Church Communications 2.0: Transferring Trends in Organizational Communication + Engagement to Faith Communities

In 2010, with information ubiquitous, people are talking about religion and the church around the clock, both inside and outside your faith community.

In a 24/7 media savvy world, how is the church to communicate with believers and non-believers.  Without creating a doctoral dissertation sized research project, I utilized interest and experience in social media and marketing as a lens to ponder organizational communication in the church.  What opportunities do current trends and technologies offer to relationally connect faith communities to people already engaged as worshipers and those not yet there?  Faith leaders have the unique opportunity in this time and place to utilize new media and identified organizational communication trends to build and maintain community, clarify missional call and enrich the experience of those engaged as worshippers and/or stakeholders.

In a report from Business Communication Headline News on April 7, 2010, organizational communication consulting firm Edelman’s “2010: Trends in Organizational Communications” outlined 11 major trends in organizational communications.  I have modified (as noted) these trends to apply them to faith communities…

  1. Worshippers (Employees) are your next new ministry (product)
  2. Clergy (Managers) are no longer the center of a worshippers (employees) universe
  3. Leadership rhetoric challenges versus cheerleads
  4. Conversations inform decision-marking, not vice-versa
  5. Socializing strategy throughout the faith community (enterprise) correlates with success
  6. Story-sharing defines a faith community’s image and reputation (brands) inside-out
  7. Engagement equals experience
  8. Credibility is constantly shifting
  9. Adding visual dimension to living one’s faith (work) can spark greater comprehension
  10. Situational awareness trumps all
  11. Self-identity is found through a spiritual journey (career path) versus a church or denominational (company) destination

In a Web 2.0 world, social media is user driven and the experiences users have with your communication tools and strategies must match with any face-to-face interaction.  This is more than truth in advertising, striving for good word of mouth, or properly branded marketing.  The actual reality of the users experience alone determines your authenticity and their future engagement. 

Okay, so what?  You may agree that a worshippers experience determines their likeliness to return to worship, but the new reality is that most stakeholders, worshippers (new and old alike), members, and leaders see themselves more and more in the consumer driver’s seat.  This consumer oriented place of control means no longer just reacting to an experience (communication or physical encounter like worship), but want to determine their level of engagement and actually create their communication message they receive and their actual experience (worship, learning, fellowship) as it happens.

While Edelman (http://change.edelman.com) posits that employee engagement is becoming more and more about how an employee “experiences” the organization, I content that for faith communities (churches), religious engagement is more about how a worshipper and/or stakeholder (member/partner) “experiences” the faith community.  So let’s unpack the eleven trends a bit from a faith community lens…

Trend #1 – Worshippers are your next new ministry

Information + Perspective + Expertise = This is what your best stakeholders possess.  Those attending worship, serving on ministry teams, attending Sunday School, Bible study (notice I didn’t say leaders, chairs, or teachers) are ready to share their knowledge, particularly with potential worshippers, prospective members/partners, influencers, and as important with each other.  How can you use communication to empower and unleash these faith community stakeholders?

Trend #2 – Clergy are no longer the center of a worshipper’s universe

Remember learning about Copernicus in school and how he transformed our worldview by recognizing the Earth revolves around the sun, rather than vice versa.  Stakeholders aided by technology and a growing sense of initiative and empowerment, are transforming their own world; clergy and the church are no longer the center of their faith universe.  In this new world, stakeholders are no longer reliant on their clergy or larger church/denomination to spoon-feed them information, “pre-interpreted” and sanitized for their religious “protection.”

Trend #3 – Leadership rhetoric challenges versus cheerleads

The idea of leaders being first and foremost motivators is quickly transforming.  Yes, leaders certainly must continue to motivate, but as instigators and facilitators, not simply as cheerleaders of faith.  Leaders are becoming more provocative in their rhetoric, commonly treading on territory that might have been considered “sacred” in the past – such as acknowledging other faith traditions or the difficult choices facing the Church.

In 2010, faith community leaders recognize that true motivation comes from engaging stakeholders as adults capable of grasping and contributing to complex situations, rather than “protecting” them from harsh realities.

Trend #4 – Conversations inform decision-marking, not vice-versa

It used to be that social statements, changes in practice, and denominational decisions spurred conversations both inside and outside faith communities.  Information flow was more or less linear, and any conversation of relevance to stakeholders took place in a highly controllable fashion, largely within the confines of the local church or larger denomination.

In 2010, faith community clarity – what you believe, stand for, and who you are, supported by clearly defined goals and actions – is more critical than ever.  These conversations are now becoming an integral part of faith community decision-making as denominations need to listen more intently and bring new points of view into the thought process (i.e. “bound conscious” perspective of the ELCA).

Trend #5 – Socializing strategy throughout the faith community correlates with success

Strategies are no longer being dictated from the top-down, or followed blindly.  Strategies are fluid and evolving; effective faith-based organizations today are more focused on helping their people gravitate toward a strategy framework: explaining it to them, defining the missional goals/beliefs it supports.  But, from there, stakeholders are adding another dimension to it – using their practical experience to ask questions and make it better.

In 2010, faith community stakeholders don’t expect their leaders to do all of the thinking for them; they have so much at stake themselves that they want, need, and expect to participate in the process.

Trend #6 – Story-sharing defines a faith community’s image and reputation inside-out

In an information-cluttered world, the most effective way to convey your message practically is through story sharing or good, old-fashioned storytelling.  Clergy are now recognizing that their sermons should “show how we live our lives, what we believe, how we believe… and be full of life, full of vigor.”  Why?  Because if you want people to listen to you, you need to speak to what the audience is experiencing.  You need to speak to the future.  You need to tell a compelling story.  

In 2010, faith community stakeholders want context.  They’re bored by dry recitations of facts, but often intrigued when engaged with a narrative.  Further, people at all levels of a faith community (kids too!) have stories to share – stories that illuminate their lives and their purpose.

Trend #7 – Engagement equals experience

Faith community stakeholder engagement is becoming more and more about how a worshipper, member/partner (current or prospective) “experiences” the service activity, fellowship event, meeting, class, or worship service – relationships with leaders, clergy, believers, and seekers coupled with access to information, connectedness to conversations.

In 2010, faith community stakeholder learning never stops, and the “communication classroom” is all around them, wherever they are, with whomever they react, and whatever they experience.  All of it is relevant.

Trend #8 – Credibility is constantly shifting

Faith community stakeholders no longer view the clergy (local pastor or bishop) as the most credible purveyor of information and arbiter of what’s going on in the church.  In 2010, credibility has neither a title nor a position.  Credibility is in the eyes of the beholder/believer – it can be someone who creates connections (outside the walls of a church), offers a compelling perspective (perhaps in the parking lot), provides a forum for unique conversations and information exchange (blog, Facebook, twitter), speaks in a compelling voice (Flickr, Pod Cast, YouTube, Vimeo); empathizes with a particular issue or concern (Delicious, Digg, Stumbleupon); or displays an honest, open demeanor (in homes, coffee shops, churches, and online environs).  The point here is that credibility is constantly shifting often daily.

Trend #9 – Adding visual dimension to living one’s faith can spark greater comprehension

Smart phones + Mobile devices + Tablets + HP’s TouchSmart PC + Game theory (which causes us to view our choices in relation to the choices others make) = That people of all ages are getting more and more used to seeing information and choices presented in a far more physically dimensional fashion than ever before.

In 2010, faith community stakeholders don’t simply want to read a clergy member’s thoughts; they want to see, hear, experience, and respond to them.  They want to gather context around a central theme or subject.  They want to aggregate other’s opinions and perspectives.  They want to touch and experience information or opinion.  They want a multi-dimensional experience with knowledge.  This is moving beyond a projector in worship to engaged small groups utilizing interactive blog and fan platforms verses passive web sites.

Trend #10 – Situational awareness trumps all

Where are you right now?  Where is the faith community in terms of reputation, communication outreach, trust, etc?  Where are your local “competitor” faith communities at? Where are your faith community’s gifts being used?  Given the pace of everything today, people internally will no longer subscribe to faith-based initiatives, programs, or ministry efforts that are not relevant to what they believe is the current state of affairs in their spiritual journey.

In 2010, faith community stakeholders are astute, conscious of discrepancies between the real world they experience and their church leadership’s interpretations of that world through missional initiatives, social statements, policies and processes.  If your communications don’t reflect reality, you will lose the trust of your audience.

Trend #11 – Self-identity is found through a spiritual journey versus a church or denominational destination

People are more inclined to self-identify as individuals (I’m spiritual…) rather than part of a discrete faith community (…not religious).  This is enhanced and encouraged by one’s ability to connect and link to one’s peers and to find self-defined faith communities.

In 2010, a faith community stakeholder’s current role is a mere way station on their faith journey that likely will encompass far more different religious experiences and denominations than the generations that preceded him/her.  Clergy and ministry communicators must operate mindful that it’s more about how people are conducting their lives outside the faith community than what they are and what they are doing inside.

What do all of these trends mean?  With socially engaged communications now the norm, the keys to success can be found in how we dare to generate dialogue in more illustrative ways (physically, visually, and verbally); recognize that control over that dialogue is in the hands of the individual; create ways to facilitate the relational interactive communication (dialogue) using social media.  Like anything else that’s constantly evolving, it’s important that we address these and other emerging trends in a timely manner.  In engaging in current and contextual communication, we are sharing the Gospel, caring and communicating with God’s people both inside and outside the  communities of faith God calls us to.

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