Church communicators today are faced with a challenging choice of communication channels.
In print, bulletins, newsletters, brochures, flyers, and postcards continue to be produced. In addition, most churches today have entered the digital world and PowerPoint presentations, websites, email, and video are also an expected part of the communication ministry. What is essential, what works best, where churches should put their time and money, are questions I'm often asked.
There are no simple or easy answers to these questions, but this article discusses some of the important issues every church communicator needs to consider when putting together an effective church communication program.
We live in a time of multi-channel communication
Print and digital communications, in all of their various forms, make up current communication channels and it is first essential to understand that one communication channel is not more important than any other. It would be so much easier if we could say, "All we need is a website" or "Email is THE way to get across the church schedule" or "If it isn't in print on the refrigerator, it isn't happening" but we can't narrow our communication efforts to one or two channels today. All are needed to fully accomplish the communication ministries of any church.
It's natural to want to make the process simple, to focus on only one or two communication projects and then to ignore the rest. But we can't do that if we really want to reach people. What is important is not the communication channel itself, but how and when and in what way it reaches people with your message.
Examples of how various communication channels work
Various communication channels, even if they contain similar content, e.g. what's going on in the church this week, touch people, are taken in, make and impact, and are remembered and responded to in different ways. Following are some examples:
Printed church bulletin: It's touchable, tangible, and though often ignored by members who assume they already know everything in it, it is often closely read by visitors trying to figure out what is going on. For visitors especially, it's "the program" for the church service. As such it should clearly help people understand what is going on during worship and briefly inform them of upcoming events. For everyone, its greatest value is as a guide to what is happening now.
Though bulletin inserts may be kept, most church goers don't keep their bulletins; they are usually placed in the trash after the service or tossed by midweek at the latest. It doesn't matter how much white space or how incredible your graphic design, these are throw-away publications.
Practical application: Though much emphasis is often placed on the looks of the bulletin to impress visitors with what a great church they are visiting, a more important channel for impressing visitors is your people.
Few visitors return to a church because the bulletin greatly impressed them, but the kindness, friendliness, and interaction of people is the most powerful Sunday morning communication channel.
The bulletin should not get in the way of understanding, but it should explain and welcome. People come back for the message and the people, not to see what great graphic design will be in the bulletin for the coming week.
PowerPoint presentations: most useful for immediate, visual, emotional impact. Most powerfully used for worship, meditation, or to illustrate an application or lesson. Also, helps focus people on the sermon if notes are being taken. Not helpful for lasting memory of details.
Practical application: PowerPoint presentations are not adequate substitutes for written announcements. People might remember the cute picture of their kids on the screen, but they won't remember the time, location, cost, and program content of the special event coming up at the end of the week from a PowerPoint slide alone. As a one-time exposure to an event, they are fine, but they must be used in conjunction with additional channels of communication (bulletin, inserts, website entries, email) that provide specific event details.
Websites: information sources for both immediate impressions and for in-depth research. If not constantly updated, they lose much usefulness. Multi-media impact varies widely on the ability of the audience to receive it.
Practical applications: Survey your church to see how many people access it and how they use it. Do they use it at all and do they have the bandwidth to access multi-media feature such as video, streaming audio, etc.? Do you ever update them know what is on the website and how to use it? That would be a useful Sunday morning use for PowerPoint.
Don't forget that many unchurched people check out church websites before visiting-does your home page speak to them? Search engines enable people to jump into your website without visiting the home page and there are two practical applications to people coming to your site via a search engine: 1) remember that the web is not a linear communication channel. People can jump in any way and go to any section, so don't create a website as you would a book or article. 2) With this in mind, do people always know where they are wherever they might enter your website? Can they easily return to the home page or to other sections of interest? Does every page make sense even if people don't know what comes before or after it?
Email publications: great for those who have and check email regularly, of no use to those who don't.
Practical application: contrary to what those of us assume who work in the church and with computers, not everyone checks their email continuously. Not everyone has email. Of those who have web access, a minority have broadband access. A recent (July 2007) report from the Pew Research group showed that broadband internet access is available to less than half of those with computers (more on this later in the article).
Refrigerator Reminders: these can be in a variety of formats: postcards, flyers, bulletin inserts, any communication that is designed to end up on what is defacto the communication central for every home today-the refrigerator. These communication pieces are essential links to actually getting people to events when they contain the actual details of time, location, cost and availability of child care because they can be immediately accessed without having to turn on a computer or look for another publication.
Practical application: these communication pieces aren't as exciting to create as a website or video, a multimedia PowerPoint presentation or a colorful bulletin cover, but these pieces are vital if we really want people to show up for events that can change their lives.
The listing of communication channels and sub-channels within them could go on, but the most important point thing to remember first, is that there is no one communication channel or piece that can do it all; no one is "better" than any other. All are needed. In addition, you need a variety of high-tech and low tech.
For example, in a recent seminar, the communication team approached me before the seminar began and shared their great frustration because as they said, "We have a website, the bulletin, which is beautifully done, and we put the newsletter in a PDF email format and still nobody comes to our events and they say they don't know what is going on."
Though I sympathized with their situation, I knew immediately what was happening. Though I'll explain this more in detail below what was going on is that they were putting out communications in the channels they preferred (primarily web and PDF email newsletter), but they were 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 or will go on to the website to hunt for details of where to go for a youth activity. A postcard or bulletin insert on the refrigerator with scheduling details for church activities that week would have been much more useful. If most of the youth group members have cell phones a text message would be useful.
Be aware of the inherent preferences of communication creators
In my seminars I remind church leaders of the "church office bubble," the world those of us who work in the church live in and for us, when we are in 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, by their natures and jobs, are often "early adaptors." We love the technology; we want to try all the latest and greatest tools. Not only do we love it personally, but 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.
For example, I recently discovered YouTube and put up my channel on it (www.youtube.com/yvonprehn). I had great fun and was so excited about it, but fortunately, in the midst of my excitement, I followed some of my advice wherein I am always telling people to survey, to test, to actually ask their audience if what you are doing to communicate actually works for your people. So I did, I asked my email newsletter subscribers for their opinion on my YouTube offerings.
Many people loved them-some for some reasons I wouldn't have expected. In addition to simply being able to "see" what I was teaching, a number of people said they liked hearing my voice, that it made the teaching more human. An even larger number of respondents however, said that they couldn't access YouTube because they didn't have a high-speed connection and others said that though they liked it, that it really helped when I also wrote out articles that they could download and give to church staff people to read.
The issue of bandwidth is something those of us "early adaptors" and professional communication creators like to forget about. We have it; we have the RAM; we have the computers that make streaming video and complex graphics fun to create and view. But the majority of the people in our congregations still don't.
According to a recent study (July 2007) by the Pew Internet and American Life Project, broadband adoption by home computer users is actually slowing, down to a modest 12 percent over the last year, from a 40 percent increase the year before. Currently 47 percent of the general population has broadband at home and in rural areas it is down to 31 percent. When you factor in how many people in your church still do not have computers at home (and more than you imagine don't), even under ideal conditions, if they want to and take time to look at your web offerings, far less than half of your audience will receive them.
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 more 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. 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.