Until the early 2000s, traditional American churches mimicked the communication that congregants saw in their everyday lives. Like businesses and other organizations, churches used a top-down, factory model: leaders dictated communication needs, and workers used technology to produce documents and share them through the community’s delivery system.
Technology has changed that. Since the turn of the current century, new technological options have exploded — both for creation and for distribution. Other institutions have generally adapted to this new shift in communication challenges and needs.
No longer does the audience rely on one channel or platform — newsletter, email, social media, website — to receive information, and no longer does it want that to look a specific and fabricated way. The audience welcomes creativity and individualized messages.
And perhaps most significant, the audience looks for community and enhanced relationships through the delivery platforms. While people have more channels and messages than ever, that does not guarantee deep human connection.
If the church wants to connect with its congregation and community, then congregational leaders must learn modern communication strategies. They must be user-focused, employing a variety of channels, and must be creative, flexible and collaborative.
We should not treat church communication as something that one person handles for the church, nor should we treat it as just about disseminating information.
Ultimately, the goal of communication should be to enable and encourage real-life experiences and relationships. Communication platforms and channels do not exist to replace in-person conversations, but they should point congregants toward these experiences. The desired outcome is always real-life engagement within a communal body of Christ.
Fortunately, congregational leaders understand connection through communication. Every week, they tell stories from the pulpit and in classes and other settings. Even Scripture reminds us of the importance of story: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God” (John 1:1).
However, it is not enough to be a good preacher or group leader or to write a great column these days. A lousy communication system has felled many good ministers.
Despite the ever-changing technology landscape, best practices do exist, and every institution should have a few overall guidelines in place for effective and thoughtful communication. Here are some suggestions for establishing a church communication strategy.
Remember that content is king. This means that your message — the who, what, when, where, why and how — is always more important than the channel or design. And brevity is crucial.
Understand the effect of the congregational leader’s relationship to the audience. When the leader cares for the audience, the audience cares about what the leader has to say. The most effective communication strategy cannot hide a leader’s true feelings; in fact, a failed communication system often highlights disregard, thoughtlessness or lack of engagement.
Use multiple channels. Do not rely on just one outlet; use as many channels as possible, but tailor the message — and its design — to the form that works best for each channel.
One common example of a disconnect between message design and delivery channel is a print newsletter that is emailed as a PDF attachment. A print newsletter is intended to be held and read in your hands; an email is designed to be read on a digital device. Sending a printed piece as an email attachment may be a convenience for the staff, but it’s a hindrance for the audience.
Limit insider language. Often, church communication includes abbreviations, partial information or references to previously mentioned news. All of this, unfortunately, implies that some of the audience is knowledgeable and the rest is out of the loop. It feels exclusive, and instead of encouraging people to become more informed, it turns them away.
Another form of insider language is a focus solely on events. Leaders may neglect to tell the stories, trials, joys and journeys of the faith community because they forget that not everyone has lived those experiences with them. But when churches share only programming, they lose the opportunity to connect, be personable and provide entry points for those who would like to join in.
Develop staff, volunteer and community communication policies. While templates do exist, it is best to create these collaboratively and to include different audience members.
A social media policy, for example, should be designed with staff, lay leader, congregational and community input. An 80-year-old in the congregation cannot alone determine what is acceptable on Snapchat for a 25-year-old youth minister whose audience has particular expectations, norms and rules. However, the wisdom of the elder is useful, and the younger minister could benefit by creating the policy in collaboration with such audience representatives.
This focus on the audience — often described as “user-centered” — is a crucial element to successful communication. The primary way to understand the audience is to solicit feedback.
Feedback could be in the form of surveys, metrics, and analytics provided by digital channels, social media engagement, and informal and formal conversations. The goal of feedback is to learn which channels to use for various communication needs and how the audience accepts them.
Ideally, congregational leadership will talk about communication policy goals in person and online with the congregation and enfold this conversation into elements of community worship. Together, you can determine your particular concerns and focus on how the congregation can be more involved and engaged with one another and the online community.
What permissions and freedoms does the congregation need to give to the ministers? How can you set guidelines and boundaries for yourself and all congregants, including the children? How can you make sure your messaging is accessible to people of different abilities?
Using as many channels as possible, congregational leaders can ask how effective their church communication is, whether people feel informed, and how the church can do better. In this way, they may reach even the “nones” and “dones” of religious faith. The landscape of modern communication allows for even more opportunities for evangelism and relationships if leaders navigate these platforms with open minds.
Seek out examples of successful church communication strategies in your community. Finally, take a moment to look at a successfully communicating church — perhaps the megachurch nearest you. Visit their website, sign up for their e-newsletter, like their Facebook page, get on their mailing list and watch their YouTube videos. Visit their church on a Sunday morning, observing the way they engage visitors.
Most likely, you’ll find that they won’t shout about upcoming events; instead, they will convey a purpose. They won’t advertise services; instead, they will connect relationships. They won’t confuse people with insider language; they will assume that everyone is new and needs help. It will be apparent that their reason for reaching out is not attendance at the latest program but a desire for the audience to feel known.
Study them, not for their worship style, theological perspective or facility arrangements. Instead, learn how they use communication styles in the 21st century to reach and connect with their audience. Any 150-year-old congregation can do the same without changing its worship elements, theology or traditional facilities. It is communication strategy that can make the biggest impact.
Want to learn more?
Pew Research Center: “10 Facts About Americans and Facebook”
The New York Times Magazine: “Brave New World of Digital Intimacy”
Marketing Teacher.com: “The Six Living Generations in America”
World Religion News: “You’ve Heard of the Religious ‘Nones’; Here Are the Religious ‘Dones’”
Interaction Design Foundation: “What Are Personas?”
“The Chaos Machine: The Inside Story of How Social Media Rewired Our Minds and Our World,” by Max Fisher
“Zucked: Waking Up to the Facebook Catastrophe,” by Roger McNamee
Vox: “Land of the Giants”
Crooked Media: “Offline With Jon Favreau”
Center for Humane Technology: “Your Undivided Attention”
The Verge: “Decoder with Nilay Patel”
Michael Wesch: “An Anthropological Introduction to YouTube”
TED: “Clay Shirky: Institutions vs. Collaboration”
Websites and resources
Church Marketing Sucks (archive)
Ultimately, the goal of communication should be to enable and encourage real-life experiences and relationships.