Communicating the Gospel: Philip and the Ethiopian Go To Church

Communicating the Gospel: Philip and the Ethiopian Go To Church

Whatever the environment big or small; urban, suburban; multi-cultural in addition to solid gospel preaching, the order of service in each of these must encompass four basic elements.

The most powerful Scriptural illustration of effective church communication is recorded in the eighth chapter of the book of Acts, recounting the conversation between Philip the Apostle and the Ethiopian, who is reading the scrolls of Isaiah.

Keep those passages handy as we continue. The critical encounter is their exchange in verses 30-31: "Do you understand what you are reading?" Philip asked.

Watch for elements of your Service of Worship that may distract from concentrating on God.

"How can I?" he asked, "Unless someone explains it to me?"

Transport this encounter to a modern setting.  a coffee shop, a park bench, a church pew. Recast the roles where Philip is just a guy who goes to church and the "Ethiopian" is a new guy sitting alone at church.

Transport Phillip into a modern sanctuary, sliding into a seat beside the Ethiopian the guy with the tats the single mom the millennial the gender-questioning.

Together, these two sentences are a rich guide when evaluating our contemporary approach to communicating the gospel of Christ. First, they represent two avenues of communication that must be taken into account internal and external.  Second, they demonstrate two types of people with whom the gospel is shared by church-folk and those who aren't.

Most of modern communication focuses on the external elements advertising, branding, marketing, press releases, social media, and/or websites. Managing these elements may be the task of a "communications director." While we will touch on ideas to enhance these elements, the focus here is based on the assumption that the external elements have effectively intrigued people to attend a church.

Enter the "Ethiopian."

"The Ethiopian" represents that culture of those who aren't church-folk and the external communication it is trying to reach, from the single mom to the millennial and everyone in between. The Ethiopian sits alone in a sanctuary as the Service of Worship unfolds.

Enter Philip, the church guy not a designated leader, just a guy in the congregation, who recognizes somebody new and looks to be a tad uncomfortable. From Philip's perspective, he sees someone who is not sure what to do, knows who's who, or what the songs are.

"Do you understand why you are worshipping?" Phillip asks.

"How can I?" they ask, "Unless someone explains it to me?"

Thus begins the process of internal communication: Comprehending worship.

Connecting in Worship

While there are many individual "Philips" in any congregation ushers, official hosts, intuitive members the primary responsibility for effectively communicating the gospel during corporate worship rests with those who plan and present. Whether speaking, singing, or "tech-ing," each individual serving should keep this principle in mind: "Always assume there is someone here today who has not been here before, and knows nothing about our church."

This principle may enhance planning and operations to address little things that the regular congregation may take for granted, but that can frustrate or turn off the people who have not attended your church before. Or, who have not even been to church previously.

Here are some communication ideas to consider for your situation. They're based on observations from a season of being "The Ethiopians," A season of visiting an array of churches aside from our church home. Whatever the environment big or small; urban, suburban; multi-cultural, ethnic-centric; 19th or 21st century decor in addition to solid gospel preaching, the order of service in each of the churches contained these basic elements (in various sequences):

A Welcome
Church News and Offering
Musical Worship
The Message

As virtually each of these experiences was new (including the two visits to our home church having been elsewhere for months), it was clear that no matter how attractive the outside message, what happens within the walls can also turn people away from the message of Christ. 

Taking those four factors into account, a church of any size with the most minimal of resources will greatly improve communication by intentionally addressing these principles:

1. Consistently watch for elements of your Service of Worship that may distract from concentrating on God;
2. Consider each opportunity for corporate worship as a one-shot teaching lab.

Welcoming

These moments of introduction let us know who you are as a congregation. Whether the Welcome is at the very top, occurs after musical worship, or is interspersed throughout music, this element sets the tone for the congregational experience and, more importantly, let's me know whether I wish to return, stay or hightail it. Do not rush this greeting, and do not embellish. Craft it to last 30 to 45 seconds. Don't leave this to off-the-cuff improvisation.

1) Express your vision: If you have a motto or a brand logo seen on your website or printed material, connect it to action. The tagline of a church I attended was, "Developing a family of Christ-followers." Often a platform greeter or worship leader included this phrase in the welcome and break down a phrase to give context.

Frequently, "Christ-follower" was defined verbally or projected on the screen. This moment introduced new people to the church's mission, and reminded members and regulars of the mission of the church.
2) Identify people: The more intimate the church, the more likely is the assumption that people know each other and who the key people are. In such a setting, newer people may feel left out. Instead, be intentional about introductions. Anyone presenting on the platform should introduce themselves and their role. The speaker's name and role can also be projected on the screen for five to seven seconds. If the key personnel are in attendance, avoid reference by just by first name, i.e., saying, "If you want to sign up, see Bobby." If you post sermons or other elements online, take the time to identify the speaker in connected text. Otherwise, you will come across as insular.
3) Teach traditions: You understand why certain things are done in the service. What about me, the guest? Better still, what about those who attend regularly, or serve with you? Do they understand, even though they grew up in the church? Example: Why do we stand to sing in church? How is this different from standing at a rock concert? How is this different from standing to read scripture? Look for moments to briefly give insight. 

Church News and Offering

Keeping in touch is a universal value. It's not enough not to have a visitor from Ethiopia. It's important to know specifics, like an email. New and old resources are available. How well are you using them?

4) Show-And-Tell: Techno: Do you want people to register attendance? To give an offering? Use an app? Listen to sermons again? Show them the tools and give them time to employ. Remind and demonstrate. Each week. A church culture that's time driven to get to the next element is emotionally frustrating, materially wasteful and misses growth opportunities.  Younger people (read: teens) or newer attendees (read: entry-point service) could be recruited to provide on-stage instructions, or hands-on, in-the-pew tutoring.

Imagine the Ethiopian sitting next to Phillip who is fiddling with an app. "Do you understand how to make an offering?" the Ethopian then asks.

"How can I?" Philip replies, "Unless someone explains it to me?"

The Ethiopian lends a hand. This looks like the start of a beautiful discipleship.

5) Show-And-Tell Old School: The same principle applies to paper communication a printed bulletin, an attendance sheet, prayer lists, flyers, sermon notes, song lyrics. Point out essential items from up front so the audience can recognize them, then provide time for things to be read, written or saved. Avoid, "Take out your attendance card. We'd like you to fill this out sometime during the service. But first, let's.") People won't, and those who assemble the printed material will feel less-and-less valued, though they may not say so. If you're going to take the time to develop the printed material, use them as teaching tools. Otherwise, be good stewards and save the printing expense.

Check out the second portion of this piece tomorrow.

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