IN MY own personal, non-Gallup, nonscientific survey of the public's knowledge of the Seventh-day Adventist Church I think I've discovered the winners in the "what-I-know-about- Seventh-day Adventists" question. John Q. Public knows about the diet, the day, and the prophet, and probably in that order.
Of course, it's not all negative, though at first glance we may wish to be known as something more than soybean freaks and Sabbath fanatics. In this diet-conscious age we have an edge on other Christians because we occupy the pioneer's stage we began it all and are still around to help. And the uniqueness of our name still carries the punch that Ellen White said it would. It informs. It rebukes. It witnesses. We know the Sabbath will be of increasing significance as the end-time runs out.
Even the fact that many know of our prophet has a positive side, for she led us into health reform, she shaped us into what we are today. Then too, there is this fantastic interest in prophecy, the occult, the future, and mysteries of all types. If we can show others that the messenger of the Lord is indeed of the Lord, then what an impact that will make.
Yet for all the good this trio of facts about Adventists does, it niggles and gnaws at me that we aren't known primarily as followers of Jesus, second as exponents of the Word, and third as a people prepared for the coming of Christ. The communication emphasis, the initiative in explaining and exposing the church, has slipped out of our hands. All too often the material we feed to the media tends to reinforce the inadequate image already built.
Could it be that the Five-Day Plan to Stop Smoking might someday be more widely known than its originators? Now don't take that amiss. We need to publicize the church's answers to addiction problems. We have answers, and many others don't. Let's spread those answers far and wide, and say Thank you to the media for helping to disseminate them. But might there not be techniques and planning that would begin to shape a more adequate image of the church and its mission?
An analysis of the stories released and accepted by the media from the General Conference shows that many things make news. Human interest still captures attention. Editorial opinion from Kenneth H. Wood receives wide coverage in North America as papers pick up releases quoting our esteemed Review editor.
At the local church level many communication secretaries produce news releases that expose the church in a well-rounded way.
Image Can Be Changed
Rest assured that an intelligent, well-planned communication strategy can change the image of a church within a State, a community, or even a country. And it can be accomplished in a measurably short period of time. In three to five years the release of information and news can produce new concepts of the church and provide the kind of climate in which the church may best fulfill its mission.
Conference communication directors have in their files the means of shaping new strategies. Often, because of administrative unconcern, lack of under standing, or pressures in other directions, the director finds it difficult to sustain the kind of program that will round out the public's knowledge of the church. Frequently his energies are directed internally toward the publics within the church rather than externally. But the conference communication director does have access to all kinds of help to be shared with pastor, evangelist, school principal, church elder, or church communication secretary.
It is an Adventist truism that pastors are busy beyond the bounds of human endurance. Yet with very little effort and a little organization most pastors can create within their churches a communication team that will not only help form a better image for the church but will also, on occasions, actually save time by preventing church issues from becoming public issues.
Let's look at the membership of the average church. Probably within any normal church the pastor has the basics of a communication team. There's a schoolteacher who has a strong back ground in English, or maybe someone who likes to write. This person is a natural choice for the writing of press releases. Let's call him/her the news reporter. He/she will probably be the church communication secretary. It's better if the communication secretary has added skills, such as photography, layout, and organizing ability. He/she is going to be the key to a successful communication outreach for the church and a right-hand helper for the pastor.
Also among the members there is someone who is either an expert photographer or a very knowledgeable amateur someone who has gone beyond the Instamatic stage and knows the difference between a single-lens reflex and a twin-lens reflex and also how to aim a camera and compose a picture. This person works alongside the communication secretary as the church photographer. The communication secretary will rely on him/her to shoot pictures for the public press when they won't send a cameraman of their own, and to shoot those pictures that the conference is interested in for the union paper.
Another major contribution to the shaping of public opinion regarding the church can be made through the media outreaches in the community. The pastor and the church don't have too much control of the content or release of the Voice of Prophecy, Faith for Today, It Is Written, and Breath of Life. They may not even know whether Amazing Pacts, The Quiet Hour, or Your Story Hour is reaching into the community. But these broadcasts are all shaping the public's image of the church. The pastor should help the communication secretary select someone to be in charge of media resources. His job would be to be aware of all broadcast media outreaches of the church in the area, keep the church informed on them, and devise methods of keeping the public informed. Nothing works quicker in rounding out a citizen's view of Adventism than for him to become a regular listener or viewer of one of our broadcast programs.
This same person may well spark the pastor's interest in broadcasting in the area. He could research the stations, their audiences, the available times for a local broadcast, and possible means of support. A few minutes on the air every day will enable the pastor or a capable layman to make people aware of local Adventists.
Form a Speakers' Bureau
The church may have members who also belong to Rotary, Kiwanis, Lions, or one of the major service clubs. They are probably more involved with community affairs than the pastor or communication secretary. With their knowledge of how these clubs work they can help. Ask one of them to form a speakers' bureau, with the specific responsibility of arranging presentations, speeches, films, or demonstrations for service clubs.
Such a person might work well along side your communication secretary to help arrange for features to appear in newspapers or on radio and television. The communication secretary will be ever alert to feature possibilities in the church. He will explore available personnel in the church, and any visitors who might be interviewed by the local news feature editor, or a television talk-show producer, or a radio talk-program director. Some communication secretaries prepare fact sheets on all church members as background for features and interviews.
In every church is someone with pride of church and property who loves the church as a building. Such a person might assist the communication secretary and the pastor by caring for community relations, working to make sure that the church he loves is well known in the community as far as location, condition, and identification are concerned. Let him care for street signs pointing to the church, highway markers, and listings in motels, bus stops, and other public places, giving the location of the church. He might maintain telephone and other directory listings of the church. Have him prepare for the board an annual report on the condition of the church property, its lawns, paint work, carpets, lighting, storage areas, and general maintenance.
Most churches have in active use, or hidden in some cupboard, audio-visual equipment that has been purchased in some wave of enthusiasm. Is its potential being used? Could it become the basis of informational programs about the church and its teachings? What if Mission Spotlight or some of our films were exposed to non-Adventists? Why not? Then have one person assist the communication secretary as audio visual programmer with the responsibility of caring for the equipment, yes, but even more important of creating ways of using it in communicating to the church's publics. This might be the same person operating the speakers' bureau.
All this suggests that you may need some form of coordination. You'll find a hint of this in the Church Manual, where a "communication committee" is suggested. Probably the pastor should be chairman of this committee, with the communication secretary of the church as secretary and coordinator. If the pastor cannot chair this committee, then the communication secretary should. The pastor retains an ex officio seat on the committee.
Let's recapitulate a little. Form a church communication committee with the following members: Pastor (chair man), communication secretary (secretary or chairman), church photographer, media resources, speakers' bureau, audio-visual programmer, and community relations.
Sounds too ambitious? Surely not in this mass-media generation. The first job of this communication committee (Pastor, make sure you are there for this one) would be to review the public image of the church in the community. Would a survey help? What bad publicity has the church had in the past twenty years? The public will remember that, more than anything good done. What was the thrust of the public campaigns in the area over the past twenty years? What attitude did other churches take toward these meetings? How long has the pastor been a member of the ministerial council?
The committee might appoint some one to interview police, government officials, and thought leaders, to quiz them on their knowledge of the church, its belief and practices.
Second, the committee might marshal the public information resources of the church in the area. These are not all under church control. Review the denomination's available public broad casts. Have someone accumulate the press clippings about the church, and classify them according to topic and emphasis. Think about Adventists who are members of community organizations or prominent in other ways. Ex amine the various community-oriented helps available from the conference and other denominational sources helps such as "Dateline Religion," "Healthwise" and the "Pastor's Script Kit" from the Communication Department. Consider the plans formulated by the church evangelism council and the contribution they will make to public image.
Third, the committee should devise over-all strategy to move the church's public toward a more complete understanding of the church and its role in the community and the lives of the people there. The church may have had a spate of Five-Day Plans. Supplement this out reach with excerpts from the pastor's sermons indicating concern at the moral decline fostered by the breakdown of standards or excerpts pointing to Christ as a solution to some specific problem in the community. Release these excerpts in news, in sermon-report form rather than an extended sermon summary. This will increase readership.
There may have been a disagreement with some other local denomination on doctrinal interpretation. By high lighting the church's activities in welfare, disasters, or overseas missions, show that the church is as much concerned about people as about truth. The communication secretary should call on the speakers' bureau, the feature resources in the church, and the church photographer to help with this.
We owe ourselves the assurance that the quality of the church's initiatives in formulating public opinion about the church should be as high as the quan tity. It's as important to know what we are saying about ourselves and what others are saying about us as it is to push for column inches.
Yes, we shall be identified with the diet, the day, and the prophet until the Lord returns, but there are other dimensions that we can and must add in order to make our church a realistic and acceptable alternative in these last days.