Seeing what we say

For people who believe that they are created in the image of God and follow the Logos, we can be very naive about our communications. Lynne Baab says that for our communications–both among ourselves and to those outside our churches–to be effective, we have to look at the whole picture and then, from time to time, evaluate what that picture is really saying.

Conveying a congregation’s identity and values clearly and through a variety of means of communication will help the congregation connect to the community around it. At the same time, clear expressions of values and identity will also have a deep impact on the congregation itself. The people involved in a congregation are shaped by what they hear about that congregation. Their expectations for the life of faith and for their involvement in the community are influenced by the ways in which the congregation talks about itself and its values.

For decades congregational leaders have been making decisions—both consciously and unconsciously—about identity and values and how they are communicated. The nine myths below lay out some of the underlying issues that may influence these choices and their effectiveness.

Myth 1: We’ve got a mission statement, so we’ve figured out who we are.

Leaders and members are tempted to believe that once a mission statement is in place, the congregation can get on with doing ministry. A mission statement, however, is simply one small way among many that a congregation can communicate its heart and soul. In fact, everything about a congregation communicates. Its bulletin, newsletter, and website may include its mission statement, but the photos, layout, and additional text also contribute to the reader’s perception of who the congregation is. The actions of a congregation—its worship style, preaching, ministries, and mission activities—speak of its DNA, its story.

Myth 2: Our identity is rooted in our faith.

Leaders and members are tempted to believe they don’t need to spend time considering the specific identity of their congregation because they assume their faith values provide the DNA for their congregation.

Myth 3: If we focus too much on figuring out our own identity, we may become self-absorbed.

While focusing on it all the time would definitely cause an imbalance, many congregations are already out of balance in that they focus too little on the way their actions, publications, and use of symbols communicate their priorities and the distinctiveness of who they are. “Who are we and what are we about?” is a key question that needs to be front and center for all congregations.

Myth 4: We don’t need to think any further about the implications of new communication technology because we already use it well.

Focusing on the deeper questions, the issues that lie behind the use of new technologies, is important. Congregational leaders need to consider how everything the congregation does—communication technologies as well as things like programming and the use of physical space in the building—speaks about the congregation’s priorities.

Myth 5: We’re a traditional congregation, and we have chosen not to use most of the new communication technologies. We’ve figured out our identity; it’s the same as it’s always been, so why complicate things?

Myth 6: We avoid the new technologies because we’re leery of the consumer culture, and we don’t want our congregation and even our faith to turn into yet one more consumer item.

I see congregational identity as an issue that relates to much more than selling something. Very simply, everything we say and do communicates what we consider to be important, and what congregations communicate about faith values shapes how members act on their faith. Therefore, from time to time, congregations need to stop and evaluate what they are communicating.

Myth 7: Our congregational values are being communicated effectively through words. Our pastor and leaders preach the sermons and put a lot of thought into the words used in our newsletter and on our website.

Much of Jewish and Christian tradition is strongly word oriented, emphasizing the significance of words over images. With the move away from a word-based to an image-based culture, leaders of congregations need to do some careful thinking about the role of visual communication in our time.

Myth 8: We’ve got a great Web designer and newsletter editor, and our newsletter and website are terrific.

I believe that all the new communication technologies have created the necessity for “critical friends,” people who understand the importance of the new forms of communication for congregations and, at the same time, are willing to look at those forms with a critical eye. These critical friends pay attention to the congregation’s websites, blogs, projection screens, and other forms of communication that have a large visual component to see if the visuals harmonize with the words used and whether the verbal and visual components together communicate important values about the congregation.

Myth 9: If your heart is in the right place, communication takes care of itself.

(It is true that…) Faith values cannot be communicated if no faith values are present. But Babb does not agree that the result of a vibrant faith is that all communication will automatically be okay. Just as individuals with good intentions can benefit from learning listening skills for their personal relationships and speaking skills for their oral communication, so congregations can benefit from considering the implications of the ways they communicate and what they are communicating.

Which of these nine myths best describe the situation in your congregation?

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