of the components larger churches employ.
Here are five churches I watch who exhibit strong communications methods in communicating with their larger congregations:
- The Rock Church (San Diego)
- North Coast Church
- Saddleback Church
- Irving Bible Church
- Mars Hill Church
Each of these churches model effective communications. As you study their methods and techniques, notice how they use stories to communicate their message. Notice the diversity of communication channels they employ, and notice how easy it is to find stories related to areas of interest.
What techniques have you learned as it relates to the topic of church communications?
This is Day 6 of my 30 Day Blogging Flush. The purpose of this series is to perform a “writing flush” on this blog, and write 30 posts in 30 days in an effort to break through writer’s block.