When you look at your church communications plans and goals for all the options you have in communication channels, it would be helpful to look at this question from one church and my response to it:
“We have a website and bulletin, both of which are beautifully done, and we put the newsletter in a PDF email format on the website, and still nobody comes to our events! People say they don't know what is going on. We decided to cut down on the number of communications we were sending out so as not to overwhelm people and now even less people attend events than did before.”
Though I tried to sympathize with their situation I knew immediately what was happening—it’s a common response to shifting technologies that I’ve heard from many church communicators . Like Solomon said, “there is nothing new under the sun.”
Though church communicators often feel alone because they seldom have the opportunity to talk to other church communicators, many churches have the same frustrations. One opportunity the Lord has given me from traveling thousands of miles every year for over a decade and interacting with many church communicators online, is that I have a bird’s eye view of what is going on in church communications and most of the problems experienced by one church are experienced by many. This situation was not unique--there were several incorrect assumptions they were making that may have caused their problems .
The rest of this article is an expansion of the advice I shared with them.
Incorrect assumption #1: Assuming less communication is more effective than more communication
Go ahead; read that statement again. It’s goofy.
Imagine trying this in a marriage: "Sweetheart, I think we can communicate better if I only talk to you once a week and only in the way and time I want to."
We know a lack of communication would kill any marriage, any relationship, but it is amazing to me how many church communicators say similar things with a straight face. Less communication doesn't improve any relationship or make any response better. It doesn’t matter how busy people are who how new and appealing a technology is. In communication, less is seldom more.
Think about it:
- Do you think direct mail marketers communicate less because mailing less is the best way to sell their product?
- Do you think a TV advertiser will limit himself to one commercial an hour so that people won’t be tired of hearing about his insurance company?
- Do you think your spouse will know you love him if you only tell him that once a week so as not to be an emotional bother? Or better yet, never verbally tell him. Or maybe it’s your wife—if she is twenty something and loves the web, you decide the best way to communicate is to post your love for her on a marriage communication Facebook page that you update on a weekly basis. Do you think she'll appreciate your technical expertise in your disciplined, yet technically perfect, declarations of love?
The answers to these questions are obvious and it should be obvious that putting out less communication is NOT the way to be more effective in your church communication ministry. It takes a lot of communications in every available channel to get across the ministry messages of churches today.
Why is it that so many people in so many churches make this statement? I think danger #2 answers that question.
Incorrect assumption #2: Assuming that everybody sees, reads, remembers, and pays attention to every communication you put out
This assumption is wildly far from true. Yes, people might get tired of things if they saw every email, postcard, bulletin insert, and web posting on a topic that we put out, but they don’t.
Studies show that less than 20% of your congregation is at your every week in a month; 30% are able to be there 3 weeks out of a month; another 30% 1-2 weeks out of a month and about 20% of your church people cannot attend on Sunday (often work-related these days). If you only advertise something for a couple of weeks, probably half your people never even see it. Also, do you believe 100% of the people there each week are paying attention to every word you print and every announcement you make? Have you ever tracked how many people come in after the PowerPoint announcements?
For other forms of communication, remember not everyone has email and lots of people who have it don’t read it very often. Not everyone reads all their postal mail. Not everyone can read. This is a sad fact few churches take note of and in addition, some people, who may be able to read in one language, cannot read English well.
That’s why successful advertisers know that repetition, repetition, repetition of the message in every possible channel is the only way to make sure a message is communicated. You may be sick to death of a getting out a message that most of your audience will only hear once or twice.
Incorrect assumption #3: Assuming all your people want to receive communications in the same way you do. In other words, assuming your preferred communication channel is the preferred communication channel of your church members.
This is the big one and a danger many church are falling into today with the best of intentions. The danger is that they were putting out communications in the channels they preferred (they told me this honestly) – and that preference is the same for many church communicators—primarily web and PDF email.
Though these two communication channels are easy for churches to produce, they are not the channels easily accessible to or preferred by many people. Few folks will wait for a large PDF to download with a dial-up connection. Even if they can download a PDF newsletter, not everyone likes to read them on the screen (especially if the creator of it designed it for paper, not screen reading). If they don’t want to read it on the screen, they may begrudge the ink cost to print out all the pretty colored pictures that are in the newsletter.
Few people will go on to the website to hunt for details of where to go for a church activity, especially if they remember at the last minute. If you have not been totally up-to-date and complete about the times, dates, locations and all important scheduling details for church on your website in the past, people won’t even think of going to it. A postcard or bulletin insert on the refrigerator with all the times and details may be a more useful channel, if not as exciting or cutting edge. Much of this is changing and the web is becoming more and more important, but it takes a long time for any newer technology to be used by many of people in the church. Even as more people are online more, most churches are not up-to-date with even facts on their websites.
For youth events, if the information isn’t accessible by cell phone; it probably won’t be accessed. Cell phones and texting are the primary means teens communicate today and if a church staff member does not have the technology or the skills to use this channel, they will have difficulty communicating with them. Mobile phone accessible websites and information are becoming essential for some age groups. Often this requires design characteristics (much more simple sites) that may not be compatible with the overall church website.
Why it’s easy for churches to fall into these dangers
In my seminars I remind church leaders of the “church office bubble,” the world those of us who work in the church live in. When we are in it, it is so easy to forget what life is like for those who do not live in our familiar bubble. We know understanding and overcoming our tendency to use jargon and talk to ourselves is foundational to outreach communication success, but it is also important that we are aware of our unconscious preferences in communication channels and how these affect the communication of our message.
The issue in choice of communication channels is that those who create communications and those in the church office are included in this, by their natures and jobs are often "early adaptors." Some love the technology; they want to try all the latest and greatest tools. Some may not love it personally, but their church office manager or pastor does and there is often subtle peer pressure to learn and create with the latest technology. These tendencies are understandable, but we have to be careful that they do not negatively influence our communications by causing us to produce communications that we like to produce, but that are not necessarily ones people want to receive.
The folks from the church referred to at the start of this article, which were experiencing a low response, really liked creating the fancy bulletin, the PDF newsletter, and the website. That’s great that they enjoyed doing those things. But by their own admission, this focus on what they considered simple to do and cutting-edge was not working with many in their congregation.
Bottom line: create what you love because some of your audience will love it also, but in addition, love your church audience enough to create a variety of communication channels so that the people with the slowest computers and those without computers will also hear and have the opportunity to respond to the communications from your church.
Biblical considerations in multi-channel communications
Technology aside, we must always remember that those who name Jesus as Lord must always keep our eyes on Jesus and his Word as our guide for every aspect of our communications.
One theme woven throughout the fabric of the Bible is the concern of our Creator for the poor. There will always be inequalities (in everything from finances to bandwidth) in our fallen world and there is always the temptation of those who have much to ignore those who have little. This is as true in technology as it is in monetary resources. There is always the temptation for those who minds work quickly to be impatient with those who learn slowly; for those who love the new to disdain those who fear it.
If Jesus is Lord, we may create an incredible multi-media website and full-color email blasts; but we make sure there are also postcards, large-print bulletins, and handouts and personal phone calls for those more comfortable with these channels of communication.
Remember, doing this sort of servant work for "the least of these" is doing communication work for Jesus. He who created and named all the stars is not impressed with our technical abilities, but when we pour our hearts out in communication projects, both complex and simple, to make sure everyone is informed and shown love by the time-intensive work required—those channels of communication merit his favor.