Nick Edmonds, Communications team leader
Communications: what does the word conjure for you?
For the technologically minded, perhaps a telephony system, or a cabinet of network switches. For psychologists maybe a characteristic of a relationship, or for marketing and PR professionals, maybe a blend of audience, message and change.
The word communication comes from the latin ‘communicare’ meaning ‘to share’. It’s exactly the same etymology as the word ‘communion’ and so it naturally follows that communication is at the heart of mission and evangelism.
‘Go out into the world and preach the gospel to all creation’ (Mark 16:15) – is the heart of what the Church is, or should be, about. But what does that mean in a world of increasingly secularised society and lightning-quick electronic media?
In The Church of England we do not on the whole favour the stark evangelism of the street preacher, fervently reciting verses of scripture to passing shoppers, only pausing to remind them that failure to repent will result in fiery damnation.
It could be that this sort of thing isn’t, well, very English, but I prefer to conclude that it’s because the CofE, uniquely placed in every community in the country, knows that to have a real impact, it must meet people half way, if not three-quarters or even seven-eighths.
"At the heart of Jesus’ teaching was a nuanced awareness of his audience."
At the heart of Jesus’ teaching was a nuanced awareness of his audience. Parables, allegories and every-day situations were used to connect with people where they were, in a language they understood, but without diluting or negotiating his core message.
And this is exactly the challenge before us as parishes in a society where the old reference points of an inherited understanding of church are no longer a given. It’s no longer any good just to say ‘Church is quietly waiting for you’. We must be more proactive.
A good parish communications plan starts with an awareness of who we’re talking to, what they know already, and what change we would like to bring about in them, i.e. how do we want them to respond?
"The danger of something which tries to be all things to all people is that it can end up being nothing to anyone!"
And we need to be granular about this. The approach you use for one age, gender, ethnic or prosperity group is seldom transferable to another. The danger of something which tries to be all things to all people is that it can end up being nothing to anyone!
Could it be that your parish website is focused on the needs of the established congregation rather than the newcomer? What is your church notice board saying to those who drive by, if they can even read it? When people come to your carol service at Christmas, what is their experience?
The good news is there is a host of resources available to parishes to help understand the demographics of our areas. But don’t just use the numbers. Use connections into schools, offices, sports clubs, homeless shelters, housing developments or whatever makes up the fabric of your parish, and try to say specific things to specific people. Then make sure you’re listening when they respond!
As recipients of thousands of messages a day, which are the ones you engage with the most?
If you’re like me, it’s the ones that feel relevant to me – which could be as a musician, someone who likes sport, as a Christian, as a man, as someone in their 30s or the various other broad and narrow facets that make me who I am.
Remember that nobody is ever just one ‘audience’ – we’re all a complicated Venn diagram of different identities and interests, and nobody likes to be pigeon holed, but if people know why they are being addressed, believe me, they are much more likely to listen.
The challenge for parishes is first to be clear on what our offering is to different groups, and then to turn it into clear messaging. The messaging must then be placed so that those who will be interested will:
- notice, and
- relate to.
This is where your Communications team can help – by looking with you at your channels and outputs to talk with you about how well aligned they are with what you really want to say.
"A warning! Short-circuit the audience analysis bit, and you could stand to lose time, effort and money."
Whether you do so with posters, social media, mailings, radio appearances events or whatever else is just a question of tactics, but a warning! Short-circuit the audience analysis bit, and you could stand to lose time, effort and money. Get it right though, and with some help from upstairs, the results will be truly transformational.