As I conclude my reflections over the past 25 years of missional leadership, I want to finally focus on a subject that I have become more and more convinced is essential in our desire to be Church with mission at its heart. It is the subject of communication. When I worked with Viz-A-Viz we held close to our strapline “Relevant communication of the gospel to people today.” Much of our emphasis was on the word ‘relevant’ but most of our energy went into ‘communication’. In a fast-moving world, that has been speeded up by COVID, growing and developing good communication I believe is vital. I was recently in a Zoom conference and one of the speakers, Laura Treneer, the previous Chief Executive Officer of CPO and now Managing Director of Frank Analysis Ltd. said these words, “Marketing is communication and communication is mission.” I think she has a point.
Every church is communicating something. When I arrived at Harlow Baptist Church in 2001 the church had been through a torrid decade. As I began to listen to the community around the church the general impression was that the church had closed. It hadn’t, but the silence and lack of activity from the church was communicating that nothing was happening. A message was still being heard, be it a wrong one!
Communication is happening regardless so we should stop to ask some key questions; What is our message? What is our method? How are we communicating? Is anyone listening and if so, what are they hearing? These, I believe, are all essential questions for the missional leader. I want to look at each of these but at that same time recognising the importance that good communication holds all these aspects together.
What are we communicating?
In a world of a myriad messages, we cannot overlook the importance of the content that we are seeking to portray. The disciples are clearly called to be Jesus’ witnesses to the world and will be called upon to declare the truths of the Kingdom of God. Content is central to the message.
My son is a fan of a group of YouTubers called ‘The Sidemen’. They have 10.5 million subscribers to their YouTube channel, but they don’t have a message. People watch them for their entertainment value that focuses around trivia. In this multi, self-made, self-promoting, media world, there is a real danger of focusing on style, image and trivia to the point of losing content and ultimately truth. The gospel is true and it’s good news. It is a message that cannot be lost, and I believe we need to continually work hard at presenting it well.
How are we communicating?
If we focus just on the ‘what’ of the message the danger is that our communication becomes outdated, irrelevant and unheard. The ‘how?’ is just as important as the ‘what?’.
The church over many decades has generally lent towards two main forms of communication: the spoken word, (mainly through sermons) and the written word, (through books and articles). Please don’t miss understand me, I believe that both sermons and books still have a key role within our faith, but when it comes to our culture today the methods of communication are now many. If we are going to be serious about mission, we need to radically rethink and engage with the ‘how’ of communication and appreciate that digital communication in its many forms is becoming predominant.
One of the few positives that we can take out of this year of COVID is that it has shaken up the Church’s default for communication. We have had to engage with new technology and rethink how the good old news of the Gospel can be communicated well today. My personal view is that this rethinking is only just beginning. Most of us have had a good attempt at embracing new technology. It hasn’t been easy but it’s a journey I believe we must embrace.
How is the message presented?
I’ve also learnt over the years that the ‘how of communication’ must also engage with the issue of quality. I remember being at a conference many years ago where J.John was the guest speaker. He said a lot about evangelism, but one phrase has always stuck in my mind. He was instructing people about how to invite people to an evangelistic event. He emphasised that the invitation should be offered not in any old envelope but in a “nice envelope”! His point was, that if we have a quality message, we should work hard on the quality of how it’s presented.
I learnt more about this when I was at Viz-A-Viz. We worked tirelessly with excellent specialists in their field of communication such as design, sound, drama, schools work, video production and music to produce quality material that, in itself, indicated that the message was of precious value. As a pastor, of both a small under-resourced church and then of one with great resources, I strived to encourage each church to offer the very best communication possible. If we care about the good news of Jesus the quality of how the message is communicated must say something of how important that good news is to us.
Who is communicating?
If I’m honest, one of the things that has held back my effectiveness in proclaiming the gospel has been my fear of ‘new’ media. I have been slow to embrace social media, arguably for good reasons, and often slow to leave the comfort zone of the ‘old forms of communication’ that I know so well. I believe I’m on a continued journey of learning but a key part of this has been finding people who have this new skill set and calling from God.
As we journey into this new ‘multi-media’ era I believe God is raising up a new generation of designers, video creators, writers, musicians, artists, YouTubers and social-media experts, to guide the Church in its missional communication. I believe that part of the missional leader’s task is to go and find these people and release them into God’s calling. I am finding that they don’t look like your traditional communicator. They are geeks, IT specialists, video creators, artists, poets and social-media influencers but they are a special and essential gift to the Church.
What is the big message?
If you went onto the streets of your town and asked people what they thought the message of the Church was I wonder what they would say. My expectation would be that for many there isn’t a message or that the message is one of irrelevance or even decline. I believe that missional leaders need to be considering the big message that people are hearing about the Church and the gospel and work hard at making sure this message is true, alive and transforms the life of the listener.
After several years at Eastleigh and working hard at seeking to support and connect with our local community I was delighted when I heard about a Facebook posting from a non-church attender, commenting that Eastleigh Baptist Church was a church that cared about the local community. It was a moment when I was reminded that people do gradually begin to hear the bigger message.
I am beginning to see missional leaders like painters who are painting a huge picture but often with tiny paint strokes. The big picture can’t be changed overnight but we do need to realise that the small messages within the life of a missional church are essential. A quality leaflet through the door, the conversation on the street with a Street Pastor, the welcome at a Foodbank, the availability of a conversation in a coffee shop are all tiny actions of mission that are gradually adding to and revealing the big picture of God’s truth. We should never devalue the small things of mission because without these acts of grace the larger picture of salvation will never be seen, but at the same time we must keep our eyes on the whole picture and recognise where more paint, texture, tone and colour are needed.
What is being heard?
The best communication is two-way. A message is offered, received and then reciprocated with some kind of feedback. Most miscommunication takes place when there is no feedback. The Church is often so busy talking that it doesn’t take time to listen to those it’s seeking to converse with. Did it make sense? What did you hear? How do you respond to the message? What questions do you have? What don’t you agree with? These are all helpful feedback questions, which will inform our communication into the future. Most modern-day medias offer opportunity for comment and feedback. These, I believe, should be embraced. No one wants to hear negative feedback but often this can be the most helpful feedback we will ever receive. It gives us an opportunity to review, learn, grow and re-communicate.
Doug was a ‘breath of fresh air’ when he arrived at Harlow Baptist Church. He was a new Christian, but he would tell me honestly what he had and hadn’t heard, whether he had understood and whether he agreed. At first it was daunting but gradually I came to embrace and value his feedback. It informed me, taught me and honed my communication and I believe I now communicate better because of him. The missional leader will seek, embrace and delight in feedback because two-way conversation is always more effective that one-way presentation.
Is our message authentic?
Finally, but of most importantly, in a world of many many messages, we must ask ourselves ‘what is it about the Christian message that will resonate the longest?’. My answer is its authenticity and truth! I’m not convinced that just being on social media or having a YouTube account is the full answer, although these helpful tools may play their role. What I am convinced of is that if we remain authentic and don’t get caught up in the danger of becoming image focused, the great picture of the gospel can be painted again for this generation.
This means that our lives and words must be aligned to the truth of the gospel. We must appreciate that communication is more than words, spoken and written. It is also about us. Our lives, our love, our compassion, our faith and our willingness to share authentically what we know about Jesus.
Thank you, for taking time to read and reflect on these articles. I hope and pray that something of my journey in missional leadership might have helped to inform and encourage you on your own journey.
This is article 8 of 8. You can view the whole series here.
 Acts 1v8 & John 15v26-16v15