It’s never been easier to communicate. Unfortunately, it’s never been harder to connect. Churches need a playbook to navigate the digital communication shift.
Author Phil Bowdle’s explores the new reality for what attendance, engagement, and attention looks like for the church. In his book Rethink Communications: A Playbook to Clarify and Communicate Everything in your Church.
The book provides a practical communication playbook you can use to communicate anything in your church- and actually connect. And we have 5 free copies we're giving away, see the end of the post for details (Also make sure to check out the launch week Bonuses)
Phil leads as the Creative Arts Pastor at West Ridge Church in Dallas, Georgia. When Phil and his team aren’t serenading their congregation with personalized worship videos from social (yes, it really happened! read more below), he is rallying Church Communicators to rethink church communication.
We had a chance to talk with Phil and here are 8 takeaways we learned:
1. Your Church’s Social Media Should Create One to One Moments
What's one of the most memorable social media initiatives the West Ridge Creative Arts team has launched?
Being a big church, we try to create one to one moments.
Recently we did a night of worship, and of course everyone has their favorite songs that they want to hear.
We took the opportunity to ask people to send us a song that they’re hoping that we will sing. Most people expected that they’ll leave a comment and have fun with it. I put it in front of my team to said let’s spend an hour having as much fun with this as we can.
We grabbed some guitars and cameras, and started actively responding to people with a video. We told them, ‘I’m so sorry that we’re not playing that song, but here’s a song just for you, John.’ We played and recorded a song for the people who responded and engaged with us on social. It put a face and personality behind the comments and made people feel so special.
For all the people looking in, which is just as important, they realized that we actually see them and care about them. It’s not just about the numbers. We want to actually build a relationship with the people we engage with. That was the most fun we had and all it took was a touch of innovation and an hour of our time, which was well worth it.
We’re in a series right now called ‘For Each Day.’ We’re covering the tough issues of anxiety, stress, and depression. These are things that everybody either deals with, or knows somebody that's currently dealing with it. It’s such a felt need. This upcoming week we're using our text messaging and social media just to ask people, ‘What can we pray about that you're anxious about right now?’ We're also running ads just let people know that we're praying for them and we actually want to be able to help pray for them at our church, and then speak on the issues that they're dealing with.
That would be more on the touch of the strategic side, but it really is mission focused for us if we want to build disciples and connect with people. We also want to get them inside our doors and get them involved the community. So we're kind of bridging the digital tools along with social media to be able to help connect people to the church.
2. Have Fun and Build Something that You Yourself Would Want to Follow
How does a church create a personality on a digital presence?
The biggest thing that I would encourage people with is that social should be fun.
Any of us that are on social media don't jump on there to see a bunch of advertisements, announcements, and hear about events. We want to create connections. We want to laugh. We want to smile. We want to be heard and seen. I think it starts with creating a social media account for your church that you yourself would want to follow right. What would that look like?
For us, what we want to try to do in our tone is be helpful, passionate, and curious. We want to help people in taking their next step in their walk with Jesus. We want to provide resources and quotes that are going to help them along the way. We want to be passionate and want people to know that we actually love what we do and how we serve our community. We love our church and the chance to work with each other, and we generally have fun during that. So we wanted to show the passion of our personality as we as we speak or write.
We also want to be curious. We know that a lot of people don't get to see everything from the lens that we get to see it. So we want to show the behind the scenes of a baptism story happening. We want to show a prayer gathering happening before the message in the green room that nobody gets to see. We want them to experience it in a different way. None of those include: we want the best announcement and the most events posted. That's just not the game in social anymore.
In a nutshell: have fun and build something that you yourself would want to follow. And let that drive your content. Not the way around.
3. Create Social Content that Helps People
Why are announcements and events not the social media game anymore?
People are flocking to things that help them.
That doesn't mean that an event or things going on in your church can't help people, but I think the challenge is that most churches aren't taking that extra 10-20% that it takes to help communicate those things in a way that breaks down a barrier for people.
If we only say, ‘Hey we have this event. Come to it because it's going to be the best part of your week,’ that's just noise that doesn't actually communicate something. But, if you're speaking about community and you say in a compelling way, ‘Hey you aren't meant to do life on your own and here’s a story of somebody that has experienced how life is better together,’ it’s going to get noticed. Sharing the announcement slide doesn’t grab attention, and also doesn’t cut through the analytics and the algorithms that social media has. It's not content that people engage with.
A big part of the book is speaking to how to actually clarify your message. I really break down how to over identify and remove barriers along the way for communicating your message with clarity. Usually behind every event there's something out there that is breaking down some kind of barrier.
If it's serving, it might be purpose and meaning for your life. If it’s small groups or discipleship, it might be friendship and growing in your faith in an inviting environment. Those are all things that have barriers that people deal with. We usually just communicate by saying we want you to do this because we want you to. So can you do that for us? Instead of saying, ‘Hey this is something that God wired you for and we want to help be a platform for you to experience your best lives.’
4. Grab People’s Attention Without Creating More Noise
Why Does Church Communication Need to be Re-Thought?
I see most churches using a playbook from 30 years ago that was based on the idea that people attend church every week, they engage by just attending your services, and you have their attention. None of those are true anymore.
There's a new reality for how people attend the church now, and a new reality for how we can engage them in both a physical and digital way. There's a whole new set of rules for how to even grab people's attention because there's so much noise. Statistically we all receive about 10000 branded messages a day. That’s insane! That’s unheard of! What most churches are doing is assuming that they have people's attention. They're assuming that people are attending every week and that you can engage them by what you do during a one hour service.
As we look at the challenges of that, a lot of people are freaking out saying that people aren't attending church as much, your attendance is going down, and engagement feels like it's harder to grab momentum from.
The ‘ReThink’ part of this is that God's actually laid out some of the greatest opportunities we've ever had in communicating the Gospel. We have fiscal and digital tools that I think the Apostle Paul would have blown up with. It can't just be thinking about communication as a outsource team that you just send all your announcement slides to make it look pretty. What it actually means for us as the church, pastors, ministry leaders, communication and creative leaders, is that we ought to lean in and ask God what can we do with the opportunities You've just given us and how can we leverage that to communicate the Gospel and put Jesus on display?
It's going to take rethinking what we do and create a different way for us to actually cut through the noise. At the end of the day what I’ve tried to do in my book is just lay out a playbook for what that can look like, and how you can get from any message you're trying to communicate from beginning to end, and communicate that in a way that can be heard and responded to.
5. Make Your Message Matter to Your Audience
What would you define as the biggest roadblock for a message actually connecting with church audiences?
The biggest challenge of a message not connecting with an audience is that the church often assumes that if it matters to them, it will also matter to the person they’re communicating to. We think like staff members instead of thinking like an advocate for our audience.
The church may say, ‘Hey we want you to give so we can turn the lights on and we want to keep doing ministry.’ That message speaks to you as the church, but that's an external problem to somebody that is hearing that message.
If you can take the same important, Biblical message, and phrase it that in a way that actually connects with people to say, ‘Hey do you want to be a part of something that God is doing in our community, country, and world that is bigger than yourself? Will you join us in playing a part? We want to see what God can to do through our generosity.’ It’s taking the same message but thinking about it from the perspective of the person you're trying to reach instead of just assuming that you have people's attention and that they care about it as much as you do.
6. Clarify Your Message
What's the biggest takeaway that you would love for any type of church communicator to get from your book?
I wanted to write something that would be a bridge not just for the lone ranger communicator, but for the senior pastor and the ministry leader to say this is an issue that we need to play a part in.
If we're going to rethink communication to reach people that we aren't currently reaching, we have to know that communication isn't somebody's job it's everybody's job. Everybody has a role to play and it can't be outsourced. It's something that we all have opportunity to play a part in. I want it to be a bridge for a staff and team to ask themselves ‘what do we need to rethink for our church?’
I also wanted to provide a playbook to clarify any message. There's a ton of great books out there that I love that speak on how to tell the broad, macro story of your church. I don't know of anything that speaks to the micro messages that make up the macro story. If you've got to communicate serving, small groups, a new sermon series, Easter, or any of the things that make up all the busyness at the church, I want to provide a playbook so that you can know what do to do in the beginning and how can to leverage that all the way through to the end.
ReThink Communication shows how you can actually do it in a way that still scales for your church. It’s not all philosophical but I've tried to provide templates and resources that you can take and customize it to the unique church that you are and hopefully get you further.
7. Communications Starts Now, Not Once you Hit the 500 Attendance Barrier
How can a small or large church use your book?
The book’s principals are really designed for the big and small church because the approach for getting from beginning to end is happening for every church no matter what size. It’s important for every church is to ask, ‘How can I communicate with clarity so that I can get more people to hear and respond to that message?’ Sometimes the smaller church has more advantages in communicating compared a bigger church. Now it might not be in staff, but there's a lot of value and potential of a message taking hold in a smaller community. Communication isn't something we can outsource or say, ‘Hey once we get to this point or this many people, then we can start tackling communication.' If a small church can take hold of figuring out communication, they can not only propel ministry forward, but I think it can help them just stay on mission and be more clear about where you're asking people to do.
The reality is that most churches are so overwhelmed just trying to survive. I hope that a small church pastor can read this and do something more effectively in their sermon now because they can clarify their message more, or if someone is giving announcements at the end of a service they can craft the elevator pitch to make sure that this message is clear, concise, and compelling.
I think it’s a myth of just saying we'll start covering communication when we get past that 500 barrier- it’s critical for everybody.
8. Your Church’s Front Door Isn’t Greeter at Your Building. It’s Your Website, Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter.
How are churches missing out on making digital first impressions online?
Churches are not realizing that the front door to their church isn’t the building anymore.
I share a story in the book of a family that eventually started started coming to our church. Their journey started by Googling the word ‘God.’ That journey led to them discovering our church in the Google rankings of local churches. They watched our messages online on our website for over six months before they ever set foot in our doors. They eventually got our address from our site and drove around our campus to see what was going on. As they drove around they noticed it was a really big church and decided to just go in and hide on the back row thinking that nobody will know we’re there. That’s where God started to change their lives and hearts. They accepted Christ and got plugged into a group and serving on our teams.
That story is why I do what I do. If our website isn’t working, or if we aren’t updating our messages and doing all the little mundane things along the way, we are creating barriers for people that are just trying to take their next step with Jesus.
A lot of churches aren’t looking at their greeters as anything beyond people that are at the front of the physical building. If you're not engaging and responding to the people that are Facebook messaging you or writing comments, that’s today's equivalent of somebody knocking at your front door and nobody answering. Digital engagement is their way of trying to engage or connect with your church. If you don't respond and engage with them in a quick way to let them know that you see them, you hear them, and you care about them, you’re just missing opportunities.
This speaks to the the biggest barrier for a lot of people that are trying to connect with the church or think they might one day. They ask: Does this matter? Is it worth my time? What's it like? Do I trust them? Starting the conversation and answering the knock on the door online is just as vital in today's culture because they may never get to the front door of your church if you can’t connect with them at the front doors of your website or social media.
30 years ago we could have a bunch of people at the front doors and it worked. But now it’s time to rethink. We're preaching to more people during the week on social media than we are on Sunday morning in our building. If you look at that with fresh eyes you realize we need to be investing more into opportunities outside the church walls.