Tag Archives: communication

Storytelling – the future of church communication

communicationThe future of communication in the church is all about storytelling, not technology.

That’s what I’m telling the folks who are looking ahead and thinking about the Ministry of Communication at Richmond’s First Baptist Church. They’re laying the groundwork for what kind of person they want to lead the ministry after I retire in September.

When I first joined the FBC staff in 1993, my job title was Media Minister. The focus of my work was using the various media at our disposal: television, printed newsletters & brochures, and public announcements. There was no website, no digital signage, and no online magazine.  If we wanted to get the word out to the community about something, we notified the radio & TV stations and the daily newspaper. There were no online community calendars, no social media such as Facebook, Twitter and Linked In.

SurinameI used to jokingly tell people that I was the “Minister of Machines.” That was not far from the truth. Fortunately, I didn’t have to run a full-blown print shop, as I had done in a previous church. We farmed out the printing, and it cost a small fortune. But I did spend a lot of time keeping the television equipment running. There were dedicated boxes all along the signal path, each one performing some specialized function. There were tape machines and big, heavy, energy-hungry, heat-producing video monitors everywhere.

A television engineer friend used to quip, “Television is so complex, with so many interrelated connections and finicky sub-systems, that when every little piece works perfectly, the whole system just barely works.” When I started in television in the late 60’s, it took an army of technicians to keep all those little pieces working and playing well together. I had a full head of hair back then!

powers_editingI still spend a lot of time wrangling technology and scratching my bald head when something doesn’t work. But these days, there are no tape machines. Everything’s recorded in 1’s and 0’s on hard drives. The cathode ray tubes are gone and sleek, thin LED monitors sit in their place.

The lone computer in the FBC TV control room when I arrived 20 years ago has been replaced many times over with ever-more-sophisticated and powerful processors. Most of those specialized black boxes are gone. There are half dozen more computers. They allow us to create visual and audio effects that only high-end Hollywood studios could do just a few years ago.

These days I’m the “Associate Pastor, Communication.” And I focus more on who, what, when, where, why, and how, than on the hardware used to carry the message.

yay-4455770It’s all about telling stories and connecting with people.

One size does not fit all. Truth be told, it never did.

There are so many communication channels, so much “noise” and competition for our attention, the biggest challenge is discovering and tracking how and where people get their information and what factors exert influence as they make decisions.

We deal in spiritual matters. So results are rarely quantifiable using simple math. You can’t count heads in the sanctuary on Sunday morning and get an accurate measure of spiritual maturity.  You can’t gauge the effectiveness of our efforts to communicate the Gospel by adding up what’s dropped in the offering plate. The measure of success, I’ve been learning, is in the stories of life change… of transformation. Telling and listening to those stories is the “stuff” of the church’s communication ministry.

So here’s to the storytellers of the next generation. And don’t count me out of the game quite yet, either. I’ve still got a few yarns to spin.

“Wait for it… wait for it…”

The line has become a set up phrase for some great punch lines. It is familiar to viewers of sitcoms such as “Arrested Development” and “How I Met Your Mother.”

"Men About Town": Noël Coward and Ge...Perhaps it originated in a 1936 Noel Coward play, “Red Peppers.” The author gave it as direction for his actors:

GEORGE: I saw a very strange thing the other day.
LILY: What was it?
GEORGE: Twelve men standing under one umbrella and they didn’t get wet.
LILY: How’s that?
GEORGE: It wasn’t raining. (Wait for it — wait for it.)

That is, wait for the laughter to end before you resume the dialog.

I think the phrase actually started in the Bible.

“Write down the revelation
and make it plain on tablets
so that a herald may run with it.
For the revelation awaits an appointed time;
it speaks of the end
and will not prove false.
Though it linger, wait for it;
it will certainly come
and will not delay.”
– Habakkuk 2:2-3

That passage has been a theme for my ministry since 1980, when I first heard it cited as a guiding principle for media ministry in a local church. I heard it from Ron Harris, who was Media Minister at First Baptist Church in Wichita Falls, Texas at the time.

Until recently, I had always focused on the first three lines.

The primary communication medium of the prophet Habakkuk’s era was the fleet-footed messenger, who would take the words of a king or other important person to the intended “target audience” and deliver the message personally.

The communication media of our era are vastly different. But the exhortation to faithfully report, to “make it plain,” is applicable for us modern messengers, too. Whether we write it, speak it, broadcast it, or post it on Facebook, we strive to be faithful and true to the King.

In recent months and years, I’ve expanded my focus to the last three lines of the passage.

Waiting has never been my strong suit. When I get an idea, I’m apt to run with it and ask for God’s blessing later.

What I’m learning (and I don’t pretend to be there yet) is to “wait for it.” God is teaching me patience… and He’s taking His sweet time about it!

The Prodigal Project is my current schoolroom for the patience lessons. After praying and thinking about this project for two and a half years, I’m beginning to see where God is leading. And it is truly exciting to see Him put the pieces together.

People who want to participate and contribute are showing up regularly these days. And many of those folks weren’t around two years ago. If I’d pushed ahead on my schedule, the project would have been robbed of these creative sparks.

I don’t know how it will all turn out, but I’m learning to enjoy the journey and to anticipate the surprises that await the appointed time.

Tell the truth

Joseph Pew, founder of Sun Oil Company (and whose children later set up the Pew Charitable Trusts), is credited with coining the phrase, “Tell the truth and trust the people.”

I first heard the phrase from one of the best church communicators I’ve ever known: Floyd Craig. He was talking about how to communicate in tense situations, when there’s controversy or division in the church. Floyd is now president of Floyd Craig Communications in Franklin, TN, specializing in crisis communications. Among the several books Floyd has written are Christian Communicator’s Handbook, and a publication written for the United Methodist Church, Not IF, But When – a Crisis Communication Manual.

Over the last 30 years in church communication I’ve evolved a variation on the phrase: “Trust God and tell the truth… early and often.”

Before, during and after everything else: Trust God. And simply tell the truth.

The advice doesn’t apply only to crisis or controversial situations. If you’re starting a new ministry in the church, or contemplating a change in the way things are done, or challenging the congregation in a particular area of spiritual growth – trust God and tell the truth.

“Early and often” – It is certainly true in crisis situations: The first telling of the story is the standard by which all subsequent versions are measured. The first speaker is proactive. The next ones are reactive. If the first version of the story is corroborated by the following ones, the story is verified. If different versions begin to appear, the truth of the original is called into question.

Be the first to tell your story. And if you tell it the way it is, you won’t have to remember which version you told to which group. Your message will be consistent across all channels of communication.

And if you make a mistake, admit it. Be the first to claim the mistake. Trust God and tell the truth.

Floyd shared another anecdote in an email message the other day. He wrote, “Congressman Brooks Hays and I were walking in a hall of the capitol and a lady came up to him, poking at him and went about complaining about some issue on which he had taken a stand. He listened and listened and when she finally ran down, he said, ‘You know, you may be right!’ The lady immediately ceased her tirade, smiled and said, ‘Thank you so much, congressman.’ As we walked on, he said under his breath, ‘And she may not be right!’ I wish I had learned to say more ‘you know, you may be right’ statements. I probably would not have died on so many small crosses or wasted my time on some things.”