Among the many realities pastors face is the everchanging and increasingly complex landscape of media technology. However, while topics involving pixels, pokes, and podcasts can be daunting, as kingdom builders we are constantly struggling with how we can best use modern media to communicate the life-changing message of Jesus Christ. After all, we live, work, and learn in a very media-centric society, which makes both understanding and effectively using media in ministry critical.
So, how do we describe media methods and technologies in a way that benefits pastors in the context of ministry? Considering the endless diversity found in the worlds of both media and ministry, the task is not simple. At the same time, there are several broad ways in which media resources can be effectively harnessed. Consider the following six.
Enhancing the worship experience
Perhaps the most obvious use of media technology by local churches has been in the context of corporate worship. Up until recently, technology was used only as needed for tasks such as amplifying voices and lighting a platform. Today, however, we are staring into the face of a culture that seeks after—dare we say, requires—creative and media-rich environments for everything, including worship.
This necessitates a shift in our thinking, one that author Len Wilson describes as moving beyond the AV (audiovisual) mentality, defined as “the use of electronic media as an afterthought, an add-on, a value to be added, or something less than an intrinsic ingredient in worship and church life.”1 In other words, we must begin to understand technology as a core element in the process of communicating spiritual messages, an issue somewhat sensitized by our strong views on corporate worship.
However, despite differences in worship theology, we are left with the reality of human psychology. In the end, we, as humans, process information and our environment in a number of ways based on factors such as personality, educational background, and social upbringing. In addition, the ways in which we communicate are heavily influenced by the dominant forms of media. And if, as churches, we are to speak the language of our members and modern culture, then our goal centers around finding ways to communicate using modalities that are already familiar to them.
That said, the first step is to equip the church with efficient, yet professionally installed media systems. Audio mixers that can handle the rigors of worship style versatility, properly installed speakers, video projectors that are bright enough to handle the amount of light in the room, and the ability to capture both audio and video are a few examples of the basic tools every church needs to create a culturally relevant worship environment.
If that sounds cost prohibitive for some local churches, the great news is that the digital revolution has allowed technology prices to plummet during the last ten years. Consequently, there are legitimate media solutions available for any size budget and the best way to determine what is right for a particular ministry is by working with a skilled consultant. In the end, there is nothing worse than “media-rich” done poorly. Not only does it frustrate those in the congregation who already have reservations about media, but it can actually detract from the message rather than enhance it. Find a consultant with industry expertise and their fee will more than pay for itself in the long run.
Branding the local church
A second way in which a local church can use media effectively includes creating and communicating its unique identity. The advertising industry refers to this idea as branding. While the concept may seem out of place in a religious environment, author and strategist Phil Cooke explains that “at its core, branding is simply the art of surrounding a product, organization, or person with a powerful and compelling story.”2 He goes on to argue that churches that impact their culture have not only understood, but are fully embracing concepts of organizational branding.
From a practical standpoint, branding begins with a thorough analysis of what makes a local church unique (based on history, location, and beliefs among other factors). Cooke suggests the following four questions to guide the process: (1) What’s the point (why are you doing this)? (2) Who are you? (3) What are your gifts and talents? (4) What makes you different? The ultimate goal of the branding process allows one core identity or one core story to emerge, which will define the unique identity of the local church, communicating its mission clearly to both its congregants and community.
How does media play into this? In this context, we understand media to be more than just technology. In the end, media comprises any channels or intermediaries of communication, and the goal of branding is to tell the same story using as many of them as possible. To that end, effective use of media in branding includes—but is certainly not limited to—the creation of a meaningful logo; standardizing all printed materials on an agreed upon set of design elements; redesigning bulletins, newsletters, and Web sites to reflect the brand; and an ongoing commitment to tell your story using the highest quality standards available to you.
Communicating with the congregation
Yet another use of existing media channels is in effectively communicating with the congregation. Many local churches fail to create the critical mass necessary for ministries, special events, and organizational change to be successful—due mostly to poor communication methods.
While corporate communication includes dozens of applications, the best place to begin is with a well designed and regularly updated Web site. An increasing number of parishioners are leaning on Web sites as a main point of connection to their local church, mainly because it coincides with their increased use of the Internet for reasons such as paying bills, looking at weather forecasts, and spending time on social networking sites.
Though obvious to many that in today’s environment a church Web site is no longer optional, what does not appear so obvious is the value of what is called Content Management System (CMS) Web sites. Most church Web sites become irrelevant within a few days because of outdated material. More than likely, the Web site was built (coded) from scratch by a well-meaning parishioner who now struggles to find the time to rewrite the code necessary for updates or who has dropped the project altogether.
A much better alternative, especially for small to mid-size churches, is a CMS site that simplifies design and updates to the level of low-level word processing. In addition, the process takes place online, which means that the Web site can be updated from any computer with an Internet connection. Recommended resources in this area include Wix, WordPress, and denominational offerings such as NetAdventist and Church Connect. All are based on CMS technology and offer turnkey, as well as customizable, templates for a broad range of applications.
One additional way to communicate with the congregation using media platforms is by creating digital signage. A common way to do this is by utilizing existing projection screens to advertise upcoming events and important messages prior to and following worship services. More and more churches are also installing small, flat panel monitors in hallways and other heavy traffic areas that stream in-house advertising content to people making their way across the church campus. It is not rocket science, but another effective way to connect people to the church’s life and mission.
Extending the congregation
Perhaps one of the most powerful aspects of digital media lies in their ability to extend the reach of ministry beyond the walls of the church. Weekly attendees are, in reality, only a fraction of a much larger “congregation” who are accessible via media technologies.
In order to maximize these opportunities for extending the size and scope of the local church’s ministry, there are some key elements that must be in place. First is the ability to capture (record) audio and video, which ensures that the church can share its worship services and education and music programs with those not able to attend. This is mostly done by transmitting (streaming) the content on the Internet, offering shut-ins, traveling members, church shoppers, and others a guaranteed seat in your auditorium and a globally accessible connection point to your church. Again, as mentioned above, this type of technology is no longer only for those with large budgets. A qualified consultant can offer a number of cost-effective, high-quality solutions for any size church.
A second key element is having the ability to duplicate the content produced. Caution must be taken with respect to copyright law, especially as it relates to music and video clips. For details, consult CCLI and CVLI, two organizations created to help churches manage copyright law. That said, there are again many options for duplicating both CDs and DVDs, most of them fully automated and priced very modestly.
Third, the church must have a way to archive programs—especially sermons and messages—online. The ubiquitous nature of online video content both necessitates that churches contribute to the cultural discourse in this way and encourages church leaders that, indeed, a fast growing audience online does exist. Solutions in this area range from free YouTube channels, to CMS Web sites offering the ability to upload audio and video files, to a complete in-house system. Note that the goal focuses on making the life of the church and the messages presented inside its walls accessible to as many people as possible using as many points of connection as possible.
Fourth, a local church must invest further into the development of its Web site, which is the primary way in which most people first connect with a local church. In fact, it is quite common these days for churches with robust and media-rich Web sites to attract full fledged members who live abroad or in situations where church attendance is limited. In the end, the Web site should function as a comprehensive hub of information and resources, ensuring that the online congregant becomes fully connected to the life and mission of the church. Additionally, Web sites that are easy to navigate and have language in which denominational and in-house lingo is minimized, create an inviting atmosphere for those looking to connect with a local church.
Finally, in the twenty-first century, any attempt to extend the congregation beyond the walls of the church is incomplete without the use of social networking technologies. Facebook, MySpace, Twitter, and dozens of other online applications have attracted hundreds of millions of people essentially looking for one thing: community. This deeply human desire clearly dovetails with the Christian church’s calling to provide meaningful community. It follows then that every local church would find it beneficial to have an online presence on the major social networking sites, if possible. The power of social networking is in its viral nature and within a few days of launching, a local church could have several hundred followers or fans, most of whom have never stepped foot through its physical doors.
Proliferating the message
Arguably, the primary mission of any Christian church is to spread the gospel message of Jesus Christ. That said, no other moment in history has offered as many possible channels for that message to travel through into the hearts and lives of people everywhere. It is also true that the Christian church has used media technologies since their inception, although not always in the most effective and appropriate ways. Most of these efforts have centered on radio and television, which are still the perceived apex for any media ministry.
However, media consumption patterns have changed so much in recent times that it requires a shift in thinking away from the traditional media model to more of a hybrid media model, which gives increasingly more weight to emerging media platforms such as the Internet and mobile technologies. Within this model, pastors are encouraged to stop dreaming about “getting on television” one day, while realizing that millions of media consumers are acquiring their information from nontraditional sources.
Consider only one of many ways of proliferating the gospel message without expending enormous amounts of money. Assuming that the church has invested in audio or video production capabilities, create a podcast that will appear in the global iTunes directory free of charge. Several online companies will aid you in the process and some CMS-based Web sites will automatically publish your media files to iTunes. Choosing tag words (words describing the content) carefully will drive traffic to your podcast. The same process applies to YouTube, the leading video sharing Web site where the church can have its own “channel” to populate with content. More than 100 million people spend time on YouTube every month—a sizable congregation by any estimation. Be prepared for a variety of comments on the content uploaded, not all of it positive; but be encouraged that the messages are being viewed by those who, many times, need to hear them most.
Becoming a world church
Finally, one of the most effective uses of media by a local church is in becoming a resource-generating church. A relevant model is found in London, England, at the All Souls Church, where prolific author John Stott is rector emeritus. At some point in its history, All Souls decided not to become a large church but a world church. In other words, the success of the local church would be measured by its influence rather than its size. Without a doubt, through the ministry of Stott and others such as Rico Tice, creator of the Christianity Explored study curriculum, All Souls has truly become a world church whose influence benefits millions around the world.
In order to accomplish this ambitious goal, pastors first need to reframe their ideas about the shelf life or the scope of a sermon or sermon series. Many times, sermons are preached once, only to be resurrected years later when the pastor takes another assignment. Rather, consider the possibility of packaging every sermon on a CD or DVD for distribution. This works exceptionally well with a sermon series developed around a topical theme or the study of a biblical book. Next, consider turning several of the best series into curricula, complete with study guides, DVDs of the sermons, and an accompanying book. Advertise the resources on your Web site, in Christian or denominational magazines, and introduce them to managers of local book stores. Now we are beginning to use media in productive and effective ways.
A clarion call
Any media-related project should be taken on with an absolute commitment to quality. Packaging the gospel message in the age of aesthetics requires Christian communicators to be creative, intentional, and to give great attention to detail. After all, the message of Jesus Christ is worth our energy and creativity.
1 Len Wilson, The Wired Church (Nashville, TN: Abingdon
Press, 1999), 39.
2 Phil Cooke, Branding Faith (Ventura, CA: Regal, 2008), 26.