What about safety?
When I was working as communications director for a regional church office in the Midwest, one of my internal goals was to make creating an online Web presence for each congregation in our territory a simple, easy process. In the end I was pleased with the work I did there, but I always remember what turned into a heated exchange with a church leader in the middle of a workshop I was facilitating.
“What about safety?” this leader kept challenging me. “It’s not safe to be on the Internet. There’s too much information there. And besides, it takes away from our calling to go out and be with our neighbors as Christians.”
Fair enough point, for those who have exceptionally active evangelization strategy in their congregation. Yet what upset me was how this leader would stymie every effort I made to explain the Web ministry program we were launching for congregations.
In my undergraduate political science studies, a friend of mine and I would talk about what we dubbed as the “Think of the Children” response, a debating decoy employed by politicians who didn’t have a substantial response to a question from a journalist or constituent. (In the most recent U.S. election cycle, you could insert any number of other decoy avoidance tactics.)
After a while, I realized that this particular church leader was engaging in a “Think of the Children” response, one that is particularly prevalent among churches finding reasons not to create effective online communication plans.
For many churches — particularly mainline Protestant churches — online communication plans are frequently strangled by our own best efforts. Sometimes it takes the form of congregation leaders being overzealous in their reach, convinced that an all-or-nothing approach is the best way to go. Those congregations’ efforts eventually collapse under the detached, uncoordinated efforts to launch a highly-interactive Web site, elaborate social media campaigns on literally every commercial social media site, weekly vlog posts, in addition to daily blog entries, tweets, and creepy stalker-esque follower solicitations of everyone who has attended the church in the past decade.
Other churches attempt communication by committee, effectively killing the development of a simple Web site or nascent social media presence by preventing timely interaction, holding redundant copy editing sessions, or failing to agree on simple decisions best made by a single person or duo.
In the end, your congregational communication strategy is best a healthy counterbalance of the most popular electronic meetingspaces of internal audiences — congregants and friends of the congregation — and external audiences that a church seeks to include or serve in the wider community and world.
For example, the congregation I serve is a program-sized, progressive church in the heart of Silicon Valley. While our area is certainly shaped by some of the biggest titans in high-tech, like Google, Facebook, and Apple, a surprising few members in our congregation work directly for those same companies. Professions in our membership range the gamut from university academics to theatrical performers to real estate investors. Internal audience communication is primarily e-mail-based, with only a nascent demand for Web-based interactivity on our Web site. In that way, even though our geography or church size may suggest otherwise, we are similar to a pastoral-sized theologically moderate church in the heart of the Midwest.
External audiences will likely always be the primary focus of a church Web site. As a result, congregations should spend time considering what information a church guest would want to know upon their visit — and to be easily directed to getting involved further in the church community.
If your congregation presently includes heavy social media users, by all means, invest the time and energy in an elaborate social media strategy. Otherwise a simple maintained presence on Facebook will do. No need to start tweeting, pinning, or foursquaring. (To Google+ or not to Google+? That’s up to you, but you’ll certainly want to check your basic Google directory entry.)
Your congregation’s communication strategy should reflect a good balance in media, but be counterbalanced by the demands of your audiences. It’s not an all-or-nothing proposition — growth in your communication strategy, like membership development, progresses with the demands and responses of your audience.
So back to the story before: what about safety? Where is the balance in information provided by the church? Two weeks before the workshop I was facilitating, the Milwaukee County Courthouse was evacuated in response to a bomb threat phoned into the operator.
“Does your church have a telephone?” I asked the insistent leader. “Uh, yes, of course,” she responded. “Is there one that is unsupervised, like in a kitchen or entryway near a door?” I asked. “Yes, we have one in our kitchen, and another one by the back door for folks to call a ride after programs,” she replied. “Well is that safe, in light of the bomb threat phoned into the courthouse a couple of weeks ago? Is that responsible?”
Many churches have a false correlation between safety in printed materials versus inherent unsafety in electronic materials. The fact of the matter is that any information produced by a church in any format ought be subjected to critical, thoughtful consideration and review before distribution, and that same information should always be assumed to have filtered beyond the intended audience.