Four Digital Communication Basics

 

A phrase often attributed to Philip Melanchthon, “In essentials, unity; in non-essentials, liberty; in all things, charity,” became popular during the Reformation. It remains used today and is even the motto for a presbyterian denomination. The idea behind the quote is that Christians can disagree on doctrinal points and still remain in fellowship, but it fails to solve too many problems. The harshest disagreements tend to be on the category of beliefs – what is essential?

The PCA requires ordination candidates to be well-versed and articulate in several areas: the Westminster Standards, practical knowledge of the Bible, the Book of Church Order, church history, and the Biblical languages. These are seen to be essential to pastoral ministry. Regardless of the field of study, there are fundamentals, basics, that must be understood before anything else in the field can be fully grasped.

This leads us to the question of what’s essential to effective communication. To learn communications thoroughly, we need to realize that the messages we communicate are shaped by who we are, our audiences, and the channels where we share them.

The Message (Not A Paraphrase)

The gospel is the unique faith handed down once for all to the saints. It doesn’t change. God’s Church will always buttress the good news that God became man in the man Jesus of Nazareth, he lived a sinless life, died an undeserved death, rose again victoriously, conquering Satan, sin, and death, then ascended to the right hand of the Father and offers forgiveness and reconciliation to all those who repent and believe.

That is the power of God unto salvation, to change lives, and to unite wicked sinners to Christ as new creations!

Christ is the person and the message that we carry in our bones and want the world to know, but there are other messages, information and stories that people in our specific congregations need to know and know about. THE message of the Church is the gospel, but it’s not the only thing we communicate. We also communicate event details, specific prayer requests, information about volunteer opportunities, nursery closures, community needs, and invitations to learn more through Bible studies and Sunday school. There is an ocean of information that churches convey to their people that is unique to their congregation.

Effective church communicators make room for both and see that each is vitally important in the life of a church.

Identity

There should be no caveats to the gospel, but each denomination and church understands secondary issues in its own way. It’s not uncommon that theological debates center around discerning which tradition understands church history or Biblical exegesis most faithfully; and we proudly hail from our tribes as dependable “company men,” ready to defend our nuances to the last breath. These are good things when we’re dedicated to submission to the Scriptures. Paul doesn’t discount his identity as a Pharisee but boasts in it. These allegiances become toxic when they become ends to themselves.

Secondary doctrinal authorities are phenomenal for multiple reasons; the first of which are doctrinal clarity and unity, then practicality. They make it easier to lead in local congregations, because they articulate what is important to the larger body they’re tied to. Individual churches don’t need to craft doctrinal statements or core values when they’re laid out at a denominational level. Churches become outposts and channels of the Christendom as expressed by that particular tribe.

These convictions and structures become part of that church’s brand. That may sound profane, but churches do have brand identities simply because people have expectations of those congregations. These expectations are realities to which leaders have applied the term “brand” – removing the word doesn’t change the reality, so it is best to embrace it, understand it, and move on. Brands and expectations are shaped by the above doctrinal convictions each group has; if this wasn’t the case, Pentecostal and Presbyterian churches would look the same as Bible and non-denominational (lying Baptist) churches. Habits and practices come from those beliefs, and we should happily own them.

Our affiliations and convictions set a filter over the Biblical truths we proclaim. The goal is generally to see and understand the Scriptures as they see and understand themselves, but “everyone” does that and comes to different conclusions. Denominational adjectives on our church signs actively communicate which stream we find ourselves in.

Audience

Peter and Paul both contextualized their preaching to the audience. Paul is known for pulling knowledge from Greco-Roman poets at the Aeropagus; and the sermons in Acts 2 and 10 are wildly different. Peter leveraged Old Testament prophets and motifs when speaking to the Jews but relied solely on the story of Jesus’ person and work with Cornelius’ family. The gospel was still going forth and people were coming to faith, but the apostles were aware of their audiences.

Level of involvement is a simple way to delineate what information a person needs. Most have no relationship to the church, some are marginally connected to the church, others are active members, some serve on ministry teams, and a select few serve as overseers. In any given week, these people need to hear a different message, or the same message at a varied level. Those on the fringes need to hear gospel truth or be invited to an opportunity to learn more about the faith. Membership and involvement opportunities should be extended to fringe attenders. Active members benefit from reminders of what the church believes, what it stands for, and what it does. Encouragement and pastoral tasks can help leaders stay motivated and connected to the people.

People have different needs, and it’s easiest to identify groups of people as audiences based on those needs. Connecting with them over felt needs gives leaders the opportunity to build trust and relationships within the congregation. We just need to take the time to know what they need.

Channels

Technology has changed and is changing. The last time humanity saw a change on this scale was during the Reformation, with the Gutenberg Press. The teachings of Martin Luther exploded across Europe and started a revolution against the Roman Catholic Church. Digital communication is not only reaching more people more quickly but also more directly; now, anyone can be a publisher, and your computer is your Gutenberg.

There are several dozen communications platforms that anyone can utilize, but there are just a handful that the Church should focus on. These few are print, e-mail, Facebook, and websites. These platforms do communicate, but there’s more they can do; we must to use them as means of building relationships with people in and outside of our local churches. Print because it is tangible, and everyone who steps in your door on a Sunday would benefit from a summary of the upcoming events and opportunities. E-mail is necessary because almost half of the world’s population has and uses an e-mail account. Similar statistics ring true for Facebook; nearly a third of all people have a Facebook account. Websites are critical for churches because they serve as a digital brochure and open house for first time guests.

All of these channels have their value in how many people use them or in being what people need at a given time. Email and Facebook have too many active users to be ignored and left out; but print newsletters and websites meet felt needs. Newsletters/bulletins give a tangible reminder, and websites let the curious know more about your church before they set foot on campus.

A danger when it comes to using digital channels is planning to be on all of them, just because they exist. That would be like buying land and building a campus there because it was for sale; let’s not fall into that trap. The other trap is using a platform just because you personally like it. Twitter may be personally gratifying, but very few Americans actually use the platform.

Channels also shape the message itself. Graphics, photo, video, and articles are the best types of media for digital content, and certain channels favor specific types of content. The medium does not “become” the message, but messages will go farther on specific platforms when presented the proper way. For example, no one wants to read a 1,000 word essay on Twitter. Nor does anyone want to see a 15-minute long vlog in ten-second increments on Snapchat.

Keep the content relevant to the platform, and your message will be more effective. Here are a few reminders:

  • Do keep quick reminders in e-mails. Do NOT write a blog and paste it into an e-mail to the congregation.
  • Do post photo and video to Facebook. Do NOT post every thought to Facebook every five minutes.
  • Do simplify your website. Do NOT expect a visitor to read every page of your site.

Landing

Our message and messages as a church are important, so we must understand the filters they’re passed through, what people need from us, and where they’ll hear it best. Our churches filter the gospel through lenses of tradition and theological conviction, and we should understand that those realities either create a barrier or a bridge depending on the audience. We also have the privilege and reaching out to people and serving them as they need it.

Churches also have the opportunity to extend hospitality to digital guests, as if they were visiting our physical campuses. We do this through amplifying the identity, message, and convictions of our church onto these digital platforms, like Facebook and our websites.


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