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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.

Video streaming: a tool for ministry

Any church and organization can use video streaming as a communication tool.

Not too many years ago, the costs were so high that only larger churches and organizations could afford it. But the costs of equipment have come down. And access to the web has opened up to allow virtually everybody in.

It’s time for every church and organization to think about how they can use this powerful medium.

This is the first in a series of articles about video streaming. Other installments will cover live vs. on-demand, streaming server providers, hardware & software to get the job done, options for interacting with the audience, and how to promote it with your target audiences.

First, let’s talk about why and what.

YouTube, the ubiquitous purveyor of online video, says “48 hours of video are uploaded every minute, resulting in nearly 8 years of content uploaded every day.” YouTube claims to have hundreds of millions of users worldwide.

But I probably don’t need to tell you that. If you’re reading this article online, chances are you’ve seen your share of YouTube videos. They’re embedded on websites, used in sermons and classes, linked from Facebook, and emailed to friends and family. They’re everywhere.

I’ll not discuss the pros and cons of using “secular means for sacred purposes” right now… although that’s a good topic for later on. I will say that we’re burying our head in the sand if we don’t take advantage of the opportunities our culture and technology provide to communicate the gospel.

What, then, should we stream?

Many churches will stop with the obvious: the worship service. And many faith-based organizations will not go beyond the talking face of their CEO. How about some other options?

    • A live, interactive Sunday school class
    • A youth-produced video of their recent mission trip
    • Ordinary people telling their faith stories
    • Vignettes showing how people are living out the gospel in their lives
    • A daily devotional
    • A brief clip showing a need that volunteers or donors can meet
    • A promotional clip for an upcoming event

The list goes on. I invite you to comment below to add your ideas, or things you’ve seen.

Let’s use our God-given talents and the technology God has made possible to tell the Good News and help bring the Kingdom of Heaven to earth.