William Jennings Bryan delivered what is considered to be one of the greatest orations of all time at the 1896 Democratic National Convention. It is referred to as the “Cross of Gold” speech and is best known for the line “you shall not crucify mankind upon a cross of gold.” I recently came across a reference to the speech and was interested enough to read a transcript. I was impressed with the phrasing and powerful use of language, eloquent prose, and frequent use of alliteration. However, something seemed…off. At first, I couldn’t discern what was odd and why I was having a hard time following along. Then it hit me…while the language was eloquent, I literally had no idea what he was talking about! Almost the entire speech is dedicated to the concept of bimetallism (making both gold and silver legal currency). Not surprisingly, I have never given that issue much thought, but apparently, it was quite the issue in the late 1800’s. It is not an issue for me today, it is not something that I think about or care about.
I have observed many churches, and church leaders invest a lot in communication efforts that fail because what they are communicating means nothing to the people who are hearing it.
As a church, the method you use to communicate your message is irrelevant if you do not know who your audience is. What does your audience care about? What problems are they facing? What matters to them day in and day out? You must know your audience before you communicate your message.
Many church leaders and churches are simply out of touch with the community and people they are called to serve.
If you are a church leader who spends all of your time talking with churchy people, I’m willing to bet that you do not have a firm handle on the hopes, wants, and dreams of people in your community. The same can be said for a church member who spends all of their time doing churchy things with churchy people. You end up focusing your communication efforts almost exclusively on existing church people who think similarly to you. This has always been the case but is being exacerbated today by three factors.
The United States is becoming more racially and culturally diverse. Given the fact that churches tend to be racially homogenous, the more likely it is that church leaders are walled off from the quickening racial diversity of America and the potential implications it has for the church. Assuming a homogeneous culture assures that your message will fall only on the ears of people like you.
2. The Widening Gap Between Church and Culture
It is no secret that the gap between the values of our culture and the church is widening. The more that gap grows, the more out of touch the church seems to people living in our culture. For years, the church has assumed a set of shared values and morals when communicating with people. Assuming the same today assures that your message will fall on uninterested ears.
3. The Decline of the Denominational Church
It is also no secret that almost every denominational church has experienced a significant decline in the past decade (or more). As the “greatest generation” passes away, the pace of that decline seems to be increasing. As institutions are looked at with greater suspicion, the institutional church faces a greater difficulty in sharing its message. Being institutional is a barrier to communication. Assuming that people know and value your institution/denomination assures that your message will be either ignored or derided.
Most church leaders spend their time on church things and churchy people. They do not live in the same circles as those in the community around them. As Christians, we are called to be in the world (although not of the world). If we are honest with ourselves, most of us are guilty of distancing ourselves and our ministries from our culture. We fear our culture and want to protect our church, so we build walls between the two. Communicating through a wall is difficult.
You can have the slickest website or the most impressive social media campaign, but if it isn’t real for your intended audience, it will fail to resonate.
Before determining HOW you are communicating, you must first know whom you are communicating with.
Before determining WHAT you are communicating, you must first know whom you are communicating with.