Stewardship of Communication

The following is from a sermon I preached on the Stewardship of Communication. In it I talked about how the message you are presenting to your audience needs to be varied and versatile.

Good Morning!
I am the Internet Strategist for the Diocese of Olympia. My job is to bring 21st century technology to the Episcopal Churches here in Western Washington. I love this job because in part, it is about communication. It is about how we communicate our presence and mission in the digital age. Does our message change based on how it is presented or to whom it is presented? Does it change based on the organization presenting it, whether it’s the church, the diocese, the national church or the Anglican Communion?

My job is also in part about stewardship. When I think about “stewardship”, the word has different connotations. Certainly it can be thought of in terms of how you use your time, treasure and talent. Many think immediately of “money” or “pledge”. Still others think of being faithful managers, or stewards, of what we have been given. For me in the context of communication, stewardship is about giving back to God in thanksgiving for what I have received. It is an invitation for me to proclaim praise to God for the riches and blessings I have been given in this life. It is an opportunity to proclaim the Good News to others, communicating God’s grace and love.

Communication and hospitality go hand in hand. Hospitality is a way of communicating your presence to others. It says a great deal about your community and what you value. A church’s hospitality towards its members and newcomer/seekers speaks much louder than any mission statement. You may have read in the latest Episcopal Voice about the journey that my wife and I took to worship at all 106 Episcopal churches in the diocese. I would like to share with you some examples of how this communication/hospitality worked or didn’t work.

One Sunday we drove to a church using a questionable Mapquest map of their location. We knew we were close, but we drove by the turnoff to the church two or three times. We finally arrived—late– and we were ushered to the front row. When we mentioned that we had problems finding the church we were told “there is a sign on the main highway showing where the turn is”. After the service, we looked for that sign on the way home. Indeed, there was a sign. However, it was covered by a tree branch and would only be visible in the winter after the leaves had fallen. How many other people had missed that turn? Here was a case of the right message, wrong implementation.

On our journey, we made it a habit to always call the church to verify service times before we left home. On one occasion we got a recording noting the Christmas service schedule, which was nice, except it was March. Sometimes the answering machine message gave no service schedule at all. Another time we called and talked to a person who told us the service times, asked our names and said they looked forward to seeing us in the morning. They were very personable and hospitable and we felt welcomed before we even arrived. The next day we drove 2 hours to the church only to find a sign on the door saying “No services today”. Here we had the right message, the right implementation, and poor follow through.

Many churches are great at communication and hospitality. Often people came up and introduced themselves, answered any questions we had and invited us to coffee hour. Notices in the Sunday bulletin or announcements during the service are a good start at communicating a message, but a personal invitation gets the message home clearly and sincerely. One church we attended had a unique way of doing the Offertory. The church members around us, noting that we were visitors, were very helpful in guiding us through this part of the service.

Everyone has their own learning style. Good teachers will present a concept many different ways, trying to find the one that switches the light bulb on for each student. I had a parlor game that I would play with our youngest daughter. When she was 4 or 5, I told her that when I asked her if you differentiate x squared with respect to x, what do you get, she was to reply “2x”. She dutifully complied with her father’s whim, answering “2x” as casually as if she was saying “hello”. In high school she took AP Calculus. One day she came running into the house from school excitedly saying “Dad, I get it! I finally get it!” She had heard this math problem for years, but now she finally understood it, once it had been presented to her in a way she could contextually understand. And so it is with communication.

In today’s Gospel lesson, ten lepers beg to be healed. All receive the same healing. Yet only one comes back to praise God. All ten are presented with the same message. Only one actually hears it and realizes its significance. Jesus gives people consistent messages, but changes the presentation and context of the message to fit the audience or situation. Think about the phrase found in Matthew 13, “the kingdom of heaven is like..”. This phrase is used to begin the parable of the mustard seed, the parable of the wheat and tares, the parable of the hidden treasure and the parable of the fish. The message is the same, but is presented in different ways to reach the largest number of people and speak to the heart of each one. Fishermen would understand the parable of the fish but maybe not the parable of the wheat and tares. Another group might understand the parable of the hidden treasure, but not recognize the same message in the parable of the mustard seed. Jesus realizes that the message needs to be presented again and again, in as many different ways and venues as possible, since no one single message presented one time in one place is going to make the necessary impact.

We are a Good News people. Yet how well do we actually proclaim the Good News? We live in a culture where we will offer our personal opinions on restaurants, cars, cell phones and laundry detergent, but when it comes to sharing our faith and our faith community, we become strangely silent. We think that advertising in the yellow pages or the newspaper about our church is the answer. However, according to a recent research study, 78% of the people surveyed trust peer recommendations and only 14% trust advertising.

So where do we start? What makes the Episcopal Church different than other churches? Is it the liturgy, the cool vestments or my personal favorite, the three legged stool of Scripture, Tradition and Reason? The Episcopal Church shares the universal message of Christ’s redeeming love from a specific and unique perspective. Just as the Episcopal Church has its own unique message, you and your community here at St. John’s have your own unique message as well. What message are you a steward of and how do you share it? What brought you to church this morning? What is about this faith community that keeps you here? How do you communicate that to others? While all these messages ultimately point to Christ, the pathways and implementations are all different. It is possible that your unique take and perspective of the message may be just what someone needs to produce that “Aha” moment in their life.

So how do we practice this stewardship of communication? How do we show through thought, word and deed in this digital age our thanks to God? How do we tell people about our faith and how our church is a blessing? An important thing to remember is that communication is a two way street. Be mindful of not only what your message is, but who is receiving your message and to whom are you listening. We put the message out in as many different places, ways and perspectives we can. We text message our youth inviting them to the youth group meeting tonight. We email to the congregation about the upcoming fellowship opportunities. We post on our Facebook pages about the wonderful service music this morning. We tweet about our pets being blessed last weekend at the St. Francis Blessing of the Animals Service. We post on our website the service times and directions to the church with a note welcoming visitors. Each of these methods is aimed to a particular audience and a particular context. But more importantly we listen—to the chatter on Twitter, to the comments on blogs, the discussions on Facebook. Really listening to other’s stories and seeing how our story intersects with theirs.

We use all of the communication tools we have been given, reaching out to as many as possible to spread the Good News. Experiment with different communication options. What method works for one situation may not work for another. Don’t worry about failure in the implementation, keep at it. This is a learning and growing experience! But in all cases, the underlying message is the same. We love you, we want you here, you are important to our mission and we want you to know the Good News.

As I close, I acknowledge that for some of you, you won’t remember a thing I said a half hour from now. As I said, this is a learning and growing experience for me as well. For others of you something you may hear will resonate and you say “Aha! I get it!” Praise be to God! But if this sermon left you cold, be of good cheer, because next week, someone else will be here, with another perspective of the same Good News message, and it may just click for you. Your “Aha” moment. And for that we all give thanks and give praise to God. Amen.