One of the most frustrating sentences for a church leader to hear is, "I didn't know about it"—particularly when the "it" was printed in the bulletin and announced during worship.
That's why churches are exploring additional methods to broadcast information about their events. A bulletin blurb can be accentuated by listings on the church's website, targeted e-mails, messages on social networking sites, text messages, and recorded telephone reminders.
How many of those methods your church uses, and in which combination, will depend on a careful analysis of the congregation's unique makeup. For congregations with an older demographic, the basic question is, "Do we go to electronic broadcasting and move away from printed bulletins?"
"In a lot of cases, it's a great idea," says Michael Buckingham, creative director of Holy Cow Creative, a church consulting firm. "I know of a church in Chicago that went to all [e-mail] pdf files. It's perfect for that congregation, which is mostly people in their 20s and 30s. That may not work for everybody."
The centerpiece of newer technology is the Internet, and the first priority is a church website. Avoid turning that website into a random dumping ground by taking an intentional approach to its design.
"Make the website current, with an up-to-date calendar, and strong event promotion," says Evan McBroom, creative director of Fishhook, a church communications consulting firm. "Create a hierarchy of A-level, B-level and C-level events. Inviting a friend at Christmas should have a higher place than the model-train ministry."
Fishhook encourages its clients to strategically use the top space on homepages to promote A-level events with rotating graphics that can be clicked for more information. Three or four B-level events can then be placed lower on the page.
Many churches are starting to use social networking sites like Facebook and Twitter to communicate information and build community. Enhance the visual impact by posting pictures on fan pages or group pages. Choose a person to champion sending information and building momentum for a group or ministry through these networks.
Send e-mails with formatted delivery services such as Constant Contact. These enable church personnel to build e-mails into formatted templates and set up different mailing lists for specific groups. The programs allow churches to track who is receiving, opening, and forwarding the e-mails.
"These services cost maybe $10 or $15 a month for a small church and they solve a lot of problems, especially for churches that send out mass e-mails," McBroom says. "You don't want to be a church of 2,500 people still sending out e-mails using Outlook in batches of 100 names at a time. With these services, if there is a quick need to communicate, they allow you to get the message out all at once."
Sending e-mail news updates provides another advantage, according to Nick Nicholaou, president of MBS, Inc., a ministry management consulting firm in California.
"People don't go to church websites on a regular basis, unless they're looking for something specific. But with the Constant Contact type of e-mail blast, they are reminded about what's coming up. You're pushing information rather than hoping they are going to go looking for it," Nicholaou says.
Wide Screens and Small Displays
Not all of the newer ways to broadcast information require a computer. Television and telephone technologies are playing key roles, too.
Digital signs display messages on video screens using plasma and LCD technology. These screens are commonplace in airports and retail stores. Now houses of worship are beginning to tap into their potential, says Brian Kutchma, director of marketing for Black Box Network Services, a communications infrastructure company.
"You can effectively position the screens to be used as a communication medium as the congregation is walking into church," he says. "You can update your fund drive, talk about the week's news, and advertise the upcoming week's schedule. It can serve as a live message board."
The cell phone is the key piece of equipment needed for two other communication methods, text messaging and phone notification systems.
Texting uses a technology called short message service to send brief messages from one cell phone to another. The message can range from event news to emergency notification. Churches are finding success in creating ministry group category lists and texting messages aimed at people in each category.
"A church will decide to send a text blast to all adult couples, or to all the men to remind them a men's breakfast is coming up. Churches that are doing this are finding attendance for their events is bumping up because people are reminded," Nicholaou says. Options on the market include EZTexting and ChurchTextPro.
Telephone notification systems, provided by companies such as One Call Now and PhoneTree, are used to send recorded voice messages, texts, or emails to a select list or to the congregation at large. Messages can be timed for delivery at the sender's choosing.
Recipients of the message have options about how they want to respond. They can simply hear the message, or in the case of volunteer sign-up requests, can choose to participate or not participate in an event by making a selection from a set of options.
Both systems are used by churches to send messages in case of emergency. One Call Now has entered into a new partnership with WeatherBug to send storm alert messages, says Phil Elmore, account manager for church and religious markets.
"Church leaders will receive a message from WeatherBug if there is threatening weather in the area," he says. "It may be a clear sunny day, but it can detect the presence of cloud-to-cloud lightning ten miles away or five miles away."
These notification systems are used to send out plenty of "hard news," but also send "softer" messages of concern, says Mike Doss, marketing manager for PhoneTree.
"Shut-ins can look forward to getting a message every day. You can ask if they are okay and give them a Bible verse," he says. "It can be used for outreach for members and attendees. If there's someone you haven't seen for awhile, you can send them a message."
Another advantage is ease of use, Doss says. PhoneTree is compatible with advanced office management software systems and also can increase the efficiency of smaller churches with volunteers or part-time staff.
"In five minutes, the office person can record the message, hit the button of people to be reached, and go back to work while the people are being contacted," he says.
The Tried and True
Paper bulletins, pulpit announcements, and mailed newsletters still have a useful place. Use these ideas from church communications experts to freshen up these time-tested approaches:
- Limit the number of items;
- Re-name it a "program";
- Include only the basics about each item, and refer readers to the church website for more information;
- Eliminate inserts, which can be costly and awkward to handle.
- Concentrate on one big announcement;
- Consider eliminating announcements if they are a distraction to worship. Or, use PowerPoint announcements before and after the service;
- Announce an item only if it affects most, or all, of the congregation;
- Be visually creative by using video presentations, PowerPoint, or drama. Package your top one to three messages into a 30-second "commercial" video.
Other print pieces:
- Make them visually attractive;
- Determine the ideal frequency of delivery. The greater the frequency of the newsletter, the more successful the overall promotion of the church;
- Calculate the cost of snail mail, which includes postage, printing, labor, and transportation;
- Agree on an acceptable return on investment. "In my church, we sent out 8,000 postcards and only knew of one person who ended up coming to the service because of them. That person ended up being part of our church's life. Worth it? Absolutely!" McBroom says.
Manage the Transition
However your church decides to broadcast information, make sure the "hows" and the "whys" are clearly communicated. Clearly identify all the information portals that are, or will be, available. Let people know that the motivation isn't change for its own sake, but a desire to reach each person using the methods they prefer.
"A lot of time and thought is usually put into making the change but not into helping people understand that change," McBroom says.
The best approach is not either/or, but both/and. Use multiple communication methods. One pulpit announcement is never enough.
"Remember the redundancy factor," Nicholaou says. "If they say they didn't know about something, it means you didn't tell them enough times and in enough ways. It's never the listener who is responsible for communication. It's the sender."
Lee Dean is a freelance writer living in Michigan and a contributing editor to Your Church.
Copyright © 2009 by the author or Christianity Today/Your Church magazine.
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