3 Simple Concepts Your Ministry Needs to Be More Effective
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Almost every church we guide through the Unstuck Process self-identifies communication as a “core issue” that’s getting them stuck.
I’m never surprised by that. Pastors are trained to preach, but usually not to oversee a communication strategy.
My friend Phil Bowdle from West Ridge Church has a new book out called Rethink Communication: A Playbook to Clarify and Communicate Everything in Your Church. It’s really good. It’s practical, and you know I like that.
I got an early preview of the book, and it brought to mind for me the specific communication issues I see repeatedly. None of them are inherently complicated, but churches get stuck because really fixing these problems requires more than just “communication” changes. It requires that you make ministry strategy changes that play out through communication. And that means it affects more than just the communications team—you’ll have to lead changes in how the whole team is operating.
But if it’s safe to extrapolate our experience serving several hundred churches at The Unstuck Group in the last few years to be an indicator of what many of you are experiencing, listening to this episode will give you a fresh perspective on your church’s communication strategies.
If it resonates with the frustrations you’re experiencing, the Leader Conversation Guide for this episode will be particularly helpful.
In this conversation, we discussed:
- 3 very common mistakes churches make when it comes to how they approach communication and how you can start fixing them
- Why being reactive instead of proactive in your communications puts an unnecessary burden on the people you’re trying to reach, and ultimately makes you ineffective
- Why “bull-horn communication” doesn’t work anymore, and some bad assumptions church leaders make that undermine your ability to engage both new people and the people you already have
- What the “attention economy” means and why it matters for how you attempt to reach people with key messages and next steps
Leader Conversation Guide
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Tony: 01:39 So Phil, I see three common mistakes in churches when it comes to communications. And I’m going to bounce all three of these off of you over these next few minutes here and you can tell me if I’m right or wrong and then help us fix all three if you agree with me. Are you good with that? Let’s do it. Alright. So the first mistake that I see is churches really don’t have a communications strategy or playbook defined. Do you see that in a lot of churches?
Phil: 02:06 Oh, very much so. I think typically what I see is churches are very reactive around how they communicate instead of proactive. And the challenge of that is not only does the staff pay the price and the people that are trying to communicate the message, the reality is the people that we’re trying to communicate to actually pay the price because we trade more work for, instead of putting more work on ourselves, we actually trade that and put more work on the people we’re communicating to. And that’s what happens when you don’t have a communication strategy. And it doesn’t actually have to always be all that intricate. It’s not a playbook of, you know, 400 page manual that your whole staff isn’t going to read. Sometimes it’s just some basic standards and expectations you’re going to have for how you communicate as a church.
Phil: 02:49 And so sometimes, where I encourage people to start is just saying, what are the one to two things that you want to communicate that you want everybody to know in your church each week? If you can nail it down to that, then that’s a strategy to start with to make sure that you know, well you can’t have 15 things, 10 things. What are those one to two key next steps that we want everybody to take as a church and that’s where strategy can start and a lot of things can flow from that. But yeah, I think your assumption is definitely correct. I think we have to build a more proactive playbook for how we communicate.
Tony: 03:23 All right, so I appreciate your initial thoughts here really for the foundation, just figure out how do we boil it down to those one or two key messages that need to be communicated. But let’s go a step further for a church that really, they’re beginning from scratch when it comes to communication strategy, what are some of those foundational building blocks you think churches should consider?
Phil: 03:45 Yeah, I think the thing that I would encourage everybody to do is, the old playbook of just blasting out bullhorn communication really does not work anymore because the assumptions that we used to make around communication really aren’t in play anymore because people don’t communicate in a way, like people are making the assumption that people are attending every single week, which they aren’t. And people are making the assumption that people are paying attention, which they often are not. And they are also making the assumption that we can only engage people when they walk inside the walls of our church. And the reality is now we have to have physical and digital communication strategy to really reach people where they go. And so I think that the old playbook we have to kind of put aside and really in some ways change our posture and communication.
Phil: 04:37 It’s not what we want from people. It’s what we want for people. It’s what, we want when we communicate things like small groups or serving. We’re not just trying to funnel people in to bump up our numbers. We’re trying to help them fulfill the calling that God’s placed on their lives. It’s a very different posture. You know, if I get up and say, hey, I want you to, if I’m doing announcements Sunday and I’m saying, hey, we want to bump our small group engagement by 20%. So we need every single one of you to get involved. That’s one strategy, but that’s what we want from people. But if we communicated that same message but said it in a way of saying, hey God has wired every single one of us to do better in community and we can encourage each other, God’s wired us for that. So we want to provide a place for you to do that. There’s a place for you here in our church to experience community and encourage one another and for you to be encouraged yourself. Like that’s the same message but different posture. And so I think what I would, it’s the small church, big church, all of them. If we can communicate in a way of what we want for people instead of what we want from people, I think our messages are going to be far more effective in reaching that person.
Tony: 05:46 It’s interesting you mentioned people’s attention and the fact that we don’t have it all the time. I just read an article about Netflix and within they look at the attention economy and they have identified that within that attention economy, their primary competitor is fortnite and it’s because of the Gen Z basically they know that it’s not going to be other video competitors, television, media. It’s going to be the types of things that are really have the attention of Gen Z right now. That’s their primary competition. You just mentioned too, I mean within the church, people aren’t showing up every week. So when it comes to this attention deficit that many of us are facing, and there’s only so much time in the day so we can’t add more time to the attention economy, it’s defined. How does the church tackle that if we’re not only competing with people’s time and their lifestyle and so on, but everything else that’s trying to grab people’s time as well.
Phil: 06:55 Well, I think it starts with the foundation of actually going back to what Jesus said. He said, go and tell, go and proclaim the Gospel and tell people about Jesus. He didn’t necessarily give us a strategy of saying you can only do that inside the four walls of a church. And so yeah, our competition probably might be a little bit fortnite. We may have some of that, but Netflix is probably up there too. But one thing that just blew me away in researching some stuff for my book, I found that the average person is typically on social media 110 minutes a day. That’s unreal. And so what would I think we have to rethink as the church if we want to fulfill our mission and accomplish some of the greatest opportunities we’ve ever had in communicating the gospel, it means going to reach people where they are and rethinking some of the communication opportunities we now have as ministry.
Phil: 07:46 And where I think we get stuck is where churches assume, oh, we use social media so that we can promote more things and get more people to our events. We’re going to use our website just to be able to make sure that people know how to get signed up for things. And the reality is, I think if you can rethink this, those opportunities we now have as ministry. I think it becomes another tool for us to be able to actually engage people and put Jesus on display on social media. And it doesn’t take too much time on Facebook or Twitter or Instagram today to realize there’s not a whole lot of hope out there. There’s not a lot of things that are saying, hey, we want something for you. We want to put Jesus on display in the middle of your social media feed.
Phil: 08:30 So what I think we have to rethink as the church is to say, how can we grab attention by actually helping somebody solve a problem that they have and speak to a felt need that they have. And we can do that where they are. And guess what, when we do that, it actually gets people to come to the front doors of our church if they haven’t been there already because we’re actually adding value to their lives. We’re helping say we see you and we care about you. And so when we can rethink those things as ministry, the opportunities we have, it’s not going to be easy because that’s not the playbook that has been set for us. We don’t usually think of these communication mediums as a way to actually engage people in ministry, but some of the greatest, I think opportunities we’ve had as a church at Westridge recently have been using things like text messages to put the Gospel in front of people each morning.
Phil: 09:23 And, you know, it’s using Facebook messenger as a way to receive prayer requests and actually engage people into helping taking their next step on Facebook. Some of them have never been to our church before. It’s using advertising campaigns and things like that on Facebook as well to actually let people know we’re actually talking about things that you are dealing with like depression or mental illness, or you know, suicidal thoughts were actually talking about those things. So we want to get their questions, we want to get their prayer requests and we want to let them know we see you and we care about you and God cares about you and how can we, and we as a church want to help play a role in your story in that. So if we can rethink that, I think we wouldn’t feel like the attention is the biggest challenge. I think we would say our biggest challenge is what can we do to amp up our energy and using all these great tools that we have to communicate the gospel.
Tony: 10:15 All right. So that’s the first big mistake I see within churches when it comes to communications is they really don’t have a communication strategy. Here’s the second one that I see, Phil, and you actually referenced it earlier, so I’m assuming you would agree with this. The second common mistake I see within churches when it comes to communications is that they’re trying to communicate too much. There are too many messages and they become competing messages. Do you agree with that?
Phil: 10:44 I don’t know what churches you’ve been to. Yeah, I don’t feel that way at all. Right? No, of course. Of course. I mean, one of the recent experiences that, I had is I went into the mall, for one thing and malls are dying a little bit maybe for this reason because I went to the mall for one thing to get one thing out there and I was just trying to get in and out as fast as I could. And while I was there, somebody was trying to spray Cologne on me, change my wireless carrier. I mean there’s probably five or six different interruptions just on my way to try to get that one thing. And by the time I was there, I was already overwhelmed. And I think that reminds me so much of the church sometimes is that, we assume if people aren’t paying attention or if they’re not attending or if they’re not engaging with us, that they need more, that they need more.
Phil: 11:37 That we need to talk louder, speak longer. We need to, you know, make sure that we’re blitzing everybody with all of the things that we need from them. And the reality is that the people that are engaging with our churches are already overwhelmed, they’re not walking into your church just going man, I need more things to do with my life. They are saying I need clarity, I need simplicity. And so when we as a church, don’t keep that in mind and we’re not advocating for the person we’re trying to reach. What we do is we just add more things to their plate. And, what happens is I think they just push their hands away from the table saying, I don’t have time for this. I don’t know what to do. And so if as a church, if we can be rethinking how we can simplify those key next steps that we want everybody to take, man what a blessing that is for that person because now they have clarity.
Phil: 12:29 Now they know what we as a church think is important. And if you as a church don’t know what’s important, how can we ever expect the person that we’re trying to reach? How can we expect them to know what’s important? So more is not always better for sure. I think the simpler the better. And one of my favorite Abraham Lincoln quotes goes around, before you cut down a tree, sharpen your axe. And I think when we simplify, we sharpen our axe to make sure that we can be more effective in anything that we’re cutting down or any initiative that we have. And so that’s the opportunity. But also the challenge we have in the church, is to simplify.
Tony: 13:04 So, one of the examples recently where I’ve seen this carried out is even connection to the church that I connect to. I won’t name names here, but I think this is something that churches just need to be sensitive to. I’m already in a home group, I’m in a small group. In fact, I’m leading a small group, but I’m receiving communications from my church encouraging me to get into a small group. And if we saw that same thing happen in the marketplace, Phil do you have an iPhone? I do. As a Christ follower of course I do. Yeah. And is it, I don’t want you to put you on the spot. Is that one of the newer iPhones? It is, yes. All right. So apple, if apple continued to try to market to you to buy a new iPhone when you already own an iPhone, what would you do with the all of those communications from apple?
Phil: 14:02 Well one, I’d tune it out, but I would also assume, okay, they don’t, they don’t value my time. Right? Yeah.
Tony: 14:08 That’s right. And so I think it’s an example of in the church, we just need to be more sensitive to the fact that everybody’s receiving all of these messages from all these different organizations and we need to be more intentional, not only about what we communicate, but who we’re communicating with. And the great thing is, within the tools that are available to us today, we can, we can actually focus certain messages for certain people depending on what steps they’re taking in our ministry. Can you share a little bit more about that?
Phil: 14:42 Yeah I mean, one of the steps that we’re actually using more and more is the Facebook side of marketing and Instagram as well. Because we’re able to be very specific about a demographic, a location, and sometimes like topics or felt needs that that person may have. And what we’re trying to do is to cut through the clutter for the people that may not be leaning into that message and make sure we’re speaking to, 100% of the people that fit into our demographic rather than speaking to 100% of the people just to reach the 10% of people that we’re actually trying to reach with a message. And so I think that is one piece is we have more tools like that, like you said, than ever before to help target our message. But, I also think too, it’s acknowledging that everybody, everything you’re communicating as a church is likely going to hit somebody a little bit different.
Phil: 15:32 And so it’s having a broad enough perspective to know everybody’s going to have a different on ramp to what you’re communicating. And if that’s serving and you’re blasting people around, hey we want people to get plugged into serving in your church. You might want to give context of saying, hey if you are already serving, thank you so much for the value that you add to our church and for making a difference in reaching our community. We, are so appreciative of what you do and if we can serve you in any way, we want to continue to do that and encourage you and your leadership. But if you’re not plugged in, here’s a way that we want to encourage you to serve in the local body of the church. So it’s just acknowledging the people that you have in the room or the context of whoever you’re communicating to, to know that you want to make sure that you’re not, you’re depositing just as much as you’re withdrawing with them. And if you aren’t, if you can acknowledge somebody and encourage them in a step that they’re already taking, like you for your, for your small group, if you feel appreciated because you hear small group communication and feel honored about that, that’s a deposit, that’s an encouragement to you. But if you feel like they don’t even know that I’m already a group leader and I’m spending time on this every single week, then it feels a little bit more like withdrawal.
Tony: 16:45 So here’s the challenge with message overload in churches. They’re going to be things that we agree this is a priority. We need to communicate this message, but also implied in this then as if there’s message overload, there may be some messages that we can’t communicate. How do we decide that and what do we do with the people that are concerned about their ministry not being promoted and the next steps they want to encourage people to take? That not being communicated. What do we do about that?
Phil: 17:27 Were you in my staff meeting this past week? I’ve got a friend that started about this too. No, I think that’s the challenge. What I always want to remember and acknowledge is that I never want to pull away or be a discouragement to a ministry leader that’s passionate about their ministry. And so the people that are passionate about their ministry and wanting to get the word out, I want to make sure that we can partner with them, to be able to help them get the word out. Now, what that does not mean, it does not mean that we can promote that from the stage every week. It does not mean that that can be on the front page of your website because the reality is, fairness can’t be a value in communication. It can’t, if you’re trying to promote a ministry that really matters for that group of a dozen people in your church, yes, that group matters.
Phil: 18:11 But it does not matter more than the initiatives that you’re trying to engage the whole church with. And so what I think we need to be able to do is acknowledge we need to have an on ramp for every ministry, but that on ramp does not mean blasting everybody with communication for that. So fairness can not be a value in that way. So what I would encourage churches to do and try to have some type of playbook for is how are you going to handle those ministries and what’s your on ramp for deciding, is this going to be a stage communication? Is this going to be, are you putting billboards up? What’s getting the full court press and what are you equipping those ministries to do to help them themselves get the word out. So, for example, we have kid’s ministry opportunities all year long.
Phil: 18:57 I mean there’s things that we’ll do to engage our kids ministry at our church, but the main thing that we’re really communicating church-wide is our summer camp. And when we engage people into that on-ramp event that we do really well and that we can get a lot of people engaged with, when we do that right, it becomes an on-ramp for that ministry the rest of the year. And now we’re able to communicate directly to them through a number of different communication channels because we know those are, that’s our target audience. But if we are continually blasting that kind of communication on social media or on our stage, it really ends up feeling like for all the people that don’t have kids, birth to pre-K or pre-K to fifth grade, we’re feeling like, okay, they don’t see us like that. That person’s feeling like just like you felt with the small group, which essentially is just, we’re missing opportunities there. So I just think if you can partner with ministries to help them themselves, communicate well to their target audience and then have a filter for the church as well for how you can filter all those decisions on what gets communicated, it makes it a lot easier.
Tony: 20:04 All right. So again, the first mistake was not having a strategy. The second mistake was trying to communicate too many messages. Here’s the third mistake that I see churches making as it relates to communications. They’re trying to promote all the time rather than communicating helpful content that will encourage people to take their next steps toward Christ and/or telling stories about people’s lives and how they’ve been impacted by their spiritual journey. Again, Phil do you see this as a mistake too?
Phil: 20:38 All the time. I think we’re way more comfortable in the church communicating the what first instead of the why. And if you start with the why, what you’ll find is that you’re actually communicating what actually is speaking to people, what their felt need is and the what and the how really are at the end. You know? So I think if we can flip that of telling stories and sharing, adding value to the messages that we’re communicating and then at the end giving a practical next step for that. It simplifies our messaging so much. I mean some of the best, I would say some of the best announcements that we do in our church never feel like an announcement, they don’t feel like something that is saying, hey grab your bulletins right now and we’re going to cover announcements like that.
Phil: 21:24 That’s a loss for us if we do that, what we want to do is interweave all that stuff into the stories and elements in the service or elements that are happening on social media to be more passive around our promotion. But also to be more encouraging in it too. You know, if we can share a life change story with a photo on Instagram of somebody that saw their life change through small groups, guess what? That encourages everybody cause they’re seeing God on the move in our church and in that person’s life. But they’re also saying, hey, I need that too. I need that. And so if you can provide a key next step at the end to say, hey, if you want to get plugged into a group as well, here’s where you can do it. That doesn’t feel like a withdrawal for that person.
Phil: 22:06 That doesn’t feel like you’re just trying to promote to them. And so the mistake we often do is just start with saying, hey we want you to attend this or go to this or register for this. And the reality is, as we all know now is that just gets lost in the noise. That stuff isn’t even going to show up in social media most of the time cause it’s not going to hit the newsfeeds because it’s not engaging people. But the reality is too, I think it just, it goes in one ear and out the other. And sometimes too, cause we are, we are promoted to all the time. And so if it’s not something that feels like it’s speaking to a felt need that I have, I’m probably not giving it my full attention.
Tony: 22:47 Yeah. So related to this then I always tell churches rather than having a promotion strategy, you need to have more of a content strategy and that then helps us not only engage the people that are already connected to the church, but it opens the door for us to connect with people that are not in our churches yet. May not even have a faith in Jesus. And if we have a content strategy that begins with the foundation of knowing who we’re trying to connect with, what their needs are, what their values are, then we can start developing content to address those and begin a relationship with somebody outside the walls of the church that doesn’t, that’s not even connected to our ministries yet, Phil are you seeing any signs of hope in churches when it comes to content strategy and even trying to connect with people outside the walls of the Church?
Phil: 23:42 I’m seeing it some. Like I mentioned earlier, I think the deficit that I’m seeing is that the people at the front lines of knowing what’s happening in these areas where we can communicate to people outside of the walls of the church. A lot of the people that know how to do that are getting, are kind of suffering in the area of just feeling like they’re just a service department. They’re just there to promote things. And so what I’d say to senior leaders and senior pastors and executive pastors and everybody in that seat is to, is to try to unleash ministry into communication and to know that your mission ground may look different than it used to, but now your mission ground may be on somebodies phone. Your mission ground may be on some of the new engaging opportunities we have and the different communication channels.
Phil: 24:31 But I’ll tell you, I wish I saw it more. I’ll tell you one thing that we’re doing this week right now. We, in the month of January, we did a series called for each day and we were talking about just the, the challenges that for the reality is for a lot of people for each day they’re dealing with depression and anxiety and feeling overwhelmed all the time. And so we tried to do a practical series around helping people see the promises that God lays out for us each day, that we can live in. And what we were just blown away by is, I mean, when our attendance was higher than ever before, I think in January, but we also realize this is hitting almost everybody. I mean, especially the area of anxiety. And so we, we’re doing an event coming up, I think in two weeks.
Phil: 25:19 On for specifically for women on the area of anxiety. So we have the option here for a creative communication leader, for me, we can just get up and say, hey guess what we’re doing a new event? Or we can be a little more tactical. Go a little bit about how we can let people know about this. So we’re writing a blog post around that’s hopefully going to help anybody, wherever they are around how to deal with the topic of anxiety in everybody’s lives. And so we’re going to use that as something that hopefully will add value to people and encourage people on, wherever they get that. If that’s on our website, on their social media feed, we’re going to sponsor it and promote it a little bit to get it in front of people. But at the end, we’re just putting a little tag at the end to say, hey, if this was helpful for you and you want to dive deeper, join us for this event. And, so I think we’re going to be far more successful promoting that event by adding value rather than just promoting the events, with a marketing campaign like that.
Tony: 26:20 And we’re actually leading by example here because I could have started the front end of this conversation just trying to promote your book, Phil. But instead we just went through key three key mistakes we see in communications beginning with not having a strategy, trying to communicate too much, trying to promote, rather than tell a story and adding value, valuable content to help people take their next steps toward Christ. But here is the bonus mistake that I see in churches is they haven’t read Rethink Communication, Phil’s new book and I love the by-line. It’s a playbook to clarify and communicate everything in your church. Phil it’s a great resource. And this is not just for communication directors. I would encourage you, if you’re a senior pastor, executive pastor, get the book for your team, read through it together because communication strategy isn’t just for the communications department. This is going to help your entire ministry take its next step as you encourage people to connect with Jesus and experience a spiritual formation in their lives. So Phil, thanks for joining us today. Hey thanks so much Tony. I really appreciate it.
Sean: 27:27 Well, thanks for joining us for the podcast today. You might find it helpful after you’ve listened to this episode to download our Leader Guide and show notes to go through this content with your team, you can find both of those at thunstuckgroup.com/episode 84. Also don’t forget, you can subscribe to get the show notes in your inbox every single week. You’ll get links to all the resources mentioned during the show. You’ll get bonus resources not mentioned during the show, and you’ll also get the Leader Conversation Guide to help you take this conversation back to your team just go to the unstuckgroup.com/podcast join the conversation about leading an unstuck church online, using the #unstuckchurch, and as always, if you’d like to learn more about how we’re helping churches get unstuck, you can visit us at theunstuckgroup.com. Next week, we’re back with a brand new episode. We’ll see you then.