Every year I interact with many church communicators and every year it seems like some of the same mistakes are made by many churches that keep them from being as effective as they could be in communicating the gospel message. Following are three of the most common ones I see consistently. I don’t want to only point out problems in this list, because none of us are perfect and we all have things to learn. I’m using these as a spring-broad for improvement, so along with the mistakes are suggestions and links to how-to articles that will help you correct them.
Church Communication Mistake #1: Thinking that simply having a website is enough
As I have evaluated many church communication websites, I have lost count of the number of websites that obviously were created by a company selling a template (my apologies to those companies, it is not your fault what is done with them after you sell them) that look good, but that are failures in communication.
The problem is that the church seems to think that just having a website and buying a fancy template or using professional graphics means something. The websites usually have great looking graphics on the home page, scrolling notices of various sorts, lots of labels, but if you click on any of them at most you find a paragraph of content. You never get a sense that a real person cared about anything other than certain slots be filled. No explanations of the why of the church or faith, no evidence of a personality behind the tiny amount of content and most dangerous of all, usually nothing is up-to-date in any ministry area.
Simply having a website isn’t enough—a website is a minimal expectation for any church today and as essential as an entry in the phone book in the past. But if your website says little more than a phone book entry, it won’t accomplish much more either. What is really sad about this is that a church that only fills in informational blanks is missing a HUGE opportunity for outreach.
In addition to the mistakes of an incomplete website, keep in mind that websites do not replace the tangible week-by-week communications needed in the church to keep your congregation informed and involved. Bulletins, newsletters, postcards, flyers, reminders of all sorts are needed and this website has many ideas and inspiration to make your materials more effective.
Church Communication Mistake #2: Assuming graphic images communicate the same meaning to everyone who looks at them
Images should be used primarily to add to the message expressed in words. They are not enough in and of themselves to communicate much of anything. They may look nice, they may create an emotion, designers may congratulate each other on their brilliance, but if you want to communicate a significant Christian message, images alone won’t do it.
Some of you may object: “But, a picture is worth a thousand words.”
Whenever I hear that statement, I always respond with the question, “What thousand?”
People often make the first statement as some sort of understood truth that images say more than words do. That is simply not true. Reality is that the same picture can mean different things to each person who sees it. Not convinced?
What would you say a picture of the American flag means to:
- A Marine just out of boot-camp?
- A terrorist who has been water-boarded?
- An immigrant just granted political amnesty?
- An Al-Qaeda sleeper cell member?
- A member of Congress?
It’s the same flag—but we all bring different histories, experiences, loves, and hates to any image from flags to puppies to clowns. No image, picture, or graphic is self-explanatory.
Images do not fully communicate the complexity of the Christian message. Images do not give time, date, location, and let you know if child care is provided. Images can stir up emotions, but they don’t make practical connections.
We need words. Let’s choose them as carefully as we do our images.
For an article by Gerry McGovern, international guru of web marketing wherein he summarizes research on the ineffectiveness of images used in secular advertising, and my comments on it: http://churchcommunicationsblog.com/2010/12/06/why-it-is-incorrect-to-think-that-graphic-images-mean-the-same-thing-to-everyone-who-sees-them/
Communication Mistake #3: Using the Apostle Peter’s methods to reach Paul’s audience
Some pastors (particularly in my age cohort of Baby Boomers) have trouble understanding why altar calls don’t seem to work the way they used to. Newcomers to church don’t understand them, or if they do respond, sometimes the same person responds every week or makes a public profession of faith only to go on living no differently than before he made it.
This is part of a larger problem of communicating the Christian message to a post-Christian world. We may know in our heads that the world no longer shares our value system, but when we attempt to translate that into action, it’s easy to forget what that actually means. The following illustration might help.
When the Apostle Peter preached to the assembled group of observant Jews at Pentecost and thousands immediately responded, it’s easy to forget that he was preaching to a group of people who knew the Old Testament message, who understood sacrificial atonement, who expected and were looking for a Messiah. For this audience all he had to do what show how Jesus fulfilled the criteria as Messiah and challenge them to decision. He got a huge response.
Paul’s ministry was primarily to the Gentiles and he used a different approach. One illustration:
One night the Lord spoke to Paul in a vision: “Do not be afraid; keep on speaking, do not be silent. For I am with you, and no one is going to attack and harm you, because I have many people in this city.” So Paul stayed in Corinth for a year and a half, teaching them the word of God. Acts 18:9-11
He was not talking to a group of people who grew up hearing the promises of Messiah. This audience had never seen a lamb sacrificed in recognition that they could not meet the demands of a holy God. They didn’t know why Jesus had to die. Paul taught day after day explaining, teaching God’s Word, giving them the background necessary to understand why it was important that Jesus die and why they needed to live life differently once they trusted him as Savior. The Greco-Roman world was filled with many gods, but to trust one solely for salvation and to change one’s moral behavior because of it was a radical idea for most.
Application: We live in a world like Paul’s where people (as hard as it is to understand) may know nothing about the Christian faith or what it actually means to live it. We cannot assume anything in either our written or verbal, web or print communication. In all your communications you need to explain as much as you can, as clearly as you can. Ask if people understand. Explain again.
Be prepared; you may irritate some of the long-time church members. When they express impatience with reading your explanations of things they already understand, ask for their prayers that your church clearly communicate to people who know nothing about Jesus as the only source of eternal life.
We have many challenges in our work as church communicators, but if you work on these three, you will more effectively share the words of eternal life.