Connecting Points: Media, Public Relations, and the Church’s Image in the Community
In 1988 I was transferred from Chanute Air Force Base in Illinois to Malmstrom Air Force Base in Montana. The trip took us across the Northern Plains states, a place I was totally unaware of growing up in Oklahoma. Interstate 90 serves as the connector linking the east and west coasts in the North. As we drove across South Dakota, we saw the signs for Wall Drug (every mile and a half for 400 miles), the sign for Laura Ingalls Wilder’s home (for the TV illiterate, she’s the Little House on the Prairie girl), and the Corn Palace (a monumental palace constructed entirely out of corn). Aside from that, the 300 miles of Interstate 90 we drove through South Dakota didn’t offer us much in the way of “Hey, I’d really like to live here!”
As the sun sank and darkness set in, what we didn’t realize was that we were driving through some of the most beautiful scenery God has created on this earth. Located on the far western side of South Dakota are the Black Hills, named because of the deep green color of the pines. Form a distance the green appears black, thus the “Black Hills.” The Black Hills are home to some of the most scenic places in our great country. Mount Rushmore, the Crazy Horse Memorial, the Needles Highway, Custer State Park, and Devil’s Tower are just a few of the sights to see. Our first trip to Montana took us through all this in the dead of night.
I’ve Been Called Where?
You can understand our hesitation when some 10 years later we were contacted and asked to come to South Dakota to help strengthen a smaller church. One member of the congregation kept emphasizing the beauty of the mountains and surrounding area, and all I could remember was 300 miles of prairie and a house made out of corn. But not wanting to be a “Jonah,” we decided to make the trip to check it out.
What we found was a little slice of Heaven right in the middle of South Dakota. The town of Spearfish reminded us of Mayberry RFD. It was quaint and inviting with a population of around 7,000. Nestled in a valley bordered by mountains, many locals refer to it as the “Aspen of South Dakota.”
The people were even more beautiful than the location. The small church was made up of thirty to forty members, most of whom were young married couples with kids. They had been without a paid minister for several years but were willing and energetic to do whatever it took to see the kingdom grow in their community. One of the comments that solidified our decision to move to Spearfish came from the men of the congregation who asked, “We don’t want you to come here and do everything for us, but we want you to teach us what we need to do.” We moved to Spearfish three months later.
Our team hit the ground running in June of 1998. Within six months, our little group of thirty-five had grown to around sixty, and we were quickly running out of room in the small building the church owned. We were making plans and discussing an addition to the building when God introduced the next phase of our ministry.
Located just up the highway is the town of Belle Fourche. If you’re a John Wayne fan, you’ll recognize the name as the destination of his cattle drive in the movie The Cowboys. Belle Fourche is a ranch community of around 5,000 people. It’s home to farmers, ranchers, and a host of professional rodeo cowboys. Separated by a mere ten miles, the difference in culture between the two communities is astounding.
Merging and Growing
Belle Fourche was also home to a smaller church of around twenty-five members. The church had recently lost its minister, who was largely supported by churches in the South. We began discussing with them their plans for the future, and before long we were talking about a merger. The men of both congregations met one Sunday afternoon to discuss our options. We had been advised to spend plenty of time – months if necessary – discussing leadership issues, property issues, planning, ideology, theology, and of course, money. Instead, we met that afternoon, prayed together, and merged the next Sunday. We figured any problems along the way weren’t too big for God to work out.
Our body of sixty-five or so was now in excess of ninety and our building was no longer adequate. We made plans to build a new building between the two communities and began the process of raising money. We bounced around form the Holiday Inn to an old Christian school, appropriately nicknamed “The Tomb” because of its dingy, grey cinder blocks and few windows. In March of 2002 we moved into our new building. Our group of ninety plus was now in excess of 120, and we couldn’t wait to set up shop in our new location.
Since that time our body has seen continued growth. We now enjoy fellowship with more than 170 members (if we can ever get them all here at the same time). But more than the numbers, the spiritual growth that has occurred is far more staggering. We have seen the hand of God at work in the lives of people.
What Do You Mean, “Media”?
But now to the point of the chapter – the media, or more importantly, how the communities came to view us. I must admit, I was intrigued and yet somewhat daunted in the task of writing on this topic. Let me explain. As a means of replacing lost support from congregations in the South, I recently entered into a partnership with a brother form our body to form a media company in Spearfish. We produce a weekly television show, commercials, short and long format pieces, promotional DVDs, and video from the Web. When I was asked to write I thought, “Great! This is right up my alley.”
It wasn’t until later, when I began putting my thoughts together, that I realized that in our ministry in and around Spearfish and Belle Fourche, we hadn’t even used the media, as most would define it. The traditional definition of media is “the means of mass communication (especially television, radio, newspapers, and the Internet) regarded collectively.” The word media comes from the Latin plural of medium, which means “an agency or means of doing something.” So for the purpose of this chapter my definition of media will be: “the way of doing something so the most people will hear about it and benefit from it.”
In meeting with clients of our media company, the initial question that must always be answered is simple: What do you want people to know about you, your company, or your product? While the answer to that question may take on many forms for a business, for the body of Christ it is really quite simple. Our message is the same today as it was 2,000 years ago. We should want to communicate Christ and him crucified to all. That might seem simplistic, but when you boil it down to its most elemental part, Christ and him crucified is what remains.
Back to the business analogy for a moment. Once the question of what you want people to know is answered, you’re left with the task of determining the best method or mode of informing your customer. It may be a commercial, an infomercial, or a promotional DVD. You then set about the task of producing it and getting the message out. The same process is true for the church, and it is the most critical and most overlooked aspect of many churches’ ministries. We all, pretty much, would agree on the message. I’ll throw this in for free: If your body can’t come together on the message, the rest really doesn’t matter. Gaining consensus on the mode or method of delivery of the message is altogether a different story.
The Method of Delivery
Part of the problem we face when we try to agree on the method of delivering the message is the plethora (the only word I learned from The Three Amigos) of ideas currently circulated along with the seemingly endless supply of church growth books that fill the racks of every corner Christian bookstore. Church leaders everywhere are reading books on growth, subscribing to Internet sites that promise the latest in innovation and technology, and attending every lecture within a thousand miles on the subject. These things are perfectly acceptable. However, if there’s one lesson I’ve learned from living in South Dakota for the better part of 10 years, it’s this: What works Southern California probably won’t work in South Dakota. What attracts people in Nashville doesn’t attract people in South Dakota. What churches fight over in Oklahoma isn’t what churches fight over in South Dakota. (By the way, our churches don’t fight in South Dakota. And if you believe that, I’ve got some ocean-front property right next to Mount Rushmore I’d like to sell you.)
Asking the Right Questions
Maybe I can explain this another way. One of the hottest selling vehicles in the Dallas/Fort Worth Metroplex is the four-door, four-wheel drive Chevrolet Suburban. You’ll run out of fingers trying to count them as you drive around the city during the day. Consequently, the four-door, four-wheel drive, Suburban is also one of the hottest selling vehicles in South Dakota as well. However, the reason people in South Dakota are attracted to Suburbans is drastically different from the reason people in Dallas are attracted to them. In South Dakota, we actually use the four-wheel drive on our Suburbans most of the winter. My point is this: While the product (message) is the same, the media (the way of doing something so the most people will hear about it and benefit from it) will be different depending on where you are. So the hundred dollar question becomes: What is the right media for where I am today?
Unfortunately, this question leads to three or more that must be answered before determining the appropriate media for your church. We will discuss all three individually, but here they are for now: (1) What are the demographics of the area in which I am ministering? (2) What ear the cultures represented within those demographics? (3) What needs to have presented themselves within these groups? If you can take the time to find the answers to these questions, any church of a thousand or any church of ten can effectively minister wherever it is located.
Whether you’re selling a product or presenting the gospel of Christ, an understanding of the demographic profile of those you are attempting to reach is essential. Demographics is a big word used to describe the data you collect to help you understand your target audience. The following categories will give you an idea of what we are talking about.
What are the ages of the audience you are trying to reach? Is your community primarily made up of retirees? Is there a large group of young married couples raising young children in your community? Do you have a college in your town and thus many young adults from 18-22? Determining the breakdown of ages within your area of influence is a must before determining the method of media you will employ.
Consider my mother. She is in her 70s and part of the World War II generation. She grew up without television, VCRs, and DVDs. I can still remember the first color television we had in our house. DVDs are foreign and she’s still trying to figure them out. Add to that confusion the Internet and the Web. To my mother, a web is something a spider makes. I say all of this to make one important point. You may have the very best in Web site design for your church. You may have every announcement, ministry, prayer list, Christian link, worship schedule, and even a weekly note form the ministers posted on your site. But if the demographic makeup of your community consists primarily of people like my mother, people will never see it. Your message will die a slow death in cyberspace.
Now consider my son. He’s 16 years old and much more proficient with technology than his father. He lives with a computer. His school issued laptops to all of their students. He can send text messages faster than I can type. He e-mails his assignments to his teachers rather than typing them as I had to do. Now if my demographic profile contains a considerable number of people from his generation, I had better include plenty of technology in any media I am considering.
Almost every local chamber of commerce can provide you with data about your community’s economic situation. Basically what you’re looking for is the total annual household income per family unit and how that compares to national averages. But don’t get too wrapped up in national averages. You should know what is considered lower, middle, and upper income levels for your particular community. This is also important when considering the form your use of media takes. If your church is situated in an economically depressed are, dress alone (which is a form of media) can have a tremendous impact upon your message.
For example, if your church is in the custom or tradition of “dressing up” for worship, the message you may be sending is that in order to belong you need to have nice clothes. If the majority of folks in your community don’t know how to tie a Windsor, chances are neckties should be left at home. If no one in your congregation is in jeans and the majority of the community lives in jeans, you need to address the situation. Remember, everything we do as Christians is media. It all contributes to how we are perceived and thus how our message is received.
There are many other demographic statistics you can factor into your media style – single, married, divorced, single-parent family, black, white, or Hispanic. The most important aspect is that you take an honest look at the community you are in and then make the appropriate changes to convey your message in a way that will be well received by your community.
Many people seem to believe that since we all live in America, we all share the same basic culture. Nothing could be further from the truth. Every community in this nation has it’s own unique culture in which the members of the body of Christ function.
In the North, especially the Dakotas, the vast majority of people are from Dutch and German descent. This cultural aspect alone took us a while to understand. Take for example church buildings. The current fad or trend in new church plants is the “coffee house” idea. Get some folks together at a coffee shop, have some java and scones, and sit around discussing the Bible. While in many communities (especially those with large numbers of young professionals and college students), this is by far the best method of communicating the message, in our community it would be disastrous.
To people of European descent, especially German descent, the existence of a church building is media in itself. These people have grown up in a culture that recognizes stability, structure, legitimacy, and piety in a building. While many people recognize a building as little more than a tool to be used, these people’s culture sees a building as much more. We were not fully recognized by most members of our two communities until we completed our building. To the community, the building itself communicated a message – a message through which we communicate the Message.
Culture will also dictate worship styles (another form of media). Technology may not be the appropriate media for the culture in which you are working, but in another culture it might be necessity. For a culture brought up on iPods, cell phones, and X-Box, technology is a welcome addition to flash. On the other hand, if the vast majority of my audience grew up sitting around a radio and have developed an auditory style of learning, songbooks with shaped notes are just what their culture expects. The true test of your media as it relates to worship is identifying all of the cultures represented and adjusting the media to communicate to those cultures.
The final question to be answered is one of needs. What are the needs of those to whom I am attempting to communicate? Snow tires don’t sell well in Miami, Florida, and bathing suits are only available in South Dakota a few weeks out of the year. In order to effectively plan and implement media that will communicate the message, we must understand the needs of those with whom we are communicating.
We’ve heard the quotes: “People don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.” For the past several years, in addition to my responsibilities as a minister, I have also handled the benevolence for our congregation. I had never dealt with this type of ministry before and went into it blind as a bat. While I didn’t disburse cash unless absolutely necessary, I was quick to pay electric bills, fill up tanks of gas, and buy groceries on a regular basis. After a year or so into it, I noticed a distinct change in the phone calls. I was still getting the regular individual calls but was now also receiving calls from the local police department, the county jail, social services, the Salvation Army, and a house for battered women.
One afternoon after receiving a call from a police officer trying to find a place for a family to stay for the night, I asked him, “Why did you call me?” His reply would change the way I think about benevolence forever. He explained that beside the dispatcher’s radio was a yellow sticky note with my phone number and a notation under it that read, “The church that helps people.” You can’t buy advertising like that! That message cannot be communicated through newspaper articles, Web site designs, or television commercials. Again, everything we do as Christians is media, good or bad! We had unknowingly met a huge need in our community and thus the message of the love of Christ had been effectively communicated. We, as a body, could have told people how much we loved them, but the message wouldn’t have been heard until we showed people we loved them.
Hopefully, you are interested in changing the way your community views your body. In order to accomplish this, honestly ask these three questions about your community:
(1) What do they look like? (Demographics)
(2) Where are they from? (Culture)
(3) What do they need? (Needs)
If you can answer these questions, the answers themselves will dictate the media needed to communicate the message of Jesus Christ to your community. Just remember the definition of media we started with: “the way of doing something so the most people will hear about it and benefit from it.” After reading this I’m claiming editorial privilege to amend my last statement. While there are many valid forms of traditional media that can go a long way in communicating our message, the most fundamentally sound “media” we as member of the body of Christ need to employ is this: We will do all things so that all peoples will hear the gospel of Jesus Christ and come to benefit from a relationship with him.
The above article, “Connecting Points: Media, Public Relations, and the Church’s Image in the Community,” is written by Ken Tackett. The article was excerpted from Releasing the Power of the Smaller Church which was edited by Shawn McMullen.
The material is most likely 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.