Our church has three distinct worship services every weekend: an early intimate chapel service, a full-on pomp and circumstance service with robes, organ, processions and bells, and a more casual media-assisted worship, led by our band. Each service has its own unique style, and therefore its own unique worshipping community. There is some migration of church members from one service to another, but that is rare. This is our schedule every Sunday of the year, with only one or two exceptions.
“…how can they hear if nobody tells them? And how is anyone going to tell them, unless someone is sent to do it?”
Romans 10:15 (The Message)
A couple of times a year, on very special occasions, we combine all services and pack the sanctuary into a single service. When this happens, we try our absolute best (or at least I thought it was our best) to let everyone know with plenty of time that two of the three services would be cancelled that morning.
It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out what usually happens.
The day of our single service, we always get one or two people who show up an hour early (looking for their chapel service) and at the end of worship (showing up early for the third one).
It always happens. You can count on it.
A few months ago, we had our annual single worship. Sally and Bob showed up late, just as people were leaving worship. Sally and Bob are both retired and struggling with mobility issues. It takes them a lot of time and effort to get ready and make it to church on Sunday mornings.
I met them at the door as the service was ending, and my heart broke when I saw Sally figure it out. You should’ve seen the look on her face when she realized she missed church completely that day.
These things happen, and sadly will continue to happen. It is what she said next, though, that stayed with me. Sally said, “No one told us.”
She didn’t say, “It wasn’t communicated properly.” Or “it wasn’t advertised with plenty of time.” Nor did she say, “the announcement wasn’t accompanied with snazzy graphics,” or “you didn’t follow the latest design trends,” She couldn’t care less about what social media platforms we used to announce the worship schedule.
All she said was “no one told us.” And she was absolutely right.
Church communication is the bane of the existence of any church staff.
Every year during congregational meetings, annual staff reviews, feedback sessions or strategic planning meetings, the topic of communications comes up. And invariably we say or hear that we could do better.
Sally’s comment struck a chord with me. She reminded me that in communicating, we often focus on the event, the process, the design and the means of distribution. Seldom however, do we focus on Sally and Bob, and on how they receive and process what we are trying to say.
Professor of preaching Fred Craddock once said that the purpose of preaching is not to have truth spoken, but to have truth heard.
The same could be said about church communications.
Its purpose is to have the information heard, not just posted somewhere. There is an enormous chasm between saying something, and having it heard. Most of the responsibility of bridging that gap lies in the one doing the communication.
Instead of asking, “how should we say this?” We should always ask “How will Bob and Sally hear this?” The move may be a subtle one, but it makes all the difference in the world.
First objective: Get the information to Sally and Bob
Church communications tend to fall in one of three categories. Some churches simply post information in the usual two or three channels: Sunday handouts, church website and maybe on Facebook. They count it as mission accomplished when the information is posted across those usual channels and leave it to Bob or Sally to find it on their own.
Other churches advertise absolutely everywhere, hoping that someone will see it at least once. It’s the proverbial “throw spaghetti against the wall and see what sticks” method. Advertisements will find their way into the Sunday handout, website, Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, WhatsApp, Instagram, Tumblr, Snapchat, Pinterest, email lists, Tik Tok and just to be sure, handwritten postcards sent bulk via USPS.
I don’t know how else to say this other than: don’t do this.
It should be considered ministry malpractice.
This advertise everywhere option ends up being costly, frustrating, and an enormous amount of work, taxes staff and volunteers. On top of all that, it is nearly impossible to track on such a large scale. It is also poor stewardship of people and church resources, not to mention unsustainable as a regular practice.
There is a third option, one that will probably prove to be the best, even though it takes the most effort to set up correctly:
Find out how Bob and Sally best receive their news and give it to them that way. This is common sense, but hard to do correctly. It entails getting to know Bob and Sally, finding out their preferences and technological limitations, and custom creating the information that best fits their consumption preferences.
In other words, if a church is hosting a dinner for those who’ve been members for more than 50 years, one should avoid posting the event on Twitter as a means to get the message out. For such an event, it would more than likely be more productive to create written invitations to be mailed or hand delivered by a visitation team.
Craddock was right. It’s not about having the truth said. It’s about having it heard.
Second objective: Actually communicating with Sally and Bob
The great philosopher and orator Marcus Tullius Cicero (I know. Too early for Greek philosophers but bear with me) once said that the purpose of teaching is threefold: to teach, to persuade and to delight.
I believe the same can be said of church communication.
I’s purpose is to inform, to persuade and to delight. Think about it. We can communicate the greatest experience, event or news, but if it’s presented using black and white photocopies with pie charts, likely no one will pick it up.
In the same way, if the presentation delights, but the content is light, missing, inaccurate, or poorly worded, it won’t be well received. Likewise, if the information is well presented and accurate, but is not compelling, it will fail to move Bob and Sally.
How then should we get them the information about a change in worship scheduling? In the case of Bob and Sally, a simple letter sent via regular mail would have probably done the trick. That letter should’ve been in the form of an invitation explaining that we were not just having a single service Sunday as an annual repeating event, but that we were celebrating the ministry of one of our pastors who was moving to a new congregation the following Sunday. A letter would’ve been enough. And yet we need to recognize that letters sometimes sit unopened on Sally’s kitchen table. It happens.
So, I say to you, dear church communicator … You may research and figure out exactly how to reach Bob and Sally. You may design pieces that inform, persuade and delight. You may do all these things diligently, prayerfully and skillfully.
Sometimes in the end, though, Sally and Bob will still arrive as the final hymn or song is ending. In those cases, meet them at the door. Spend some time with them. And give yourself some grace.
Church communication is hard.