So, as I speak or write about communication leadership and decision-making exercises like the Perceived Opportunity Analysis Tool (or POAT), inevitably, people want to know what I think is THE best tool for church communication: Should we be doing Facebook? What do you think of Constant Contact? Is it time to get rid of the bulletin? How do we reach everybody? Can we speak with one voice using this? That?
At the risk of sounding glib, of course it all depends. It depends on many of the issues I raise in communication leadership and opportunity analysis discussions: What’s the composition of your audience? What is your ability to execute a particular communication strategy or tactic? It’s very tempting to either do away with something based on a perceived “negative” (i.e. “nobody reads the bulletin, we print way too many, etc.”) or some promise that a new technology offers (i.e. “the only way to reach kids is through this new TumblrGramChat.”)
I recall of some of those conversations I’ve heard (or been a part of) about “the best five NBA players of all time.” Well, of course, different players played in different eras and in different systems against differing opponents…so, that conversation should be a slam-dunk, right? (Um, not usually.) There are a lot of variables and a lot of subjectivity in such a discussion. Now, when it comes to communication, organizations have to craft communication strategies using tools that make sense for their particular situations, history and culture. Then, even after you might poll your congregation about the kinds of communication they might want, you still have some of the gut-check questions to answer: Can we deliver this kind of communication – say, a weekly audio or video stream from the pastor – in a timely, consistent, professional manner? Can I manage these half-dozen communication channels we’ve decided to use – “oops, we haven’t updated the web site since Holy Week, that bit about the fundraising car wash got to us too late for the bulletin, did you see what so-and-so posted on our Facebook page? How does this digital screen work? Andy’s away on vacation.” – or have we really bitten off more than we can chew? Your “five best communication tools” – to complete the metaphor – are also subject to your different, changing challenges, the profile of your congregation, and the players you have available to carry your message.
[An aside: While we’ve talked about the much more general term “communication,” there are a great many churches that also view communication through the lens of “marketing.” That is, that all communication – whether to internal or external (and prospective member) audiences – is some form of marketing, or evangelism. That’s a reasonable perspective, especially in (often younger or newer) churches that are growing or desiring to grow. There are a number of individuals and organizations that study trends and best practices in church communication and marketing, including the Barna Group (www.barna.org) and the Center for Church Communication (www.cfcclabs.com), whose primary product or service has been the Church Marketing Sucks (churchmarketingsucks.com) web site. Another site that I’ve referenced in my own work is the Effective Church Communications site (www.effectivechurchcom.com). And while he skews more of his content toward technology, David Drinnon of Second Baptist Church in Houston also has a very interesting site called Equip Them (www.equipthem.info). All of these and other sites are great resources for learning about church communication and marketing methodologies and tools.]
But let’s come back to the gut-check questions: Which communication methodologies or tools can I reasonably and effectively use? I think part of the answer lies in perhaps what could be called the “mission” of your church? What’s going to be effective for the targeted, primary communications (or marketing) that your church needs to do? Are you interested in gaining new families? Are your Sunday attendees generally devoid of teens? Are you a community service-oriented church that needs to draw attention (and volunteers and donations) to important causes?
You may next want to consider what you or your communication players can deliver, as I mentioned earlier. Ask yourself: Can I provide timely information to our congregation, while still maintaining some sanity about deadlines and production schedules? Do I have one or more communication methods or tools that can easily share/disseminate the same information? Can I get flexibility and reliability in the tools I’m going to use, or will I forever need technical assistance or extra time to make things work?
Come up with your own list of “gut-check” questions, but above all, as the saying goes: keep it simple. Congregants appreciate accuracy, simplicity and constancy. I almost always finish with this at the end of a presentation. Look for the 2-3 things you can do well and build from there. Even if it means you have to tell your congregants you’re putting a certain communication vehicle on “hiatus” – say, for instance, a hastily-created Twitter page – just to stabilize and improve some other communication channel, then I would do so. And then let your congregants know repeatedly where to get the scoop on what’s happening, what’s important, and how they can engage you. Be confident and consistent, and you’ll soon wonder a lot less about what’s THE best tool for communication. After all, none of these tools will work well without a plan…and without you.