2-4-6-8....How do we communicate?

In my past life, I worked in Broadcast Marketing and Promotions.  I cut my teeth at a local radio station before I even went to college.  I worked for two more radio stations in college and then for a local Fox affiliate/tv station in Atlanta, GA before I got the call to go up to the big show, TBS and later TNT.
WUTM 1984
 Everything I learned about story telling and multi-level marketing I learned from groundbreaking communicators - some of the best in the business, my colleagues are now running Television and Network Marketing and Promotions departments from coast to coast.  It was fun, we were cutting edge, and we got to spend a lot of Ted Turner's money.
The TBS Promotion Team, 1988ish

Today even these media outlets have had to change their methods of communicating to their audience.  No longer do people make appointments to watch a particular show (remember how NBC comedies dominated Thursday nights?), no longer do people tune in at an appointed hour to get their news and information from trusted sources.  The internet and handheld communications have changed everything about how we tell our stories and how we invite others to share our experiences.

In 2003 I was called to ministry, what a change in careers!  When I graduated from seminary, 10 years ago, I left with a passion for sharing the Good News, a focus on living missionally - living and walking among the people of the community I was being sent to serve.  I carted to my new appointment a ton of books and ideas and I was truly excited that part of my pastoral task was to read and think and share ideas with others through well thought out worship experiences and sermons. Homiletics professors challenged us to spend 10-20 hours a week reading and writing our sermon, and I will never forget the admonition from Dr. VanderBroek to spend time studying daily to 'keep up on our Greek'.

Trinity United Methodist Church, Waverly, Iowa, 2015
Now, two appointments later and one year into my work on the staff of an Annual Conference, serving in a denomination that is facing some huge challenges and changes in the next 2 years, I am going out on a limb here to invite every pastor and church to rethink how we communicate the Gospel and our church's stories.

That 10-20 hours a week you spend on worship IS important, but if you don't invest heavily of your thought and time into your online presence (your website as well as social media) you will not grow as a church in the 21st Century.  There are young people, as well as nones and dones, in your community who are interested, even intrigued, by the idea of church, but before they walk into your building they are going to check you out online.  The more information you can give them about who you are, what you believe, what they will experience when they eventually come to worship the more likely it will be that they will dip their toe into the water of a Sunday morning worship experience.  Pictures as well as narrative are really important.  What if you asked one of your newer families to share a video of their walk into church one Sunday?  Don't be afraid of 'amatuer' video, heartfelt wins - every day.

If you thought life as a pastor was like living in a fishbowl, it's even more so now, thanks to technology.  This can be a good thing, it reminds us, as clergy, that words have meaning, it reminds us that what we share about ourselves has meaning, but we need to mean what we say.  If you are uncomfortable with pictures from your vacation being seen by parishioners, then don't post them.  But, if you see God's handiwork in your time of reflection and in the sunset you just enjoyed, then share and celebrate God at work in the sea and the stars and the mountains and in the smiles of those you love.  Now more than ever people need good examples of living lives of gratitude and grace.  Social media allows us to do so.  Just remember the Sunday School Song:  "Be careful little eyes what you see" and don't share anything you wouldn't want your grandma to see (or hear or read).

Clutter is not your friend in the online world.  You may be able to get away with a cluttered desk, but your website and social media feeds need to have laser focus.  If you don't already have a mission or vision statement, work with a team to develop one, or use the one that is your denomination's.  In the United Methodist Church, it is:  making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.  Always keep that at the forefront.  If what you are about to share does not contribute to 'making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world,' then don't do it.  Save it for your personal page, send it via text to a couple of friends, but don't muddy the waters.  People are barraged by messages constantly.  Unless we have a laser focus we will just be part of the white noise.  Once you have a vision statement stay the course.  Repeat it everywhere you go.  Post it in your building, on your website, in the bulletin, tattoo if necessary - until everyone who attends reguarly can repeat it - and tell someone new what it means to them to be a church that is about; making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world!  And then live with it and embody it for 5-10 more years!

Do share others experiences.  In the context where I presently serve, we call them Glory Sightings!  This is language that is indigenous to this context, so I use it.  Often.  I aim for 2-4 Glory Sighting posts each week on social media, always with a picture.  But I still keep our vision statement first and foremost.  Then, I always like the post (yes, its ok to like your own post) and I check on it throughout the day.  It is really important to interact with those who share their own glory sightings and comment or interact with your posts.  Even clicking 'like' shows that you care about what someone else says.  It helps to build loyalty, it exhibits hospitality.  Being hospitable in your own space is essential for growing an online community.

Be open and flexible.  You might find that some people don't/can't make it to your physical worship space every week, but they still want to be connected.  Help them be connected, don't hammer them for their absence, but be flexible and invite them to participate as much as they are able.  This is a big shift in thinking because we want people who are sold out belongers, but we also need to give those on the edges a break.  Let God work on their hearts, invite, be flexible, open and loving and you might be surprised by the fruit that this bears.

Invite, Invite, Invite.  The best content is indigenous.  Invite others to take photos of an event.  Gather the perspectives of others.  Allow them to have the spot light.  Clergy folk have the pulpit for an hour on Sundays, give the power to the people of the church.  Pull out your phone often and take pictures of your choir, the youth group, your mission team out in the community and invite others to join in.  Disciple making disciples is the ultimate goal.  Consider how you are inviting your members/disciples to be disciple-makers and celebrate this.

Don't abdicate your role as vision caster and vision keeper.  Clergy - you will still need to be the curator of the vision - so don't abdicate your role.  It's ok to invite others to help with the website and page, but you are the one with the theological training.  Make sure that the language that is used is theologically sound and that it fits with the culture that you are trying to cultivate.  Change takes time.  Don't give up after a few weeks thinking it isn't working.  Change takes a long time.  But the best platfrom to point people to so that they can start to see what you are preaching and teaching is your church website.

A website is more than a glorified newsletter.  Your website is the container of all sorts of information.  But first and foremost it should be the launch pad for the mission and vision of your church.  This allows for people to come and see, to learn and grow and to share the vision that is being set forth.  DO spend time writing good content that explains who you are, what you believe and how you are living day to day as disciples of Christ.  Make sure that a visitor can come and find things easily.  You wouldn't invite someone into your home without offering them a chair, or a knife and fork at the dinner table. Folks get frustrated very easily if they can't find what they are looking for, so make it easy for them with clear headings and good content.  Don't skimp on content and do include pictures and videos.  Most people are skimmers - a photo will invite them to linger and learn more.

Witness to the love and saving grace of God.  This is the greatest gift that is the internet and social media.  Now more than ever we are able to witness through words, pictures and videos, the saving grace, love, mercy, and power of God.  We are able to show God's people in unity of heart and mind and service.  We are able to invite others to taste and see what is good.  We are able to stand alongside our marginalized sisters and brothers and speak truth into dark places.

This is an exciting time to be a leader in the church.  Now more than ever it is also a time to 'take thou authority' and utilize the tools that are at hand wisely.  Our witness can bring hope and healing to a broken and hurting world.  Why wouldn't we want to invest our time and talents into something that can make such a difference?
West Virginia State Capitol, 2017

If you'd like to have further conversation send me an email: dcoble@wvumc.org.  I look forward to seeing how you use technology in your context as a tool to build up the Kingdom of God!


Deborah Coble is the Director of Communications for the West Virginia Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church.  Her 25 years of experience in television and radio marketing and promotion took her from Tennessee to Georgia to Colorado and finally Iowa, where she had a call to seminary and full time ministry.  She is a Denman Award winner, Iowa/2016.

Since June, 2016 Deborah has combined her media and theology experiences to serve the church in the beautiful hills of West Virginia.


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