With all due respect to Marshall McLuhan, referred to by many as the "high priest of pop culture" I believe his dictum, "THE MEDIUM IS THE MESSAGE" has led many communicators, including some in the church, astray in a tendency to focus foremost on the tools they are using to create their messages, rather than the content and results of the message.
I believe he meant the statement as an observation, not a recommendation as to what is most important in communication. Let me explain. In stating the "medium is the message" McLuhan helped us to see that the media used to present a message becomes part of the message itself. For example, a visual image of a rock concert affects the viewer in a vastly different way than a newspaper report of the concert. Stated more correctly, one could say, "the medium influences our perception of the message."
Not quite as catchy, but I think more accurate. Where things went slightly off track is that somehow this statement in practice turned into "the medium forms the message and gives power to the message."
His statement was popular at the same time many new media in the church appeared: desktop publishing, multimedia projections, the internet. For many churches, it was so hard to learn the new media, (computers, the new software and hardware was not easy), that an unspoken conclusion came about that if we somehow got the message out using these tools, we were communicating.
"We did it with desktop publishing!" "We did it with Adobe Creative Suite!" "We have a new projection system in the church!" "We now have a web site!" And similar affirmations were heard. The subtle, and often unspoken and unanalyzed, shift assumed that if we created the church communication with a high-end desktop publishing program or we created a multimedia project to teach or market a ministry or put it on the web that it would be successful just because we were using these great, cutting-edge tools. The medium made the message. The implication continued, often unevaluated, that the better we got at the medium, the more color, action, white space, flash animations, or whatever the latest and greatest technology we mastered, the more powerful our message would be.
It didn't turn out that way. Over the last almost 20 years, huge numbers of desktop-published pages, multimedia projections, and web pages have been produced. During this time when our tools to communicate are more powerful technologically than they have ever been in the history of the church, church attendance is declining; biblical literacy is at an all time low; and North America is considered "post-Christian."
The message is the message
Obviously the tools and our expertise in them is not the answer. It's the content of the message itself that is important, not the medium used to present it. It's the story itself, not only the grand theme of salvation, but the details of our individual stories: the times, places, and tangible locations where the salvation story is lived out every day in churches that are important.
For example, today, a church can project an awesome youth-themed, PowerPoint background during announcement times before the service, but if parents don't have a bulletin insert or get a postcard during the week giving them the time, location, and how much money is needed for a church event the following weekend that they can post on the refrigerator, the teenagers in the family most likely won't attend.
If a church newsletter has the awesome graphics, an abundance of white space and typography choices that could win awards, but the writing is boring or judgmental, if the topics would interest only the writer's seminary professors and not address the needs of people in the pew this week, it's almost useless, no matter how much it cost to produce.
If a church proclaims on the outside of the building, with professionally produced banners, that PEOPLE MATTER TO US! but once inside, if the church doesn't provide directions on how to find the nursery or the bathrooms and there is no handicapped access to the adult classes, or visitor information center, the unspoken message that they really don't care comes across loud and clear.
The message is the message. Everything else: the medium used to share the message, the tools used to create it, the money spent, how it looks-all these things have a place, but they are not primary. If people aren't coming to your church and staying; if they are not trusting Jesus as Savior and growing in their faith, no matter what your technology media methods, your communication is not successful.
Realizing the message is the message, that the gospel story and details of how to connect your people with how your church is living it out is the core concept to communicate. You do not need to take complex surveys, do up elaborate marketing charts and graphs or spend hundreds of thousands on computers and software to do this. You simply need to get to know the people in your audience (walk the neighborhood, get to know them face-to-face) an d then share with them the gospel story and the stories of your church clearly, completely and frequently with whatever tools you have and in whatever channels they frequently access.
If most churches in America would simply send out a postcard (half of an 8 ½ x 11 sheet) to their members (and the homes surrounding the church ) every week simply listing the seeker friendly events going on in the church with the date, time, (starting and ending), location, if child care is provided, and the cost, along with a paragraph of encouraging words from the pastor in a space on the front, there would most likely be revival in America-or at least increased attendance for events at your church. People are lonely and spiritually searching but I know most homes surrounding churches have no idea what is going on inside the church walls on a weekly basis.
This is not to say that doing our best with the latest and greatest in technology isn't useful. If the postcard above could also direct people to a well-done website with visitor friendly sections, streaming audio and video for those who have the bandwidth for it and interest in it, and perhaps even online chat for those with questions about the Christian faith, it would greatly expand the possibilities for the outreach of the gospel message.
Every additional media channel is useful, but every channel is only that, a channel. If we are tempted to think too highly of ourselves or our tools as we craft the communications of our churches, we need to look outside and remember that Jesus could at any time raise up a stone from the parking lot to communicate his message more eloquently than we can imagine. Being able to serve as his channels, to communicate his message, is not a necessity for him; it is his gift of grace to us.
Please share your thoughts, comments, questions!