"The Word became Flesh and dwelt among us" (John 1:14).
The ethereal became earthly, the intangible became touchable when Jesus became flesh and blood. In a similar way, your church communications help make the intangible realities of your church flesh and blood in the lives of the people in your church and those you want to reach. A grief recovery workshop helps no one until the materials announcing it are created and responded to. The greatest youth program involves no one until postcards and email inform the teenagers of the dates, times, and locations of meetings. The most inspiring conference helps no one if the church is empty because no one took time to promote it professionally and prayerfully.
To help our communications be effective in making the message of Christianity tangible and touchable in our world today, let's look at the Incarnation, at Jesus becoming flesh and blood, for inspiration on ways to lead and to make our communications real and response-producing in the lives of people we want to reach.
Incarnation lesson: Communicate in a form that connects with the people you want to reach for Jesus.
Jesus did that-he came in a form that connected with the sinners he wanted to reach. He was born to an ordinary family, from an unremarkable town. He practiced a common trade.
He didn't have to do that. He could have been born into the High Priest's family; he could have come as a king or a wealthy landowner. He didn't. He came as a common man.
He looked like the people he preached to, talked like them, had fun with them. He came as one of the guys. You probably couldn't pick him out in a crowd when he was growing up. He fit in with the people around him so well his detractors used his very ordinariness against him, "Isn't this just the carpenter's son?" they mocked.
What is the communication form that connects with the people you want to reach?
The issue isn't how can you write so that your seminary professor would be impressed or how much money can you spend on a commercially produced postcard so people will think you are a church that cares about "excellence." Instead, what will connect with the people you are trying to reach?
Ask, don't assume
If the communications you are creating are primarily for outreach, do some research before you simply assume you know the best way to communicate. Take some time and do an informal survey of your specific, target audience and ask how they hear about events they attend. Be prepared for some surprises.
One young couple wanted to start a church in a beach community. Their target audience wasn't exactly the type to cruise the religion section of the Saturday paper and study church ads. Instead, they found one of the best ways to advertise their church was to create posters similar to the ones bands created and posted all over town.
Jesus wasn't what people expected and he didn't do things in traditional ways so don't be afraid to try something new for your audience.
Never stop asking your people what works for them.
If you aren't having the response to worthwhile events and spiritual growth opportunities at your church, you've most likely got a communication issue. Everyone on staff knows what is going on, they planned and prayed about it for months-but without effective communication to your people, no matter how great your program, it won't change lives.
Again, don't assume you know the best way to reach your people, ask them. Do a little survey some Sunday morning in church that asks folks how they want to be informed about events or news from the church. To do it then, to have them fill it out and turn it in immediately is the only way a survey will work. To ask people to take it home and fill it out or to mail them something and expect them to fill it out and return it is an exercise in futility.
A half sheet of 8 1/2 x 11 inserted in their bulletin that everyone can take out, quickly fill in and put into the offering works well. Give your people a choice of communication methods: email, web-posting, postcards, newsletter, in the bulletin, podcast, text message, whatever. Have them check all that they read or respond to and have them rank their favorite. Ask for open ended comments on how you can better communicate. The answers will be different for every church. Listen to your folks. Try things. Track results. Take time to find out what communication forms best incarnate the message of your ministry to your people.
This kind of a survey is especially important in our transitional time of church communication. Today some people check their email every fifteen minutes and others in your church do not and assert they will never go online. Unless you know how your people take in information and what they prefer, you may spend many unproductive hours in staff meetings arguing about what is better: to communicate via email or postcards or if you still need both. You won't know the answer until your survey your people. Realize also that preferences change and commit to doing a survey like this at least once a year to be sure that you are staying in touch with the preferred communication channels for your people.
Tracking is also important because sometimes what people say they want isn't what they respond to the best. To track effectiveness, for similar events, for example, one time send out a postcard, next time send out an email, a third time send both. Track attendance for all three events and you should learn something about what is effective in reaching your people.
Never lose track of the sheep
Asking and tracking are vitally important because often people making church communication decisions are on the cutting edge in their skills and interests in technology. It is easy for people in this position to assume everyone has their interest in and ability to access technology, but this is seldom the case. In a church located in Redmond Washington (arguably one of the technology centers of the world, home of Microsoft), the communications leader of a large church told me they were quitting their paper-based newsletter because they now had almost 60% of the people in the congregation reading it online. He was quite excited because he loved doing the online version. When I expressed concern that by his own statistics that meant almost half of the congregation would not get the church news, I could tell I was quickly put into the category of old lady who doesn't understand technology.
Technology understanding has little to do with these kinds of decisions, they are primarily pastoral ones. Never forget that if you are a leader in your church, your first duty is to pastor (care for, nurture, feed and lead) your people, not wow them with cutting edge innovations. Innovation is great and fun, but it should never come before the needs of the "least" in your congregation. The good shepherd goes after the one sheep who is lost. The good pastoral leader makes sure communications go out in forms (usually a variety is needed) so that all the sheep get the message.
Incarnation lesson: Even the best message needs repetition
Don't expect shortcuts in results just because your message is from God.
Jesus didn't spring full-grown from his mother's body as some of the mythological Greek gods purportedly did. He grew up like any other child and took just as long to become an adult as his friends did. He preached for three years and slowly built up a following of disciples. He repeated the same message quite a few times, in many situations and in many ways.
Sometimes leaders in Christian ministry birth a vision of what they want their ministry or church to be and they want their church or people to catch the vision and respond NOW. In the churches I work with as I travel and teach, I've seen this approach when churches create a splashy, expensive advertisement and run it once or spend lots of money on a pre-printed 4-color postcard mailing and send out only one because that is all they can afford. Or they announce some volunteer or ministry opportunity once or twice from the pulpit with great passion. Invariably they are disappointed when people don't flock to the program they spent so much money on advertising. Or they ignore the call to volunteer. In both situations the leader is discouraged.
They shouldn't be. Jesus had to go through a long, repetitive process to grow His disciples and we can't expect to do less. Again and again he had to repeat lessons and demonstrate actions. Up to the week of his death they were still jockeying about who would be the greatest after they heard numerous lessons and rebukes about who was the greatest among them. But Jesus didn't berate them; one more time he patiently communicated the lesson of servant leadership when he got up from the table, took water and a towel and washed their feet.
In communications, the quick fix seldom works.
For church communications to produce the sustained response and life change the greatest impact usually takes place over a long period of time and with many communication projects as you are consistent in your message to your people.
For one-time events, marketing theory today tells us people need to hear and see the same message, in the same form at least SEVEN times for it to sink in at all. Even more is needed to really make a memory impact. In practical terms, that means one ad or mailing, no matter how much you spend on it makes virtually no impact at all. Repetition, repetition, repetition is what works. Decide on your message and repeat it in the bulletin, newsletter, email, with a postcard, a flyer, a bulletin insert, web calendar, online newsletter, email and follow-up phone calls.
Remember also that not everyone will see your message each time you get it out there. With many people having to work on Sunday these days, statistically only about twenty percent of your congregation will be there every Sunday. Many people can come only one or two Sundays a month. It isn't that they don't care, that is just life today. The communications reality is that for many of your people, if you advertise or announce something only in the bulletin, many will never see it. If you rely on a mailing, what if the person sorting the mail tosses it before the intended audience sees it? What if the spam filter on someone's computer kicks out your email before it's opened? Not everything you produce will get to the intended audience.
That is why a variety of methods is critical-sending out postcards, email, putting it on your website-today you need to repeat as many times as you can through as many channels as you can to reach people effectively.
Incarnation lesson: Incarnation-inspired communication is never easy
For three years Jesus was a homeless, itinerant preacher who ended up being crucified. As we follow His steps, don't expect people to always be grateful for the communications work you pour your heart into. There will always be people who will complain "I didn't know about that; nobody ever tells me what's happening" and others who will tell you, "I got sick of hearing about that event, doesn't the staff have something better to do with their time and money?"
As a leader in the communications ministry of your church, you must be prepared for this and you must not allow negative people to set your communications agenda. They will always be there; they will often be quite vocal and persistent; they will often be some of the significant donors to the church. We can't determine their motivation which will vary from just sheer petty meanness to genuine concern, but we can't let them deter our communication ministry any more than Jesus allowed Peter to deter his mission when Peter, out of genuine, but misguided love, told Jesus not to talk about the cross. Jesus didn't listen to Peter. He rebuked him and pressed ahead with God's plan for his life.
You've got to do that as a church communication leader. Determine you will do all you need to do with both high tech and low tech to incarnate the eternal message of the gospel to your people. Like Jesus, you can expect that though you may not receive praise as you work, if you incarnate the message of Jesus as well as you can, if you communicate and repeat it often in a variety of ways, people will spend eternity in Heaven. That's why Jesus became incarnate; and that should be your goal as you incarnate his message.
From: What Church Leaders Need to Know About Church Communication, by Yvon Prehn
available at www.lulu.com/yvonprehn