Up and down—but seldom across

A communications network is essential to the church, yet why must the information flow ...

Walter R. L. Scragg is president of the Northern Europe-West Africa division of Seventh-day Adventists.

It's a problem as old as the hieroglyph graffiti on Egyptian monuments, yet as new as a videocassette, and it keeps getting worse. The problem is this: How can you inform all those people out there, keep them united on a common goal, reassure them of the motives and purposes of leadership, and generate enthusiasm?

With the kind of structure that a Christian church usually formulates, the flow of information is up and down but seldom across. And it gets worse as an organization grows both in administrative units and membership. Letters go from the Council at Jerusalem to the churches scattered abroad, telling them of the council's decisions about the Jewish regulations. Paul instructs that his letter to the Colossians be read also by the Laodiceans, and they are to send theirs to Colosse.

The more highly structured the denomination, the more likely it is that the information flow will be of the vertical kind. Right at this point we should state that information is anything that is passed along to another individual with the intent to tell or inform that person. It may be news, doctrine, promotion, revival, evangelism. A look at the Seventh-day Adventist Church, which has copied much of its structure from the Methodists of the past century and still maintains a very cohesive and well-defined structure, quickly reveals the strengths and weaknesses of vertical communication as a source of information.

The normal way of getting to know anything that is happening among Adventists is by information flowing up from administrative units, or people, and then flowing down and out again. For example, a church communication secretary reports to the conference or the union paper; the editor likes what he reads; it is published and flows down again to the wider audience. A conference committee decides to launch an evangelistic campaign and the information flows down.

Adventists do not hesitate to spend large sums of money in providing a strong vertical flow of information. All denominational news journals for church use are heavily subsidized and frequently provided free. The General Conference and its divisions, the unions, and the conferences spend considerable sums in sending their personnel throughout their territory, be it the world or a local itinerary, in order to maintain the information flow.

The importance that the church attaches to a good communication system may be seen in recent actions of the General Conference, which have established communication internships every bit as generous as its ministerial ones. When the Columbia Union Conference decided to insert its union paper into the general church paper, the Review, every two weeks, it was widely heralded as a breakthrough in maintaining the unity of the church and keeping the church in formed. In a similar move the Review now publishes international editions in English, Spanish, and Portuguese and is considering further editions.

In other attempts to maintain information flow the church holds councils, conventions, seminars, camp meetings, and numerous other types of gatherings, the chief purpose of which is to inform of decisions, to inspire, to promote, or to perform some other informational activity.

The strength of this vertical flow of information within the Adventist Church becomes very apparent in the cohesive doctrinal pattern that may be found throughout the worldwide church in all 193 countries where it operates. Members not only study the same Sabbath school lessons, they will probably know much more about the conference or union or division and its doings than they will about another Adventist church across the city. Adventists tend to be hierarchically informed, rather than congregationally informed.

Sometimes the local pastor or church leader feels the burden of vertical information flow is almost beyond bearing. Conference departmental directors, the president, the union and its departments, and even the General Conference and it's departments (if they can get the ad dresses) will put the pastor, the lay activities leader, or whoever, on the mailing list, and before long the local recipient of all this attention may come to regard denominational communications as little better than the junk mail he receives.

It's all well-intentioned, of course, and, in fact, essential if the church is not to splinter. If Adventists want to continue to describe themselves as the "Seventh-day Adventist Church in Nigeria, France, Argentina, . . ." rather than "of" those countries, vertical in formation flow is not only important, it is the lifeblood of the church. Units or people cut off from this flow may well die or become aberrant.

Yet the vertical flow of information isn't the only kind that has validity. In formation may, and should, also flow horizontally. By this I mean that members in different churches, their pastors and leaders, should be seeking information flow between themselves. Why should it be that one Adventist church in a city should know more about the advance of the work in Zaire than it does about the Adventist church across the river? Or for that matter, why should a division president restrict himself to such information about another division as the Review is able or willing to provide?

Information flow is created and distributed at different levels. There is an information flow from the conferences to the church, from the unions to the conferences, and so on. However, vertical information seldom has a direct influence on the situation within a particular unit unless it comes from the level immediately above. What the General Conference provides frequently has more bearing on divisions or unions than it does on conferences, and hardly has any direct bearing on the local church member except as the information may be absorbed and then relayed from an other, lower level.

Problems caused by the breakdown of horizontal information flow are numerous and common. All too often we rely, or feel we must rely, on the next higher unit to monitor information needs and keep us supplied. Yet the responsible organization may overlook vital items, or not think them important, and so confusion and inefficiency result.

So often no attempt is made to communicate information about evangelistic ventures that spread more widely than the territory for which they are primarily designed. As a result, a conference may suddenly find itself the recipient of hundreds of requests for literature or scores of requests for visits for which it has made no plan, owing to the work of a neighboring conference. Or a local church may prepare to launch a community-involvement program of some kind only to find that they have been unwittingly upstaged by the church across the town. Or a church member may begin door-to-door work and be dismayed to find that a member from a neighboring church, or perhaps even the same church, has been down that street that very day. We've all come across problems of this kind. One wonders how much duplicated effort is generated in churches, conferences, and other units of organization simply from lack of in formation.

Think for a moment about the key elements in both horizontal and vertical communication within the church. While I might be inclined to pity him as the recipient of too much vertical communication, the pastor certainly is the key within the local church. He and his helpers, the church officers, must accept the responsibility of being both the source and distribution point of information. They have a responsibility for the upward flow of information. They have to think of themselves continually as part of a world church, which will stay together only as it tells itself what it is doing. As much as anything else, unity is built around good information flow.

The pastor must also provide opportunity for horizontal communication be tween his own church members. They talk to one another long after the service ends, and this is usually good. They are about the business of horizontal communication. Social gatherings, the church bulletin, testimony meetings, re ports of members' experiences, the lay activities service, are all times for horizontal communication for the church members.

The pastor should come from workers' meetings and other organized gatherings prepared to be an information channel for the local church. He should go to such meetings with the same intent.

A good church communication secretary not only will think of the vertical communication she or he must maintain with conference and church paper but also will seek to keep the members in formed. This may be done through the local news media or the church bulletin or by word of mouth in reports to individuals or the church as a whole.

It isn't all that easy to keep information flowing within an area or a church. The church offers no natural method for churches to inform one another of local issues or achievements. Some cities or areas where there are several churches have set up interchurch councils that meet from time to time for information exchange and joint action. The conference may help by having meetings of pastors or officers to talk about the things that concern that area, or such meetings may be self-generated.

A lot of the ignorance about what others are doing might be dispelled if we all took advantage of the forms of vertical communication that come our way. Asking good questions at committee meetings, reading other people's bulletins, asking to be placed on mailing lists, listening to reports, and making good ones yourself are all vital. A conference administrator isn't being smart, or saving time, if he shovels off his desk and into the trash basket the bulletins, promotional blurbs, reports, and other informational pieces that come his way, without at least scanning them.

Like other organizations, Adventists want to stay together and grow stronger. One of the secrets is to know and be known. Tell your peers what you are doing for the Lord, what you plan to do, what you dream about. Listen to what they say. If you have the authority to create and encourage horizontal communication between various types of people or units of organization, don't be afraid to stimulate and establish it. The flow and dissemination of information about Christ, about itself, and about its members is still the largest of the church's problems. Any intelligent action that will improve or increase this flow will hasten the work of Christ on the earth and the advent of His kingdom. In doing this let us remember that information needs to flow across, as well as up and down.

 


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Walter R. L. Scragg is president of the Northern Europe-West Africa division of Seventh-day Adventists.

February 1979

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