Moving Beyond Stories

Moving Beyond Stories

April 25, 2012 by

What is the objective of church communication?  Of using story?  What is the role of the church communicator?  Last month I had the privilege of tackling these topics for a group of church communicators primarily from large churches in Southern California.

Often the larger the organization, the more dangerous the tendency to slip into pragmatism.  All of us like to get things done, but it adds a layer of complexity when we seek to do this through others in a church setting.  Over the years I’ve failed in this way in numerous ways, particularly when our church made a transition from being more traditional Sunday service oriented to becoming more based on people gathering throughout the week in missional communities across the city.  My communication caused many to feel a burden of legalism because we often improperly communicated. Even in my role at MonkDev, where we are building web apps and online strategies for church that want to increase engagement such as small group participation or broaden exposure to attract new people, this tension is always there:  How do you effectively communicate and get the results you want? 

In the example of the transition to missional communities, the most powerful tool was when we had people share their testimony of changed life during the Sunday service.   But even some of the testimonies weren’t done properly.  What we found was stories are powerful, but they aren’t the solution.  This is important because story has become the buzz word of the last five years.  As I’ve traveled across the country meeting with church communicators, ‘story’ has often been the answer many have given as the most effective way to communicate ideas.  As powerful as stories are, and no one can argue their effectiveness, they are just a tool.  There are common mistakes with story.

  1. The most common downfall with using story is being clear on who the  hero of the story is.  The easy example is what we often hear in church, a story like David fighting Goliath and the message becomes “if our faith is strong enough, we can conquer the giants in our life.”  The true hero of this story is Jesus, who when a cowering army (us) faced  an ‘unconquerable’ foe we needed a champion to take our place and achieve the victory on our behalf.  When we create a story, who is shown as the hero?
  2. The second challenge with story is what is the motivation for change?  Often stories work on behavior (which tends to legalism) and don’t communicate to our identity/heart.  Recently, at a “large church” in Southern California I attended a service where, after a video story that highlighted one’s person journey into serving, the person giving the announcements ‘jokingly’ implied if you were a good Christian that you’d attend a specific service event.  He smiled and laughed and said, “not really.”  But he then whispered to the crowd as if no one else would hear but you, to tell the person next to you “that they should really attend this event if they were a good Christian.” Joking aside, this is no different than much of the behavioral change our communication seeks.

Targeting behavior or feelings are a weak motivation that often leads to guilt-led attendance not ownership. As church communicators a lot of the job can be focused on pointing to the programs to encourage attendance because this is the measurement. This can lead to much of your work emphasizing behavioral changes that misses the point. In communication departments, my desire is for us to see ourselves as theologians or we run the risk of becoming pragmatic marketing departments. The good news is that we already are theologians. As believers we have been given a new identity in Christ and now know God and we are told if any is lacking wisdom we can ask God who will give us wisdom.  God will grow your theological understanding to better shepherd and communicate with the people of your community.  Ask questions such as:

  • How does our theology shape our communication?
  • How do we evaluate the motivation we are targeting in our communication?
  • What type of people is our communication creating?

Church communication people can be identity reinforcers. In the Bible it talks a lot about people’s identities.  Our behavior flows from our heart, from our new heart that was given to us as a new identity in Christ.  What and how we communicate can create the wrong identity; for example we still need to battle the desire to call our buildings the “church.”  This reinforces the wrong things, both at a behavior and identity level.

Praise God that we are new in Christ, that is if we are Christians, then we have a new, or rather, renewed identity based on who God is and not based on what we do, but on what Jesus did. Our focus is not on changing people; they have already been changed, renewed!  Now they are maturing into the image of God in Christ they were created to be.  Recall that Jesus had done no ministry, no preaching, no miracles or healing when his Father—our Father—loved him and affirmed his identity as his child.  This is exactly how God sees us and speaks to us today if we are a Christian, if we have put our hope in Jesus and been renewed by his work at the cross.

As communicators, we need to stop encouraging people to do church and remind them who they are as the church.  As a community that worked with Soma and adopted the four identities (Family, Servants, Missionaries, Disciples/Learners) we try to remind people how these flow from who they are and thus lead to behaviors (or rhythms) such as listen, celebrate, eat, bless, story-formed and recreate.  Next time you are creating your communication plan remember, do people need to go to another church BBQ or “because we are a family of disciples on mission, we are getting together to celebrate for a time of eating and baptism.”  I believe the more they see what you are doing tied to their identity, the more they will believe they are part of the priesthood of believers and live out of who they are in Christ.

Photo by VFC Photo
Post By:

Drew Goodmanson

Drew Goodmanson serves as CEO of MonkDev, creators of Ekklesia 360, co-founded Kaleo Church where he served as pastor for more than eight years and coached five new church plants in San Diego. Drew also served as the president of the board at the Center for Church Communication, and has spoken at numerous national conferences, written for several magazines and appeared on shows such as CBS Sunday Morning and NPR’s All Things Considered, discussing organizational leadership and the intersection of culture and technology.
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7 Responses to “Moving Beyond Stories”

  • matthew sandahl
    April 25, 2012

    true true. Resist the urge to just announce events in the bulletin. Frame sentences in a way that reinforces people’s identity in Christ and as part of a worldwide church, loving God.

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  • brad
    April 25, 2012

    There are a few thoughts that I have about this. Sometimes things need to be turned into a story so that we can understand them. And sometimes things just don’t fit into a tidy narrative arc, because they are beyond our capacity to understand. Knowing which is which requires discernment.

    An announcement in the bulletin may just be that, and we can trust people to figure out their own framing. Going too far the other way, where everything relates to the ‘essential truth of the Gospel’, and has a bearing on your ‘identity as a child of God’ can too easily take the form of spiritual manipulation (abuse) that you’re trying to avoid.

    Ultimately, what you’re getting at is this age-old question: Does communication lead or follow the culture? And the answer is as murky and clear as it’s always been: Yes.


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  • Steven Fogg
    April 25, 2012

    Everyone is a theologian, they just don’t know it!

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  • Drew Goodmanson
    April 26, 2012

    Brad, certainly one doesn’t need to continually remind people of their identity with every announcement. The thrust is that more of our communication will fit within their understanding of God’s story and their identity within this. Personally, I wouldn’t ‘trust people to figure this out’ but I’d be very intentional in creating disciples who understand their new identity. I think if our intention is to love them and remind them of who they are in Christ, it shouldn’t ever feel like manipulation but it should be freedom.

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    • brad
      April 26, 2012

      Okay Drew, I think you and I are on the same page…or at least we’re in the same chapter. I agree that the identity thing needs to be stated — just not every time out. Every activity of church needs to be strategically aligned with identity, but if every little announcement included that kind of a reminder, it would become exhausting to both write and read. People would quickly tune it out, and may even be turned off by the overexposure. There is a tension in communication between clarity and spoon-feeding. Most people want the former. Most people don’t want the latter.

      Andrew Stanton has a great TED talk on story that gets into how people “want to work for their supper” (**warning: brief profanity**):

      Setting up a story, and allowing for people to arrive at their own conclusions does indeed require trust. So does being quick to listen and slow to speak. These are part of the biblical definition of love we’re called to. Or in other words, trust is part of our identity.

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  • Brian
    April 30, 2012

    “As communicators, we need to stop encouraging people to do church and remind them who they are as the church.”

    I love this truth! And I love how it impacts/filters/forms the communication we create. What freedom there is when we realize who we are!

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  • Adding a simple statement at the end of announcements such as ” And remember these are ministries you can bring a friend or non-beliver to, to show Jesus’ Love.” fills the bill of reminding people in many ways.

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