“Weird” is the only word I can think of to describe the second week of March 2020. I will never forget sitting in my lead pastor’s office that Thursday afternoon with a group of church leaders listening to them discuss something that had seemed completely unthinkable even the day before: should we lock our doors on Sunday and move all of our services online? (Spoiler alert: we did, and you probably did too.)
I’m sure everybody has their own unique story about how the COVID-19 pandemic affected their life and ministry. Mine started, like most of yours, with the frantic, adrenaline-fueled rush to retool systems, signage, websites, social media, and other church communications to suddenly meet the needs of our community which had changed literally overnight. About two weeks into that rat race, I got abruptly yanked out of it when I had to go on emergency family leave.
Suddenly, for the first time in almost a decade, I was (temporarily) not the Communications Director at Faith Church.
For nearly three months, I experienced church the way the average person does. I didn’t know anything that was going on behind the scenes. I wasn’t in any meetings or even inside the church building at all. I didn’t know what Sunday’s sermon was going to be about or what was going to be announced until I heard it live just like everyone else. And while listening to those sermons, I wasn’t obsessively worrying about typos in the notes. In short: church wasn’t my entire world anymore; it was just in my world.
Here are some things I observed during my leave about what it’s like to be “just a normal church member,” and how I am working to adjust my focus now that I’m back.
1. IF YOU TOLD ME ONCE, YOU DIDN’T TELL ME
I knew this objectively as a communications professional – we always try to make sure we hit every message multiple times and in a variety of ways. But it’s crazy how true it became for me once I was unplugged from the direct stream of church-related info into my brain.
It’s amazing how differently a message hits you – or, in this case, doesn’t hit you – when you’re on the receiving end versus the sharing end. Life is busy. Our brains are stretched. Everyone’s trying to get us to pay attention to them.
Let me be clear: I know how carefully crafted and well-planned church communications are. For Heaven’s sake, I have poured hours of my life into making sure an email is worded just right! And yet, when they came, my brain automatically categorized them right alongside everything else I was getting from my HOA, doctor’s office, credit card company, and every company I’d ever bought something from. Is this something I need to know? Quick scan, maybe I’ll watch that video later, perhaps mark it unread to return to after bedtime (and then forget about it for a week), and move on with my day.
If that was me (a pretty committed church member), in the middle of a pandemic (when arguably there was way less going on in my life than usual), I can only imagine how easily church can fade into the background for our average attendee during “normal” life. If something’s important enough that we want people to be sure to hear it, we need to do our part by making sure we tell it to them enough times and in enough ways that it can land in their hearts rather than in their peripheral vision.
2. TO REACH PEOPLE, WE NEED TO BE WHERE THEY ARE
This one is a little bit tricky because it is not a one-size-fits-all approach. For me, an “old millennial,” email is still the best way to grab my attention. But I know there are others who have so many unread messages that they’ve given up even checking. Some people religiously (no pun intended) watch every second of the livestream every Sunday and participate in the chat, while others might have it on in the background while scrolling Instagram and making pancakes. If we’re going to reach all of these people, we have to make sure that our messages are hitting all of these channels – and that we’re constantly looking for new ways to connect.
3. WE NEED TO KEEP INFORMATION BITE-SIZED
In the past, I’ve often advocated a “don’t be too intrusive” strategy for communicating information. In an effort not to bother people with a bunch of random communications, we’ve kept emails and push notifications to a weekly minimum, trying to distill everything we need to communicate into one simple message.
But I noticed something during my leave. The organizations who communicated using this strategy (our local library, for example) looked dated and faded into the background of my crowded inbox. They probably had some great content to share, but it wasn’t popping out to me because it was presented in a dense, information-heavy format. In other words, it was a five-course feast when all I had time to grab was a protein bar.
Don’t get me wrong, the other extreme is not the way to go either. I recently unsubscribed from a clothing brand because they sent me emails twice a day, every day, announcing amazing sales. Sorry to say, but if you’re having sales that often those are just your normal prices. My inbox feels lighter and my brain less manipulated now that those emails are gone. If I need something from them, I know where to find them.
But the church can learn something from this I believe, and strike a happy medium between the two. Should we be sending out emails, push notifications, and tweets every day repeating basic information that is easily found on our website? Nope – quick way to get everyone to unsubscribe and ignore. But should we be relegating ALL communication to one jam-packed newsletter? Also no. Finding creative ways to share bite-sized pieces of information, updates, encouragements, and even fun can help keep us on people’s minds and bring a smile to their faces throughout the week.
4. AUTHENTICITY IS KEY, ESPECIALLY DURING A CRAZY SITUATION LIKE WE’RE IN NOW
Remember how many emails you got about companies’ responses to COVID-19? Remember how little you cared about most of them? And for good reason. After a while, they all started sounding like a template that just had a new company’s name at the top. Everyone said that they were “monitoring the situation” and “making sure safety was their highest priority.” Everyone was “taking care of their employees” and “putting precautions in place.”
But which messages stuck out and made you feel like they were really saying something important? To me, they were the ones brimming with authenticity – the ones who acknowledged that they had absolutely no clue how to handle this and were just doing their best each day to stay on top of recommendations and find new creative ways to take care of their business. The ones who didn’t wait until they had it all figured out to say anything, but just shot straight. I felt better about our daycare’s “We have no idea how we’re going to handle this yet but we’ll let you know when we do” messages than a national restaurant chain’s “we’ve got this all covered” ones. After all, in those early days – and even still – nobody really knew for sure what was best.
We’re all still learning. Our audience wants to know how we’re learning, who we’re listening to, and what we’re doing about it. But more importantly, they want to know that we’re still here, that we’re still the same church they’ve always known and loved, and that we still care about them. They may need information, but what they crave is connection.
5. HOPE > COOL, INFORMATIVE, OR ANYTHING ELSE
In addition to being authentic, it’s desperately important that our messages are filled with truth and hope. So many times we think about how to make a graphic look awesome, or how to clearly transmit every detail about an upcoming event.
But in the sea of fear, anxiety, confusion, advertising, politics, and complaining raging around us in 2020, let’s let the church’s main message be the gospel of Jesus. It was true yesterday. It’s life-giving today. And no matter what the rest of the year holds in store for us, it will be vital tomorrow.
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