Communicating with the Public: The Importance of Your Message

Communicating with the Public: The Importance of Your Message
George Barna


Currently I am working with a large mainline church that suffers from the inability to communicate. Here is a church with a large and growing faction of baby boomers, located in a dynamic metropolitan area that bears all the marks of tremendous ministry potential. But that body has little hope of leaving a positive mark on the community until its communication channels and processes are dramatically improved.

Why can’t the church thrive? Very simply, it has failed to communicate its vision to the congregation, thereby leaving the church with a team composed of all chiefs and no Indians. The church has failed to convey an image of being relevant and caring to the people who are on the outside looking in those who are curious, but are neither converted nor committed.

Consequently, it has rendered itself incapable of effectively reaching those people. The church has also failed to communicate what it stands for and how it plans to reach the community. Because of that, the leaders of the community have written off the church as a dead body a church of little consequence or potential.

The sad part is that the church has earnestly been working to develop plans and strategies for becoming an aggressive and significant servant of the Lord. The church leaders are learning the hard way that by keeping their vision and plans a virtual secret, they have sealed the fate of the church. Unless they clearly and persuasively communicate their intentions to the world in which the church operates, that body will stagnate and eventually decline.

Let’s not be unduly harsh on this church, however. It is but one carrier of the disease that afflicts thousands of evangelical churches in this country. Communication, though a common process, is an inordinately complex and demanding undertaking. Yet, mastering that difficult process represents a key to church growth.

Why is communication so vitally important to the health and vitality of the local church? Communication is the means by which we reach our ministry goals. You cannot find a healthy, growing church that is plagued by ineffective communications. Such an animal simply does not exist. If your church is going to maximize its potential, it is imperative that you understand the communication process and constantly strive to upgrade how well you and others in your church communicate.

Two Kinds of Communication

To understand communication, we have to recognize that the process can be evaluated in several ways. First, let’s understand the difference between mass and interpersonal communication. Mass communication is when a message is sent to a large audience simultaneously. There is no direct or immediate interaction with the audience in the mass process. In contrast, interpersonal communication is used in situations in which the message is directly and personally conveyed from one person to another. This approach provides the opportunity for a spontaneous response by the receiver of the message—a luxury that is not possible in the mass communication scenario.

Research indicates that interpersonal communication is most efficient and more likely to stimulate a personal response. Mass communication, on the other hand, boasts a broader reach and the possibility of generating a response from a greater number, although it is likely to be less emotionally intense.

Regardless of the approach, communication exists to inform or persuade an audience. In the marketing process, then, communication is important to reap the benefits of both informing and persuading. Informing people about conditions and alternatives is a central element in stimulating a response. Communication is also the means to influence people’s behavior relative to the product, price, and distribution network. Without communication, marketing would be a strictly intellectual activity, lacking any semblance of practical utility and void of any widespread participation and involvement.

Goals of Communication

As alluded to in the example of the church that has kept its abilities, plans, and strategies a hidden treasure, church communications fulfill three primary roles.

First, it is imperative that the church communicate with its members. The congregation has to receive a concise vision statement, the plans and strategies by which the leaders hope the church will realize the vision, and the responsibilities that befall each member. Unless these aspects are conveyed to the congregation, one of two things will likely happen: the entire brunt of the marketing effort will fall on the shoulders of the few who developed the marketing plans and strategies, or the marketing effort will evaporate altogether due to lack of support (psychological, physical, financial, and spiritual).

Second, the people from outside the church who visit or evaluate it from afar must be informed of what the church is all about. Every organization emits an image—an impression of what the organization is like and what it is all about. Your church should think about the image it presently gives to outsiders, since that image will impact your ability to minister to those outside the church. Beyond the image, though, your church should be communicating a warmth of heart and soul to outsiders in tangible ways, such as by inviting them to be part of your church community.

Third, your communications should tell other organizations what you are about and what you are accomplishing. This is part of your organizational positioning. To have the greatest impact possible, your church should be recognized by other organizations as a cog in the community structure just as necessary and vital to the community’s health and growth as the police department, supermarkets, schools, and other businesses. It is interesting to listen to local leaders talk to visitors about the strengths of their community. Often, they speak in terms of economic forces, governing structures, and other people-building entities and opportunities. It is unusual for leaders to mention the value added to the community by one or more of its churches. This is largely because churches have failed to communicate their goals and accomplishments to the world around them.

Steps Toward Effective Communication

Regardless of the audience with which you are trying to communicate, or the nature of the message you wish to convey, the basic principles of communication remain the same.

As in the development of the marketing plan, the communication process begins with a sense of the objectives you seek to fulfill. The most common communication objectives are to either raise people’s awareness levels, motivate people to action, help people understand something, or change existing attitudes. Depending on the particular objectives you wish to meet, your approach to communicating with the target audience will be quite different.

After determining your objective, you can develop the specific messages that will enable you to achieve your objectives. There are several communication strategies or styles from which to choose, and as the communicator, it is your responsibility to select the strategy that best fits your objectives.

One strategy is to give the audience a rational message. In this approach you offer information, using data and logic to either inform or persuade. If your objective is to enhance people’s awareness of a condition or help them comprehend a situation, providing a rational message may be very effective. If, hovever, you seek to rally people to action, or to alter a basic attitude, this type of message may have only limited impact.

Second strategy is to use an emotional message. The goal of this approach is to touch the receiver through his other emotions. In church ministry, the emotions we have traditionally stimulated most through our communications have been fear, guilt, love, and joy. By attempting to reach people emotionally, the aim is to create a behavioral response that grows out of the intensity of the emotional energy that has been stirrecd. It would not be efficient to use emotional messages simply to heighten awareness or comprehension. Emotional messages are most useful for creating an active response.

Providing a moral message is yet another strategy. This type of message appeals to a person’s sense of right or wrong. Perhaps more than the other avenues of communication, moral-based messages must strike a balance between sensitivity and d self-righteousness. Moralistic messages are most effective for inciting an active response. Using this approach to create awareness or comprehension rarely reaps an adequate payback.

Reward-based communications are intended to convince the receiver that he or she will accrue personal benefit from a specific reaction. Messages that offer rewards, either tangible or intangible, can be particularly effective for grasping people’s attention. Much of today’s product advertising is reward based, largely in response to the “me-ism” that permeates our society. Reward-based messages can best be used to garner awareness, active response, and attitude change. However, when using this approach, you must ensure that the reward will, in fact, be delivered once the prescribed action is undertaken. The church, in general, has often failed to recognize this critical point. Thus it attracts people through the promise of specific rewards (such as meaningful friendships, relevant sermons, providing a sense of personal peace), only to anger many seekers by failing to make good on those promises.

Finally, there are also messages that are geared to perceptual change. A person rarely enters a situation without a set of preconceived notions. Sometimes those notions are based on facts, sometimes they are not. The goal of perceptual-change messages is to shift existing attitudes, beliefs, opinions, or values to a position that is more compatible with that of the message sender.
As a communicator, then, you should understand what your desired end result of communication is, and what type of message is best suited for exacting that response from your audience. You should also conceive a strategy for communicating your message as a part of your process of selecting the optimal type of message. This means articulating, for yourself, who you seek to reach with the message, what medium you will use for that purpose, the content of the message, and some of the obstacles you will face in achieving a successful interaction.

Churches generally overlook this last consideration. We blithely assume that if we say something, our audience will hear it completely and interpret it the way in which we intended. How naive! In common, everyday communications, we run into many examples of messages that are distorted somewhere in the chain of communication. Even if the distortion is not due to unclear communication from us, we nevertheless bear the consequences of that breakdown. It is to our advantage, then, to think through what the barriers, obstacles, and points of fuzziness might be, and to structure our communication to avoid or address those weak spots.

Problems of Distorted Communication

Let me provide a few examples of churches that did not consider the potential for distorted communication.

Recently I saw a newspaper advertisement for a church that was hoping to reach the lost. The ad featured a very stern, almost angry-looking pastor, seated in a chair with a Bible in his hand, who stared straight into the camera. The large, bold caption above the picture read: “Come hear Pastor X preach on why most people are going straight to hell.” Upon reading the fine print below the photograph, it seems that the intention was to provide a factual message that would answer innocent questions about salvation and damnation. The message that came across from the ad, however, was very emotion evoking.

The church failed to recognize that their communication entered a dimension on which emotion runs deep. Their approach to communicating a basic scriptural truth was to lay out the facts in as bold a manner as possible. Many readers of the ad, however, would interpret the message as a guilt-producing one that placed the church and its people in a holier-than-thou light and characterized the reader as lost and hopeless. That’s not great motivation to climb out of bed Sunday morning to hear an angry-looking person rail about damnation.

Churches communicate through more than just their advertising. Take the case of church names and physical facilities. One church that has gained considerable media attention is called “Matthew’s Party.” It is geared to the baby boom generation and meets on a Saturday night at a racquetball court. Now, I am the last person in the world to chastise a church for attempting to be creative and relevant. This church gains high marks for having a heart to reach people in a nonthreatening environment, and for seeking to be practical and relevant.

However, my informal interaction with people from that area indicates that the church is not taken seriously by many of the people it ought to be attracting. Why? The name removes the church from the realm of the serious and substantive. Someone who is interested in attending a church to grow spiritually or to worship God would be unlikely to select a congregation that describes itself as a party. Although the pastor would disagree that this church suffers from ineffective communication, because he is not open to understanding how the message being received differs from the message being sent, there is a perceived difference between a celebration and a party. Worship can be celebration. In Southern California, however, portraying a gathering as a party conveys an entirely different image. The place chosen for this church service, a public racquetball center, only underscores the dubious sincerity of the intended experience.

Another church was preparing to open its doors for its first service. It had decided to use the name Southwind Church to capitalize on its location close to the ocean and convey a contemporary, peaceful image. Fortunately, in testing the name, the church discovered that many adults in the target audience would have shied away from it because of that name. They interpreted the name very differently than was intended. To the average person, the name sounded like a cult or a church that was theologically adrift. The name was promptly discarded and a more appealing one was chosen.’

A small church in the Midwest had used the motto “the friendliest church in town.” It’s a nice expression, but it, too, carried some negative baggage. First, the motto effectively alienated the church from other Christian churches in the community. The church had failed to think through the consequences of the communication among all of the audiences that would be exposed to the message. Second, the church failed to realize any growth, despite a healthy number of visitors passing through the doors. Why? Because the message promised something the congregation did not deliver. In the secular world, this is known as deceptive advertising. The church can be guilty of it, too, despite the best of intentions.

Even in the worship service, I have seen and heard many unfortunate statements that communicate something entirely different from what was intended. As a common example, think about how a nonbeliever reacts to statements like, “You can be part of our family by joining the church.” Does that mean that only card-carrying church members are loved, accepted, or nurtured in that place? Some nonChristians I know have reacted by noting that such statements reinforce their negative perception of the church as a group that seeks to be an exclusive club in which only dues-paying members are welcome. They question the sincerity of our love if we can only attend to our members’ needs. Interestingly, the statement may not specifically state that we will ignore those who are not members, but that is the message received. The message was distorted by the receiver, not by the sender, but the sender will bear the unfavorable consequences of that distortion.

When thinking about how you can improve your messages to avoid unintended consequences, be aware of the three primary types of problems that can occur. Sometimes we are at fault for sending the wrong message: one with erroneous content or one sent to the wrong audience. In other cases, the message is distorted because we convey the information improperly or because the receiver misinterprets the message. The examples listed in the preceding paragraphs are examples of such difficulties. Finally, it is possible for the message to be rejected. The person on the receiving end will either ignore the message because it is perceived to have no relevance or intrigue, or the receiver will refute the message.

Advertising as Communications

When we speak of communicating messages about the church to an external public, advertising is the form of communication that usually comes to mind.

Can advertising for churches be effective? Yes. Is it usually effective? No.

Evaluations of reactions to church advertising clearly indicate that most people believe advertising a church is an appropriate activity. However, when comparing church advertising, as a whole, to advertising from other industries, church ads were rated lower than all other types. People generally felt that church ads were not interesting, memorable, or persuasive.’

Strengthen a Weak Message.

Our research suggests that church advertising suffers from three major faults. The first weakness is in the message itself. Look at the print advertising you see in your community for churches. The vast majority of newspaper ads for churches have a picture of the church or pastor, the church’s name, the address and telephone number, the times of Sunday services, and the title of the sermon. Now, try to evaluate such an ad objectively. Is it likely to look so interesting that the human eye would gravitate to it? Does it provide information that is so persuasive that a person is likely to change his or her plans in order to visit the church on Sunday? Is the communicated image of the church so strong and favorable that the reader will retain the name of the church and desire further connection with the organization?

Today you will be exposed to about 1,500 commercial messages. We are constantly bombarded by requests urging us to react in a prescribed manner. Many of those are prepared by advertising experts, yet only about two percent of the ads to which we are exposed ever get through our perceptual screening process to penetrate our consciousness. As you look at the typical church print ad, does it stand a chance of breaking through the clutter and arresting your attention? Does it have hope of gripping you with such compelling information that you will change your attitudes or behavior to take advantage of this newfound information?

Few church leaders understand enough about advertising and communications to design a useful ad. Essentially, we are dabbling in a communication form which we know little or nothing about. Yet we squander our limited, precious resources without a second thought and rely on our amateurish approaches to reach our audience.

Advertise at the right frequency.

Besides the problems connected with the message, we are hindered by a problem that advertisers call “frequency and reach.” This means we do not advertise frequently enough to accomplish our objectives. It also means we are not reaching enough of the people in our target audience to make any meaningful impact.

For the sake of illustration, let’s stick with newspaper advertising as our case in point. In the Los Angeles area, I have watched with interest as computer dealers slug it out for market share. They advertise several times a week. Do they advertise in the business section? Absolutely not! They know enough about their audience to realize that the average buyer

is an upscale individual, most likely a male, who is buying the equipment for a small business or for private use. Placing ads in the business or financial section would likely reach men who work for large corporations. Those companies have comparatively little need for computers, and the average reader would not be in a position to make computer purchases anyway. Also, people who read the financial section tend to spend less time reading those pages; they simply look for items of special interest before moving on to other things. So where do the computer retailers place their ads? In the sports section. That is the section their target audience reads consistently and avidly.

Where do we place our ads for church advertising? In most markets, they are relegated to the page or two devoted to religion in the Saturday edition of the newspaper. Think about it. Who will you reach on those pages? The people who are already into religion and most likely have a church home. Think about the timing. Is Saturday the best day for an ad or have readers already made their weekend plans by the time the Saturday newspaper arrives? Certainly, there is much to be questioned about how we target our communications.

Select the right media.

A third concern is our selection of media for communicating our message. Most churches, if they do any advertising whatsoever, place it in the local newspaper and perhaps a display ad in the telephone book.

Do you realize that there are more than twenty-five different advertising media?3 While only a handful of them have much potential for churches, it is important to think through the different media and how to maximize their impact for the purposes of the church. We should develop a mix of different media to make the most of our opportunities for reaching the market. Reliance on a single medium to reach people is an old-fashioned strategy that reduces our potential influence.

Tips from the professionals.

Advertising professionals offer some useful tips on how to best use advertising for our advantage. Ad agencies understand the advertising process and generally prepare a media plan for their clients. The plan indicates which ads will be used, in which media, and when the advertising will be run. The agencies seek to calculate the financial efficiency of different placement strategies by evaluating how many people in the target market will be reached in relation to the amount of money spent to reach them. It behooves us in the church to operate with equal intelligence as we use the resources God has provided for reaching the community.

Advertising creative teams also recognize that an ad will not perform well unless it says something interesting, indicates how the product is unique or distinctive, and is believable. Once again, we must examine our advertising to determine whether or not we are maximizing our communications in light of what does and does not work today.

It is also critical that we keep in mind a fundamental principle of Christian communication: the audience, not the message, is sovereign.4 If our advertising is going to stop people in the midst of hectic schedules and cause them to think about what we’re saying, our message has to be adapted to the needs of the audience. When we produce advertising that is based on the take-it-or-leave-it proposition, rather than on a sensitivity and response to people’s needs, people will invariably reject our message.

Communications for Church Marketing

How does all of this fit in with a marketing perspective for churches? You can recognize that if we do not adequately relate our vision, plans, or intentions, and our heart to other people and organizations, we stand little chance of bringing our dreams to fruition. Without solid communication, we will be frustrated in our attempt to minister effectively and expand the scope of the church’s leadership beyond the existing team.

I recommend that in thinking through your communications needs and approaches, you construct a simple communications plan. It would be a document that indicates who has what responsibilities, which media will be involved, how funds will be allocated for communicating, and so forth. The communications plan is merely an extension of the marketing plan, and might well be incorporated into that plan. The value of taking the time and effort to devise a communications plan is that it will force your church to address how communication will occur to maximize the marketing plans you have prepared. In other words, it is an attempt to reduce the possibility that your marketing operations will be rendered meaningless by unsatisfactory communications.

Having spent this chapter discussing what we say and how we say it, keep in mind that communication is only partially what we say. The most meaningful and credible communication is what we do: Actions do speak louder than words. Thus, while I believe we need to intelligently outline how we use verbal and written communication to move people, we must also realize that when we say one thing and do another, we undermine our ability to minister. By sending a mixed message to people, we send up the red flag in their minds, rendering the remainder of our marketing efforts virtually meaningless. People will not invest time and energy in an organization that is at odds with itself. Our lifestyles and behavior must therefore match what we say we offer and how it will impact people’s lives.

NOTES: 1. Based on a research study conducted by the Barra Research Group, Glendale (Calif.), for North Coast Presbyterian Church, Encinitas (Calif.).
2. “The Church Goes Madison Avenue,” in Christian Marketing


The above article, “Communicating with the Public: The Importance of Your Message” was written by George Barna. The article was excerpted from the book Marketing The Church.

The material is copyrighted and should not be reprinted under any other name or author. However, this material may be freely used for personal study or research purposes.

This article may not be written by an Apostolic author, but it contains many excellent principles and concepts that can be adapted to most churches. As the old saying goes, “Eat the meat. Throw away the bones.”