When I was in college earning my Communications degree in Broadcast Journalism and taking a myriad of marketing, advertising, digital media, and public relations courses, one thing was drilled into my brain on a regular basis: Well-designed [and well-written or well-presented] content would always win the audience. You see this in news media all the time, right? No matter how empty, vacuous, or — let's just be honest — awful the story itself actually is, it can always be dressed up with elaborate videography, fancy lighting, special graphics, embellished language, and so on. And sadly, most folks will still watch, read, or listen to this sort of dribble, er, I mean, content as long as it holds their attention.
As the old business and marketing sayings go: "Eye appeal is buy appeal" and "Content is king."
But these statements are no longer true in the sphere of Church Communications, particularly in a post-COVID world. For too many decades now, we've been operating under the assumption that high-quality and well-designed content will generate or result in higher attendance and church growth/expansion. And this might've been true for a few years in the 90's and early 2000's. Plenty of companies, organizations, conferences, live events, summits, megachurches, and media franchises exploded in those days by successfully generating phenomenal content.
But not lately. Something has shifted. Something has changed. Blame it on the pandemic. Blame it on Hollywood. Blame it on Silicon Valley. Whatever the culprit, we — particularly in the Church — have been on content overload for far too long. And we've had our fill.
Of course, we still need solid content in the Church. Don't misunderstand. We need insightful and biblically-sound sermons, engaging media, livestream technology, stirring music, excellent writing, etc. It's all still necessary. Don't worry. You're not out of a job. Not yet anyway.
But these elements, and even the quality of these elements, will not be what ultimately draws people to your physical location. Simply put, folks won't show up just because you're a superb orator or because your church has a killer Instagram. Why? Because plenty of other pastors (both locally and online) are gifted speakers and plenty of churches across the country boast eye-popping social media pages. They can get that anytime they want, anywhere they are, just by whipping out their smartphone or tablet. That might be hard to swallow, but it's just reality.
What will draw people to your church, and keep them there, are personal relationships and a family/community atmosphere where they have a sense of belonging. And that will only happen if you a) pray for God to bring it about and b) work to make it happen.
So where do you fit into this as a Communications Minister? For starters, you can use digital and social media to foster relationships. In fact, you should. But it's going to mean caring more about engagement and interaction than design and perfection. If you're anything like me, that can be hard to do, but it's often necessary. It's going to mean responding to comments, direct messages, and e-mails. It's going to mean encouraging online conversations to eventually become in-person conversations. It's going to mean following up with online prayer request submissions and checking in with those folks the next time you see them at church. This sends a clear message. It tells that person: You're not just a random avatar floating in the endless vacuum of social media cyberspace. We see you and we genuinely care about you.
Bottom line? Yes, content is still important and necessary. And we should always exhibit excellence in our work and do it for the glory of God. (Colossians 3:23) But now it's up to us as Communications Ministers to use good content for the purpose of cultivating relationships and healthy community within our churches. That is indeed both the challenge and the exciting opportunity as we move into 2021.
I'm sure I left something out. What're your thoughts on how content is trending within the sphere of Church Communications in a post-COVID world? Leave a comment or shoot me and e-mail!
Remember in grade school when the teacher warned you not to plagiarize another student's work and attempt to pass it off as your own? There was actually good reason for that. Besides the ever-present possibility of being dragged kicking and screaming into the principal's office, there were other potential consequences and ramifications. (Not that I would know.)
Where am I going with all of this? Well, the COVID pandemic — and resulting shutdown of many churches — left a lot of communication ministers scrambling for digital media content that they didn’t need before (or at least didn’t view as necessary or worth the effort.) Maybe you can empathize. In fact, countless small churches had to embrace the digital world in ways they never would have predicted, some for the first time. And in the midst of the pressure and chaos, it was probably easy to seek out those really convenient “free graphic” websites and look to the mega churches as examples of “what to do.”
Yes, churches were copying one another long before COVID was ever a household term. But I think the trend accelerated all the more during — and arguably even because of — the pandemic.
While there’s nothing wrong with making use of great graphic and video resources (I do it myself), please don’t copy mega church design trends, content, and styles simply for the sake of copying or because you believe it will result in the same level of success. Now, just to be clear: I have adopted and adapted a ton of learning from mega churches. I’ve even been inspired by sermon graphic designs I’ve seen at mega churches. But there’s a clear distinction between adapting something to your church’s existing strategy and duplicating something from someone else entirely.
I know that it can be tempting, but here are a few reasons to avoid this trap:
#1. You'll squelch your church's unique brand and voice or its chance at ever having one.
I’ve written and spoken extensively about branding as it applies to churches, so I won't belabor this point. But the truth is that if you copy another church's digital look, strategy, model, and content, you're just setting yourself up to become a clone, at least by appearance, and a phony one at that. People may think you're an Elevation or Hillsong-style church, only to show up and realize you're a 50-member or less congregation on a dirt country road with a traditional style service. Your media needs to match your church's nature, heart, and soul. It needs to reflect who you are.
One of the best ways to accomplish this is to put some or most of the design work into the material yourself. For example, craft together your own combination of stock photography, custom fonts, and graphic design elements to create an awesome background template for your pastor's next sermon series. Don't rip off someone else's idea, or right click & save, or reproduce a mirror image. Add your own touch. Create something totally from scratch. Be original. Remember, people can smell a fake from a mile away. And nobody likes a fraud.
#2. You won't see the kind of digital and social media engagement that you desire.
Megachurch design styles rarely elicit likes, reactions, shares, or comments on social media among small or traditional style congregations. If you're trying to reach your people — and hopefully you are — then you need to design the sort of graphics and post the sort of images with which they will be inclined to engage and interact. This means knowing your audience. If you aren't intimately acquainted with your audience, you'll never be able to encourage them, inspire them, make them laugh, elicit a comment, prompt them to post prayer requests, or much of anything else.
For example, if your church is predominately senior saints [who are active on Facebook], they would probably love to respond to an engagement graphic like this:
However, they would be far less likely to engage with a post like this:
Right? Some of them have probably never even heard of the term "binge watching," or if they have, they may not understand what it actually means.
Know your audience and post the sort of designs, styles, and graphical combinations with which they'll be most likely to engage.
#3. It can make you lazy.
As I alluded to in the homework analogy, copying someone else's content just makes you plain lazy. You didn't have to work for the knowledge or work to develop the skill set. You didn't have to work to correlate your church's distinct brand and voice to your graphic design style.
Don't develop a habit of apathy when it comes to your role in Church Communications. You’re better than that.
#4. You could be fired or passed up for future job opportunities.
A longstanding habit of copying another church’s design style or content strategy could ultimately result in your being fired or the possibility of other churches not wanting to hire you. If you don’t possess any originality — or the ability to adapt successful digital design methodologies and communication strategies to your specific church — then your chances of landing that next Church Comms job will be far less likely. This isn’t meant to sound harsh, it’s just reality. And it’s also why you should work to develop your skills, even if it means reaching out to someone for some coaching.
#5. You'll create confusion about your church's model.
As a tech-savvy teen, college student, and 30-something, I've always had access to the Elevations, Hillsongs, NewSprings, and North Points of the world. But, as the Communications Minister for a small country church in south Alabama, I know that the digital design styles and strategies of those churches are not compatible with mine. Always study the models of other churches and become well acquainted with your own. Meet with your pastor for those discussions. You won't be able to adopt and adapt effective ideas and methodologies if you don't even understand your own church's model, purposes, visions, and goals.
There's a dozen more reasons you shouldn't just blindly copy megachurch design and digital media and expect it to work the same way within your small or midsize congregation. I've really only scratched the surface here.
What're your thoughts? How have you successfully adopted and adapted inspiration, practices, design styles, digital media methods, etc. from larger churches into your own? I'd love to hear from you. Drop a reply in the comment thread below or shoot me an e-mail!
First things first...
Before I even launch into this post, allow me to be totally candid: I’m not writing this because I consider myself to be the Jedi Master of Church Communications. In fact, totally the opposite. Even after over a decade of experience and a bachelors degree in Broadcast Journalism/Digital Communication, I haven’t achieved Yoda-level status at this stuff. Some days I feel more like the exhausted Luke Skywalker on Dagobah who can’t even summon up enough strength in The Force to yank his spaceship out of a swamp. What a loser.
In all seriousness, though, I appreciate what I’ve gleaned from those with more experience in this field. Sometimes there’s nothing better than bouncing ideas and questions off of leaders who are 10 and 20 years down the road in your line of work. This is particularly true when you’re in ministry. So, if you’re just starting out on this exciting journey of Church Comms, I invite you to tag along as my Padawan learner for a minute and — although you are temporarily on the council of my blog — I do not yet grant you the rank of Master. [Ok, enough with the Star Wars references. Let’s do this.]
Here are a few attributes and qualities I believe are necessary to be an effective Jedi, er, I mean, Communications Master...Minister:
#1. An unparalleled ability to multitask, meet tight deadlines, and work well under pressure.
You would think these would be no-brainers, right? Man, I can’t tell you how many newbies fail to realize that, oftentimes, — especially at smaller churches — you’re going to be responsible for literally everything digital and print. Most small churches either have limited comms staff or none at all. Why? They can’t afford to pay them or there’s just no one else with the knowledge base or the willingness to volunteer. That’s not necessarily a slam on small churches, it’s just reality. (It’s also why ministries like 6.14 exist.) Whatever you do, don’t freak out. There’s no need to panic.
You might be the only one juggling website management/design, social media management, weekly on-screen worship media, graphic design, print media, video production, sermon audio editing, etc. etc. The list is endless. And there will be specific things that have to be done and completed by specific times. If you’re lucky — like me — you may have one or two folks who are good at things you utterly detest (like audio and video production/editing.) So together, you make a great team. At my church, I handle everything web/social/design/print while my buddy Mike handles everything audio/video. I completely loathed the audio/video editing courses I took in college and Mike is leagues better than I could ever hope to be in that field.
Either way, you will often feel the pressure of cranking out that perfect sermon series graphic design template by Sunday or crafting those flawless Christmas invitational cards that meet the pastor’s approval. This pressure is normal. Expect it. Adjust to it. Thrive in it. Manage your workload like a pro. Use task management apps on your smartphone or tablet. Do your best to tackle your responsibilities like a champ. But yes, there will be nights when you’ll be neck-deep in Adobe Illustrator or Affinity Designer until 3:00AM.
Bonus point/thought: If you’re not willing to pull those 3:00AM-ers, you might need to ask yourself: How much do I really care about the Church (capital “C”) and my calling to Church Communications as a ministry? (That’s free. No charge.)
#2. An innate understanding of the church's brand.
It’s one thing to have a grasp on your church’s weekly announcements, promotions, and social media posts. It’s a completely different thing to come to a full understanding of and an intimate awareness of your church’s brand. (Throwback: I discussed a few points about branding last February.) In case you’re utterly clueless here, your brand is the overall ambiance of your church. To be acquainted with this, you’re going to have to experience the tone and feel of your church for an extended period of time. This can take some work — and may include attending more than just Sunday and Wednesday services — but eventually you should excel at developing content that reflects the true identity of the church. Here’s one way to think of it: If your church was a person, the brand would be your church’s personality and character. I discuss this more in-depth in this episode of Rescuing Churches.
#3. No concern for the spotlight or recognition.
If you're signing up for this whole Church Comms gig because you’re hoping to one day be applauded as the Picasso of your field, then you might as well quit while you’re ahead. First of all, this is ministry. It’s about the Gospel. It ain’t about you. Check your motives. Keep the big picture in mind.
Second, church communicators have a unique role in that they are typically support staff. This means that most folks in the church will be utterly oblivious to how much work you actually do because nearly all of it takes place behind the scenes at your laptop or tablet. In fact, some people may assume you hardly work at all because they never see it with their own eyes. But, that’s because they’re not at home with you as you burn the midnight oil creating and perfecting everything that will be posted to your church’s digital platforms and everything that will magically appear on the screens from week-to-week in the worship services. (Not to mention all of the other side projects you’re likely juggling.) This isn’t their fault and it’s not because they don’t care. It’s just because you aren’t in the spotlight. Your work is, but you aren’t. It’s a weird dynamic.
This means you probably won’t get a whole lot of credit for your work. You need to be able to handle this without taking it personal. Also, most of the people in your church — including the lead pastor and your fellow staff members — may never really understand the difficulty of what you do. That’s ok. If they’re not tech-savvy or knowledgeable about such things, then let it be.
#4. A talent and love for the art of storytelling.
Storytelling matters, even if you’re at a small church. (I discussed this in-depth in a previous episode of Rescuing Churches.) It increases connectivity and promotes engagement. People need to see the positive things that are happening within your flock. There are many ways you can go about doing this, but the ultimate goal remains the same: Communicate the truth, goodness, wonder, beauty, and splendor of God and the Gospel in ways that impact and influence people to their very core or even in ways that motivate them to take a particular action (like, say, invite their friends, family, and coworkers to church?)
#5. A willingness to coach when necessary.
There will be times when you have to train another creative individual to handle a particular digital or communications responsibility. Maybe it’s something that needs to be taken off of your plate. Maybe you need to expand your team. Maybe there are other creatives who can’t or won’t do it correctly or who won’t do it within the established vision and brand of the church. And depending on the size of your church, you could be building a team of multiple individuals. Whatever the case, it’s your responsibility as the Communications Minister/Director to coach, instruct, and develop these creatives and to help them not only adjust to their roles, but to ensure that they understand how their roles fit within the overarching mission of the church.
There’s about a million other qualities that a good comms director must possess. I’ve only expanded on five of them here. We didn’t even get into basic requirements like creativity, a sharp eye for design, leadership, loyalty, patience, written and oral communication skills, etc. The list could go on forever.
Drop your thoughts in the comment thread and let me know what you think is required to make it as a Church Comms Director!
Does great design really matter in church communications?
Yeah, I absolutely think it does.
Now don’t get me wrong. There are plenty of things that are more important than an eye-catching sermon graphic. I mean, let’s face it: The sermon itself is pretty important, right? I think most pastors would agree. If the message content is not impactful, engaging, challenging, or inspiring, then even the most well-designed visual art won’t make a difference. Nobody will give a flying rip about the amazing font selection and color combinations if the pastor isn’t on point and if the message — the very Word of God — fails to stir or move us in some way. Furthermore, the graphics are only meant to enhance the sermon, not distract from it or supersede it in some way.
Did you hear me, designers? This isn’t a contest between your graphic and the pastor or his message. Don’t get all competitive. You’d be treading into the territory of distracting folks from Jesus. And that’s not cool.
With that in mind, professional design still matters and shouldn’t be dismissed outright. People need something tangible to which they can relate; something with which their senses can interact. Great graphics can bring visual organization to the overall service and exceptional sermon graphics can provide congregational engagement beyond what might normally happen, even beyond what you would’ve expected. And this isn’t just true for the megachurches. Within the last decade, churches of every size and denomination have come to realize the importance and effectiveness of good design.
So let’s look at a few rules and some elements you should consider when crafting those sermon series graphics:
First: Contemplate Your Ultimate Goal.
This is where you actually need to communicate with your pastor — preferably face-to-face — and ask him some detailed questions about the theme and title of his series. As you begin to learn more, you’ll come to a better understanding of what he has in mind, which will then, hopefully, lead to some inspiration. Here are a few questions I usually ask before ever whipping out my MacBook and diving into Affinity Designer, Photoshop, Canva, or anything else:
Second: Brainstorming Sessions Are Your Friend.
Nothing beats a roundtable discussion at the local coffeeshop with your fellow Church Comms staff. Round up some of your creative digital media folks and bounce your design ideas off of them. It’s even better if you’ve got two or three drafts of graphics for the sermon series. Even if these guys and gals aren’t design savvy, they might notice something that slipped right past you or they might have a genius idea that you missed by a mile. Gathering several creative and diverse thinkers into a group and putting them into one room will almost always result in an outbreak of innovative ideas, productive discussions, unique strategies, and an ultimate game plan for the sermon series.
Side note: Don’t intentionally exclude the pastor from these little gatherings. Always let him know that he’s welcome to be there and to chime in with thoughts and ideas.
Third: Don't Forget About Your Audience.
These people are important too. I mean, they’re the ones who will be stuck staring at your design for 30 to 45 minutes every Sunday morning, right? Before you get too deep into your design, think about the demographics of your congregation for a typical worship service. Of course, you can’t predict visitors who may randomly show up on any given Sunday. But if you’ve been established in your position on staff for a while, you should be well-acquainted with the type of people who attend on a regular basis. Are they mostly traditional? Contemporary? Is there a blend? What are the age demographics and family structures like? Do you have a lot of youth and/or millennials and young people? All of this will — and should — factor into your design. A 65-year-old blue-collar congregant likely won’t engage with an edgy sermon series graphic and title the same way that a 30-something millennial would. (No offense to any edgy and hip 65-year-old dudes out there.)
If your church is blended, then aim for a design that will bring engagement across the board. This goes for everything from font selection to colors to graphics, visuals, and photos — the whole nine yards. For example, traditional congregations tend to be more comfortable with serif fonts like Times New Roman, Georgia, Baskerville, etc., whereas contemporary audiences won’t bat an eye at artistic fonts that match the theme of the design. In fact, they prefer them.
I’ve really only skimmed the surface here. Obviously I don’t have the time or space to teach a graphic design course on my blog. I could rant for days about all of the techie and artsy stuff that goes into this process. And maybe I’ll write a follow-up at some point or discuss some in-depth design methodologies on an episode of Rescuing Churches. But, for now, I’ll just say this: The pastor’s sermon series is both a representation of and a reflection on the church. Paired with the graphics and visuals you design, it has the opportunity to impact people in a unique and powerful way far beyond what could typically be accomplished through words alone. Never take this opportunity for granted.
I’m sure I left something out. What are your thoughts on sermon series graphic design? How do you go about acquiring info from your pastor before beginning your design? Leave a comment below or send me a message and we might even discuss it on an episode of Rescuing Churches.
Need help with sermon graphic design and digital media at your church? Stuck on a project and can't seem to move forward? Book me for a coaching session.
Pastors have been through a lot this year. And I’d be willing to bet that back in January, most never would’ve anticipated a “pandemic” that would impact church attendance, contribute to church decline, force them to grapple with livestream technology, and even cause their own congregants to question the importance of church like COVID-19 did. And yet, here we are, with 2021 just three months away and some churches still meeting only online. Indeed, the need for community engagement has never been greater. And, to be clear, I’m not talking about digital engagement — although that’s an equally high priority as I’ve mentioned in several previous blog posts. In fact, digital engagement became even more necessary and critical because of COVID’s effects on attendance. I’m referring here though to physical engagement in the local community surrounding your church. This more closely aligns with your church’s brand, which I discuss in-depth in this post and in this episode of Rescuing Churches.
If you’ve regathered for in-person worship — and many churches have — then it’s time to start thinking about your town, your city, your surrounding neighborhoods, their demographics, the kind of people who live and work there, and the traits that make them unique. These are the people you’re trying to reach in a post-COVID world where the very notion of attending church either conjures up emotions of hesitancy or indifference in many people, including former loyal attendees.
Here are a few simple ways to start making your church an integral part of the local community, rather than expecting the local community to come running to your church begging to become an integral part of your fellowship.
1. Get your foot in the door at local rehab centers.
Pastors and church leaders: I’ve personally seen and experienced the fruit that can come from this effort as I’ve watched my dad build local connections. If your town or city has any faith-based drug/alcohol/relational rehabs, you should not only be well-acquainted with their names and locations, but with the leaders who work there. These places are full of men and women who have battled addictions, abuse, neglect and other difficult circumstances. Ask to be on the chapel speaker rotation and begin forming relationships. Many of these folks are desperately craving the eternal hope, comfort, peace, and salvation that Jesus alone provides. And they could be right around the corner or within a few minutes of your church.
Does it matter that some of them won’t be able to physically attend your church? No. That’s not why you’re there. Don’t go in with a recruitment mindset. You’re there to represent Christ and His Church. Let Him do the rest of the work and trust Him for what it will look like.
2. Open your church’s gymnasium and property up to local youth athletic, homeschool, and/or park sports leagues.
You might be shocked at how many basketball, soccer, football, or baseball kids leagues are in or around your neighboring community. And some of them might be without a place to practice during the week. Whether it’s a homeschool co-op league or a park league, your church can host these teams — free of charge — and slowly begin to build meaningful relationships with parents and coaches. Be sure to occasionally provide snacks and drinks for the kids. Side note: Yes, you’ll probably get burned a few times. Coaches will forget to clean up, trash will be left out, field lights will be left on, keys will wander off, and doors will be left unlocked. But don’t let these issues dissuade you from continuing to work with and love on these people. Who knows? After a few months, some of them may start asking about what you guys do inside that churchy building on Sundays.
Big shoutout here to parents who are volunteering to run the concessions stand at their child's sporting events. Whether your kid plays on the team or marches in the band, this is a phenomenal opportunity to build relationships with other parents, school faculty, and to represent Christ in and to your local community.
3. Free Community Car Wash
Church car washes are nothing new. For decades they’ve been used as a means to raise money for everything from the upcoming Honduras missions trip to fixing that leaky corner of the sanctuary ceiling. But a free church car wash is something else entirely. Round up some happy teens and/or students from your youth and/or college ministries and organize the event on a Saturday when most of them are off work and free from classes. Make sure they dress appropriately and modestly (church logo t-shirts if possible). If you make roadside signs, be sure to emphasize the “free” aspect of the car wash. If a driver happens to ask what church you’re with and where you’re located, be ready to hand them a little invite card. Otherwise, you’re just there to love on the community without expecting anything in return.
4. Network the nursing homes and assisted living centers.
This is a great way to not only bless and minister to the elderly who are lonely and in need of prayer and company, but to gradually build authentic and long-lasting relationships with nurses, staff, and even the family members of the residents. If you’re a pastor, you might be able to speak one evening or even bring in some of your singers and musicians to minister through song. And you never know how it could connect your church to someone in that nursing home. The next time you pray over the elderly lady in room 301 who has terminal cancer, her daughter might inquire about your church and confess that she hasn’t darkened the doors of a church in ages. Or the doctor who felt blessed by your worship singers may want to know when he can hear some more of that great praise music.
5. Fall festivals, Easter egg hunts, and community cookouts
There are plenty of seasonal events that your church can host for the local community and surrounding neighborhoods. Provide all of the food and fun — from bounce houses to face-painting to games, prizes, and giveaways — all free of charge. There’s nothing parents like more than being able to take their kids somewhere that’s both fun and free (especially if there’s a meal involved for their kids.) A few ideas for giveaways:
6. Emergency food distribution after a natural disaster.
I live on the Alabama Gulf Coast and hurricane season can be intense here. Just recently, Hurricane Sally impacted several homes, businesses, and churches in and around our area, leaving many of them without power for a long time. If your church is located in an area prone to natural disasters, then you have an opportunity (and I would argue a responsibility) to not only care for your own sheep, but for the surrounding community as well. So after the storm has blown through and you’ve checked on and cared for your own congregants, mobilize a team that can network with local Emergency Management Officials, food distribution centers, and other nonprofits to help get groceries and supplies to those in need. Start with the neighborhood(s) closest to your church’s physical location so that they know you’re there and that you care.
Ultimately, the overarching goal here is for your church to create successful methodologies for interacting with your specific and unique local community. Remember: your community is special and one-of-a-kind. Some of your attempts at engagement will be trial and error. They will be hit and miss. It will be a learning process. What works for a neighborhood in rural small town Georgia may not (and likely won’t) work for a suburb in California. And when something doesn’t work, it’s ok to toss that event idea out the window and move on to the next one. But don’t stop trying. Don’t stop engaging. You’re in that community for a reason. You have a purpose there. And you can engage if you’ll be proactive about it now, even in a post-COVID world; even in a world of social distancing and masks.
I’m sure I left something out. What ideas do you have? How is your church physically engaging and re-engaging with the local community? What’s been successful for you in a post-COVID world? What hasn’t? If you aren't engaging at all, why is that the case? Leave a comment below or send me a message and we might even discuss it on an upcoming episode of Rescuing Churches.
Need help with all this digital and social media stuff? Not sure how to implement marketing and community relations as a church? Stuck on a project and can’t move forward? Book me for a coaching session.