Until the early 2000s, traditional American churches mimicked the communication that congregants saw in their everyday lives. Like businesses and other organizations, churches used a top-down, factory model: leaders dictated communication needs, and workers used technology to produce documents and share them through the community’s delivery system.
Technology has changed that. Since the turn of the current century, new technological options have exploded — both for creation and for distribution. Other institutions have generally adapted to this new shift in communication challenges and needs.
No longer does the audience rely on one channel or platform — newsletter, email, social media, website — to receive information, and no longer does it want that to look a specific and fabricated way. The audience welcomes creativity and individualized messages.
And perhaps most significant, the audience looks for community and enhanced relationships through the delivery platforms. While people have more channels and messages than ever, that does not guarantee deep human connection.
If the church wants to connect with its congregation and community, then congregational leaders must learn modern communication strategies. They must be user-focused, employing a variety of channels, and must be creative, flexible and collaborative.
We should not treat church communication as something that one person handles for the church, nor should we treat it as just about disseminating information.
Ultimately, the goal of communication should be to enable and encourage real-life experiences and relationships. Communication platforms and channels do not exist to replace in-person conversations, but they should point congregants toward these experiences. The desired outcome is always real-life engagement within a communal body of Christ.
Fortunately, congregational leaders understand connection through communication. Every week, they tell stories from the pulpit and in classes and other settings. Even Scripture reminds us of the importance of story: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God” (John 1:1).
However, it is not enough to be a good preacher or group leader or to write a great column these days. A lousy communication system has felled many good ministers.
Despite the ever-changing technology landscape, best practices do exist, and every institution should have a few overall guidelines in place for effective and thoughtful communication. Here are some suggestions for establishing a church communication strategy.
Remember that content is king. This means that your message — the who, what, when, where, why and how — is always more important than the channel or design. And brevity is crucial.
Understand the effect of the congregational leader’s relationship to the audience. When the leader cares for the audience, the audience cares about what the leader has to say. The most effective communication strategy cannot hide a leader’s true feelings; in fact, a failed communication system often highlights disregard, thoughtlessness or lack of engagement.
Use multiple channels. Do not rely on just one outlet; use as many channels as possible, but tailor the message — and its design — to the form that works best for each channel.
One common example of a disconnect between message design and delivery channel is a print newsletter that is emailed as a PDF attachment. A print newsletter is intended to be held and read in your hands; an email is designed to be read on a digital device. Sending a printed piece as an email attachment may be a convenience for the staff, but it’s a hindrance for the audience.
Limit insider language. Often, church communication includes abbreviations, partial information or references to previously mentioned news. All of this, unfortunately, implies that some of the audience is knowledgeable and the rest is out of the loop. It feels exclusive, and instead of encouraging people to become more informed, it turns them away.
Another form of insider language is a focus solely on events. Leaders may neglect to tell the stories, trials, joys and journeys of the faith community because they forget that not everyone has lived those experiences with them. But when churches share only programming, they lose the opportunity to connect, be personable and provide entry points for those who would like to join in.
Develop staff, volunteer and community communication policies. While templates do exist, it is best to create these collaboratively and to include different audience members.
A social media policy, for example, should be designed with staff, lay leader, congregational and community input. An 80-year-old in the congregation cannot alone determine what is acceptable on Snapchat for a 25-year-old youth minister whose audience has particular expectations, norms and rules. However, the wisdom of the elder is useful, and the younger minister could benefit by creating the policy in collaboration with such audience representatives.
This focus on the audience — often described as “user-centered” — is a crucial element to successful communication. The primary way to understand the audience is to solicit feedback.
Feedback could be in the form of surveys, metrics, and analytics provided by digital channels, social media engagement, and informal and formal conversations. The goal of feedback is to learn which channels to use for various communication needs and how the audience accepts them.
Ideally, congregational leadership will talk about communication policy goals in person and online with the congregation and enfold this conversation into elements of community worship. Together, you can determine your particular concerns and focus on how the congregation can be more involved and engaged with one another and the online community.
What permissions and freedoms does the congregation need to give to the ministers? How can you set guidelines and boundaries for yourself and all congregants, including the children? How can you make sure your messaging is accessible to people of different abilities?
Using as many channels as possible, congregational leaders can ask how effective their church communication is, whether people feel informed, and how the church can do better. In this way, they may reach even the “nones” and “dones” of religious faith. The landscape of modern communication allows for even more opportunities for evangelism and relationships if leaders navigate these platforms with open minds.
Seek out examples of successful church communication strategies in your community. Finally, take a moment to look at a successfully communicating church — perhaps the megachurch nearest you. Visit their website, sign up for their e-newsletter, like their Facebook page, get on their mailing list and watch their YouTube videos. Visit their church on a Sunday morning, observing the way they engage visitors.
Most likely, you’ll find that they won’t shout about upcoming events; instead, they will convey a purpose. They won’t advertise services; instead, they will connect relationships. They won’t confuse people with insider language; they will assume that everyone is new and needs help. It will be apparent that their reason for reaching out is not attendance at the latest program but a desire for the audience to feel known.
Study them, not for their worship style, theological perspective or facility arrangements. Instead, learn how they use communication styles in the 21st century to reach and connect with their audience. Any 150-year-old congregation can do the same without changing its worship elements, theology or traditional facilities. It is communication strategy that can make the biggest impact.
Want to learn more?
Pew Research Center: “10 Facts About Americans and Facebook”
The New York Times Magazine: “Brave New World of Digital Intimacy”
Marketing Teacher.com: “The Six Living Generations in America”
World Religion News: “You’ve Heard of the Religious ‘Nones’; Here Are the Religious ‘Dones’”
Interaction Design Foundation: “What Are Personas?”
“The Chaos Machine: The Inside Story of How Social Media Rewired Our Minds and Our World,” by Max Fisher
“Zucked: Waking Up to the Facebook Catastrophe,” by Roger McNamee
Vox: “Land of the Giants”
Crooked Media: “Offline With Jon Favreau”
Center for Humane Technology: “Your Undivided Attention”
The Verge: “Decoder with Nilay Patel”
Michael Wesch: “An Anthropological Introduction to YouTube”
TED: “Clay Shirky: Institutions vs. Collaboration”
Websites and resources
Church Marketing Sucks (archive)
Ultimately, the goal of communication should be to enable and encourage real-life experiences and relationships.
“Will I have a job in five years?”
“What will happen to this ministry in the long term?”
I hear leaders worrying about long-term viability, uncertain about how to plan for it.
Beyond wringing hands, some are experimenting by launching a new degree, starting a new worship service or selling a new curriculum. Others are begging donors for more financial support to cover expenses or provide scholarships to reduce fees. A few are exploring mergers with like-minded organizations to consolidate costs and expand ministry work.
Viability is tied to the services offered, the income generated and the related expenses carefully managed.
In a startup or turnaround phase, employees are asked to invest long work hours and offer their best creatively. When successful, such efforts generate more income and keep expenses low. This works for a season but is nearly impossible to maintain for the long haul. People wear down and eventually burn out.
At some point, we have to pay attention to the organizational capacities that undergird a ministry — things like the pay and benefits offered to employees; the hours of work expected; the methods of communication to constituents, donors and other stakeholders; the systems that store, manage and access data; and the skills needed by the board and the staff to operate year after year.
We know that such things are important. However, in an extended period of transition and related uncertainty, we often push off strategic decisions in order to accomplish the urgent. The donors, board members and other stakeholders can lose sight of the time and money required to keep the ministry functioning in healthy ways. The employees and volunteers grow so accustomed to working in overdrive that they may not even point out these longer-term needs.
Over and over again, I meet ministry leaders who have sacrificed the time and money necessary to provide for themselves and their families for the sake of launching and maintaining a ministry. They depend on pay and benefits provided by spouses and partners. They take risks with inadequate health care or borrowed housing.
They can make these choices, but should donors turn a blind eye to such sacrifices? Do those of us who have influence over resources question the decisions and their consequences for the people involved? Do we recognize the problems inherent in unsustainably low salaries and expenses?
Practically speaking, higher expenses require more revenue. Increasing revenue has consequences. For many ministries, the main sources of revenue, and the consequences of dependency on them, include the following:
- Fees paid by those served. Fee-based ministry serves those who have money and are willing to spend it. Even modest fees can exclude some groups from the services offered.
- Sponsor fees paid by those who have money in order to provide a service for those who don’t. Sponsors often determine whom the ministry serves. Sponsors also often have stipulations about how the work is done.
- Contributions from supporters of the ministry. Those who contribute again and again want to know the impact the ministry is making and how their donations are spent. Developing the initial connection that leads to recurring gifts requires a deep commitment on both sides. Ongoing fundraising often becomes a substantial part of the ministry’s work.
- Grants, usually one-time gifts for specific projects. Grants typically require reports to the grantors and are seldom renewed more than one time; the general expectation is that grants are a way to fund startup costs or launch experiments. With some notable exceptions, like government grants, ongoing grant funding is unlikely.
Occasionally, a ministry will have assets like property or endowments that can generate revenue. Such assets often take years to acquire as well as skills to manage.
The wisdom from 20th-century nonprofit work was that if 20% of an organization’s income comes from a single external source — a person or organization — then the organization is dependent on staying in alignment with that source’s expectations. Perhaps the percentage is different for your organization, but if the loss of a single source of income would require you to make significant strategic changes, then your organization is dependent. The governance structure might indicate independence, but the financial statement does not. For the sake of clear expectations, the board, staff and volunteers need to know the influence of any single funder on the ministry.
Another factor related to viability (and connected to revenue) is often labeled scale. What quantity of services can we provide that are both affordable and of good quality? This might be the number of congregations a consultant can serve or the number of people in a learning experience. Congregations have to discern the number of staff that can be adequately paid and what those staff members can accomplish. The questions about scale are specific to each organization, but the concern is across the board.
Our recent experiences with quarantines have changed the scale questions in so many different industries. For example, who knows now how much office space a business needs? Each business answers that question differently. Airlines are now cutting and adding flights continually to adjust to changing passenger needs while doing their best to fill up every flight. Congregations can no longer rely on counting the average in-person worship attendance as an indicator of staffing and services.
While capacities, revenue and expenses, and the scale of services are the most obvious questions to explore, the only way to get clear about long-term viability is to get clear about your organization’s mission and vision, along with your part in that mission.
In our work, we often use five questions based on the ideas of business theorist Roger Martin and former Proctor & Gamble CEO A.G. Lafley to develop a strategy. These questions function as a cascade, the answer to each in turn providing structure for the one that follows.
- Why? What is the deepest aspiration?
- Where and with whom are we serving/transforming?
- How will we serve? What activities are needed?
- What capacities do we need to do “it”?
- What management systems are required to ensure that the capacities are in place?
If your organization gets stuck on any of the questions, back up and review the responses to the earlier questions. What has changed? How should that change affect answers to the other questions?
Too often, ministries stop after answering the third question. But when we focus on the long term, we also have to address questions four and five, which take us back to capacities. If boards and donors don’t encourage and support ministries in addressing these questions, then the employees have to answer them out of their own resources. That leads to exhaustion. Insisting that these questions be addressed is a great gift that donors and other stakeholders can provide.
Questions about capacities, revenue and scale are difficult, but those who care about our ministries must do our part to raise them with a view to the organization’s mission and vision. Long-term viability is important to all of us.
Melissa was sitting in a meeting of church leaders, and she was ready to tell the truth.
“Before I say this, could you pass me the PayDay?” she said.
At that moment, the item she had requested — a PayDay candy bar with a grubby red, white and blue wrapper — sat in front of Jon. It had moved around the room in the past hour. I could tell: courage was winning over fear.
What does a candy bar have to do with courage?
At the opening of the meeting, I’d introduced the idea that courage was a gift that would be rewarded. Soon, I was watching grown adults vie for that PayDay. I know it seems a little silly, but it’s vital to find a way to speak more honestly with one another.
We meet often but not well. We attend long meetings that go nowhere. We meet to solve problems but leave pertinent concerns unsaid. We meet for healing but let fear drive out openness.
It is no myth that the real conversations take place in the parking lots and bathrooms. It’s true for me, and I’m trained to help people speak freely. I sometimes wait until I’m walking to the car beside a committee member to have the honest discussion I should have had in the meeting. Why? I didn’t feel safe to mention my concerns.
People have different reasons for keeping silent. Introverts may be internally processing and not want to fight for airtime. Others may sense that speaking about the elephant in the room is discouraged. Many may find that their fear of offending someone is greater than the value of sharing a sincere opinion. People with less power may feel that their voices are unwelcome.
How do we bring the candor expressed in informal settings into more formal meetings — where honesty can feed the potential for more lasting solutions? How do we motivate people to bring their voices into the room?
There are numerous techniques to structure meetings for effective outcomes. When I facilitate conversations, I love to playfully reward honest talk with a PayDay.
I start by saying, “Who will overcome fear for a PayDay candy bar? Who will give us the gift of your courage to speak the truth today?”
Then I pull out the promised reward. No one seems impressed. Typically, it’s been riding in the bottom of my purse for days. If the participants groan at the sight, I counter that fame goes hand in hand with this PayDay.
I explain: “Here’s how this works. You’ll know when someone is brave.
“For instance, one of you may say, ‘I like that vision statement, but I don’t love it. For me to love it, it would have to include something riskier, such as …’
“I expect one of you to shout out, ‘That deserves the PayDay!’
“A while later, someone may say, ‘I wanted to have a funeral for that practice a long time ago.’ If I see people around the table respond with wide eyes, I’ll know to walk over and put the PayDay in front of that brave person.
“There is only one PayDay. It sits in front of the last courageous speaker.
“You do not eat it. You bask in its glory.”
Many times, the participants aren’t convinced — until the first honest comment shifts the conversation and someone quietly passes the PayDay. The recipient grins, and the rest of the room gets it.
Then we’re off and running. The meeting gets more interesting and productive. People actually sit up, lean forward and appear more engaged, because the conversation seems more authentic.
Soon, some participants like Melissa are requesting the candy for themselves even before they speak. Recently, a quiet participant took the game so seriously that they raised their hand and said, “I have not received the PayDay yet, but when I do, could you not have it passed from the last person, but could you go get it and put it in front of me yourself?”
The simple delivery of a PayDay candy bar can minimize fear and motivate people to share new and diverse perspectives. It can help participants be more likely to address the core problem rather than just the presenting symptoms. Sometimes, this honesty can become “confession within community” and offer a chance at healing.
Seeing honesty take root, even in this lighthearted way, can create a confident momentum that builds on itself. After all, fear is not a theological concept. Casting out fear is.
Tim Keller and I agree: denominations do something important. While Keller and I might express that importance differently, I will take what I can get. Saying anything positive about denominations has not been popular for decades.
Keller was interviewed this spring on Christianity Today’s “The Rise and Fall of Mars Hill” podcast, which chronicles Mark Driscoll’s ministry at the Seattle megachurch and the church-related networks he helped establish and influence. It is a troubling account of fame and abuse.
In a bonus episode, the host gave the bestselling author and now-retired founding pastor at New York City’s Redeemer Presbyterian Church a chance to explain his connections to Driscoll and to interpret what happened.
Keller took a moment to explain how his and Redeemer’s participation in the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA) created an accountability that was not present for Driscoll and Mars Hill Church, because Mars Hill did not have a denominational affiliation. Keller was a part of networks with Driscoll, and those networks functioned very differently from denominations, Keller said.
Networks connect people to each other to make a difference, particularly in a community, while denominations provide oversight and doctrine, he said. Although Keller focused much more of his efforts in connection with Driscoll on establishing and nurturing networks, he also accepted the discipline and rules created in the PCA, and he believes that congregations are better off being part of denominations, he said.
Given the context of the Mars Hill story and the convictions of the PCA, it is not surprising that Keller would emphasize the regulatory work of his denomination. But when I pull back and consider why we need denominations, something broader comes to mind: discipleship, the formation of Christians.
Think about who shaped you. Who inspired, supported and encouraged your development? Was it parents, grandparents, pastors, schoolteachers or community volunteers? I am conditioned by American culture to recognize all the individuals that support me. I hope that you can name a cloud of witnesses in your life from childhood to now.
But I am also thinking about where that cloud of people comes from. Where do they learn, get support and resources? How are the lessons of the past brought to future generations?
This is the work of institutions — schools, churches, child care agencies, camps and more. It takes time and money across decades to build such institutions. I am specifically thinking about organizations that have served their missions across three or more generations. These organizations have traditions that get passed down, and that is one of the ways formation works.
For generations, denominations have been the institutions that support congregations and organize ministries of all kinds. They set rules for life. They articulate convictions on matters of faith and life. They train and ordain clergy. They discipline violations of their rules. Some denominations, like the PCA, have books of order that include many regulations. Other denominations have short covenants that describe expectations but very few regulatory functions.
Denominational work has not been popular for at least 40 years. Most of the time, people in congregations see accountability as a hindrance rather than a lifesaving barrier. The work of passing on the faith and providing structures that support discipleship doesn’t receive much attention. Yet this work is vital.
Keller mentions the significance of networks, and I agree that these loose associations of people formed around a common interest or concern are significant sources of innovation and encouragement. Networks form within geographies, within and across denominations, and around critical work like disaster relief or church planting. Generally, networks don’t have any rules and may not have any legal structure. As a result, networks can rise and fall quickly.
If a network continues beyond a generation, it often develops a structure, including a paid staff and other financial obligations. This process of institutionalization leads to forming something that for groups of congregations looks like a denomination.
Can a congregation be healthy without a denomination or similar institutional support? Sure. I have seen congregations be healthy for a whole generation or longer. But eventually, there is some difficulty. Maybe it is conflict or legal problems or misconduct. At that moment, the congregation needs friends from outside their membership. They need someone from whom to seek advice or get direction. If they are not a part of a denomination, they create a structure. Essentially, they create a temporary denomination.
I am not arguing that the 20th-century denominations and their agencies can rest easy. Most denominations are in trouble. They need to focus on the work that they are best suited to do. This requires discernment and painful trimming.
In the 21st century, denominations need to identify their core work. What do they offer that both meets needs of congregations and communities in the moment and offers the discipline necessary for future generations? I believe denominations need to focus on those activities that are most effective in forming the disciplines of discipleship and the identity of “Christian.”
When I got started in ministry in the 1970s as a teenager, I witnessed the last moments of an age when denominations were the “main thing” and congregations served to support the work and life of the denomination.
Soon after I went to school, that script flipped, and denominations have been figuring out that flip throughout my career. The process is slow, because denominations are complex political systems. Authority is diffused, and decision making is multilayered. Yes, such work requires much patience.
The starting point is a conversation about why denominations are important. The stake I drive in the ground is that denominations provide the support that helps congregations form Christians to live as faithful disciples. What stake would you drive in the ground? What is required for congregations to continue their vital work in your communities?