By Galen Holley/NEMS Daily Journal
TUPELO – The tweets often start well before the 10:30 a.m. Sunday service. They say things like, “Don’t miss today’s speaker,” or, “Eric Pittman and Cindy Barnett are leading worship today.”
They’re not explanations or even solicitations. They’re just little blips that pop up on the cell phones or laptops of anyone who follows Hope Church through the online social networking tool called Twitter.
They’re reminders that out there, in the brick and mortar world that before the advent of the Internet everyone assumed was reality, a church community is about to gather.
High in a booth overlooking the sanctuary, Mike Russell, the sender of the tweets, is hoping that, just as anything of interest catches fire and spreads on the Internet, something about what he’s tweeting will get people’s attention.
“People trust information they get from friends,” said Russell, the new media director at Hope, explaining why he believes so strongly in networking tools like Twitter and Facebook.
“The idea is to become as viral as possible.”
By “viral,” Russell, who has worked in the communications business most of his life, means the rapid, exponential spread of information, much like a virus spreads from carrier to carrier.
“Good communication, good media, shortcuts comprehension,” he said, as he sent out another tweet and people began trickling into the sanctuary.
“If we become visible, if we get our message and our identity out there, people start asking questions about us.”
In the movie “Field of Dreams,” a phantom voice whispers from a cornfield, telling Kevin Costner’s character, “If you build it, he will come.”
Ask any pastor these days and they’ll tell you that such a presumption on behalf of any church, no matter how carefully it keeps the pulse of contemporary trends, is a recipe for failure.
In an age when they’re competing with so many other outlets for people’s attention, churches today have to hustle, and they’re finding it necessary to employ a full repertoire of methods for getting their message out.
Even among churches competition can be robust.
“Church is a very competitive marketplace,” said Tracey Morton, general manager of SuperTalk Radio, 102.9 FM, in Tupelo.
When she isn’t selling air time and juggling programming schedules, Morton heads up the audio visual team at Calvary Baptist Church.
Morton designs the church’s billboards, like the ones around town that right now say, “Life change happens here.”
The billboard’s tone and imagery matches another of Calvary’s recent campaigns which used the slogan, “Seasons of renewal.”
That consistency in Calvary’s billboards, including the use of agrarian imagery coupled with short, almost Zen-like, contemplative prose, is fast becoming the church’s brand.
Branding is a concept that originated in the corporate world, but one that churches today are quickly catching onto.
Simply put, a brand is constellation of cues, be they visual, like logos, or auditory, like jingles or slogans, that immediately identify a product in the imagination of a consumer.
As Russell of Hope Church put it, “It’s about consistency of message in all forms. It’s about user experience.”
Morton, who worked in fashion and advertising before taking up radio, spends time in prayer before she sketches out what Calvary’s billboards will look like. Otherwise, she said, the process is a lot like developing an ad for a radio client.
“You try to take the character of the product or business and embellish it,” she said.
She believes Calvary’s brand, of which her billboards are only one aspect, emerges from the welcoming, missionary character of the church’s members.
As visiting evangelist Steve Hallman delivered the message at Hope Church, Russell tweeted about how emotionally stirring it was.
Hallman told a story about a troubled, young boy he’d mentored who grew up without a father.
One of the buzz phrases in church communications today is “storytelling as communication.”
“One thing you learn working in news is there’s no excuse for not telling a good story,” said Russell, tweeting away on the keyboard.
“People will sit up and listen if your content is valuable.”
Storytelling as communication is one dimension of what many churches are coming to understand as an organic, multi-dimensional approach to getting the brand out.
“Everything we do is about communication,” said Lisa Cumbest Michiels, who heads up communications for the Mississippi United Methodist Conference.
“Choir, worship, community involvement, in all these things we’re communicating what we’re about, who we are, what we stand for,” she said.
The United Methodist Church recently conducted an internal study of its communication activities and found that it wasn’t doing so well in some areas.
Some people interviewed in the study said things like the church’s mission wasn’t being articulated consistently, that the language being used was too complex and ambiguous and that it wasn’t inspiring.
As a response to requests from around the conference, starting Friday, Cumbest Michiels is facilitating a two-day seminar at The Orchard, a United Methodist Congregation in Tupelo.
Through conversations and workshops, Cumbest Michiels, along with communications personnel from local churches, will try to assess what the conference is doing well and what it can improve.
The seminar will examine internal communications, as well as things like marketing, branding and advertising.
On a theoretical level, the Rev. Brian Collier believes that the Methodist Church, like some other churches, has come to rely too heavily on the authority of its leaders as a reason for people to accept its message.
He doesn’t buy that argument from authority, and he doesn’t believe many others do, either.
The senior pastor of The Orchard likened the Methodist approach to communication to that of outdated teaching methods.
“Teachers used to take the approach of, ‘OK, there’s the information, now it’s up to you to learn it,” said Collier.
As opposed to the one-directional model, Collier said teachers today follow up and make sure their students are receiving the information effectively.
Communication, Collier said, has to be a dialogue, not a monologue. He’s believes that’s the paradigm the church should embrace in evaluating its approach to communication. That, he said, is how the church will reach people.
“How do we do that at The Orchard?” Collier asked. “By learning to speak a new language if we have to.”
That language is one of technology and social networking sites, of small groups, podcasts and an array of alternative forms of communication and interaction.
Collier believes that providing multi-media outlets for the church’s message shortens what some observers have called the cultural commute that deters younger members.
When young people move out of their familiar surroundings, which are characterized by informal dress and speech and the horizontal rather than vertical flow of information, and move into a traditional church environment, which by contrast is often rigid and in which the core of the service is communicated as a sermon, they feel a disconnect.
Multi-media helps bridge that gap, creating a virtual space where one can know and be known, where, sometimes, genuine sharing and even confession takes place.
Of course, those who disagree with Collier say that the use of things like Facebook and Twitter, and the overzealous embrace of technology as a means of communicating the church’s message, provide inroads for the exhibitionist, speak-now-think-later culture they’ve come to despise.
The church, some traditionalists maintain, is the last bastion of the contemplative life in a hectic culture, and tweets aren’t exactly contemplative.
Have churches, they wonder, reached the point where they’re so desperate that they’ll do anything, bend over backwards to any extent, to attract new members?
What may the church ask of people today if the act of attending church in the traditional sense has become a hardship, and does effective communication mean breaking with centuries of tradition and models of community that have become second nature to Christians?
For Russell at Hope Church, part of the answer is in the gospels.
“Jesus was an itinerant preacher, and he sent his disciples out, into the communities, to evangelize and reach people,” said Russell. “People today are shifting to a less stationary way of communicating.”
Collier’s answer perhaps captures the central ethos of the church in the world of mass communication.
“We can ask things of people once we get them in, once we get people involved and interested in our communities,” he said.
“Asking is born out of relationship.”
Contact Daily Journal religion editor Galen Holley at 678-1510 or firstname.lastname@example.org