Tag Archives: Television

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.

The Sermon in the Oboe Solo

A modern oboe with a reed.
(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

It was one of those situations where TV just can’t capture the experience.

We try to overcome the medium’s limitations. Sometimes we succeed. Other times, we fail miserably. Mother’s Day was one of those other times.

It was a beautiful worship service. Eunice Kim’s piano prelude ushered us into the presence of the Living God. We sang and prayed. We dedicated two babies. The Church Choir and the Youth Girls Ensemble sang beautifully. Dr. Somerville preached an insightful and prophetic sermon. And 15-year-old Sarah Kyle played an oboe solo: Mendelssohn’s “On Wings of Song.”

Sarah said during rehearsal that she was having a hard time hitting one of the notes. But during the 8:30 worship service, she played it almost perfectly.

As she was standing at the side of the platform, ready to move up and play again at the 11:00 worship service, she was horrified when she looked down and saw that her reed was split. She had a spare, but not in the room. No time to change it. So she bravely took her place and started to play. Nothing came out. Just air… and an occasional squeak. The accompanist played on. And Sarah kept trying. As much as she must have been tempted to run off the stage, she stayed with it all the way to the end. She held her composure, showing maturity beyond her age.

From my vantage point in the TV control room, I could see choir members behind her silently rooting for her. Some were obviously praying for her.

When the piece ended, the congregation applauded. It was one of the few times I’ve appreciated applause during a worship service. With their applause, they were not saying, “Good job! Thank you for entertaining us.” The members of this community of faith were showing their love and support for Sarah. And perhaps they were expressing their solidarity with a fellow imperfect human being who was willing to risk embarrassment to be creative in their worship of God.

At the end of the worship service, as is his custom, our pastor, Dr. Jim Somerville, offered a charge and benediction to the congregation. He mentioned that one of our members, Millie Barnes had hit a hole-in-one at the church golf tournament the day before. And then he said, “I’m guessing there are lots of times that Millie swung her club and the ball didn’t go in the hole.  But that’s how it is with golf.  Sometimes it works, and sometimes it doesn’t.

“I was thinking about Sarah Kyle who got up to play the oboe today…  And I was thinking about how heart-breaking it must have been for her to stand there and struggle to make music when all she got was squeaks and breath.  But I also know that I was here in the 8:30 service when she played beautifully.  This is how it is with playing oboe.  Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t.  And any of you who have tried playing Mendelsohn on the oboe in front of hundreds of people know exactly what I’m talking about.

“I remember that Olympic diver Greg Louganis used to say that when he stood on the end of the diving platform, he would always say, ‘even if I blow this dive, my mother will still love me.’  It’s what made it possible for him to take risks and to try things other people were afraid to try.

“I’d love to think that this congregation would be that kind of safety net for people who are bold enough to take some risks. So that if a young woman stood up to play the oboe and she began to fall, we would catch her with our love. That she would know this is a safe place to try and fail and get up and try again.

“I’d like to think this would be the kind of congregation where everyone would feel free to take some risks. To live their life in a more open and fearless way than ever before because they knew the safety net was there. And that if they fell, somebody would be around to catch them. Maybe that could be our charge in this week. To be those kind of people, to catch the ones who fall, to pick them up, to set them on their feet again, and to tell them, ‘listen, no matter what, we will still love you.’”

I’m not sure we handled this well in the television broadcast of the worship service.

We brought Sarah into the studio after the worship service and got her to overdub the oboe part while watching the video and listening to the piano accompaniment. And that’s the version you’ll see if you watch it on TV this Sunday. We edited out Jim’s comments at the end. Someone watching the TV program wouldn’t have any idea of what really happened in the sanctuary that morning.

I’m thinking that, for the sake of a more polished TV program, we sacrificed the “teachable moment” that God had provided. Sarah’s oboe solo… the congregation’s spontaneous show of support… Jim’s using it as an illustration of what it means to be a community of faith… that was the real sermon Sunday morning.

With Sarah’s and Jim’s permission, here it is – unedited. Be sure to watch all the way to the end, to see how the congregation responds to the pastor’s comments at the end of the service.