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Speaking Faithfully: Telling a story people hunger to hear

Speaking Faithfully: Telling a story people hunger to hear

The following is an excerpt from Speaking Faithfully: Communications as Evangelism in a Noisy World by Rebecca Wilson and Jim Naughton from Morehouse Publishing.

By Rebecca Wilson and Jim Naughton

Despite the examples of Jesus and Paul, or, for that matter John Wesley, Billy Sunday, or Bishop Fulton J. Sheen, the church has been agonizingly slow to realize that communications is a ministry in its own right, not simply a support for “real” ministry. When parishes, dioceses, and churches are economizing, they will often cut communications budgets first. Parishes that would never dream of having a volunteer organist are happy to turn their communications ministry over to volunteers with no background in communications, and no opportunity to receive training.

Any number of church leaders will tell you that they did not establish an online presence because they were too busy building the church or feeding the hungry or visiting the sick—as though somehow learning to speak about these things in a way that gets others involved detracts from and is less sacred than these activities. But it is not a small thing to be able to put the word of God and the activities of God’s people in front of people. The printing press helped make the Reformation possible. The radio supported the growth of the vast network of nondenominational megachurches across the country. We probably don’t need to tell you that certain evangelists have built careers and fortunes from broadcasting their sermons on television.

People have always been eager to tell the story of God in their own times. We see this in the ways that the image of Jesus has been placed in settings and cultures across two millennia—note how Italian Renaissance paintings set the nativity in the palaces of burghers—and in the ways prayers are written to express timeless truths to people far removed from first-century Palestine and possibly unversed in the traditions of the Western Church.

Back in the sixteenth century, having the Bible in your own language was thought to be such a dangerous thing that Thomas More wanted to kill William Tyndale for making it possible. Having the liturgy in one’s own language was a cause of great celebration for Roman Catholics after the Second Vatican Council. It is easy for us to appreciate when the word of God is made accessible to a culture we consider exotic.

Think of the words of the Masai Creed:

We believe that God made good his promise by sending his son, Jesus Christ, a man in the flesh, a Jew by tribe, born poor in a little village, who left his home and was always on safari doing good, curing people by the power of God, teaching about God and man, showing that the meaning of religion is love. He was rejected by his people, tortured and nailed hands and feet to a cross, and died. He lay buried in the grave, but the hyenas did not touch him, and on the third day, he rose from the grave. He ascended to the skies. He is the Lord.

We can see that this is poetry, and that it is a skillful and devout attempt to reach new audiences and to articulate the distinctive way they understand the Christian faith. We understand the necessity of expressing Christianity in a way that speaks to the Masai, but too often we do not grasp the importance of expressing Christianity in a way that speaks to twenty-first-century Americans. …

Jesus said that no one lights a lamp and puts it under a bushel basket (Matthew 5:15), but Jesus had never met any Episcopalians or other mainline Christians. As a rule, we have been reluctant to call attention to ourselves. We are more comfortable being the church invisible, the church inoffensive, the church optional, and the church afraid of being associated with intolerant and heavy-handed people who are also Christian.

We need to get over this, but we won’t do that by illuminating the interiors of bushel baskets. We won’t do it by speaking in inoffensive generalities about kindness and politeness. Nor will we do it by announcing that we’re having a potluck supper.

Rather, what is required of us are compelling accounts of what our faith means to us, clear explanations of the nature of our spiritual experiences, descriptions of our church communities as places where people are committed to working for justice and peace, and stories about the ways that God has changed our lives and the lives of people we know. These can be hard stories to tell, and hard institutional communications to produce for people who sometimes hold inoffensiveness as a high virtue. But it is possible that the future of our churches depend upon it.

Even the word “evangelism” makes some people feel uncomfortable. We have worked with church communicators who argued hard and successfully 
against our efforts to include information about what Episcopalians believe and how they 
worship on their website. They
 were happy to have it conveyed 
on parish sites, or on the website 
of the Episcopal Church. They 
just didn’t want it on their site. 
We think this is symptomatic of 
the fear and unease that what
 people sometimes refer to as the “E word” arouses.

The Most Reverend Frank Griswold, former presiding bishop of the Episcopal Church, once said that the Episcopal Church’s approach to evangelism was similar to setting an aquarium on the shore of the ocean and waiting for fish to jump in. That doesn’t work in an age in which churchgoing is no longer socially normative. We live increasingly in an on-demand world where activities that once required us to be in a specific place at a specific time (television shows, movies) can be indulged on our own schedule. We live in a culture in which youth soccer and other sports compete for the affection of our children, and there is no longer a taboo against holding those activities on Sunday mornings. Fear-based motivations for attending church (to avoid going to hell or being seen as an outcast by one’s neighbors) have lost their force, and people who think of themselves as “spiritual but not religious” look to Oprah as a spiritual guide, to therapists for moral direction, and to book clubs and cycling groups for their sense of community.

Churches are up against all of those competing forces. Too often we respond by retreating to the comfortable place in which we communicate primarily, even exclusively, with our own members. Take a look at a few church websites. Which ones seem more like they belong on an intranet than on the Internet? How many take a “member services” approach to communications aimed at making it convenient for those already in the church to find the information they need quickly and then be on their way? This doesn’t make much sense as a web strategy. Your highly motivated regular visitors are already deeply familiar with your site. They do not need primary homepage real estate to draw them into the church, and after a visit or two they are going to know how to find what they need. Instead, the homepage of a church website is for the stranger who needs the real welcome, and who wants a deeper understanding of what the church is about.

We have not yet awakened from the dream of a time when aspiring to mainline Protestantism was part of rising into the middle class, and coffee hour was an extension of Saturday night at the club or Sunday afternoon on the golf course. We have not yet adjusted to the fact that the world, in many places, has passed us by, or that to catch up we have to tell a story that shows we have been meeting God and living lives of genuine faith all the while.

Rebecca Wilson and Jim Naughton are the principles of Canticle Communications. Naughton is editor of Episcopal Cafe. Speaking Faithfully is available through Cokesbury and Amazon.

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Sridgcw

I agree. Love the quote from Bishop Griswold.

A minor quibble, however. There are many people, myself included, who see therapists for ongoing treatment of significant mental health issues. "Moral guidance" doesn't really have anything to do with it. I do understand that, with most everybody these days taking antidepressants and oversharing their emotional baggage pretty much everywhere, there is a tendency to roll one's eyes at the mention of therapy. But for those of us whose lives may literally depend on the relationship and the treatment, it does rankle a bit when "therapy" is considered nothing more than an indulgence of neurosis and not to be taken seriously.

Sarah Ridgway

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Churchylafemme

I am so all on board with this. I think there's a real need to develop an entirely new standard for what a parish homepage can and should do to convey the heart and soul of a congregation to the outside world. You're absolutely right -- if all we talk about on our homepages is next week's potluck dinner, that's all the outside world will think we're about.

Beth Dunn

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