Speaking Faithfully

by Jim Naughton and Rebecca Wilson

What can we say that might induce people to hear what the church has to say? Adult learning experts tell us that adults learn something new when they need to know it. People come to church, or come back to church, because they need to know something new.

When we give workshops, Jim sometimes asks people to think of Jesus standing up to give what Christians now refer to as the Sermon on the Mount. Imagine, he says, if instead of the Beatitudes, Jesus had addressed the crowd by saying, “The altar guild will meet on Tuesday evening, and the men’s group on Thursday. I know we all like a little extra sleep, but we really need the acolytes here fifteen minutes before the service. Families, please see if you can get out the door a little earlier.”

When people come to the church, they need to know something about hope, or God’s love for them, or about the existence of a community of people living according to the values that dispute the hopelessness and violence they see around them. Usually the thing they need to know is not the altar guild update or the annual meeting agenda. But too often, that’s all our newsletters, Facebook pages, and websites tell them.

As communicators, our job is to tell the world, and help other Christians tell the world, our stories of God and the gospel at work. It’s simple, but not generally easy.

For the sake of argument, let’s assume that every congregation and church organization preaches the gospel. But every group is called to do that in a different way, and so to speak faithfully to your community, you need to determine what distinctive qualities – in church talk, what charisms – your church community offers to the world. Developing three of four messages that convey who you are and what God is calling you to do will help you focus on your communications effort on producing stories, reflections, videos, and other content that express those messages and bring them to life. Key messages, in short, can help prevent your communications from devolving into an annotated calendar.

A process for developing key messages begins by gathering the right people – grassroots leaders and volunteers who have hands-on familiarity with your church’s work and have as much diversity as your church can muster in age, gender, geography, race, class, and political opinion.

  1. Structure the conversation: What is distinctive about your community of faith? What is God doing in your midst? What are your most compelling stories about people’s spiritual and missional growth and work?
  2. Listen for stories
  3. Decide on goals
  4. Decide on tone
  5. Choose to tell the hard stories
  6. Focus on content
  7. Identify your target audiences: neighbors and/or members

Once you have organized which messages you want to deliver to which audiences, you (and the people of St. Egbert’s) are ready to choose a mix of communication tools – website, print materials, social media, signage, and so on – to get the job done.

How does your church communicate the Good News?

Jim Naughton and Rebecca Wilson are partners in Canticle Communications, specializing in work for church agencies, organizations, parishes, and advocacy groups. Jim, a former reporter for The New York Times and The Washington Post, is found and editor of Episcopal Café. Rebecca, a long-time communications strategist, has spearheaded public interest campaigns and church programs. This article is taken from their recent book “Speaking Faithfully: Communications as Evangelism in a Noisy World” (2012, Morehouse Publishing). 

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